[This is a new series of weekly essays entitled Essays from an Immigrant Diary published every weekend for the length of the series in a chronological, memoir-style timeline.]
Essay 1 – The diary of a fairly privileged immigrant
I think it’s best if I start this immigrant diary with my name.
I realize it might be a pain to pronounce, what with simultaneous consonant-laden syllables in a non-Christian name and the inherent nature of the letter “r” being one of those letters that so marks out accents – from the South Asian rough-roll to the American twang. All things considered, it might not be the easiest name to pronounce for the Western tongue.
And that’s just the shortened version.
My passport has my full name: Sriram Ananthanarayanan.
Take a wee look at that honker of a surname again – it’s an eye-popping sixteen letters long.
In order to de-exoticize my name a tad and prevent infuriatingly predictable reactions during daily-life activities like working, writing, and bar-hopping, I tend to use the shortened version, lopping off a hefty ten letters from the back. It’s completely phonetic mind you, but my guess is that unless you’re from the land of my birth, you’re not going to be able to pronounce it any time soon. So you can call me Sri, a perfectly manageable single-syllable hypocorism that all my loved ones in the Western world use to address me. Sri as in Sri Lanka. It doesn’t matter if you roll the r or not. And no, I’m not from Sri Lanka in case you were wondering. More on that soon.
Now, while these essays are brought to you under the rather broad umbrella term of an “immigrant diary” I hasten to add that I consider myself a fairly privileged immigrant.
For starters, I didn’t have to brave the Rio Grande with nothing more than some tepid water in a jerry can and a wishful prayer in order to cross into American borders. Nor am I one of those fresh-of-the-boat stories from the 19th century, evident from the fact that I’m writing this on a laptop, sitting in a small but cozy Toronto condo my partner and I recently bought. I’m a 21st century immigrant from India, and as far as I can tell I was just as happy when I was there. I didn’t escape war or famine or political oppression and my path to America (and Canada later on) was rather benign and remarkably shorn of danger.
I grew up with plenty of food on the table, a rather nice roof over my head and all my needs paid for by a very loving, nurturing family. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realize that my “privilege” is really about having a wonderful family and community. My family was not filthy rich, but we did well enough for ourselves, and most importantly, there was a lot of love to go around.
All this provided me the ability to enter the US “legally.” Under this dehumanizing paradigm of conferring legality on human beings, I was able to follow the letter of the law because of my relative privilege in contrast to several of my fellow-immigrant brothers and sisters who couldn’t do so. I am, or at least could be, the poster boy for the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, respect-the-American-way, follow-the-law, hard working immigrant who can seek to be (but, let’s face it, ultimately never fully become) a part of North American society.
It’s an interesting space to be in. I’m more privileged than immigrants who crossed the border without documents, enduring belligerent guards and chauvinistic abuse in order to produce American food, feed American mouths, and clean American shit – a full cycle of daily sustenance that undocumented immigrants make happen for American society. I definitely didn’t have to work as hard or for as crappy pay as they had to. But I’ve also faced a good amount of racism and xenophobia in my journey as a fairly privileged immigrant. I’m not white, and certainly not that privileged as to have my non-whiteness be washed away so to speak.
I’ve seen America, and a variety of people in America, through this interestingly multi-colored lens. And it’s been one hell of a ride so far.
Ok, now that the privilege part is out of the way, I think it’s only fair to state that I’m also a progressive, one of those bleeding heart lefty-types (sans any political affiliation mind you). I feel it’s important to state that outright because my anti-oppressive philosophical framework guides the way I engage with the world and reproduce my memories on paper.
You see, my reasons for coming to North America were not too different than many other immigrants. I too came to this part of the world because it was, at least when I came over, the driving economic centre of the world. I was fascinated by American pop culture that influenced me in a variety of ways as a child and young adult. I wanted a Masters degree that would be recognized all over the world simply because it came from a top university in America. I wanted to earn a salary, however modest, in American dollars because the conversion rate to Indian Rupees would have worked well for me when I saved up and sent money back home.
