• Expert By Experience

Isolation Series: The issue of personal boundaries in South Asian homes

Written by Shirin Shah

For many, isolation has meant moving back to the family home, and for some of us that has brought with it added challenges. As a South Asian woman in my mid-20’s, having lived outside of the family home for a few years, I have a love-hate relationship with my childhood home. Home is where you are meant to feel safe right? Well, what if home is where you feel like you can’t be yourself?

The interconnectedness of South Asian families is something many praise, however, it comes with its own consequences. For me, particularly as a South Asian woman, it can be tricky to navigate.

For instance, throwback to 10 years ago, when as a 16 year old (moody) teenager, I would turn off the lights and whisper on the phone to my first ever boyfriend. It was not necessarily deliberate or malicious but my parents expected to know every person I was speaking to and everything that I was doing. Even up until a year ago, aged 24, you would still find me secretly whispering to my then-boyfriend on the phone, when I was back home for the weekend.

Privacy, or the lack thereof, has been a constant theme throughout my life. Although I have grown and developed as an individual my position, and how I am treated, in the family home remains relatively unchanged. Reflecting on my own experiences, this need to be secretive often leads to South Asian women being only a part of ourselves around family. We cannot be wholly honest and open, for fear of retaliation. All of this creates further distance in our family relationships. This constant self-editing and censoring of oneself is frankly exhausting and in certain circumstances, lying has become second nature.

It became all too easy to say, ‘I’m going to see a friend’ or ‘I am studying at the library’, rather than actually telling the truth. Typically, I pride myself on being an open and honest person, yet, in this very lockdown I’ve pretended to be really busy with work when actually taking job interviews for opportunities my family wouldn’t necessarily approve of. I lie because I don’t want the added pressure of ‘did I or did I not get the job?’ on top of having to navigate the deep-rooted disappointment and fear of unemployment that immigrant parents have. Sometimes, I even hide the happiest and most successful moments of my life to appease these prevailing structures and norms, most notably romantic relationships.

Whilst at University, many of my non-Asian friends would comment on how close South Asian families looked, and how in many ways they envied it. In my opinion, this perception of closeness is reliant upon that very lack of privacy and boundaries. In South Asian families we feel a sense of collective space rather than focusing on the personal. We take on one another’s problems and worries as if they are our own. Yet, this very concept can become toxic and harmful, if mis-managed.

The lack of personal boundaries means that we often fail to respect each person as an ‘individual’ and see them only in relation to ourselves or others in the house. We each have a clear role in the family dynamic (whether you’ve chosen that role is a different question altogether) and that defines our existence.

Ultimately, our lack of respect for personal boundaries can harm our family relationships. Because when we don’t respect these, and we also don’t ask for them to be respected, it results in family members getting on each other’s nerves. As a result, a conversation can quickly get sidelined and lead to arguments, all of which creates further tension because we encroach on the limits of one another’s personal space.

I always selfishly thought of this in terms of my own space, because why didn’t my parents respect me when I wanted my space? But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that they (as all humans) have their own limits. In many ways, our parents have sacrificed all of this, especially our mothers who have sacrificed even their own bodies, to bring us into the world. However, this doesn’t give us an endless right to their space or time. As the younger generation, we have the emotional tools to understand these nuances and we should use them to foster more empathy with our own parents. Because otherwise, we will continue to repeat a cycle of arguments where things are said that really shouldn’t be.

For many of us in lockdown, this pandemic has given us perspective on what really matters, and that we are lucky to not be alone. However, it is naive to think this experience is one-dimensional for every South Asian woman. Home can often be a constrictive environment that shakes our very sense of self and lead us to regressing into old patterns and duller states of mind.