In My Sari, Kissing the Soccer Coach

Seeing the movie “Bend It Like Beckham” on a Girl Scouts overnight shaped my romantic preferences for years to come. As the sole Desi member of our suburban Indiana troop, I watched in a state of bliss, relieved to finally see someone who looked like me onscreen.

When Jess, the main character, kisses Joe, the white soccer coach, on the pitch (in her sari, no less!), I swooned. In the final scene, when Joe plays cricket with Jess and her Punjabi father, I saw a vision for my future.

That film sequence was like a portal into an alternate universe where a brown girl could date a white guy and still be at peace with her family. In our circle of Pakistani immigrants, the few couples with a white spouse were treated as oddities. Rarer still were couples where the husband was white.

I had only begun to imagine myself as someone interested in men (boys, rather), but I knew that I was expected to be with another Pakistani. A brown woman in a relationship with a white man — one who was accepted by her community — represented the best of both worlds.

After seeing the movie, I became enthralled with white boys: the gangly runners on my cross-country team, the stars of the Disney movies, the members of Good Charlotte. By college, I was brave enough to date them, or whatever one calls the booze-filled horniness of university life. It didn’t hurt that I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is what some would call a “target-rich environment” for white boys.

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I joined the Pakistani Student Association out of some misplaced guilt for the fact that I had not a single brown friend and cringed if any of the guys in the group tried to befriend me, let alone flirt. It was clear to them I was simply tolerating their company, so they faded away too.

By the time I reached New York City, my taste had evolved beyond white boys to “anything but brown men” (not that I ever thought of that bias consciously), and I embraced my brownness as a kind of cultural curiosity. Explaining where I came from and how my mother hid my miniskirts from me in high school became a part of my personality, a funny, flirtatious bit I deployed.

I did date one Pakistani guy who, like me, had grown up abroad. He was a colleague, and the excessive praise we received from colleagues and friends for getting together alarmed me, as if there were a live audience clapping for us boarding Noah’s Ark as a pair.

“You guys are so good together,” people would exclaim.

We weren’t, though, and soon broke up, affirming my suspicion that I wasn’t meant to be with brown men.

Then I did something drastic: I moved back to Pakistan. I say “back” because I was born there, but that hardly counts, as I left when I was 5. Since emigrating, my family visited less and less frequently. As an adult, I began to go exclusively for my work in journalism, filming the bleakest parts of the country, staying in hotels surrounded by security barriers, and leaving before I ever started to question my relationship to the people outside those walls.

I spoke the language well enough and obviously looked like everyone there, but I felt distinctly American. I took the leap in moving, thinking it would be a bankable career move to work as a stringer for American media outlets, and it was. I hadn’t considered that being there would change my convictions about love, let alone my “type.”

The few white men in Karachi are typically sequestered behind high walls and security protocols. When I did finally meet some inside of those walls, they were unappealing and almost always in the company of the kind of Pakistani women who carry themselves with an enviable daintiness, unlike my shaggy, unfussy look. I decided that dating in Pakistan wasn’t going to be a thing, because the eligible men — the tens of millions of brown people I was living among — didn’t even register as possibilities.

Then I met Ali on LinkedIn. He was attempting to network (he had co-founded a Pakistani youth media company) and remarked about our sharing an alma mater. A fellow Badger! After we chatted in a posh Karachi coffee shop, I told my roommate how handsome he was, but I didn’t think much else of the encounter.

Even so, I met up with him again. This time I told my roommate afterward that he reminded me of my brother, a common feeling I had about brown men my age. It hadn’t dawned on me that my brain was automatically stripping Pakistani men of sexuality.

Over the next several months, Ali and I became friends despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I didn’t see him as having romantic potential. We would mock Pakistani rich-kid culture, then commiserate about the country’s lack of kombucha. He was kind, attentive, quietly confident.

I brought him to a friend’s birthday party, where someone mistook us for a couple. We laughed it off, but I caught him looking at me as he did. Later he offered me a ride home, and I fully expected him to ask to come inside. When he didn’t, I huffed off, texting my friends in New York about how “guys out here can’t even ask girls out properly.”

Moments later, he texted: “I’m sorry if this is weird, but I’d like to ask you out on a date. How about tomorrow?”

I couldn’t put my finger on what finally attracted me to him. For starters, the brown culture signaling of my imagined biracial relationship wasn’t necessary because we were both brown. Gradually I realized that meant I didn’t have to do my exhausting, race-conscious performance either, the self-deprecating jokes I would mutter about terrorism (or whatever stereotype came to me in the moment), the reflexive ironic shield I felt I needed as the one Pakistani in the crowd. He understood without me having to say anything.

After months of dating, I saw how much space that performance had taken up in my previous relationships: Without it, I was vulnerable and prone. With the weight of constant posturing suddenly lifted, I felt an intimacy I could never achieve with the not-brown guys. Ali and I are married now, and it’s the most comfortable I have ever felt with another human being.

What’s funny is that, in writing this story, I realize I have penned the exact type of propaganda immigrant mothers peddle to keep their daughters in the culture. Before Ali, my mother was fond of telling me stories of some distant friend or relative who married a white man and then divorced, only to find happiness once they remarried a Desi.

This isn’t that, but it’s not not that either. I’m not attracted to my husband because he’s brown, but I also know we wouldn’t have the relationship we have if he weren’t. That’s not to say we’re so similar; if anything, the fact that he grew up in Pakistan while I spent my youth in the Midwest separates us more than most of my past relationships. But what we share in common — an unspoken understanding of a culture that shapes the way we are, whether we like it or not — constitutes a bond much stronger than the rest of it.

Writing this from the vantage point of my most committed relationship, I can see how my interior tussle with my identity carried into how I saw the men around me. Other women I have met, children of immigrants like me, have mentioned holding similar preferences, an aspect of their sexuality some recognize perfectly as internalized whitewashing but one that many are at peace with. Their preference doesn’t preclude meaningful relationships, but it’s still a thing, an aspect of intimacy that factors in any relationship.

My husband and I joke about what it would have been like if we had met in college. It turns out our paths had crossed back then, without meeting, at the Pakistani Student Association, a club he helped start. Instead, we met in the country of my birth in a cafe surrounded by other brown people, where I had finally stopped seeing them as “brown people” but as men just as likely to be my husband as the next guy.

Meher Ahmad is a journalist in New York City.

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