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Nonresident Alien

By Eda Naz Gokdemir

Art by Idil Sahin

cw: mentions of murder and bodily harm

“Hey, you are voting, right?”

“I’m so sorry; I cannot.”

“You do not have to apologize to me.”

It’s nine in the morning, and I wake up to shame. I stare at the message my friend back home sent me. It’s already five in the afternoon for her. She has returned from classes, scrolling through her phone, probably reading about citizens abandoned to die under the rubble of buildings built to collapse, a woman’s murderer walking free once again, and how to prevent a potential, highly likely, election fraud or a civil war in a far-away, “democratic” nation I once called my own.

Five in the afternoon was when despair started hitting me. It was when I came back home from school, exhausted, confronted with a pile of homework that was my ticket out of a crumbling country. We are ruined, the news anchor said in the only remaining “independent,” “left-wing” TV channel, accompanied by dinner chewed silently every evening. I remembered watching the news on countless nights like this — I remembered how they found the dismembered body of a high school girl murdered by her boyfriend, red nail polish on her fingernails, her arm left to rot in the trash can. I remembered how I could not paint my nails for months. Somehow, by the age of ten, I was taught that femininity killed, not men. That if a woman was beaten by her husband, she deserved it. I did not yet know at the time that I would keep thinking of the girl with the missing arm every time I painted my nails, for it would take me years to stop feeling vulnerable, stupid, afraid every time I presented more feminine than usual. It would take me years to feel the tiniest bit of security in my womanhood, to stop feeling shame for all the ways others could hurt me, to realize that I did not put my body in danger, others did. I remembered how bombs kept going off in airports, tourist attractions, and the busiest streets in the city where I went to school. I taught myself how to be afraid of crowds, lonely men with backpacks, walking alone in the city I was supposed to make a home in. I remembered how they put journalists in jail one after the other, I remembered how we learned to joke about it: Silivri is cold.[1] I

remembered how I was lectured by the school principal, to count myself lucky that she was protecting us from the dangers our pens could bring us, by acting exactly like the very dangers she was trying to denounce. Yet, nothing bad had happened to me; I was guarded, privileged, secure in the comfort of a regular, secular, middle-class family. I felt weak for fearing my country, and feeling weak made me fear it more, to hate myself and my place in it. You need to get out, my parents said over the news. We are doing everything we can so that you can be free.

I find myself on the land of the free. I do not know why I am here. It feels like running away. It feels like I never wanted to be here in the first place. I just had to be, yet it is a privilege to be. It is a privilege, I remind myself, as I am waiting at the customs line in the Boston airport. I watch the K-9 dogs, police officers, and warnings on the screens; I’m privileged, I’m a nonresident alien with “rights,” protected by the laws that were built to keep me out. I’m lucky that they stamped my good-for-nothing passport and let me in instead of locking it away. I’m lucky that I pass as white: my identity, unbelonging, foreignness invisible. The closest family member is an ocean away, but I am grateful that no one can notice me enough to hate me here yet. My accent gets heavier when I’m in distress, when I get sick, when I do not know where to go, but at least they cannot tell I am a nonresident alien until I start speaking, if only I can stay silent long enough. I work for twelve dollars an hour, ten to fourteen hours every week, when my friends back home spend that time walking around a city I just learned how to love, shouting for my rights in protests where they can get arrested, tear-gassed, beaten. “It’s a privilege to earn that much money,” my friend tells me, “that’s the equivalent of an entry-level job in engineering here.” I’m grateful, I tell myself, as I get taxed on my financial aid for food and board. It’s your income, the US government says, it’s the price of your privilege. My privilege costs my parents almost twenty thousand in my home currency to have me back home, to hug me, to speak to me in my mother tongue. I’m forgetting how to speak my native language, feeling out of place in the conversations of friends who stayed behind. Yet I’m privileged that I learned English when I did. “I envy you so much; you do not have to do drill!” I sit and smile when they make jokes about places I’ve never been, cultural moments I’ve never celebrated, rights I’ve never had. They are speaking a language I will never learn, but I’m grateful that they are not laughing at me even when I cannot laugh with them. I’m lucky that no one asks me to account for the crimes of my ancestors, that they are kind enough to ask me how to pronounce my name, that no one treats me as a terrorist.

