On my first trip to Andalusia, a Spanish friend and I went exploring through the narrow, winding streets of her small, whitewashed village. As we turned one corner the strong scent of jasmine filled the air. I was transported immediately to my grandmother’s garden in Madras, India, where she lovingly tended dozens of jasmine vines in order to offer fresh flowers to the gods during her daily prayers. It was one of many moments when I felt a comforting familiarity with Spain, in spite of the newness of landscape, culture, and language.
I love those moments: surprise reunions in unexpected places, connections that take me far beyond the limitations of geography. Perhaps I love them even more because I know that I can just as unpredictably feel apart. The sense of feeling out of place thunders out from the shadows, frightening me with its sudden approach, its reach into the depths of feelings that I never knew existed.
I was born in India and raised in India, Indonesia, and Singapore before coming to America for college. By then, I had lived in three different countries, understood and spoke a number of languages with varying skill, and had gone to school with children from at least twenty-five nations. In the fifteen ensuing years I lived in a dozen different houses and almost as many cities and villages in America, Thailand, and ultimately India again, where I returned for two years to write about modern Indian society.
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I’m deeply grateful for the rich, wild, wonderful exposure to the world I’ve been given, but I can’t brush away the niggling desire to “belong” somewhere. I find myself looking enviously at friends who have lived in the same town for most of their lives, down the street from their parents and grandparents, across from Mrs. Smith who made them cookies when they were kids, around the corner from the stream they played in on hot summer days. It must be so easy, I think, for them to answer the question: “Where are you from?”
In 1995, when I was living in India, I went to my home state of Kerala and stayed with a host family in the small village where I was working. On my first morning, as my hostess and I sat on the verandah talking, twenty pairs of eyes focused on me. Children from the village were leaning against the flimsy gate of wood and wire, crowded together like sardines, hanging over each other’s backs to get a glimpse of the woman who had come from America. Embarrassed at first, I stared at the coarse red mud between the gate and the house, then at the coconut trees around us. Finally, I looked over and smiled, only to be met with stares. Black, glittering eyes opened wider, staying focused and expressionless. I stared back until my own eyes began to dry from concentrated looking. I blinked, and the stillness broke.
One young girl opened the gate and the children poured toward me, an ocean coming to shore. They took hold of me, several on each limb, and pulled me down to the ground tenderly, curiously, resolutely. I sat in the middle of a circle as they draped themselves around me. I felt fingers in mine, hands stroking my hair, arms pulling at my neck.
They were asking questions in a great rush of words in Malayalam, the language of my ancestors, the language I understood but no longer spoke well. They asked me why I wore a sari if I had come from America, where was my pottu (the red dot on the forehead), where were my bangles? If I was from America, they asked, why did I look so much like them? And if I was Indian like them, why was I not wearing gold jewelry? Surely I must have enough money to buy lots of it? They disdainfully fingered the dangling silver earrings I had bought in a street fair in Seattle. They said you were from America, they repeated in disappointed voices.
I can’t brush away the niggling desire to “belong” somewhere.
I explained in a mixture of Hindi, Malayalam, and English that I only lived in America, that I had been born in India just like them. But not like us, sister, they said laughingly. Living in such a rich place and you are wearing only one thin gold chain! Now they were serious, trying to understand.
We walked barefoot together for hours on dirt paths through coconut tree groves. As we walked, we talked: about marriage, about children, about America, about Madras where I was born, about the work I was doing in the hills around them with tribal people who were afraid of losing the endemic medicinal plants on their land to commercial harvesting.
Around us, the trees swayed and whispered. We pressed through thick, pre-monsoon air as crows swooped by us, cawing loudly. The children held on to my arms as if they would never let go. “Why don’t you leave America and come and live with us?” the smallest one asked me seriously.
A familiar, bittersweet twinge coursed through me as I thought about all that I had left behind to gain all that was mine today—a certain ease of modern lifestyle, economic security, freedom to choose different career paths. Mine was a privileged choice, unlike that of so many of the immigrants and refugees who come to America. But privileged or forced, we immigrants have all uprooted ourselves from what we knew to be ours. In a new culture, language, and landscape, each of us has to find the place where we can assimilate but still keep the essence of who we are. Each of us has to struggle to find a place called home that we keep within us no matter where we live.
The world has always been in motion, but never more so than it is today and never so much because of forced migration. So many people today leave their countries, not because of a glowing optimism about the possibilities ahead but simply to avoid being killed. To feel, then, as if you do not belong in a place that you now call home is particularly painful. As one Jordanian-American man said to me after someone poured gasoline on his car while he was praying at his Seattle mosque, “The sadness is indescribable when you are home but still feel homesick, and there is nowhere to go.”
In the weeks following 9/11, I founded Hate Free Zone Washington to respond to the growing discrimination and civil rights abuses against immigrants, by both individuals and the federal government. Soon thereafter, an elderly man from Burundi came to visit me at my makeshift home office. He had walked for days across deserts to escape torture and come to America, where he believed he would be free and could make a better life for his family. For five years, he had struggled to meet immigration requirements that would allow him to bring his family to the U.S. from Africa. Finally, when he had saved enough money and managed to navigate the enormous bureaucracy of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, he learned that the government’s “war on terror” had yielded up new immigration restrictions that would in definitely postpone his ability to reunite with his wife and children. “I want to go back,” he said, tears streaming down his lined face. “I came because I had to, because I thought life would be better here, but I do not belong here. America does not want us.”
To feel that you do not belong in a place that you now call home is particularly painful.
He and I talked for more than an hour that day over sweet, hot tea. He remembered life before war, the smell of the dusty air in Burundi, the sound of his children playing in the road outside his hut. As we drank our fourth cup of tea, he reached out and touched me lightly on the arm. “Now, we are connected—by this,” he said, gesturing to the tea, “and by this,” gesturing to our hearts.
Conversations take us beyond what we narrowly define as ours: our city, our town, our world. In a migrating world, the duality of belonging and feeling displaced helps connect us together.