On ‘Home’ – Zenat Begum

Zenat Begum by Ramshah Kanwal for ILY.

Interview and photography by Ramshah Kanwal.

For our new series ‘Home,’ inspired by our Love In Translation podcast, first-generation Americans and immigrants share their definition of the nuanced word in connection to love.

It’s a sunny New York City morning. I grab my iced coffee and get in an Uber to make my way to Zenat Begum’s Brooklyn apartment. While en route, I thought about how this was the first one-on-one time Zenat and I would spend together. Just the two of us, both South Asian daughters to immigrant parents and both raised and loved in New York City.

As I pulled up the Zenat’s apartment, I did what millennials do which is to reject the doorbell and instead text the person to let them know we’re outside. Moments later, Zenat greets me at the door and we make our way inside. Zenat lives six blocks away from Playground Coffee Shop, which she’s the founder of. She’s also the Deputy Director of Playground Youth, which is the 501 CS nonprofit that operates out of Playground Coffee Shop.

Zenat’s space is adorned with countless plants, vintage furniture, and art made by her dearest friends. She’s kept company by beautiful, natural sunlight that pierces through her windows. Her apartment feels like a museum of love; each corner of her space is home to something that connects her to someone she loves–from someone she considers home.

As we make our way to the dining table, I notice the table is set with pastries, fruit she’s cut, and a mason jar filled with an iced coffee (for me). Although this has never happened at a shoot, it came as no surprise to me that Zenat had prepared breakfast–after all, as South Asians we were both taught to make our guests feel at home when they visit. We share this common act of hospitality, and I indeed felt the warmth.

In between sips of iced coffee, Zenat and I discuss loving out loud, our immigrant parents, and what “home” means to us and who defines this for us. 

Trigger warning: The following piece includes material about sexual assault and domestic violence.

RAMSHAH KANWAL: Let’s start with the question, what reminds you of home?

ZENAT BEGUM: My mom. When I look at her, she is my first home. I think about women–I have every part of every woman I’ve ever met inside of me. From my aunt, my cleanliness and maybe a lot of the times the way I practice my life. From my sisters, makeup. They gave me my first home for my face, and [what] my face is going to permanently look like. Then, also, looking at the world and nature. That’s also my first home, you know? But most importantly, home is the people in my life who’ve helped me build a home inside of me, while I create a world for a lot of my ideas. Being able to house myself first is my biggest priority, and that’s what I learned in 2020.

One of the things that reminds you of home is your mom. How did your parents’ love affect how you view love? (Whether it’s how they loved each other or how they loved you.) Because, I think it’s different for us. I’m an immigrant and also a child of immigrants. You were born here and a child of immigrants. 

So crazy, we were literally listening to this song by Tina Turner that was created while she was in an abusive relationship with Ike, and [it’s] about love. She’s talking about how far she’ll go for it, you know– “no river deep, no mountain high.” My parents had a really bizarre relationship growing up. When I say “bizarre,” I mean that it wasn’t conventional; and that’s why I was confused, because I wanted so much for my family to be conventional in order for me to move through the world a little lighter. But, you know, there are nuances in South Asian cultures that are stigmas in others and very common in others.

Home is the people in my life who’ve helped me build a home inside of me, while I create a world for a lot of my ideas.

Zenat Begum

In my family, it was a lot more common for physical violence to be something that would be a [form of] resolution, rather than words. I don’t know what love looks like for my parents, but I know what love doesn’t look like and I think by putting those concepts together it made me understand what I wanted in the future, which was to protect myself. My parents loved in a way that was responsible for my sisters, not so much [with] each other. They loved us a lot. They gave us everything that we wanted, as much as they could (at least), because my parents didn’t have a lot when we were growing up, but it made me understand that you go to the end of the universe to support people who you love, because even in their darkest moments, it could enlighten you. 

Especially right when you said South Asian marriages and relationships are very unconventional. Did your parents ever show up holding hands? 

I think when my mom and my dad would go to the airport to drop each other off, they would walk holding hands, but I’ve only seen my parents kiss, like, twice.

I’ve never seen my parents show each other any type of affection. It’s funny because whenever I randomly see a South Asian couple outside holding hands, I’m like, “Oh my God, look they’re holding hands!” It’s so new for me. What’s your relationship like with your sisters and what have you learned about love through them?

