As the eldest daughter of immigrants, I can’t remember the moment someone placed the world in my hands, my head high but my knees bent. It happened more organically than that, until one day I realized I was both sister and friend, both friend and mother, both mother and daughter, both daughter and parent.
Last year, my middle sister was going through a difficult time. We were close, in ways we hadn’t yet been, but still there was a certain quiet between us. We would still pass each other in the corridor and wonder if there would be pieces of the other we would never come to know. One night, in January, she pulled me into her room at a time when she would rarely leave it.
A few hours later, we were seated on her bed, cross-legged and knees touching. My tears made her outline blurry, like someone had dipped her in water and her colors had softened into each other. I told her she was more than I had ever been at her age and I felt the truth of this slap into the water of my stomach like an oar.
When I was 15, I had two selves: at home and outside it. My life was an ever-shifting and exhausting dance between the two—between brown and white, between existing poor and appearing affluent, between responsible adult and carefree teenager. My sisters are at this stage now and while I had no one to turn to, no woman who had come out the other side and could pull me through, they turn to me with their softness and sadness.
These days, being their big sister fills me with the kind of pride that aches, somewhere deep beneath the lungs. It wasn’t always this way. Even a few years ago, when I was still at the helm of my own questioning—what does it mean to love my parents and culture but also love myself?—my role as their big sister just felt like another heavy load. It was just another job I was too young and too confused to fulfill.
Partly, this is because being the eldest daughter of immigrants often means entering the role of caregiver at a young age. It meant that as a teenager, my sisters saw me as another parent and I was expected to support my family in ways that aged me beyond my years. And so, when I should have been my sisters’ friend, I was their guardian—another force of expectation in their young lives, when what they needed was an elder sister to rub almond oil in their hair and climb into bed with in the morning.
I also shied away from big sisterhood specifically because it was something more: brown big sisterhood. Because it made me feel like a hypocrite to tell them their confusion in being all the complicated things they were—girl, brown, Muslim, all the corners and sharpnesses in between—would dissipate with time, when I was, and still am, navigating myself, endlessly, on and on.
My sisters are 16 and 13 now. They are, as diasporic girls do, traversing their brownhood alongside their girlhood. I watch them trace themselves out over and over again, a little different each time, hoping to understand where they begin and where they end. They are messy in their navigation, as I was, but also elegant and poised in a way I couldn’t dream of being.
Now more than ever, they ask me how to wear what they feel best in, while still respecting my parents’ cultural expectations. They ask me how to question their relationship with religion, but still tread lightly. They ask me what it means to be brown and Muslim and a woman in times like ours, in thicknesses like this that threaten existences like ours.
I often don’t know the answers, let alone the right ones. The perfect words evaporate like fog. I shake my head and tell them it wasn’t easy for me either, but look at me, living, being. I tell them the religious and cultural guilt doesn’t go away, that in many ways these vulnerabilities are the symptoms of a South Asian daughter.
But I also tell them what I know to be true: that there are always ways. There are ways to contain multitudes, ways to not have to choose, and that they—with their vast amounts of maturity, compassion, and kindness in the face of so much confusion—are a testament to these many, endless ways to be.
And in doing this—in stepping into my big sisterhood as the eldest daughter of immigrants by telling these young brown girls only what I, at 13 or 16, wanted so desperately to hear—I am learning that being their brown big sister is the gift that allows me certainty even as I, still, navigate the opposite.
By Ramna Safeer