Learning to Love Me More
When I was in middle school, my sense of entitlement and self-assurance that I was indeed brilliant led to some terrible grades. I owed my uppity demeanour to complete faith in genetics, given that my two older siblings had earned stellar reputations at the school we had all attended.
It was a few weeks into the school year in fourth grade when my teachers had a chat with my parents, who in turn had a chat with me, and soon I was on my way to learning that sometimes mild effort is required for success. A couple of weeks later, after refocusing myself, I earned a 93% on a math quiz, the highest grade in the class. I asked my dad, a relatively quiet and sometimes severe man, how we were going to celebrate. His smirk belied his evident pride, but he responded, “We can celebrate when it’s 100%. There are 100 points for a reason: a reminder that there is always the possibility of scoring them all.”
All the way into high school, where I graduated as valedictorian, we celebrated birthdays, openings of school plays, the end of final concerts, but never the results of exams. My father never acquiesced to celebrating good grades, because, well… a 92 or a 96 was never the same as 100.
At 26, he was my first boyfriend. It had been a long and slow road to dating, one that was impeded by a childhood spent as an expat brat in an Islamic state, by a college education in rural New England, by a peripatetic young adulthood that shuttled me from New York to New Delhi to Shanghai, and of course, by shame and a deep-seated belief that I was not attractive and probably a little too chubby around the waist. I’ve always been good at excuses.
It was my second year in Los Angeles as a grad student, and I had been making the rounds on the dating apps for a while. For the first time in my life, I was having sex at a rate that seemed to match up with my expectations for my mid-twenties. Most of the men were forgettable, and I went through them at a quick clip. But I came to a strange and unexpected pause when I met this one, far as he was from the image I had of a prospective partner. It was around Halloween when we started chatting. After several messages back and forth, we decided on getting breakfast one Saturday morning in his neighborhood.
He was a few inches shorter than me. Thirteen years older. Fuller belly. His body was covered in inane tattoos (including one of his ex-husband’s name across his chest). He had kind blue eyes. A beard that was greying at his chin. A residual southern drawl from a childhood in Tennessee. And he was white as the day is long. If ever there were a combination that spoke to my colonial hangover and my daddy issues at once, this was it.
The weeks rolled by, and I felt myself further imbricated in his life, him in mine. After a month of casually hooking up, I went to India for the winter. We texted while I was gone, and I felt exhilarated. I was excited that I was entering into the first thing that ever had this much staying power. With my satisfaction set at simply being remembered while I left the country, the bar was pretty low.
On my way back to LA from New Delhi, I went straight to his house from the airport and fell asleep on his chest. A tempestuous four months ensued. We fought constantly. About what to watch on Netflix (he liked horror and drama, while I could only stomach the lighter stuff). About whether the words “f*ggot”, “n*gger” and “retard” were offensive (“Words start conversations,” he would say; “sometimes talking is emotional labor that people do not want to perform,” I would retort). About whether I was at a structural disadvantage due to the color of my skin (he said people need to be understood on a “case-by-case” basis). Yes, I knew it probably should have ended there.
But I stayed because he cooked me dinner and would ask me eagerly about schoolwork. He laughed at my jokes and hugged me tight while we slept. He sometimes brought me gifts from his thrift store runs. And while some might call it secondhand garbage, the shirts were always in colors that he knew I loved; the furniture perfect for my new apartment. To me it felt like perhaps that was enough.
It was not long before we started to squabble constantly. This time about boundaries: he found me intimidatingly extroverted and social; self-consciously calling on his need to retreat when he felt too overwhelmed or pressured (which seemed to be always, cowering in his room with the television flickering and a tub of ice cream in his hands). We fought about sex — how I seemed to want it or need it always. And ironically, we fought about monogamy, and how it didn’t align with his sexual politics. “How could one person satisfy all of someone’s sexual and emotional needs?” he asked me. I would find out soon enough that at the very least, he definitely couldn’t.
But I continued to try to bend and to fold. I told myself that all of this baggage came with modern dating. But it took me a while — perhaps too long — to read the worry on my friends’ faces, to do the mental arithmetic, to actually believe that I was worth more than love that felt toxic. And that I had entered a serious relationship with someone I would not have tolerated had he been a platonic friend, had he been the partner of someone I cared about, and had he not been white. I mustered the courage to end it - sloppily and without much tact, but ending it nonetheless.
In the wake of this drama and in a startlingly Southern Californian response to my heightening anxiety, I started seeing a therapist. My first session ended with the same take-away that I imagine most first-time therapy sessions ending with: “I didn’t love myself enough; I needed external validation to complete me.” And as I walked away from the office of my sweet, well-meaning, white therapist, who was preparing to equip me to love myself more fully, I thought, “Of course I don’t love myself.”
Brown people are not taught to love themselves. We are instead insidiously taught to see and understand ourselves from a place of lack: from the very absence of whiteness that constitutes our identity. Add queerness to the mix and you have a boy who is constantly left to fill the space between himself and the world. That 7% between a 93 and a 100 that meant you were never actually going to be perfect; that there was nothing ever to really celebrate.
My father’s insistence that there are always 100 points to earn is a reminder of the unattainable model of perfection queer people of color are constantly working towards, struggling constantly in a system that forces us to fail through its enshrinement of white normativity, making self-love a sordid and troubled quest. My dad’s impossible rubric, which I see as quiet colonial inheritance, is a trap that caused me to live less fully, go less far than I could, and ultimately, accept far less than I was worth. That unbridgeable gap to 100 seemed insurmountable and so sublime that I caved and gave in, welcomed parasites and leeches into my life because I did not accept myself as complete, whole and already - despite flaws and blemishes - at my 100%, even when that 100 is actually more of a 97, a 56, a 22 or belongs on a different scale entirely.