On Flip-Flops, Camels, and my Dad

07/21/2016 11:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Growing up, the other fathers I knew were my uncles - my dad's brothers - all the adult men in my Indian and Muslim communities. They were, mom assured me and my three sisters, both stricter and less engaged with their daughters than my father who joked with us, talked to us about politics, and once consented to fixing my hair (unmitigated disaster).

Other than these fathers, I knew TV fathers like Danny Tanner and Carl Winslow. Fathers like these told their daughters they were beautiful no matter what, not asking what was wrong with their faces when they showed up for breakfast without their usual makeup. They shared their own struggles as examples to learn from, whereas my dad inexplicably told us that the best fruit was not only stolen from your neighbor's farm's trees, but the fruit that you held in your arms as you were chased off that farm by that neighbor. TV fathers talked their daughters through boyfriend problems, a father/daughter interaction so absurd relative to my experience that "LOL" is the only coherent thought that comes to mind in response. TV fathers told their daughters they could do anything; mine wondered aloud with me in the car, knowing my aspiration to be a writer, how the best writers in history had been drunks and addicts, and wasn't there something to that?

Dad was, and is, an instigator; not the mentor or protector in my story, but the trickster. He will definitely read this and tease me indefinitely. And I, even coming up on 30, will react no differently than I did as a teen - arguing or rolling my eyes, thinking that he just didn't get me. He will laugh; I'll feel misunderstood. Eventually, the genius behind his decision to make everyone else uncomfortable will become clear.

Just the other day, I rolled my eyes at my dad. My sister informed me that they went to buy a car together, and he immediately asked if "a brother" was available to help them. My father, an immigrant from India, used African-American colloquialism to directly-but-indirectly request a Black salesperson.

My three sisters and I, too experienced to be embarrassed anymore, just laughed. But the wisdom of my father's action became clear later when the Justice Department filed a complaint against Toyota (the official car of the Saiyed clan) for discriminating against Asian and Black customers. Dad hadn't needed a court report to know that he was safer with a person of color selling to him.

Dad quit his job when I was in middle school. My mother was furious that he'd give up our health insurance and his pension to focus on the family motel business. As an adolescent who didn't anticipate ever falling ill, much less retiring, I was excited to have my dad around more often.

That lasted until he was around more often. Now he dropped my sisters and I off at school and was no longer oblivious to our fashion choices. He noticed that I'd taken, like most teens in the early 2000s, to wearing flip-flops. He told me not to wear them again. Borrowing a term from my sisters' and my 2nd generation, he said that I looked like "a fob," Fresh Off the Boat. His eyes sparkled when he said it, but I ignored the gibe - I joked about fobs, how he was a once-fob. I rolled my eyes and told him flip-flops were cool. A few days later, I wore them again.

He noticed them when he dropped me off in front of my high school. He raged, keeping the minivan door shut, so I couldn't roll my eyes and walk into the building. "You can't let people see you like that," he said, in Hindi. "What are they going to think of us?"

At that time, I didn't understand about they. Whoever they was must be me. This was my country and my sense of style. They were my people. Dad made that choice in moving here. I was they, not us.

TV fathers only raged when someone (like Stephanie Tanner or Eddie Winslow) drove a car into the kitchen. On TV, no one got hurt and the life lesson - don't drive a car into the kitchen, or in Eddie's case, don't let Urkel take the blame - was clear.

On TV, an individual child's mistakes were individual. They didn't cost any lasting harm for a family - a family with the financial stability to repair a driven-into-kitchen by the next week. It's much scarier when your brown-skinned child casually flip-flops, dressed "like a fob," into an unscripted world often hostile to immigrants. Never mind I wasn't an immigrant. He preferred I deal with his consequences to what I could face if they decided to notice my on-stereotype footwear.

After I got married, I asked my husband if my dad had threatened him like the dads do on TV, telling their daughter's boyfriends or fiancés to watch out if they ever hurt their little girls. I figured Dad must have gone the traditional route. My husband laughed and said no, I had missed no private pre-marriage conversations between the two of them.

Once, at my parents house, I told my then-fiancé to do the dishes. "If you were my son," my dad interjected, "I wouldn't let you marry her." We all three laughed.

One of the first times they met, Dad, laughing at the dinner table, announced I was quick to cry. Still unfamiliar with my dad's modus operandi, my now-husband looked at me, unsure if he should defend me or play along. I rolled my eyes and Dad said, "Just stare at her." The two of them turned their gazes to me, smiling slightly, and I laughed. Then I stopped laughing. "Stop!" I said. "I'm not crying. This won't work." Tears welled up in my eyes, and my mom told them to leave me alone.

Fatherhood for my dad just didn't look like TV fatherhood. When I was younger, I thought that his inability to be a papa bird enveloping his baby chicks in protective wings came from his being from a culture where I thought fathers didn't do much parenting.

