When my parents brought me home from the hospital on September 27th, 1981, they handed me to my big sister, almost three years old.
“Here,” they told her, “This is yours.”
From that day on, she acted like I belonged to her. She was very attentive to how my parents treated me, and she would demand things all the time. Most often, she’d call me into her room and tell me me to make her laugh because she was bored. Thinking I was her property also gave a her a sense of entitlement; once my parents walked in on her drinking my formula, with her finger in my mouth to keep me from crying. When I turned six, she asked me what my favorite color was. When I said it was red, she told me I had to change it because you had to change your favorite color every year on your birthday. This was after our mom asked me my favorite color so she could decorate the kitchen in that color for my party. Are you imaging sad, adorable baby Ramsin right now? Good, I was adorable.
But I had a deeper big sister advantage. Our parents came to the United States just a year before my sister was born. They came from a tumultuous Middle Eastern country, members of a persecuted ethnic and Christian minority with a recent, tragic past. They were well-educated, but America was about as foreign as a place could get for them. It was freedom, but it was also terrifying. The very freedom, in fact, could seem like a threat. Assyrians, like other immigrant groups, clustered together and tried to insulate their community from outside influence. Assyrian parents were terrified of their sons becoming gangbangers (or homosexuals) or their daughters getting raped, or pregnant–or, for that matter, getting a “bad reputation” and thus becoming unmarriagable.
Compared to lots of Assyrian parents, though, my sister and I lucked out. My dad was a well-regarded political thinker in the Assyrian community in Iraq, and my mother a tough-as-nails and skeptical independent spirit who had insisted on becoming a professional before marrying. Mom wore jeans and cut her hair short, traveled without her parents permission, and left home to study science on the other side of the country. Dad wrote plays, advocated for democracy and secular law, was imprisoned for political activity by the Baathists, and studied abroad in Switzerland through his employer. Progressive people.
But here they were, in America, its customs, systems, and morals foreign and vaguely threatening. And, thirty-seven and twenty-eight respectively, with a baby daughter. My sister was the trial-and-error kid, who would not only learn from my parents how to be a good, strong person, but who would teach my parents how to raise a child in America. That was destined to be a painful process.
Yes, she put me on to great music and culture. She brought home ‘zines and punk rock record compilations and introduced me to her friends in local bands. She explained slang terms and told me where to go to buy music. She also learned America for me.
It’s one thing to have a big brother in a first generation Assyrian family. It’s a whole different thing to have a big sister. She had to not only learn how to be a kid–and, dear lord, a teenager–in America, she had to do it with the extra attention and restrictions that come with being a girl. My sister, like a lot of girls and women in immigrant groups from more “traditional” societies, had to deal with careful management of her “reputation,” i.e., her sexual reputation, from puberty.
This means not just the obvious, like staying away from boys. It meant not even giving the appearance of recklessness: late nights, close friendships outside the community, aberrant fashion. The Assyrian woman, like women in so many of similar communities, lives in fear of bad gossip.
But, like my mom, my sister wasn’t obedient. In fact she was kind of the opposite. Just the fact that she was supposed to obey something would compel her to disobedience. She never got in any real trouble–and that was the point. Arbitrary rules meant to “protect” her simply would not stand. Predict the next part of the story: this put her right in conflict with our mom. Two immensely strong people in the same house. I imagine very few of you didn’t have a similar dynamic.
She’d stay out late. She’d stay out late in different neighborhoods in the city. She went to parties. She dyed her hair pink and dated boys. She moved into her own apartment as soon as she could. All acts of varying rebellion that put her in a state of almost endless opposition to my parents, and never, it seems, afraid to fail. She got a little older and traveled around Europe, lived in Spain, moved to the East Coast. When our parents wanted her to seriously consider settling down, or at least move back home to save money, she went to South Africa.
With the typical expectations of a good Assyrian girl from her generation, she could have gone a very different way. It was only her own strength and daring–and our parents ultimate reasonability and adventurous examples–that she turned out how she did. Which, in turn, made me exactly the man I became: curious, headstrong, and restless.
Maybe having a big brother teaches you how to be a man. But I’d never trade the education I got from my big sister–a girl and a woman who had to deal with men in authority her whole life thinking they knew what was best for her, from our church to our extended family–for anything a dude could have taught me. And she never missed an opportunity to school me, whether it was about how to treat women, or just how to treat people.
My parents gave me to her. I was her responsibility.All kid brothers and sisters owe some debt to their older siblings, who have to help raise them for logistical reasons if nothing else. But there’s no amount of life lessons imparted or mix tapes that can equal the value of a great example set.
So what I’m trying to say is I forgive her for stealing my formula. And for dressing me in our cousin’s swimsuit once.