Words may have clear, neat meanings in dictionaries, but in real life the finite explanations tend to lose their distinctions, they move away from their specified, alphabetized places, and float smugly coyly, changing in front of our eyes, elusive, vague. And the most elusive of all are adjectives that we use to understand and color our worlds.
Humans are selfish (I want to say ‘by nature’ but my social work training is preventing me from doing so). We are silly, shortsighted; tickled by how other languages sound, that’s a funny word, it rhymes with something dirty in my language, shocked at ways of living that are different from ours, you mean getting married to someone you have never dated, you mean adopting a child as a single woman, you mean sending your grandparent to an institution, you mean to say seven billion people living all over the world don’t see, hear, breathe and act like me? Confused, disgusted, even angered and indignant, female genital mutilation? married to your cousin? 12 years old and pregnant?
I have been slowly training myself to at least hide my surprise at how different others can be, to understand that if two siblings raised in the same home and environment can stand next to each other to demonstrate opposites, then yes, all people are not the same. To not get overly embarrassed when I reach out to hug someone I am meeting for the first time and they extend their hand, yeah it’s awkward (less so than accidentally kissing an old aunt on the lips, but wait, that’s actually quite ordinary to do so in some cultures!) but so what? This is the beauty of life, it keeps things interesting, making us raise our eyebrows, poking holes in the plastic bubbles we unconsciously and persistently keep constructing around ourselves.
Everything is relative, warns the annoying righteous little Aisha inside my head when I widen my eyes at a co-worker’s choice in clothes, men, food or any other thing that I have already formed opinions about, good, bad, pretty, wasteful, selfish, eew! The objects stay the same but the words describing them change, sweet girl, boring girl, handsome man, too-skinny man… sunny days are lovely in Seattle, we Karachiites call thunderstorms ‘good weather’.
Words like big, small, tall, beautiful, they all depend on an individual’s perception – at that point in time. You know that distant uncle who seemed so BIG when we were 8, but years later when we finally meet him again at some obscure event, we wonder, did he shrink or do we just remember it all wrong? Childhood favorite movies seem, well, childish when we are 26 – unless of course we’re watching Mulan. Or The Lion King. Or Aladdin.
I went shopping for shaadi clothes (definition: fancy clothes to wear on other’s weddings or post your own wedding because it is cultural norm to pretend to be a bride even after the main events are over, for an undetermined period of time) and was bowled over by the prices. Rs30,000 for clothes? Something that I’ll wear like, three times, maybe, if I’m really determined? I can remember my first paycheck and it would’ve helped pay just for kaam walay palazzos. “That’s not expensive these days,” females will state matter-of-factly while I would gawk at them, struggle with myself, think of the Afghan street kids I scold for sticking to my car window, and finally yield. (Expensive, cheap, important, I can’t live without air, food, Gucci?)
There has to be a balance, is my mantra, my life’s more boring but useful and essential motto. I can’t give up all material things and forgo ‘expensive’ clothes, but I can’t be so flippant about a shirt that costs a family’s monthly grocery. So I try to tread a fine line, feeling uncomfortable with the money, time and energy I spend on things my more noble side deems frivolous, evanescent (but everything is evanescent!) and using that discomfort to limit it, keep me on my toes, remind me of the larger world that exists, at the fringes of society, smack in the middle of our markets and even our homes (ever wonder what our domestic help thinks of our consumer choices?).
And if I used to think that striking the right balance would feel better, I guess I was wrong. Walking a tightrope is less than comfortable – it requires constant thought and effort, and as many times as I fall, I know the line is there. All I need to do is haul myself up and keep going.