I realize now that his constant volley of stories with not immediately clear life lessons, of teasing, near-insults to actual-insults, and of bouts of angry frustration was his way of handing my sisters and I our own shields, weapons, and wings. These seemed, at the time, unnecessarily heavy and unaccountably aggressive. Yes, he introduced my husband to the family by teasing me. But he also showed the person I'm spending my life with that alongside my unabashed bossiness and unfeminine ferocity, I am deeply uncomfortable being the center of attention. Less directly and a bit vexingly, he validated both aspects of my personality by making them worth notice and comment.

And he raised my three sister-warriors who, whether they told my husband directly or not, made clear that he should watch out if he ever hurts me.

The last time we were all visiting home, my dad asserted that NFL player Ray Rice had reason to hit his girlfriend because she hit him first. I'll say now, under no circumstances does my father believe this, given the firm stance he'd always taken against violence against women in previous discussions throughout our childhood. He brought this up over lunch with the four feminists he raised. We all took the bait, deciding this required more than an eye-roll as a response.

As we argued against his point, using our collective four undergraduate degrees (one in women's studies) and three halves graduate degrees (half of us with more than one; the other half halfway through their first), Dad had that twinkle in his eye. We four practiced standing up against patriarchy, while he laughed to himself at how quickly he turned our first family dinner in months into a shouting match full of legal, academic, and pop culture citations.

Back when my dad left his good, stable job and walked away from the benefits and pension, he told us it was because he wanted to focus on the business. Later, he admitted that his co-workers were racist. He never told us exactly what the racism he experienced was, just that the racism existed. Instead, in leaving his job, he was able to own and run the motels in which we lived. Lurking behind the check-in office, I heard customers call Dad the N-word; and I know he received threatening, Islamophobic phone calls for years. But he could deny service or hang up the phone. He could use the N-word back at the white guy, completely throwing his opponent off with his feigned immigrant ignorance. He could and would go on with his day.

Not until recently did I understand my dad's blasé response to blatant racism. He tells a story I didn't understand--because I didn't know there was a Muslim/brown stereotype about camels--until I was an adult. My dad was waiting for the bus soon after he immigrated to Chicago in the early 80s. A car full of kids pulled up, and asked, laughing, if he was waiting for a camel. "Nope," my dad says he responded, "Waiting for some monkeys. Guess I found them." I'm not sure he knows calling someone a monkey is much worse an insult in India than it is here; but the fact remains that he responded quickly in his third and least familiar language despite being outnumbered, tired, cold, and unwelcome.

I think my dad finds it easy to deal with explicit, direct racism prompted by his accent, his undeniably immigrant affect. He can defeat this beast with wit and avoidance. I have been lucky, mostly, to avoid flagrant bigotry as an American-born, Midwest-accented, neatly dressed girl. But I know it when I see it. I also saw the nonchalance and quick-wittedness with which my dad faced it.

What I couldn't see - but my dad could -- was the insidious, entrenched racism that left me feeling uneasy, out-of-place, weird, and angsty throughout my childhood. What he saw led him to ban my flip-flops.

My dad didn't have the lens of microagressions and institutional racism that I begin to use to make sense of the world as a critical scholar, after years in universities; he's been up against they from well before DJ Khaled took to SnapChat. Like Olivia Pope's father, my dad told me I'd have to work twice as hard to be half as good. He raged against they but assimilated here, resisted there, adapting strategically to position his four daughters to do what he could not.

He did not tell me, like most TV dads, that I could do or be anything. Instead, he showed me how the world could challenge my every step, how I should go forth without excuses or shame, with a voice and degrees, with a sense of fashion as keen as my sense of injustice. He made sure that I wouldn't have to walk away from pensions awarded by racist institutions; like him, I could build my own spaces, but further I could also transform what already existed.

I still wear flip-flops. I walk unconcerned, mostly, with how they will reflect on my people. I name drop bell hooks, remembering how my dad doesn't choose to disrupt English capitalization rules - he just doesn't know them or care to know them.

My father has been called a camel jockey many times. "Look at Indians now in the U.S., my four daughters," he says. "You call us camel jockey, but now we're jocking on you."

Never mind where he picked up that bit of slang; I'd like to see a TV dad pull off that line.

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Gulnaz Saiyed is a doctoral student at Northwestern University, designing and researching how to create curriculum that supports under- and misrepresented youth to tell their stories using documentary journalism. She is also an American-Muslim-Desi, a critical Potterhead, an unadventurous foodie, a Kentuckian, a reluctant Chicagoan, a sugar addict, a once-quilter, and would-like-to-be ceramicist. Her work has been published by Brain Mill Press Voices and is forthcoming in the Georgia Review.