Loving in limbo

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In the United States, love is a magic elixir. 

Love is a means, something to fix everything else. Plenty of American literature, TV and media set in stone the narrative that regardless of differences, suffering or background, love either heals and brings all together or, when unrequited, destroys and demolishes. There is rarely a third option. 

In the United States, romance is very clean-cut. It’s simplified and palatable, running rampant with homogenous couples or, at best, token minority couples who have nothing in common but their race. 

Americans tend to fetishize multiethnic relationships and romanticize mixed children. Yet the plethora of inevitable headbutting and identity-rearing that comes with two or more cultures blending in a family are glossed over or excluded from the romantic discussion altogether. 

Loving across cultures is not easy. It comes with plenty of hurdles that the United States tends to overlook in its romanticization. Racism and cultural clashes aren’t suddenly solved by the grand power of love. In fact, more questions are raised. Deciding which religion, diet and languages in which to raise your multiethnic or multiracial family don’t have simple answers. What results is a cultural territorialism that is scarcely addressed and difficult to mitigate. 

I’m all too familiar with the sharp desperation that follows the desire to pass on a culture, the same desperation that grips us in our troubling moments — everyone wonders if they’ve given enough, inherited enough or ultimately, loved enough. 

I know my parents struggled, asking themselves, “Even if I wanted to give my all, how much can I pass on to my children? How much will they retain?” I, too, have wondered if my language proficiency or my tendency to emulate a particular parent’s behaviors meant I was loving them unequally. Afraid of showing cultural favoritism, a facade of equal inheritance was my front. 

But secretly, I worried if I was enough of each culture. Sometimes, I felt that aside from my parents’ ethnicities, there was no special quality about me. I was embarrassed to borrow their richness, to lay claim to their life experiences as defining parts of my identity. 

I was never certain or satisfied. I can’t say I’m Russian, Iranian or American with full confidence. I’m just floating somewhere in limbo. 

When I begin to love, I feel the anxiety-ridden fireworks go off in my chest — a perpetual yearning not only for love but also for cultural acceptance. I search for similarities, wondering if we could understand the same intangibles and maybe share that pesky love-hate relationship with the United States. 

Maybe people I have tried loving have noticed my inability to ground myself. Maybe for them, my in-betweenness translates to a mildly interesting ethnic ambiguity, a flirtatious impermanence or someone they can’t quite feel comfortable with as they could with someone of their own culture. 

Though my parents had the choice to search for romance inside and outside the comfort of their cultures, I will never be able to afford that luxury. Instead, I am perpetually loving those culturally different from myself. 

I think of the little moments — tracing the grooves in each other’s palms, stealing hungry glances (or taking our time with steady gazes), the rich silences — where I relished in the uncertainty. The absence of confining labels is what makes my love exciting: love simply for the sake of love. I bring others into my world, into the unsteady and unstable label-less terrain of loving in-between. 

Yet nobody seems to feel at ease in the instability as I do. 

I wonder why clearly labeled, straightforward American love is demanded from someone like me, who labels do not suit. I think of the nonmixed people I have tried to love, blessed with the privilege of a single label — white or Brown or Asian — who with all their cultural homogeneity demand the same clean, equally shared beam of love from me. 

My limbo can be freeing, but mostly it feels like a strangely isolated space. I’m always wondering if others will accept me and my love, if they will choose to take what I give. If I walk along the shaky path of my inherited form of love, filled with yearnings, uncertainties and lacking absolutes, will that hinder me? Do others prefer love that is cleaner? Full of answers and not questions? 

Though I’m not writing any artisanal, well-seasoned romantic columns like our exceedingly talented Sex on Tuesday columnist or profoundly poetic Love in Conversationalists, here’s my hot (maybe lukewarm) take: Multicultural love is everything but clean. It’s messy and confusing, even more so when cultural differences are factored in. Yet, the United States refuses to delve into those nuances. Though the country is teeming with individuals from all cultural walks of life, our standard for love is homogeneous: Mixing is unusual. 

A mixed family and a mixed person aren’t just “spicy” or “exotic” or “interesting.” They’re forever living and loving in-between, dancing back and forth between two (or more) cultures and their love languages. 

Love requires vulnerability and the willingness to open your being to the possibility of changing with others. Maybe accepting my inherited language of loving and loving others in this way pays tribute to those who taught me how. My love is marked with those who came before, those who taught me how to love, those whom I have loved and those whom I continue to love. 

Love in and of itself does not heal or destroy. It’s not some Band-Aid that will erase the marks of racism and cultural divisions if people marry outside of their cultures. But perhaps the movements of love — its circulation and the messy act of taking love and passing it on for others to inherit — can heal. 

Maybe this is the place where I’m always enough, loving in the comfort of limbo.

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