A recent article in New York Times led me to this photo of immigrants being served a free meal as they disembarked onto New York’s Ellis island in the early 1900s. The image flipped opened a keepsake box of emotions and personal experiences.
In May this year, it has been 15 years since SK and I made the United States of America our home. There was so much to love about what we had left behind in India. A cozy urban apartment, financial stability, enviable social life, family just a short flight away, the endearing cacophony of everyday Indian life surrounding an array of house maids, cooks, chauffeurs!
Yet, when a short-term work opportunity arrived, we chose to move.
To explore. And return. That was the plan.
So we arrived at New York’s JFK international airport with 2 suitcases, an infant and overwhelmingly heavy emotional baggage. Mover’s remorse, I’d call it. But my very first ‘American’ encounter defined how the other half of the story would be.
An elderly Caucasian couple greeted us as they sat on the latticed wrap around porch sipping their iced teas on that hot May afternoon in 2001. They lived next doors and owned the corporate guest house that we called home for the first month. The day we moved into our own rented condominium, they gifted Khushi their most prized possession- an heirloom crib that was hand crafted for their firstborn son, he was 50 something at that time. Neither their children nor the grandchildren, no one deserved to inherit it as much as this little brown girl did. A girl who came from a land far away, a girl who didn’t belong, a girl who they adored, a girl who was to stay.
This would be my first, most significant lesson in the effortless inter-cultural assimilation and integration.
Many parochial arm-chair critics would accuse us global citizens of jumping ship and blatantly challenge our patriotism. How many of them still live in the cities they were born in, I ask? Eventually everyone branches out in search of a better way of life, diversity, greater opportunities. Irrespective of the geographical placement, we all do what is best for our personal growth. This, in no way, cuts the cord.
I exude Indian culture; much more than many Indians living in India do; so I’m told. My children speak flawless Hindi, enjoy their roti-dal everyday, we celebrate every possible Indian festival, in fact we have banished all cultural boundaries to pick and adopt pieces from other Indian states’ diverse cultures. We are one of those limited edition families who still tune into All India Radio and Vividhbharti on a daily basis. Arguably, each year I spend more time visiting my parents than my siblings living in India can afford to dispense! I get goosebumps when my American-born son sings Jana Gana Mana with so much purpose, my heart aches to be in India on Diwali and an inexplicable sense of belonging overcomes every time my flight lands at Delhi’s international airport.
And yet, my eyes tear up and head holds high when my Indian-born daughter gets up on stage in an auditorium full of people to proudly sing the Star Spangled Banner. I smile wide and my stride strikes a beat when the immigration officer stamps my US passport upon arrival at the New York airport and says ‘Welcome Home’. I come home to a harmonic lifestyle complete with a humble suburban property, a scenery that changes with every season, crispy fresh air, aptly used tax dollars fueled into roads, libraries, parks and rec facilities, trained traffic, car pools, community service, organized solitude and all things good.
There are hundred reasons to stay and a hundred to return. For now, I willingly fade into this amorphous sense of belonging to the country that I was born in and to the one that I call home.
America lets me be an Indian. She just lets me be.
And for that she gets my affection and allegiance.
“Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back and reasons to stay.” ~ Dalai Lama