The Taboo on Tattoos: April 2014

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It’s a warm Friday evening and we are on our way to get some cake-batter flavored frozen yogurt; my eight-year old casually asks me, “Are people with lot’s of tattoos, bad people?”

She follows up, by assuring me that she didn’t think I was a bad person; because, I have only one tattoo.

As a single-dad, raising two daughters alone, this is not an unusual situation; often, I get asked uncomfortable questions – that I can’t just delegate for someone else to answer.

Someone at school must have made this comment; something she either overheard or became aware of this in a group conversation. Usually, children pick such things up from their families – most likely from parents, older siblings or extended families.

You wonder where these dogmas come from and why people would say things like this; when I think back at my childhood, I was told (and sincerely believed) that men who wore gold-chains (or pendants) around their necks, were either hijackers or smugglers (“Lafanga” or “Bokhatey” are the the words in Bangla, that I have a tough time transliterating).

We carry these harmful untruths all our life; most of the time, it’s someone in our families, who instills these values in us – to create this perception of “judgement”. Instead of getting to know the person (with the tattoo, or wearing a pendant) – just start judging them on their appearances – and somehow you will be safe!

In the 70s and 80s of Bangladesh, where I spent my childhood and teens, there are no racial divisions – but there still are atrocious economic inequalities and discrimination. You will not play with a certain type of children – or you cannot be friendly with children who don’t go to school with you!

However, in this twenty-first century America, where Shania enjoys the best of a private school education, it’s difficult for me to accept where these taboos originate from.

I have noticed similar negative biases in workplaces. We often make hasty decisions, on recruitment or results, based on outside appearances. About 10 years ago, I was surprised to know that one of our best technology leaders had an armful of tattoos and smoked a pack-a-day.

As we park at the Yogurt place and emerge from the car, I speak to Shania about not judging people by their external appearances. We talk about colors – how orange is different from blue – how we like different books or music – how some days are cloudy and others are not.

We conclude, people have different tastes; we cannot udge them on the basis of their height, weight, tastes or color. Instead we should really try to get to know the person and see how s/he behaves with others. Humanity, is at the end of the day, our biggest asset.

Filtering is necessary for survival; however, undue biases and taboos create so many negative experiences in our lives.

There is no practical way to insulate my children from all their biases or choices – I know the world is not perfect – nor that they won’t experience by themselves. All I know, on this mild evening, is that my responsibility is to keep questioning my own beliefs and helping my children see the world from a different point of view – where love is possible in forms, shapes and colors – with tattoos, or not.

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Darkness, Dogma and Everything Else: The Fears of Parents

When I was a teenager, my mother had an absurd rule; I had to return home before sundown. You could leave in the next hour and be out late – but you have to be home at sundown!

I always wondered what was her fear – was it the darkness of the night, or some sort of superstition of the Jinn? Or is it just a lack of spatial awareness in the dark.

This week, for the first time, Daiyaan, my almost eighteen-year old, is off on her own – far away in a foreign land. On the first evening, I sit on the balcony of my high-rise condominium and feel like crying as I watch the sunset. I wonder how she is doing, is she safe, did she eat her meals properly. Now, I know how my mother must have felt, when I first didn’t return after leaving home.

Such is the nature of parenting and a parent’s inner fears.

Some fears are inherent in us – unique to us – while some have been passed to us from generation to generation. As we grow older, our fears get embedded in us and we try to implant these in our children.

My father had some fear about children having their hair wet. Even in my teens, he would come out with a towel trying to dry my hair, just a bit more. He was convinced that we could catch a cold, if our hair was wet! This habit now has passed on to me and I keep running after Shania, comically, drying her hair after she comes out of the shower.

All irrational, unexplainable fears – but also part and parcel of who we are and what we have become!

Don’t go out after dark!

Don’t eat (bone-in) fish at night!

No Bananas to be eaten at night!

Don’t draw attention to yourself!!

Don’t enjoy life too much, and, if you choose to, don’t put it on your Facebook profile for others to see!!

We grow up with all sorts of dogma – all sorts of fear; often that fear takes over our day-to-day activities.

Once, some twenty-two years ago, driving through the New Mexico desert, as the sun was setting, in all its glory, I heard my mother weep at the back of the car; I couldn’t quite understand why this super-strong Principal of a High School was crying in this beautiful setting. I didn’t understand her fear of the dark – nor did I realize that it was something that was embedded in her, most likely at childhood.

Today, my fears are around my children – and them possibly getting hurt. I know there is just not enough time in the day, nor moments of sheer lucidity, to simultaneously keep track of every movement of a teenager, on a foreign trip – or a eight-year old who is just learning to spread her wings.

I think, the only thing a parent can do, is try their best.

Since we have very limited capabilities, the goal is to give them those values and decision frameworks that allow them to make the right choices to avoid a dangerous path – or try to make a decision to not associate with all that’s evil around us. Some of us try to give them everything we have (and sometimes what we never had); once we have given them our best, we just have to learn to take a deep breath and sigh.

The children have to make their own mistakes; take their own “road less traveled”.

The best we can do is not to install our dogmas and fears in their lives. Allow them to live on this beautiful earth – sampling everything with the fearless abandon of life.

Shania gets ready to go to bed; she reads her book for twenty minutes, says her prayer, clutches her stuffed toy and turns towards her pillow. I kiss her forehead and say a silent prayer so that she gets a restful night of sleep. That’s all you can really do. You can’t be there watching over them – or give her all your fears and dogmas. She deserves her own fears and her own new dreams!