Longing for An Unknown Home
Longing for An Unknown Home
These past few months, I have felt a restlessness – one I experienced prior to moving to the UK, or at the thought of starting a PhD – a wonderful mix of anticipation, homesickness, and yearning for an adventurous life. This time is different! This time, there’s a dread over the decisions I have to make – to be an immigrant in search of a good job or to go back to India that I don’t even recognize anymore. The science communication class I took last semester propelled me to write an essay: Not about science, but about the issue foremost on my mind. So here it is.
Ever had that dream — the one where you feel adrift, wandering around in a strange place full of vivid colors and bursting emotions, from the outside looking in — as if you are completely invisible? As an Indian temporarily residing in the US for my doctoral studies, some days that dream seems all too real. Here I am, five years into this stint in the States, a country that still feels “foreign” to me. And yet, the young roots I’ve sunk here tether me to this land!
I can hear the internal sarcasm — “Oh, what a dilemma; can’t decide whether to stay or go? Too many options?” In my head, this sneering voice persistently tells me that I am a financially independent, highly educated, well-travelled millennial, far more privileged than most in this world. It reminds me of Dr. Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “Home, I learned, can be anywhere you make it.” I am eternally grateful to have lived on three continents in the first three decades of my life, and to have the opportunity to add a couple more in the next few decades. With the clock slowly winding down on my studies, I could, figuratively, throw a dart on the world map to pick a next “home”! But that very thought leaves me with some trepidation about the impending decision.
There’s much talk about millennials, like me, wanting the global experience more than stability or a permanent home. In my case, it’s certainly true: Geographical locations matter very little when making decisions! In return for this unstable life, I have gained unique, and vibrant experiences. On an occasional visit to India, I invariably get into the collection of old photos. Thumbing through the yellowing photo albums, full of new and faded Technicolor pictures showcasing an animated life, I am transported to a midnight stroll through London’s Victoria borough, or to a promenade in Europe, looking at the glittering night-lights of the Asian side of Istanbul. I may once again feel the wind on a sunny day during my drive up California’s coastal highway.
It seems like a fairy-tale life, almost the story of a cute Buzzfeed article, with gorgeous photographs. In an age where so many people live away from their birthplace, travel far and often, this is not a rare story. I’m sure in this nostalgic bout, my stories could have well been yours. One would be amiss though, to treat our global life as simply fodder for that Buzzfeed story, with a clickbait title.
With this wandering life, comes a troubling loss of self-identity, an overwhelming dose of reality. There’s that longing for the aroma of your favorite childhood food, an anecdote from India that perhaps none of your American friends would appreciate. There’s that detachment from your home country, experiences of an outsider in the new one. So much of our ‘self’ is wrapped up in our ethnic and cultural identity. The union of personal oddities, native culture, and experience from previous international travels, leaves you in an odd no-man’s-land. One day on the phone with your sister, she tells me— “you’ve got a slight American accent, sis”. It’s shocking how annoyed I felt that day; as if I had lost a part of myself somehow!
Cultural assimilation can be problematic! Some would argue integration into mainstream culture there is better for the well-being of immigrants. But as an immigrant, you are taxed with a need to adapt; when people around you rarely ask the right questions or use the right tone to make you feel welcome. Others call it a loss of historical identity, one that creates economic, social, and mental health difficulties for the immigrant communities. It can force a perpetual feeling of outsider-ness on an already vulnerable population, sometime without their consent. I have found it to be quite disorienting at times, leaving me with a perpetual feeling of homelessness, surrounded by four walls providing all the trappings of a steady life.
In the age of growing nationalism, isolationism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric, building your life in a foreign land makes for uncomfortable experiences. At an event in school, a friend of mine quickly said there are not enough jobs as it is without people coming into this country looking for stability. She at once realized that I identify as an immigrant, and quickly said “not you, though. You have studied here and all that.” But is it really so? There’s an escalating unease in immigrant communities about their safety, and their future. I feel it too when I have little attachment to this country compared to someone who’s spent half-a-century here. Most immigrants come here for a better, richer, maybe even freer life. And somehow, in a single election cycle and two months of the new presidency, their contributions to this country are forgotten, swept under the rug, driven out by hostility towards a changing social structure.
Some days I think of going back to India: After all, Dr. Mead continues by saying “Home is also the place to which you come back again and again.” I feel no obligation to work in this country. However, part of me understands and empathizes with immigrants who do not have or want that option. The substandard quality of life is a reality that is hard to overcome. Communities in the western world protest outsourcing of business, taking away jobs and creating ghost towns. Communities in southern hemispheres and Asia continue to live lives out of the limelight, facing unsafe working conditions, poverty and starvation, curtailed civil rights, and a glaring lack of effective advocacy.
Lost in all of this noise, is the voice of immigrants. I feel, at times, compelled to keep my opinions private. Friends from back home do not welcome criticism of local policies in India, because I haven’t lived the reality of it for the last few years. I worry about criticism from friends here, because I haven’t lived here long enough. I wonder how many of us walk on eggshells, tiptoeing around discussions about the complexities of immigrant life. It seems to me that until immigrants from the world over speak out and others listen, there may be no end in sight for nationalism. After all, the very astute Dr. Mead wrote in Coming of Age in Samoa, “As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” Without that recognition, “Global citizens” could remain just another catch phrase, without effective considerations to the physical, emotional and, mental health of such citizens. I will continue to feel like a citizen without a country, so may millions more.