Thus I came to America knowing that I would be opposing a lot of what the American government did around the world. I came with a full bag of criticisms aimed at American imperialism and war-mongering. I came knowing that the capitalist exploitation I saw as a result of American excess was resulting in disaster for vast swathes of humanity. I came unwilling to let the assimilation anxiety as a new immigrant take over my thinking. I came with the understanding that I wasn’t going to smile and acquiesce to everything that was thrown at me.
But through that I found astounding beauty in America. Like every other part of the world I had been in, I found gorgeous humanity.
And I found love in America.
Needless to say, it’s a journey that’s had its ups and downs. So I thought I’d write about it and I hope you’ll find it interesting.
This time in America can be considered the quasi-fieldwork that informs my empirical observations. This series comprises a bunch of stand-alone essays, but with an overarching sense of continuity. The essays are anecdotal narratives derived from accessing and processing my memories. I will be reproducing personal accounts and experiences, while changing the names and/or markers of certain events and people (especially folks who made life difficult for me), and have occasionally refrained from specific details because I’m not rich and cannot afford a lawsuit. The conversations and experiences I reproduce will be as true as I can remember. I hope I do this without losing the essence of those life-events. In terms of tone, I bounce around a bit, sometimes serious, often silly, hopefully reflective, every once in a while sarcastic with a visible streak of anger and pain, but ultimately bending ever so slightly towards happy and maybe even thankful.
Finally, it’s important for me to acknowledge the inherent narcissism in this exercise. It is equally important to understand it as a fallibility I’m unable to escape as a writer, especially when penning a memoir of sorts. I can only trust that I’ve been true to the experience in the most sincere way I can think of and that it will strike a chord with you.
It is a socio-political travelogue of sorts, often in the form of acerbic critique. It is highly unlikely that there’s even a single person on this earth who’s going to agree with everything written in these essays. And while the more conservative reader is likely to be rather irritated with the narratives, getting readers to agree or even sympathize with my perspective is decidedly not the aim of these essays. The only aim is to challenge, provoke, and engage the reader in as critical a way as possible. The subsequent essays will show that I bring with me a whole bucketful of viewpoints and ways of thinking that influenced what I experienced, and more importantly how I processed those experiences as a privileged, pinko immigrant journeying through the United States of America. I make no attempts at distancing myself from those biases, nor do I believe it is possible to do so. It is a journey traversing different experiences that span the entire spectrum of emotions, ultimately shining a light on the beauty of the human condition, flaws and all.
American nationalists and patriots might ask me what right I have to critique “their” country, and I feel compelled to write a brief response to this hypothetical but, I’m certain, rather likely strain of criticism. It might sound like defensiveness, but I prefer to think of it as a preemptive strike against insularity and nationalism. I would ask people to juxtapose my writing about the US against the many Europeans and Americans who have written copious volumes about the non-Western world often piggy-backing their explorations on the coattails of colonial exploitation, resulting in racist notions of Third World savagery and the so-called burdens that colonizing societies had to bear as they reveled in their manifest destiny of stealing land, resources, and cultures. They might then realize that it’s ok for me to critique a land I came to as an immigrant, and am equally a part of. I will also ask people to consider the fact that what most people know now as the United States of America was indeed someone else’s land before it got settled upon with much cruelty. So it might be morally prudent for the more jingoistic reader to take the stars-and-stripes-chest-thumping down a notch or two before reacting in disgust. (I apologize in advance for any passive-aggression in my tone. Part of my journey was a good chunk of time spent in the Midwest and that stuff tends to rub off on you.)
Most importantly however, I would invoke my right as a human being, a citizen of the world like anyone else, and humbly suggest that maybe we can look at this as an exercise in humanity. I’ve found just as much to be happy about (did I mention love?) as I have to be angry about in America, a dialectic space of troubled joy similar to the one I occupied in the land of my birth. Trust me when I say that any occasional moments of harshness in my critique of North American society is also present in spades whenever I critique various strands of Indian society.
Besides, at some point in time countries and nation-states will become a thing of the past, and we will have to struggle with nurturing communities of human beings rather than artificial borders. I am one of you and you are one of me whether we like it or not; always have been, always will be. The sooner we all realize that, the better.
I do hope you enjoy these essays from an immigrant diary.
[Next up: Essay 2 – Erie, Pennsylvania and the shakiest of starts]