I’ve learned a lot through my sisters. I’ve learned so many of my first lessons through them, which were how to protect myself and how to love other people. But, I also know that my sisters are all so different for a reason. I think that it shows the multiple sides that my parents have. We all represent a different personality that is ingrained within the hybrid of my parents as a couple. I’m also thinking about how my first bullies were my sisters, my first relationships were my sisters. My [eldest] sister was my first best friend, you know? And my other sister was my second best friend. As I grow older, I value my relationship with my sisters so much more and having a sibling…Are you a single child? 

(Editor’s Note: Zenat Begum’s sisters are 25 and 27 years old. She’s 28.)

No, I have three brothers.

Whenever I meet people who are an only child, you can tell because there is a lack of [a certain type] of sense, the “oh my God, let’s go” camaraderie. [With siblings,] there is this stewardship of “let’s do this together.” I learned my first sense of community with them. Me and my sisters are like a band. I like my relationship with my sisters because it’s something that a lot of people don’t have and at the same time, I know it’s a real thing. Being able to check in with them and let them know “I’m here for you” is important, because those little notes go unsaid sometimes, and that’s something that holds a lot more weight in your relationship: being able to know that people who are in your life are good.

In terms of friendship and intimacy, I had more emotional friendships because I grew up with only brothers. I felt a sense of intimacy with friends, but not [as much] with my own brothers. I was close with one of my brothers, because he’s only a year younger than me, but it’s always been different because that’s still my brother. When I formed friendships at school, they were always a lot more emotional because those were my first relationships. Of course I had my brother, but after a while we kind of drifted [apart]. 

But, I feel like, because of my upbringing and not having sisters, I ended up having more emotionally intimate friendships. I grew up around boys and was a tomboy and there’s only so much of a friendship you can have with men. I feel like once I had my first best friend it was a lot more emotional, like “You’re not coming to school tomorrow. Why?” Because it’s like, “yo, I need you,” you know?

Do you think, because of your upbringing, you had more emotional friendships where you put a lot more value in friendships than you normally would? 

To be honest, I think all my relationships are super emotional because I’m an emotional person. My mom also was really communicative when she needed help and I think that’s something I’m aware of right now in my life. When women are in a really tough situation, they can’t really speak out about a lot of stuff and there’s a lack of dialogue that happens in communities and in families. As children, I felt like me and my sisters couldn’t do anything to protect my mom. So when you’re not able to actually have open dialogue, that’s when you start meeting people you can have that dialogue with. I think my childhood’s effect on me made all of my relationships very dense, because I wanted to make sure that what I was putting out into the universe would actually have an impact on people, but also make me feel better about situations that I was going through. Meeting people who had similar stories as me was really helpful, because I was like, “You’re going through it too!” Going on the internet for the first time…that’s where I find solace, because I’ve met friends on Tumblr that I’ve known for 10 years, 15 years. Also, South Asian people, we go through the same shit in different places. The struggle is sometimes unionizing. I think when you find people who look like you that go through the same things as you, it makes you understand that you’re not below the situation, you’re above it, and you can get through it.

When you find people who look like you that go through the same things as you, it makes you understand that you’re not below the situation, you’re above it, and you can get through it.

Zenat Begum

Let’s talk about the nuances of love as first-generation. Growing up either brown or the child of immigrants, we have this hospitality trait. If you come over to my house I’ll ask if you’d like some water, but a lot of people don’t do that.  For me, that hospitality trait translates over to people that I like. I’ll always ask them if they ate today. Do you have any “I don’t do this” or “I do this” when it comes to acts of love?

I take my shoes off when I go into someone’s house. I always offer water, food, or something. Maybe fruit. I would only give you anything that I would eat. 

As a child, my mom grew up in the mosque, so whenever we would go to other people’s houses, you’d eat immediately–as soon as you sat down. There’s a lot of that kind of gathering and I love that, and it’s always around food. Being in hospitality, I love being warm to people. I love being like, “Hey, hi. How are you?” Like, maybe having the idea that I could change your whole day and make you feel better about it.

It’s kind of difficult, because I know who I am, and I love to integrate my parents’ values, my own personal values, and what people deserve, period, in the work that I do. Hopefully in my interactions I do seem a little tender to people, because we don’t offer each other a little thing to walk away with and make sure you’re held and protected. It just comes down to just my mannerisms. I only put out into the universe as much as I get. If I’m with someone and they’re not doing as much as I want them to do, I’m not going to force it and I’m not going to push it onto them. But, I think my base level is always like, “Hey, hi, how are you?” That’s just how I treat everyone.

