Once upon a time in the late 20th century, below Fremont’s then-vineyard-draped Mission Hills, in a triangle-shaped house with a “big-ass eucalyptus tree in front,” there lived a little Pakistani American boy named Wajahat Ali—along with his parents, grandparents, and various relatives.
“We were the Desi Bunch and our squad had a deeper bench than the Bradys,” he writes in Go Back to Where You Came from: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American. The book covers the first decades of Ali’s life in California, the rise and fall of his parents’ American ambitions, and his journey both as a writer whose work appears in the New York Times, the Daily Beast (where he’s a columnist), and other publications and as a regular cable news commentator.
“If you saw where we lived [in Fremont],” he tells me over Zoom from the Virginia home he shares with his wife and children, “you’re like, ‘I want to move there immediately.’” And yet, Ali describes California as being “like a David Lynch movie.”
“Everything looks idyllic on the surface, but you dig just a little bit deeper and you see all the perversion.”
In many ways, that’s what much of Ali’s new book is about: America’s perversions, its fetish for white dominance, its violences, its booby traps and hypocrisies. Go Back doesn’t feel dreamlike in the way a David Lynch movie does, but dreams are a recurring theme—sweet childhood fantasies, real-life nightmares, symbolic visions.
The book is also a tongue-in-cheek guide to being an American (or Amreekan, as Ali’s parents would say) in a country where being American is predicated on being white. In a section of the book titled “How to Be a Model American,” Ali wryly advises his readers on some finer points: “Say you’re drinking chai tea and eating naan bread, otherwise known as tea tea and bread bread,” he writes. “Demand immediate racial reconciliation, but never the truth.”
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
The phrase “go back” gets hurled at the more melanated among us for pretty much any reason, or for no reason at all. Let’s not pretend that those who toss that phrase around aren’t aware that so many of us can lay claim to being “from here” as much as they can, despite their attempts to psychologically strip us of our citizenship. Ali’s hometown, for example—named after the genocidal California senator John C. Frémont—is one of the country’s most diverse cities, where today only 20 percent of its population identifies as white. And, as Ali jokes, he can’t afford to live in Fremont anymore.
Still, it was in Fremont where Ali’s family achieved, for a time, “the American dream”—an enviable house, a fancy car, a big-screen TV. Just like other American kids growing up in the 1980s, Wajahat—“Waja-the-Hut,” as he was known to childhood bullies—had his own private American dreams, too, unfulfilled as they were: dunking for the Golden State Warriors, yes, and marrying Winona Ryder after scoring a little blond girlfriend in elementary school.
I recognize the spirit of these adolescent dreams, born as I was in the exact same year as Ali on the other side of the country to parents (Indian, not Pakistani; unobservant Hindus rather than practicing Muslims) who also immigrated here after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act raised quotas imposed in 1924 that severely restricted Asian immigration. But as America witnessed, the pursuit of acceptance by white culture, or at least adjacency to it, became “a tragedy for so many people after 9/11, after the election of Donald Trump,” Ali reminds me.
For lots of us, many of Ali’s memories and insights about growing up South Asian in the United States are bound to be triggering but not revelatory. That doesn’t mean the stories aren’t worth telling—and, significantly, he doesn’t let his own community off the hook, pointing at the ways South Asian immigrants have perpetuated “model minority” myths and anti-Blackness.
Growing up with a degree of economic privilege, Ali tells me, shielded him “from the American nightmare that so many Americans constantly live.” It was the effect on his early adulthood of his parents’ legal battles and years of incarceration stemming from an FBI anti-piracy investigation called Operation Cyberstorm that opened his eyes all the way. “Once you live through it and your credit’s shut and your parents are in jail and you’re friggin’ bankrupt and you work harder than everyone else and you still can’t get ahead, you realize, ‘Ah, this is the America for so many other Americans.’”
Despite this, Ali argues against hopelessness and cynicism. I flirt with both. It’s not that Ali is some kind of Pollyanna. He’s blunt about white supremacy. He’s critical of how the word moderate offers cover for racism—and the double standard as it has been applied post-9/11. “As a Muslim who’s been asked to condemn violent extremism,” he tells me, “I would love these white moderates to condemn violent extremism.”
Go Back isn’t just about surviving—it’s also about thriving. In many ways, Ali is living his own American dream: a wife and children, a successful career, a new book. But not everyone successfully scrambles up the broken ladders. Blatant, mainstreamed, fascist white supremacy, often violent and armed, permeates our institutions and communities. Hate crimes against Asian people are through the roof. America’s racist history is being aggressively censored in schools. The voting rights of great swaths of citizens continue to be stymied.
When it’s all too much, Ali reminds readers of the valiant defiance of people of color by simply breathing and living. In a society where “people are trying to make you hate yourself,” he tells me, “simply existing with a smile and walking out of the door with your head held high is an act of resistance.”
Ali finds hope in many places, from his faith to his family. He points to the fact that even people on Twitter who abhor his politics offered to donate parts of their liver to his young daughter when she battled Stage 4 cancer. (Happily, she got the transplant she needed to live.) He points to historical American progress and to young people in this country, whose passion for social justice gives me something to cling to.
And yet, I didn’t feel more hopeful at the end of this book, large-hearted though it is. It’s not that I have given up! I, too, continue to exist, to breathe, to try to keep my head up and work toward the kind of world I want to live in, even as others actively work against it. Ali wants me to be hopeful as well, but he doesn’t offer me enough new reasons to feel that way. I’m not utterly hopeless, but I’m not sure, right now, that many new reasons for hope exist.•