May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
I did not plan on becoming American. I grew up in a neighborhood where high-rises stopped at the sixth floor, where grandmothers sternly announced “dinner time” from their windows. The kids played tag on what we later learned was a septic tank. We crossed streets by firmly raising our palms to oncoming rickshaws. On the walk back from school, we stopped at food stalls for a plate of chaat (an Indian street dish). In Mumbai, India, my world was built on narrow streets in the chaos of a metropolis.
When I landed in the United States in my early teens, I quickly learned that the American Midwest was different terrain. I remember being assigned an alien number by U.S. immigration services. It was an odd tag; was alien the only suitable label for new residents of the land? The hallways of my new high school did feel otherworldly at first, but not because of planetary alterations. Our move to America concluded a fourteen year immigration process that had started when my aunt, who lived in America with her family, submitted green card applications for her sisters and their families. It was a shot at bringing the family together again.
Home was now a quiet suburbia with strange cul-de-sacs, and I rarely caught people on foot.
Being an impressionable teenager, my transition into American culture was swift. I swapped the Indian hard T’s and rough R’s for swallowed T’s (think “internet”) and gurgling R’s (think “strawberry”). Tiffins of chutney sandwiches were replaced by turkey sandwiches in brown paper bags. Soon, I began to think of America as home. But being an immigrant and becoming an American are not the same. And life as a hyphenated American — an Indian-American — came with its challenges.
Though many Americans were once immigrants — even if generations ago — people are judged by their Otherness in America.
Every casual inquiry into where I was from was followed by the question reserved for the Other:
After high school, I found homes in seven U.S. cities and in places abroad. My understanding of “home” no longer felt tethered to land, yet when it was time to substitute my Indian passport for an American one, I struggled to let go of my one tangible thread to those narrow Mumbai streets. The fact that embossed papers determined my ability to enter and exit my American home was painful to realize, but I thought, what could be more American than belonging to more than one place?
I moved again. This time, America was home and the rest of the world was foreign.
I landed in Dubai, and in a fitting change of fate, I went from being the unofficial translator for everything Indian to speaking for America in conversations abroad. My accent generally gave away my American origins, even though to most of the people I met, being American meant being white (my skin is brown).
When I moved back to India for the first half of 2017 — to the first place I learned to call home — I was distinctly from somewhere else. A friend once told me that NRIs (non-resident Indians) walked differently — you could pick them out on the street. But I soon fell deep into the arms of nostalgia, letting it guide the maps of my childhood. My old neighborhood structures were still there, but the septic tank didn’t moonlight as a playground anymore. Expensive cars had turned the cricket pitch into a parking lot. My admittedly firangi (foreign) self approached everything with wonder, from the familiar nooks of Mumbai to the sublime landscape of Dharamsala that I’d never before seen.
When I decided to return to the U.S. in late 2017, my friends first reacted with laughter, then bewilderment. I was already out. Why go back in? The America I’d left in 2013 was vastly different from the home I’d be returning to. Earlier that year — and a week into his presidency — Donald Trump acted on years of targeted hate towards immigrants to sign the travel ban. It was a glaring and terrifying example of Trump’s America, a country ready to dissolve its fundamentally diverse heritage to uphold the facade of white Americana. But it is a human achievement of a great kind to uproot yourself or your family and build a new home in a strange, foreign land — even more so when the migration is to escape war, genocide, or oppression.
After years of discovering new roots, my return to the U.S. offered me a new definition of home. It is a gift to belong anywhere at all, and my origins are scattered along different geographical routes. My core, however, remains the same.
I did not plan on becoming American. But today, my home lies in between the spaces of my hyphenated Indian-American identity. And then some.