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The Tug of Two Homes

Most immigrants are haunted by conflict: they leave their homeland but it doesn’t leave them. Shobha Narayan recounts her experience as an economic immigrant poignantly: narrating why she felt a compulsive need to leave for the US as a student and what brought her back.
 

Photo by: Braingainmag  

The Dream of Return

We start with a dream — the dream of returning to our homeland. Other Indians share this dream. They may do nothing about this dream; they may not speak of it. Some eventually disdain or discard it. But for others, it festers in the back of their mind, rearing its head at random moments, until — as it did for me — it becomes an obsession.

Choosing between Two Homes

Home — a word filled with loss and longing. Snatches of music bring to mind a mother’s song. Smells in restaurants conjure up a kitchen back home. Birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones

"Regardless of where I came from, I could go places: That was the promise of America"

bring guilty reminders of aging parents and the relentless march of time. And so it begins: a tug of war between two cultures; a competition between countries with no clear winner; a championship game for the title of “Home.”

The East as the New West

Horace Greeley’s edict, “Go West, young man,” has been turned on its head. Today, it seems, the East is the new West, thanks to the burgeoning economies of China and India. The East is where opportunities, jobs and profits lie. Statistics point to it and the popular press practically trumpets it: The immigrants are returning home. Non-resident Indians are opting for jobs in Bangalore rather than Boston. The Western gold rush has come full circle. Or so they say.

Aching to Belong

The truth is a bit more complicated. Immigrants from the East are returning home, but not just to take advantage of economic opportunities. I should know. I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to escape the stifling confines of India. I was a student in search of freedom and opportunities.

"Because I put America on a pedestal, it sometimes falls short. Because I take India for granted, it sometimes surprises me."

In America, I could escape being slotted by religion, caste and class. I could change my name, start a business, own real estate and go from rags to riches. In return, I had only to work hard and pay taxes. That was the promise of America: Regardless of where I came from, I could go places. I could belong. Or so I thought.

What I found was that every choice involved a sacrifice; assimilation involved losing bits of my identity as an Indian. After 20 years in America, I sat atop my Manhattan high-rise, watching the planes and longed to fly back home.

Immigrants with the Power to Return

The problem for economic immigrants is that we are equally at ease in two disparate cultures and therefore fit into neither. But unlike generations past, we can go back 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 didn’t want to go back home. So they anglicized their names, disavowed all relations and links to their past and started fresh in the West.

Misfit in Two Lands

Mine is not such a tale. I am neither a political exile nor a refugee fleeing from revolution. I came to America merely as a student seeking opportunities.

"…home for me is a mélange of memories that have softened with time into a happy haze, like an Impressionist painting."

But at some point, perhaps when the going gets tough with the INS and the green card, the isolation that comes from being far away from family and friends becomes too hard to bear. That is when people like me, who live the American Dream, start dreaming about going back home.

The Call from Home

As with most immigrants, home for me is a mélange of memories that have softened with time like an Impressionist painting. There are physical places and wide open spaces. Most delightful of all are the scents and tastes of childhood — the fragrance of blooming night jasmine, the taste of cilantro, cumin and ginger.

Most people ignore this call because inertia is easier. In many cases, circumstances prevent such a move. Jobs cannot be easily transported. Teenage children, American by birth and inclination, get used to their hyphenated identities (Indian-American) and vehemently oppose changing schools and leaving their friends.

"After 20 years in America, I sat atop my Manhattan high-rise, watching the planes and longed to fly back home."

Even if both spouses agree to move back, they argue over logistics. Many times, the couple hasn’t saved enough money and decides to stay for “just one more year,” for the income.

A Mother's Wish

The arrival of children complicates the process but compounds the longing. Both my daughters are Americans by birth but cannot escape being Indian. As a mother, I want to offer my children America’s benevolence. But I also want to bequeath them India’s heritage.

My love for India is one that a child feels for her mother — albeit, a chaotic, unwieldy one who doles out exuberant affection and unpleasant surprises in equal measure. My admiration for America is what one feels for a perfect if emotionally detached father — part hero-worship, part reproach. Because I put America on a pedestal, it sometimes falls short. Because I take India for granted, it sometimes surprises me.

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