My mom isn’t really affectionate and doesn’t show much physical affection, but her way of showing affection are small acts  like cutting me a bowl of fruit or refilling my cup of water if she sees that it’s not full. I think that’s where I learned how to show other people love because she showed me love through cooking for me and small gestures like,  not cooking until I’m ready to eat so my food doesn’t get cold. Or offering me food or something to drink, like, “Here’s a cup of water,” “Here’s some fruit,” or “I got these grapes for you.” Instead of her affection being physical (like a kiss on the forehead, a hug) her affection was shown in small gestures. At first, I wasn’t the most (physically) affectionate person with friends or even men, but I do show love in other ways, like “Oh, I got you this” or “Do you want some water?” That’s how I learned love and how to show love.

You know, I’m a sexual assault survivor and I’ve been going through so much of this my entire life where I had to realize that love, for me, wasn’t actual, physical touch. I think when you think about love and your body [as a survivor], you’re not comfortable. The first time I wore a bathing suit was at like, I don’t know, fucking 17, you know? I didn’t know that I could look at my body. I didn’t know that I was able to put myself in those kinds of positions to look a certain way or shape, you know? Because so much of Islam has made you hate yourself and hate the way you love and hate yourself for having boobs and legs and a butt. And you know, I’m no different from a fucking chicken. Right? But the hardest part is to think that someone would sexually assault you for the way you look. I think that comes a lot with our relationships. I just got out of probably the most abusive relationship of my life. And now I’m like, of course my home is going to look better, because I am starting to heal. Using color therapy is so important to me too. I’m trying to understand what makes me feel better, because I’m a trauma survivor.

There is a boundary to love and there is consent in love, and with the right people, the consent can also evolve into a beautiful and nurturing admiration for each other.

Zenat Begum

I also get really weird about physical touch from people sometimes, because I’m like, “Don’t put your hands on me,” but I also know that I like a squeeze from a friend. I think that that’s what I love about love, that there is a boundary to love and there is consent in love, and with the right people, the consent can also evolve into a beautiful and nurturing admiration for each other. And I think that’s what I’m starting to learn: you adore and you admire people rather than thinking about loving them, and that’s what transpires into love. Right? 

Let’s talk about love in brown households: loving in brown households and losing in brown households–but more in terms of romantic relationships. For me, I wasn’t ever openly allowed to talk about boys that I liked romantically. We didn’t have that relationship at home, where I’d tell my mom, “I like this boy.

I remember a few years ago, I was living in Korea for two years, and at one point, this boy really, really broke my heart. I was crying over him every single day and my mom had no idea. I called her and I started crying; I had to lie and say that I was crying because I was homesick. She was like, “No, it’s OK. You’ll be home soon.” I couldn’t say I’m hurting over a boy. I just wanted to cry, but I had to lie. She FaceTime’d me and showed me the house, but I wasn’t homesick, I was hurting over a boy, you know? 

For you, what was it like growing up in a brown household, and loving and losing? Were you allowed to openly love people outside of your family? 

No, I don’t think so. My parents were also weird. They’d always be like, “Don’t talk about boys!” And, I’m like, well, what if I like girls? They’d have no idea. You know? The one thing that I always feared was safety. I remember, we got the “period talk” in my school when I was in the fifth grade. The week before that happened, I got my period and I told my mom. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m dying.” I was in the playground and I got it and I said, “Mom, I think I’m dying.” She was like, “You got a period,” and that [type] of love had existed throughout the entire trajectory of my life [up to] right now, because sex isn’t something that Muslim parents talk to you about. I think it’s out of fear so they’re like, well, if I don’t talk to this person [about it], they’ll be celibate. But no, if you don’t talk to this person they’re gonna do a lot of bad stuff and they’re gonna get into really, really shitty situations. And that’s what ended up happening to me and probably for every woman; you do things out of fear and you do things out of misguidance. 

I really wish my mom would’ve held my hand through the first time I ever kissed somebody, the first time I ever had sex, you know? This isn’t something that I even relied on my parents for, because I was like, I don’t even want their opinion. But I hear white kids openly talk about their family, their boyfriends, and this and that. I’d be so jealous, but I kind of also love this idea that I haven’t [introduced] you to my parents, because probably you’re not the one. I’ve seen a lot of people be like, “Yeah, my mom and my boyfriend met,” and I get it. It’s like getting people to meet everybody about you. But, for me, my love life wasn’t like, oh, let me have them meet my parents. My parents don’t get that shit. A few days ago, my sisters and I were talking on the couch, and we came to the conclusion that our parents are never going to be happy with the people we’re going to end up with because they don’t match the framework [of] the type of people our parents want us to be with, which is, like, a Muslim, brown doctor. But also, because we look the way we do, we’re able to challenge whatever womanhood is. 

