I had been in Kerala for less than a week. I had met with my host institution (for my fellowship) the day before and I was excited to hit the ground running with my work. Everything felt exhilarating – the wind in my hair on scooter rides with my aunt, how people here correctly spelled my name, the sleepiness of Trivandrum on Sunday afternoons. It was new, it was fresh, it smelled of optimism and change.
Then I arrived at the FRRO in Trivandrum, a little, nondescript building – a house that’s been turned into a government office – and it sits at the end of a long driveway that connects it to the main road.
I float down that long driveway and sit outside in the waiting area, wearing a kurta I’d borrowed from my cousin. I wait a half-hour patiently before I am called in, content to people-watch and enjoy the breeze floating in from the sea, my cheeks hurting from how much I’d been smiling to myself. I soon find myself facing a trim man, his desk littered with briefs and folders and loose papers held down by ugly paperweights. He shuffles through my papers, pausing over my research proposal. I tense as he chuckles because I know his type of bureaucrat and this type of man. Oho, he says to the man at the desk next to his, thoroughly amused with himself, she’s doing research on employment and domestic violence. Don’t you know, he turns to me, if women work, it’ll be the men who get beaten. He titters. I stare at him. He collects himself.
This bureaucrat proceeds to twiddle his thumbs and I can feel the raw excitement of my first few days twiddle away too. He makes me sit, answer questions, wait, and waste two more hours of my life as he pores over my documents which include my American passport and my renunciation of Indian citizenship. At some point, he asks me if I know any white American or British people who give up their citizenships. No, he goes ahead and answers himself, only Indians so easily give up their country and loyalty, only Indians have no problem betraying their country.
As I sit there, face burning, eyes stinging, it feels as if I’ve been physically caught between two worlds and identities and the words that I want to say in response have been caught there too. How do I explain to this ogre of a man the guilt I often feel in being an Indian-American? Or the pain I feel in being held to arbitrarily different standards because of my gender? Or the excitement I feel in having found a way to spend 10 months in the country of my birth? Or the fear I feel in the possible rejection and failure I might face?
I couldn’t tell him that, not any of it, not in that moment. So I sat there and I smiled and nodded and did what I needed to get my papers through. But then I went straight home and I cried about it. And ten months later, I find myself still thinking about that experience.
You know, most people I interacted with in India were curious to know about my experiences as an immigrant. Most common of all questions, “Which place do you like better, America or India?”
Every time I was asked that question, I felt deep conflict because there is no real answer to that. My heart belongs to both places. I love cheese and long road trips and apple pie and the smell of autumn. I love chai and long train rides and dosas and the smell of Kerala after it rains. So how can I boil all that down and tell you that I like America better than India or that I like India better than America? You can’t – so I just smile and say that I like both and let them decide if that makes me good or bad, more Indian or American.
I know immigration will remain a loaded, complex issue – when you pick up and leave a formerly colonised country for a country that heavily practises neo-colonialism, it’s a bit unavoidable – but sometimes I wish people on either side would take the time to think about the pain and conflict that is also inherent in the immigration experience. Just as it is difficult for me to imagine what life must be like to have a stable identity, I realise it must be difficult to understand the fissures and rifts of an immigrant identity. Still, it’s important to at least try to understand these experiences, to examine these emotional and psychological effects, important to stop generalising and stereotyping.
In my case, immigration was something that was desired, a decision made with free will. Every time I see or hear stories about refugees, forced to flee their homes, immigrating because of external impetuses, my heart breaks as I multiply out my pain and account for the uprooting that occurs for each and every individual that leaves. Then, when I think of all their individual interactions, all their individual experiences of friction as they come into contact with people like my favourite FRO bureaucrat, I can see how those little pains can grow into larger pains that trickle down through the generations. When we acknowledge those pains, when we communicate them outwards, and seek understanding across identities, we change the way that we interact with one another and we can find ways to balance out the little pains with little comforts, little moments of connection.
If you’re interested in learning more about the emotional and psychological impacts of immigrant and refugee experiences, check out these book lists – my personal heroes include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marjane Satrapi and Elif Shafak. If you’re looking for films that delve into the same topics in very visceral ways, I’d recommend ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and ‘Persepolis’. There are also a lot of visual projects that translate these realities in deeply effective ways.
I know I’ll be bumping into people who ask me if I like America better than I like India for the rest of my life – maybe I’ll be able to come up with some better answers (that aren’t paragraphs long ramblings) as the years go by. But while I’m working on that, build bridges instead, you know?
Featured image for representation only. Source: Flickr.