Fighting it out

American Pie?

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“You’re an ape.” 

My sister’s perched on a chair, licking peanut butter off a spoon. I stop slicing my banana and look up. Catching my eyes, her lips curl sinisterly. 

I narrow mine, quietly trading my knife for a silicone spatula. 

“Say that again.” 

She smiles, taunting me with a middle finger.

“You heard me.”

I launch myself at her, tickling her sides as she screams and smears peanut butter on my face. I’m down. She slips out from my grip. I lunge at her with the spatula, hoping to land a solid slap on her backside. But alas, she’s too fast.

After a couple of minutes of chasing each other, we are both weak, clutching our abdomens from laughter. These are our micro “fights,” our language of sisterly love. We were raised to manifest our disagreements and our playful affection in banterous forms. “We are a very high-energy family.”

My Russian mother, with her high Soviet cheekbones and almond-shaped Eurasian eyes — behind them is a taiga blizzard. Between his hardened features — a hooked nose and thick, arched eyebrows — my Iranian father harbors hot, whirling sandstorms. They are opposites, they are electric, and so their disagreements are explosive. My brother, sister and I, a mix of the two, have inherited their vigor.

Together, we are a fiery family, blood hot, hearts swelling, cheeks red, tongues sharp, muscles and tendons stiff and tensed. We experience emotion entirely, vessels for the waves of passion that pass through us. In our moments of unified, celebratory elation, our bodies ring with laughter, our eyes wrinkle and our lips stretch over our teeth as we howl and snort. 

The arena of argumentation, however, is one where the heat in our throats reigns over our bodies. Like a cacophonic ballad, scathing “f— you”s and hisses of “stupid asshole” ricochet from the ceiling, walls and carpet, accompanied by slamming doors and stomping heels, a few of the many percussive rattlings splattered across our home. 

Sometimes I wonder how our house is still standing. I wonder how its walls manage to stay intact after years of absorbing all of our hurricanes — the loaded words, the traumas, the pounding sounds of us. 

I wonder if all the quiet reconciliations caught by the spiderwebs in the corners are holding our home together. Perhaps the acknowledgements of “I’m sorry” mumbled into each other’s wet shoulders are among them. Maybe the apologies that were never given life but were quietly manifested through the corner of a smile, a bashful gaze, a forced hug, a tickle fight or a chocolate square slipped across the table are there, too.

I imagine our skirmishes are proof that empathy grows alongside the outbursts. We’re reactive; we’re electric conductors. We absorb each other’s feelings and project them outward again. We’re so alike — the same blood running through us all — yet we clash over our meager differences. 

In the United States — itself a dysfunctional heterogeneous family of cultures and people — divisive conflict runs rampant. In all of its political, social, cultural spheres, this country feels deeply, even explosively, the emotions that barrel through it.

From protesting the Vietnam War to the Black Lives Matter movement, our country has a long history of eruptions triggered by its injustices. The United States is known for its smoking fists, for its large, gaping mouth that consumes and shouts and regurgitates ideals.

But it’s far from an ideal nation. The United States, ever enamored with its own image of perfection as a global leader, has separated from its reputation. In an attempt to save face, to stay ahead, to maintain its political strength, it refuses to acknowledge itself wholly. 

What is the real United States, but a grotesque blend of blissful utopia and stark reality?

Though there are many things that divide us, that we disagree upon and that we are ashamed of, we must recognize that those not-so-pretty parts are very real. Glossing over them in favor of maintaining a spotless image is damaging. It perpetuates impossible perfection, be it in the family unit or elsewhere, and it further divides us; the boom of inadequacy follows suit. 

For a long time, I thought my family’s energetic mannerisms were an anomaly. I was embarrassed to have friends over, driven by a fear of frivolous family bickering activating an unexpected explosion. Nobody else had any reason to love them wholly as I did, to delay judgment. I thought everyone else’s family had it together and we were the odd ones out. 

An overnight visit to a college friend’s home in northern California affirmed my anxieties. Her family ate nearly all of their meals together, and her parents called each other “honey.” Surrounded by the overabundant lightness, delicious homemade dishes and cheesy dad jokes, I was never sure if the perfect parental presentation I observed was something that families collectively donned when visitors were around, or if everyone else was truly less chaotic. Everyone knows family dynamics aren’t consistent, but not everyone consciously understands this. I certainly didn’t.

Turbulence is inevitable. We live, breathe, exist in conflict. In its creation, its enactment and its aftermath lies our human history. If it’s part of us and our very humanity, conflict must be addressed, not sugar-coated. Before accepting others as they are, regardless of their social, political or cultural differences, we must first accept ourselves (and our families) with all of our shortcomings. 

I think of all the storms my family conjured over the dinner table, all the half-finished meals, interrupted by a bout of conflict. I think of all the fires, the warmth of my mother’s open arms. There is love even in these battles. The question is how do we, as Americans, find empathy and common ground in the arena of conflict?

Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]