That’s largely the ethos of love: you have to be able to hold love in your body and store it, and that love can then be released into a partnership or whatever you want.

Zenat Begum

Our love languages continue, and they grow because our love for ourselves is growing. That’s largely the ethos of love: you have to be able to hold love in your body and store it, and that love can then be released into a partnership or whatever you want. It’s hard for me to think about what I value as love and also be able to tell my parents that because I never had that safety net, but I really wish that that relationship existed. It could have saved me many times, but I also know that that’s a part of the struggle; that’s something I worry about with my cousins who live in Bangladesh who can’t necessarily tell their parents about shit either, but then end up with a kid or end up marrying a man who’s like 40 years their senior and lives in Dubai, you know? That’s what I fear and I really wish that kind grooming of children would stop, but at the same time, I only hope that me and what I stand for helps people and encourages people to stand up for themselves because that’s all I have really.

You said you store love in your body and then release it. When do you think that you started releasing it? Does it come in waves and to whom do you release it to?

I started releasing love in 2020. I broke up with my partner of five years in 2019 and I immediately felt a release. He’s one of those people who didn’t really understand what it meant to love yourself, because one thinks that love already exists and that’s not true. Love doesn’t exist, you grow. It’s something that evolves. I think that’s the hardest thing: to assume that somewhere behind the cashier is love and you can purchase it and it’s done, it’s there. A relationship builds and [from there is where] love, trust, admiration, and adoration transpires–all those things. For me, when I realized that I couldn’t get that with this partner of mine, or even one person period, I started looking inwards. It made sense that now that I’m more in tune, I feel a lot freer; my wings feel a lot lighter and they can expand really far. I feel that I have a glow because of it. But I also know that it’s because I have to, and if you don’t, people will steal your shine and you’ll feel drained in the process of feeling this withdrawal.

When I first stepped into your home, I felt home and love go hand-in-hand. You said home for you is your mom and all the things in your home that remind you of her, and you’ve created a space for you that is love. Love and home go together. All the things you love are in your apartment. It’s filled with things that your friends have made for you and things that you love. This is your fifth apartment? 

This is my first place [I’ve lived in] alone. We grew up in Bed-Stuy, when I was first born. We then moved to a house with other families, like a multifamily? Which, we’ve all been through. Then, I went to our final home together, which was the Park Slope home. It’s on the corner of South Slope. We were the only Bangladeshis there. It’s mostly all white people, so there was a stark difference from [growing up alongside] Latinx people. Growing up, we fell into a district that was amazing for arts programming, and we met tons of amazing people, but at the same time, no one really wanted to acknowledge that we lived in Park Slope. I hated that because it meant that white people could be like, “Oh, you live in South Slope” or “You live in Sunset Park.” I’m like, “No, I live in fucking Park Slope and you live in Park Slope. We both live in Park Slope, and I’m not a white person and I still live in Park Slope.” Also, after 9-11, my parents had to go through so much shit and a lot of it happened in that neighborhood, which I really resented when growing up, but I also know that I stood taller because of it.

From being there, to my first apartment in Bed-Stuy, to then my second apartment in Bed-Stuy, to my third apartment in Williamsburg (with my good friend Brianne and then my partner at the time). I also lived in all those apartments with my partner and my first best friend from college, but this is my fourth apartment. 

So, this is your first time living alone. What aspects of this home relate to love?  

Everything. My plants. I love my plants. I have a wind chime. I meditate to them and I talk to them all the time. I also sing to them as much as I can. My paintings are collections from my friends, whether [it’s from when] they were trying to do a clearance of their studio or if it’s something that I commissioned them to do. Obviously objectivity is so interesting because materials can break and then it loses value because it doesn’t exist anymore. But for me, I think about the stories of how I got some of these things, and that’s the biggest thing for me. This bowl right here is made by Nick Atkins who did the gates for Playground Coffee Shop, that I hold close to my heart every day. These shelves are built by my friend Hassan, who I’ve known for just as long as I’ve known Nick, and he helped me to store my favorite things and see them through an open concept [design]. This couch I got from someone who loves antique furniture just as much as me, and he and I really vibe now. We can talk about shit and he’ll send me links. The pillows I got from Bangladesh. Actually it’s interesting because I never used those covers until I got to this apartment, and I now realize why: I wanted to wait until the perfect couch could be next to it.

