Back home in Bangalore, when people talked about their family, or about the weekend holiday they took to see their grandparents, or the time their cousins came to visit, or any other kinship-exposing monologue, I had a rather normal reaction of mind-numbing boredom.
In fact, often I was so bored that I had to invent techniques to keep myself from dozing off while still evincing interest through periodic head nods and affirming grunts. Like imagining myself with divine but awesomely cool superhero powers that I would only use for the good of the world, furthermore remaining ever so humble about, while simultaneously not begrudging the appropriate amount of adoration from my grateful fans.
Said person regaling me with tales of their family or friends probably wondered about the curious reactions I must have displayed – the mini chuckles, the jaw-jutting confidence, a kiss blown here, a wave of the hand there – while they were talking about their grandfather’s arthritis. But I did develop the reputation of being an earnest, albeit scatter-brained, listener.
When I made my way to the States way back in 2003 as an international student, my reaction to folks talking about their families caught me by surprise. Rather than boredom, I felt a deep anger – an anger that I couldn’t quite understand because it wasn’t directed at the person talking to me. It was mixed with a complete aloofness to hide it from them. This anger stayed with me for many years. It was only with Americans that I felt this angry detachment with, and I wasn’t sure why. The only Americans who spoke to me about their families were good friends. I really liked them and they seemed to trust me enough to open up to me, often about very personal family issues they had.
In hindsight it was so bloody obvious of course. It wasn’t just the actual physical distance from my own family that caused this reaction to others talking about theirs, but the unknown distance in time. When I made my way out of my hometown for good, I didn’t know when I would see my family again, what with having to complete my studies on a tight budget and then find a job to get a work visa that enabled travel. It was gut-wrenching and my reaction reflected that.
I never had this reaction when Indian friends or other transnationals talked about their families. In fact, I instinctively went back to feeling mind-numbing boredom again and proceeded to imagine myself as a superhero. The whole misery-loving-company thing played out in interesting ways. I went back to the same reaction that I used to have in India because they were in the same predicament I was in. But with my American friends it was different. Their families were a road trip away at the most. Maybe the anger was actually envy, but it was palpable.
The funny thing is that my family irritated the crap out of me when I was with them. There’s a great deal of love and all, but there is no getting away from the fact that they often bugged me. After moving to the States however, I pined for that irritable feeling, painfully longed for that sense of exasperation when my folks got on my nerves, because the lack of it only confirmed that they weren’t around in this new world I had stepped into. It was the same irritation that caused me to feel harmless boredom when others talked about their irritating families. Now that I didn’t have my family around me anymore, hearing about the families of Americans who did have them close at hand only made me angry.
It was my parents who were the primary receivers of my bellyaching. They were the symbolic marker of the spatial and temporal distance I felt at the time; the sweet, hard-working, conservatively rooted, yet refreshingly open minded people in my life who were an indicator of just how far away from home I was. A sign board that read:
Amma and Appa, with love and big hearts – 8,431 Miles and 2 years away (take the exit after the Atlantic Ocean and the H1B visa).
It wasn’t easy. I had been honest with them about the angst I was feeling in this new place right from the very beginning of my immigrant journey.
My first email to them, barely a month into beginning grad school, went something like this:
Dear Amma and Appa,
I hate it here. I’m lonely and miserable. I miss you, I miss Bangalore, I miss India, and I miss everything about my former life before I came to this horrible place. I want to leave and return home. I’m sure I could find a decent job in Bangalore and live there. It would be great and I wouldn’t have to leave India ever again.
Lots of love,
Deep down however, I knew that I couldn’t make rash decisions like that, not after all they had done for me. I imagined the panic mode that they would have gone into the moment they read that email, and the worry it would have caused them. That recurring thought kept me awake all night after I sent it. So the next day, before my parents could respond, I sent another email:
Dear Amma and Appa,
Sorry about my earlier email. I know the worry it must have caused you. Please don’t worry. Things will get better and I’m sure I can handle things here. It’s just a matter of time before I start making some friends and things start to feel a little better. I hope you two are doing well. Please don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.
Lots of love,
However, the pain and acute loneliness continued, and at the time my parents were the only people I could communicate to in an honest way, without seeming like a whiny brat. So lo and behold, a few days later, in another moment of deep anguish I sent one more email. As I remember, it went something like:
This place is awful! I have shitty housemates who remind me vaguely of maggots, and others whom I talk to outside are either fanatically Christian or very offensive to any culture other than their own. I hate it here, and I change my mind…I want to leave immediately. Do you think you could send me money for a flight ticket back home? It would only be a one-way ticket, so it would be much cheaper. I know I would be leaving this place mid-semester, but it’s better to leave now than waste time being miserable here, right? I know I could get a good job back home and build my career there. The Indian economy is roaring anyway, so there’s no point in me continuing to be so miserable here. I can’t wait to see you back in Bangalore. I checked in on flights and I could easily take a bus to Newark or New York and board a flight from there. You can buy the ticket online and send me the email confirming it. I’m getting ready to pack my bags. I can’t wait to see you both and be back in Bangalore.
