Ten years ago, I sat at the window of my Manhattan high-rise, watching a plane fly overhead and wishing I were on it. It was a cold day in November and I held my newborn second daughter in my arms. For most of my life, I had been on the immigrant treadmill – coming to America as a student, and then staying on for over a decade – getting married, getting a job, securing a green card, having babies, and finally becoming a naturalised US citizen in the year 2000.
The next year, our world changed. The twin towers crashed to the ground and my husband and I felt foreign in New York for the first time in our lives. As brown-skinned people, we were suddenly scrutinised at airports, malls and railway stations. As new parents, we wanted our daughters to get to know their grandparents. Simply put, we wanted to go back home.
Home for me was a mélange of memories that had softened into a happy haze, like an Impressionist painting. There were people in this painting – iconic figures, such as my grandparents, uncles and aunts. There were physical places, like schools and karate classes, from my childhood. Most delightful of all were the scents and tastes of childhood, which gave me a powerful longing for the land known as India, but which I called home.
Five years after that November day, my family and I moved to Bangalore. It wasn’t easy because we were giving up the opportunities of America to return to a nebulous construct called “home”. My husband, Ram, worked on Wall Street and loved his job and our life in the Big Apple. But he also missed his parents and wanted to be a son to them, in person, in real time, on their terms.
The funny thing is that we are surrounded by immigrants in India. Our neighbours are a French couple, working for a software start-up. About 30 Japanese families who work for Toyota live in our building. Several American families are part of our soccer class. At spas, we meet Arabs who seem to love Indian ayurveda. My foodie group is populated by Britons, who want to go to spicy Indian restaurants when we eat out. Their spice tolerance is higher than mine.
Horace Greeley’s edict, “Go west, young man”, seems to be turned on its head. Today’s migrants are coming east to earn their stripes and their livelihoods, be it the UAE, China or India. Yet they are as haunted by their homelands as I was in America. The reason, I believe, is that we are all economic migrants – changing identities, choosing cultures and chasing opportunities. Unlike generations past, we can go home and frequently do. Compare this with the political refugees and religious exiles of yore who fled native lands to escape starvation, persecution and even death. They were the pregnant women who threw themselves on to boats, braving raging seas and the risk of drowning just so their children would have the rights of US citizenship. They were the desperate refugees who begged, borrowed and paid their life savings to visa agents to get them into the UK saying two words, “political asylum”. They jumped fences, crossed borders at night and slipped into the shadow world of illegal immigrants for one reason: they didn’t want to go home. The problem for migrants like me, migrants of this generation, is that we are equally at ease in two cultures and so fit into neither. We do the Namaz five times a day while trading derivatives or tracking baseball scores. We can sing in Sanskrit and rap. We belong to both countries, yet choose neither. We embrace our new homeland but never forget our old one. This, I guess, is what it means to be a global citizen. I am one, reader, and so, perhaps, are you. This is the new reality.
Shoba Narayan is working on a memoir called “Return to India”