When you first moved out, what aspects of your old home did you bring into your new home?

Colors and patterns. I’ve always been one of those people who loves mixing a lot of crazy things together, hence my apartment. The paintings…that print on the couch. So much of this is also like my mom. So much of the things that I’ve learned in style, I learned from my mother, and vice versa. I’m sure she learned a few things from me.  But there’s definitely a synthesis of being a  Bangladeshi and an American. (New Yorker first, honestly.)

What’s the significance of the Paris is Burning tickets?

Everybody has that one movie. It’s either Kids or Paris is Burning or…help me out here. What are some other movies?

A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale! And the one that was shot right here, the famous, Do the Right Thing. (We live next to [where] Do the Right Thing [was filmed], where I am.) All these movies that have such a big impact on you, I think about Paris is Burning and it’s about New York. It’s about queer and trans youth who live in the city, their world is, you know, Paris! Their world is London. They live on the most desolate streets, but they can make it this very famous, very luxurious thing. Thinking about what you have and what you don’t have, and being able to work with that is really important. Paris is Burning showed me for the first time that if you have a community, love them, be around them that that’s enough. And one day, if people love you enough, they’ll look you up and ask you what your story is. I think that’s what I love; it is such a timeless tale and you could watch it over and over again, and it will still tell you the same story about New York.

Pulling from the word you just said, “community,” what does community mean to you? You’ve essentially built a community with Playground Coffee Shop. How do you love that community? How do they love you?

I love my community, because I have nothing else. We talked about home and new relationships you build and so your sisters, like, my relationship with my sisters just got really solid in the last few years, but like, it was my friends first, you know? 

We would go to shows with my friends, we would work at really shitty service jobs together. I’ve done all these things, and I’ve nannied and I’ve done an array of jobs and I feel like for the first time, Playground became that place I can do all the things that I’m really good at, for and with my friends. Luckily, they have shown me that love loves back. Love in return because it’s really that’s  all it’s about. You need to be able to show people that when they care there is reciprocity in that. That’s the only way that love can actually even carry on and evolve, it’s if it is able to hold itself in different bodies within us and then you go to someone and then it goes to them. Yeah, it’s like that. 

Earlier, we were talking about loving and losing in brown households. When you experienced loss, were you able to openly express that or did you have to cry silently in your room? I’d cry in the bathroom without anybody knowing; they’d think I was taking a long shower, but I was expressing loss because I wasn’t really able to openly.

I don’t want to pathologize myself, but I think I’ve had really bad ADHD growing up. Whenever I was really sad, I was able to dissociate. I would forget that I was sad because I couldn’t be sad in my house or be upset and cry because I didn’t want anybody to know. Crying in silence is for sure something that I did in the shower, but I also often just imagined myself being anywhere else than where I really was. I’d be like, I can’t be sad. I can’t show emotion if I’m not here, right? I think that’s one of the ways that kids cope when you don’t have a loving household, because you can’t. How do you do something that you don’t know how to do?

…or that you don’t know is OK to do.

Right, exactly. There are myths and tales about what’s the best way to cry when you’re in a house that is not the best and more conducive for your healing but for me, I made myself understand and even write it down. I wrote, I played music for a good chunk of my life and that helped me a lot. I was also around a group of kids who were always really fun. Because I knew my house wasn’t the best for creativity, when I left, everything came at the intersection of friendship, community, and healing. 

The last thing I want to talk about is the sign in your room that says, “Happy Birthday Zenat.” Can you talk to me about why and how you got that sign? I feel like to me that story is loving yourself. 

I made it for someone I really loved at the time, and when we had to go our separate ways, I had this sign that was leftover that I got for them and it [originally] said their name. At that point, they were really far from me and I didn’t really know how to ship this. And in shipping all the things that this person owned back, I was like, OK, cool, I’m gonna keep this sign. The painter of the sign also did our shop signs, so I’ve had a really good relationship with him. I was like, “Hey, can you paint over this? Can you write my name instead of his?” He was like, “Yeah!” I swear, the moment the sign came back to me was when…you were asking me when did I release love? Yeah, that’s probably when that happened. My partner’s name was on it, and then I put my name on it. It’s like switching out whose office it was–putting my plaque on there.

I love that because you loved this person and did something for them. Then you had this sign as a reminder, but you were like, wait, I need to take that love and give it to myself. I love that you have a sign that says, “Happy Birthday Zenat,” and with it you’ve given that love back to yourself. For me, that’s Zenat loving herself. 

That was a whole mood. 

I loved it. Thank you so much.

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