But then of course, the reality of my parents worrying kicked in again, and the sense of leaving without even getting my degree made me rethink my email in yet another sleepless night. So I trudged back through the snow in the middle of the night to the computer lab on campus and, again before they could reply to my email, wrote a follow-up one:
Ok…once again, sorry for causing you more worry. I’m just struggling through this initial painful phase here. Come, what, may, it obviously makes sense for me to at least finish my degree before coming back home. I’ll make it through here, so don’t worry about it and forget I asked about sending me money for a flight ticket back home. I’ll be fine. I just need to make some friends to get me through the semester. Hopefully when I transfer to a better university in a bigger city, things will be better.
Love and affection,
And so the scatterbrained double-emails continued for a while. I can only imagine my parents feeling like their second-born was slowly but surely making his way down the rabbit hole of maladjusted adulthood and shattered dreams. They responded in the only way they knew how – by trying to valiantly recreate, in however tiny a way, some element of the life I enjoyed back home in Bangalore.
In Bangalore, one of the things I enjoyed doing with my family and friends was eating out in one of the umpteen restaurants in the city. I was a food lover, more glutton than gourmet. I would always order more than I needed to in any restaurant – my appetite considerably whetted the moment I walked in – and proceed to consume it all despite not really needing to. I became famous amongst family and friends for my gargantuan appetite, aided by the fact that I was a serious athlete in school and college who needed constant refueling. They would always order an extra dish knowing that I was there to polish it off in the end.
So they sent me this birthday card with a crisp $100 bill placed inside and a note in it that read:
Many happy returns to you on this wonderful day. We know money is tight right now for you, and that you are struggling through your initial few steps in a new environment. Please use this birthday gift to go out a few times to some nice nearby restaurants and enjoy a couple of good meals with your friends.
Amma and Appa
It was touching. It didn’t help in alleviating my mood because it just further highlighted how far away from home I was. But it was touching nevertheless. I imagined eating out at one of the few restaurants in Erie, Pennsylvania – my inexplicable home for four months when I began my immigrant journey in 2003. It didn’t feel like fun at all. I hated going out to eat alone. I didn’t enjoy the food anywhere near as much as I did when I was with people I loved. I decided against following their suggestion. I kept the $100 bill safely in my wallet. I also felt a twinge of pain at the thought of parting with it. It was like a direct connection with my parents back in Bangalore, so I resolved to keep it forever. (My angst at the time might have made me a touch sappy.)
The sign board now read:
Amma and Appa, with love and big hearts – 8,431 Miles and 2 years away (take the exit after the Atlantic Ocean and H1B Visa…but don’t worry, there are ways to grit it out so don’t despair)
All the mush in the world however often loses out to cold hard economics. I held on for a reasonable amount of time, considering how tight money was, but eventually I had to part with it. In doing so however, I realized that the distance between them and I was not as gut-wrenchingly far as I imagined.
I actually forgot about the gift, possibly in a subconscious effort to ensure I didn’t part with it. Weeks went by and I dug my heels in to not let the misery get the better of me. For the semester I was in Erie, I studied hard and volunteered with the anti-war group I had befriended. All the while I counted the days before I left for Baltimore, my next port-of-call with a significantly larger university that I was transferring to for grad school. During the last couple of weeks of my stay, I had cleaned out my bank account of the approximately $125 I had managed to save up during the semester, and received a banker’s check for the amount. The only problem was that I hadn’t bought my Greyhound bus ticket to Baltimore yet.
I did have other safety nets in an emergency. I could have asked my parents again for money, but it would have taken time to transfer it to the States, and the worry I would have put them through was not worth it. I contemplated contacting the family friend I had in DC and asking him to buy it for me. But I was staying rent-free with him and his wife for the summer before starting school at Hopkins, so felt loath to ask him for another favor. I could have asked a distant uncle of mine who lived in a giant mansion yet still counted pennies, but then I would have felt like shit. I thought of cashing the bankers check, but the credit union at Hopkins said that I needed at least $100 to open an account with them.
And that’s when I used the $100 bill my parents had given to me for my birthday – it was eventually disposed off in getting me to Baltimore.
Distance, every once in a while I realized, was relative. I just had to read the signs properly.
Amma and Appa, with love, big hearts and just the right amount of intervention to lift your spirits – Next Exit…always the Next Exit (so stop your bellyaching)