Intimacy in the Life of a Single Migrant

An examination of where new intimacies can be discovered in a lonelier world

This is not an essay about the proper place and time for intimacy in the life of a person. This essay is about the space and time of intimacy – an analysis of the interplay between intimacy, space and time that lets us unpack its spatio-temporal assumptions. If we wish to discover intimacy in these times, we must first unravel these assumptions. 

In the literal sense of the term, intimacy means closeness. Closeness means the absence of distance. To be intimate, the self and the Other must reduce their distance, close off their gaps. This distance can be surpassed physically -- by touching, kissing, embracing, having sex, the myriad ways in which two bodies can come in close proximity of each other. It can also be overcome emotionally -- by confiding, revealing, leaving no secrets between the self and the Other. In the embrace of intimacy, space becomes the enemy. The ultimate aim of intimacy is to annihilate the space between the self and Other, to dissolve me and you into “us”. That’s the cultural ideal of intimacy that we tend to aspire to. The faster you and I are conjoined in an “us”, the better. Once the two become one, this intimacy is assumed to last for a lifetime, if not forever. Why two, you ask? Intimacy has room for only two, we are told. Whether we are queer or heterosexual, intimacy pulls us towards coupledom. This couple form is considered part of the normal life course. This life course has a built-in time for everything; there’s time for casual intimacy and then there’s time for serious intimacy, the one that idealises the couple form. 

Where can serious intimacy be better realised than in the home? Once the self and the Other have met, they need a roof over their head. The idea of home is at the heart of intimacy. The home is where the couple meet without the watchful gaze of others, in the bedroom and at the dinner table. Even if the seeds of intimacy are planted outside the home, in a bar or on a mobile screen, the end goal of intimacy is to build a home together. Home is where the couple is shielded from the world, free to explore their most intimate desires and truly reveal themselves to each other. Home is where they must proliferate, biologically and socially, to carry forward the cycle of life.  

But what about those who are single? Widowed, divorced or separated -- single because of circumstance or single by choice?

In a world contoured by intimacy of the couple, a single adult remains out-of-place. The pervasive assumption is that a single person is missing an other to seek communion with. They are out-of-place at family dinners and at gatherings with friends. They are out-of-place in restaurants and houses that are designed with intimate couples in mind. As a result, they don’t perceive the home as a haven for intimacy. If living alone, they may experience the home as the abode of loneliness and anxiety, as made abundantly clear by the pandemic. If looking for a partner, they don’t even perceive time the same way – they hope that their singlehood is a blip in time, a short transit between intimacies. If they are not looking for a partner, their close ones perceive time differently on their behalf, hoping that their singlehood is a blip in time, a short transit between intimacies. 

And what about those who are single and immigrant?

An immigrant is always out-of-place. Neither here nor there. Or simultaneously both here and there. The problem with being an immigrant seeking intimacy is that you may yourself be ‘othered’ in various ways – you may be a racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic other in the society you live in, in which case finding intimacy becomes even harder. Furthermore, home is a very complex concept for an immigrant, one that is forever in flux, one that embodies both belonging and alienation. And time isn’t a linear concept either. An immigrant’s life is caught up between time zones, regulated by border control, visas and residence permits. They might not have unfettered time for intimacy. They might not even speak the same language of intimacy as others around them. A single immigrant is, thus, doubly out-of-place. 

Where does a single immigrant find intimacy?

The answer might be surprising to those who have never imagined intimacy beyond the fantasy of ‘home sweet home’ and ‘happily ever after’. Once you start looking, however, you will find multiple answers to this question. Drawing on my doctoral research, I can tell you about one such space: beauty salons. In my research on beauty salons run by South Asian women in London, I have seen many single immigrants seek and/or find intimacy within these quotidian spaces. They have been touched, intimately and therapeutically, and they have confided in the beautician with their most personal secrets. I am thinking of the middle-aged Turkish woman who once came in wanting a haircut like Princess Diana. She was widowed and had rejected a suitor recently because she didn’t want to spend her life cooking for men. I am also thinking of the young Pakistani woman who had recently divorced her husband and asked the beautician every time she came for her eyebrow threading if she had done the right thing. Then, there is another Pakistani woman who lost her husband to cancer and moved in with her mother and brother who forbid her from going out or meeting people lest she should be afflicted with desire. She is, however, allowed to come to the beauty salon. While the beautician works on her face, touching her gently, she talks her heart out. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the only touch she receives. 

Now, is this kind of intimacy even authentic, you might ask. Can these fleeting moments of intimacy displace the enduring idea of the couple form? In turn, I rather wish to raise some pertinent questions about the nature of intimacy previously described. Since that kind of intimacy is assumed to be long-lasting, how do we square with intimate Others who are dead or insufferable or absent for any other reason? Since that kind of intimacy is supposed to thrive at home, how we do reconcile that home is also a space of violence, control and fear for many people? Since intimacy comes with no guarantees either way, what’s the harm in imagining it as temporary, evanescent and possible with strangers and strangers-who-become-friends in places that feel welcoming and safe? What would it take for us to not pin all our hopes of fulfilment and pleasure on the couple form but hold other intimacies equally close to our heart? How do we learn to value all kinds of intimacies and cherish them fully for what they are, without creating a hierarchy where the couple reigns supreme? Because loneliness, which we know to be copious, has not only one antidote. 

If we hold on to our spatial and temporal assumptions of intimacy, some of us might never get to experience it, or never recognise it as such even when we do. That’s a little sad, isn’t it? 

(The writer acknowledges the contribution of a dear friend Shiv Sharma in thinking through this essay.)