If I want to, I can return home and never look back. But I’m not sure that is much better.
Is the pain of the world somehow easier to stomach when you are living it than when you are simply forced to bear witness to it? Can you appreciate the blessings you have when know they were effortlessly given to you? When you are ripped out from your bubble of ignorance and forced to reckon with the bitter and cruel version of world thrust upon nearly everyone else but you? What sort of life can you return to after that?
This an excerpt of a personal essay I wrote in November, about six weeks into living in Puducherry. To put it lightly, I dwelled on some dark and scary thoughts at the beginning of this experience. One reason for that was having to recalibrating my expectations. My other experiences in India, summer vacations with my family in Chennai and a couple of brief trips in college, were nothing like living in a semi-rural small town on my own. In Puducherry, I was working, lived alone, and had no family or friends.
Every day, I pass dozens of ordinary people: a milkman, a grandpa sight-seeing shirtless from his porch, a young boy selling plastic toys at the Sunday street market, an auto driver sleeping on his backseat. If they were someone else tomorrow, I would not be able to tell. I wonder who they are as individuals. Are they kind or violent to their partners, to their children? How resilient are their immune systems and how quickly might they succumb to a disease if it befalls them? How easily can they be replaced in the workforce, what would they leave behind to their families, how much will they be missed in their communities? (Nov 18, 2019)
I began writing journals to make sense of this new community, my supposed new home, which candidly, I was bewildered and frightened by. But I quickly understood that my struggles were more deeply rooted than health scares and housing challenges. What I really could not shake off was the raw and jarring confrontation I had to have with my privilege. My wealth privilege, English-speaking privilege, American privilege, the list goes on.
The philosopher in me is weary. Her eyes have been pried open to see the world I’m gunning to improve for the stubborn beast it is. Seething with historical baggage and raised on distrust. Sometimes, the people in need are resistant to help. Sometimes, they are just messy, flawed human beings. The systems chartered to protect and help them, the same ones that lifted me up, have simultaneously punched them down. Does this make me their enemy? (Nov 18, 2019)
This question I’ve struggled with more than any other. It is a reality I cannot escape, cannot wash my hands of, in India or the United States. In Puducherry, I paid more in rent than many people around me earned in monthly salary. I traveled around India frequently. When the global pandemic hit, I returned to a safe home. I am immensely grateful for these things, but sometimes it feels that being grateful is simply not enough.
I haven’t entirely reconciled the discomfort of knowing how exceptional my life is compared to others, especially the people in my community in Puducherry. But over time, I did learn to see people around me for more than their hardships and even their complaints. I know now that there are ways to acknowledge the systems I’ve benefitted from and still have equal, meaningful friendships with those who do not have the privileges I do. Despite all my advantages, I still needed a lot of guidance navigating life in Puducherry, from the same people I was pitying. In doing so, I realized they do not want nor need my pity. Perhaps all they need from me is to be an ally, doing her part to dismantle systems that still hold others down, and even more, a decent friend.
In the winter of 2011, I was in Chennai for my cousin’s wedding. Somewhere between jet-lag and wedding preparations that engulfed the house, I found myself sobbing on my grandparent’s bed. My mom and I were picking a wedding outfit when the words slipped out: “I just feel like a fraud here.” I can’t recall the lead-up to this statement, if there even was one, and a waterfall of tears erupted from face before I could talk about it anymore.
I filed away this incident as a bizarre, exhaustion fueled breakdown. But perhaps the colossal weight of my statement just hit me before I understood it. I’ve been thinking more deeply about the shame sixteen-year-old me harbored about my confusing cultural identity. In sharing my life with friends and colleagues, most of whom know nothing about Indian-Americans and even less about the enigma of my hometown, I’m chronicling all the ways I’ve never quite fit into either uniform. The faster I try to switch out of them, the more I feel them tearing at the seams, the more the feeling of being a fraud creeps back up on me. (Sept 8, 2019)
I grew up in the Bay Area, California, a region densely populated with Asian-Americans. But despite having an abundance of Indian influence inside and outside my home, by separating our cultural practices from its native backdrop, my picture of India has always been blurry. Living in India with Indians my age revealed to me how I don’t entirely fit into the society, much like the ways I don’t entirely fit into American society.
So where do I belong? And who does India belong to? This question, what claims I could lay on the country I had moved (back) to, distressed me. I had trepidations speaking Tamil. I was careful not to be an authority on cultural and religious customs, but also not to act wholly ignorant of them because I knew that, too, was unacceptable. I found myself awkwardly code-switching between Northern California and South Indian slang.
To avoid this embarrassment, I took the approach of asking questions and listening. I asked my colleagues about their food and their voting practices. I visited my Indian co-fellows in their hometowns and ate with their families. All of this was good not only for friendship and empathy-building, but also helped me see that the only person with qualms about me laying claim to a country I had roots in, was myself. The question itself is based on the false premise that India can be divvied up, higher percentages allocated to those who demonstrate more authentic “Indianness”, when this is not a uniform thing. I may never feel entirely belonging to India or America, but I can see now that if neither country is a homogenous place, we can accept that her offspring are not, either.
I moved to India with one goal: making it on my own. True independence, the self-assurance that I could overcome trying times without the help of others, always seemed, to me anyway, my fatal flaw. But after the trials and tribulations I faced practically and existentially, by December, I decided I had failed at this goal.
Everyone told me to follow my gut, but my gut instincts seemed to be leading me straight into the Indian Ocean, and I was drowning in all my wrong choices. At this rock bottom, I shifted my strategy (though it did not feel like a well-thought out strategy at the time), to asking for help. I asked for help frequently and from everyone.
I cold-emailed other Americans in Puducherry in an effort to make friends. I opened up to my coworkers about my challenges finding housing. I asked my boss to show me around the neighborhood and help me find a reliable auto driver. I accepted invitations to meet distant contacts who were in town: tea with a relative of my high school friend’s dad’s friend who lived on my street, dinner with a friend’s parents who were visiting from the US, tiffin with a research professor from UT Austin whom I had been introduced to via email.
It wasn’t that meeting all these people made my problems melt away. I still have misadventures and face new unknowns constantly. One morning I spilled hot tea all over myself in a bumpy auto ride; another, my pressure cooker became jammed with my lunch still inside. The only difference in my life now compared to what it was in November were my expectations and perception of hardship. I now have more confidence in tackling challenges and a local network I can lean on when I can’t handle it myself.
Establishing roots in a foreign place did not happen overnight nor come with a blueprint. The process of building a home in small-town-semi-urban India was more like patching together scraps and fragments of material rather than neatly putting down bricks. It took consistent and disjointed morsels of effort–sending a cold email (actually, so many cold phone calls), sharing a dosa with a stranger, even just saying hello to my bus conductor regularly—some of which reaped results and many which did not. But slowly, a life has revealed itself and the mishmashed structure around me has begun to feel like home. (Feb 10, 2020)
Ironically, asking for help was the way in fact the way to independence all along. I built a community, a life, a home for myself out of the most unlikely of circumstances. I confronted a lot of demons, and I am still wrestling with some of them. But I am still proud that in a place that threw so much at me, practically pushed me to give up and quit at times, I flourished because of the grace and generosity of others, and an endurance I didn’t know I had.
My Life in India in Photos
Check out the video below for my presentation “Was I Supposed to Know That?”, a collection of stories charting my personal journey through India. (Starting at 30:58)
Stories of Service 2019-20: June 25
Posted by AIF Clinton Fellowship on Thursday, June 25, 2020