It is a privilege to be this free.

It’s nine in the morning, and I remember I cannot vote. That I did not care enough to vote. That I was tired of caring, of not belonging, of feeling displaced. I make excuses for my apathy: I cannot vote because I missed the deadline to go to the consulate first to prove my residency, second to vote. Two trips that take twelve hours, cost a hundred and sixty dollars that I only earn in thirteen hours. Twenty-five hours out of my life for an election I cannot bring myself to be hopeful about, for a people that kept electing leaders that brought them to ruin, for a country that taught me how to be ashamed and afraid of who I am.

I hate that I hate my country. I hate that it left me no choice but to leave, not knowing where I will belong next, when, if at all, I can belong again. But perhaps I never felt like I was at home. Home felt like displacement. I felt like God made a mistake in putting me where I was: a queer woman with internalized homophobia, who cannot come to terms with her gender, sexuality, religion, ideology… A country that raised a generation of cynics too afraid and weakened to hope. A country that expects us to return and “fix” what the past generations broke. “Go and study abroad, then come back and change your country,” our history teacher used to tell us. The same teacher who taught us how our people kept making the same mistakes over and over again throughout our history of discrimination, subjugation, and fear. The same teacher who taught us how to apologize for the crimes our country committed, how to build defenses against the prejudices of the westerners as if we were representatives of our nation, how to carry the weight of knowledge in a land of ignorance and amid a plague of forgetfulness.

Why should I have to carry all of this? Why should I be responsible for all the past mistakes, present misunderstandings, future worries of an entire nation? It is heavy, and carrying it all my life left no power in me. I feel old, as old as the land I am from, yet young, too young to know what to do with it all. Why should I care, I ask myself. I just happened to be born there. I only care about the people I love, the family and friends who are still stuck there. I owe nothing to a faraway, autocratic state that is barely a republic anymore. Why waste my breath and time talking about the endless political controversies of a nation when I can preserve that energy to help the people around me, when my hardwork and skills are better used elsewhere, when I only have a limited amount of stamina? I should choose who to care about, who to love, not the conditions of my birth. Yet I am afraid. I fear for all the loved ones left in the country. “Can you find a way to leave?” I text my mom after the first round of election results are announced. I cannot stand having my loved ones remain in a country I do not trust. I feel guilty. I should have voted. I should have screamed in protests, I should have gotten myself arrested, I should have written more, spoken up more. I was frightened, silenced, disciplined to the bone. I’ve been, and still am, complicit.

After all, I should have voted not for a country, but for a people. For children like me who are scared of something they cannot even name — frightened of themselves, of their own desires and hopes, of crossing boundaries built centuries ago. Children who died under rubble because their parents could not afford better housing, in buildings the authorities enabled through bribes and lies, where they abandoned families to cry out for someone to save them until they ran out of breath. Children who are taught to hate and blame each other. Children who have to learn by themselves how to love and rejoice in who they are and where they are.

It’s nine in the morning, and I let shame consume me. “You do not have to apologize to me.” I stare at the text my friend sent me. I do not know who to apologize to — murdered women, victims of earthquakes, or myself? I feel like both the perpetrator and the victim of decades of wrongdoings. I am uncomfortable in my pain: there are centuries of hate crimes, unfair laws, femicides, censored cries in my chest. I feel guilty for carrying it all, and doing nothing of substance about it. I cannot channel my anger into something “productive,” “political,” or “revolutionary.” I taught myself that to hope was pointless, foolish, naive. I recognize that my pain is a form of privilege, but it still hurts. After all, I still call that faraway land I hate so much home, if that word even means anything anymore. I find no sense of reconciliation, comfort, or safety in it perhaps because I am still trying to teach myself that to seek joy in home is not a privilege, it is a right.


[1] Silivri is a prison in Istanbul. The phrase “Silivri is cold” is said in response to people who criticize the government in daily conversations to imply how easy it might be to find yourself in prison.

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