Scoundrel Time

Where You Belong: Reflections of a Naturalized Citizen, After Charlottesville


If you were a young woman newly arrived in America from India, you likely had no memory of persecution or war. You did not flee in fear of torture, dictators, or imprisonment. Perhaps you had a fear of gossiping neighbors, interfering aunts, or unsuitable suitors. Maybe you came in pursuit of higher education, or a job. Or maybe it was a man. The hope of a better life, yes—but you did not think it would end up being here, in America, forever and ever after. Because you never thought you’d stay.

Perhaps that was why things unfolded the way they did. You found the Masters’ program or medical residency, the job or marriage. It wasn’t easy, not at first. You were lonely. You lived in relative poverty. All you owned was contained in two airline-weight-sanctioned suitcases. You earned little at your student job on campus, or perhaps a bit more at a medical residency. You converted dollars to rupees in your head all the time, and everything was too expensive. But you were young. You made friends quickly. You learned a new set of social codes: Start from the outside for forks; stop for pedestrians at crosswalks. White wines and red. You deciphered invitations for dress and occasion—casual, cocktail, or California outdoor evening wedding. You learned to speak more slowly, and half-tried to drop your Indian English accent, inculcated so diligently by your teachers at all those convent schools. You cringed at how you sounded when you tried, and gave up that particular exercise for good. You’d be home soon enough anyway.

You graduated, and you found a job. There was just this one other thing you, or your spouse, had to do professionally before you could return to India, and then there was another. Your day of leaving became a mirage. It danced tantalizingly close, and just far enough out of reach. Then you had children. They emerged from your Indian body and were American from the day they were born. Or so you thought, lugging car seats, toys, and guilt that you would never be like your mother. Your children changed everything. You worried about things you had never considered before: school districts and vaccinations; air quality; the proper schedule for weaning—and who was right when your visiting mother disagreed with the child-rearing book you were so obsessively reading. You were no longer the polite guest in America; you could not afford to be. You had to make choices. You had to commit to school districts, to causes, to languages and foods in your home. To cultural activities, dance and music lessons. How much was too much of the old, and how little before your children lost all of their heritage?

Somewhere along the way, you became an American citizen. You told yourself it was more an intellectual decision than an emotional one. Now you could vote in the country where you lived. It made travel easier. You still went to India every year, or every other year. Once there, you catalogued the things that had changed since you last visited. You kept up with new restaurants in the city and the latest fashions in sari blouses, even if you secretly gave up on knowing the ever-multiplying new states and capitals. You resented random things: the closing of old stores that were favorites, the changing of street names, and newly designated one-way streets. You regretted your children’s inability to speak your mother tongue, so different from your polyglot younger self. You reminisced; you reacquainted yourself with people you had always loved. You met new babies and spouses, and delivered delayed condolences. You always left reluctantly. You were tired, yet rejuvenated and replenished. Yet, each time, the journey back to America felt more like the one coming home again.

You notice when the immigration agent says, “Welcome back” to you and not “Welcome home,” as he does to the man ahead of you in line or to the rowdy family behind you. You tell yourself it is random; he cannot see into your still-divided heart.

In America, friends slide into the spaces left vacant because your extended family lives in another country. There are the friends who bring food when you are sick and those who pick up your kids from school in emergencies. The ones who sit with you in the hospital when your daughter has a perforated appendix. Women you confide in; the ones who commiserate with you over weight gain or mood swings. Life happens to them, as it does to you. One of your friends ends up in a bitter divorce—hers was not the marriage you had suspected would flounder. A friend’s husband drives six hours after having a heart attack and lives to tell the tale. Others die: A vivacious redhead who takes her life and leaves you grieving and guilty over the things you failed to see and do; your friend’s daughter on the cusp of adulthood; your husband’s friend of decades. You go to funerals. You sob embarrassingly and audibly at one, wretchedly and silently at others. These are the sorrows that anchor you to place and to people in your new country. There are many joys, even if they seem smaller and transient, in retrospect. Your children’s first steps; your first car. Celebrations within your growing circle of friends: milestone birthdays, children’s graduations. A sunrise hike to a volcanic crater in Hawaii; the awestruck silence when you first stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The prick of tears when you first read “The New Colossus.” You grow slow, imperceptible roots all the while. You begin to think you have two homes instead of one you lost.

People sometimes compliment you on your English and then ask you how long you’ve lived in America. They make well-meaning (and completely understandable) suggestions about changing your name, or shortening it. A car salesman or realtor implies you cannot afford the car or house you plan to buy, when you can. There are minor incidents you shrug off, like the man who yells obscenities at you before cutting you off in traffic. You make excuses, even to yourself. It may be because you are used to an implied hierarchy. Your Hindu ancestors invented a robust one five thousand years ago that survives to this day, after all.

You think you are lucky, protected by a corporate job and a comfortable suburb. It could have been so much worse. At least you aren’t having racial epithets flung at you. You aren’t the old turbaned Sikh gentleman who was shot and killed after being mistaken for Muslim. Yours are minor inconveniences in comparison.

Years later you’d hear a comedian describe the “racism tax” his immigrant parents paid—the price you pay for the American Dream. You smile ruefully in recognition. But the first time your child is confronted with racism, it hurts you more than any incident you experienced yourself. He is told he is too dirty to play in the sandbox in kindergarten class, because his skin is too brown. You’ll remember it long after he’s forgotten.

You remember it when he turns sixteen and gets his permit to drive. On a walk one evening, you see a sign in a neighbor’s kitchen window—“Blue Lives Matter.” It is true, you think; all lives should matter. You’ve reiterated endlessly to your dark-skinned Indian-American son: stay in the car if you ever get stopped. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Be polite. Keep your hands visible at all times. Remember they know nothing about you. Now, staring at your neighbor’s window, you think about the quantity of melanin in your son’s skin. Is it too much or too little to be of consequence? Could your neighbors with the sign in their window ever understand the extent or circumstances of your fears?

Then, on television, you see the young men in khakis and polo shirts, Tiki torches ablaze. You hear the things they shout. You are still calm, unafraid. They are a fringe group, a minority. Your America, the one you have so come to love, elected a black president. Your America held its arms out wide to the world’s teeming millions. Then you see the new president endorse the racists, unequivocally, once, and then you watch him do it again. You gasp, wordless, at the television. Surely this is some surreal comedic world of right and wrong interchanged, of upside-down reality and moral quicksand.

When you wake up the next morning and the morning after, he is still president. That is when you realize he will be president for the next four years or eight. Despite the mournful thousands in vigil, the shouting pundits on television, the editorials and the fury, he will continue, unapologetic, unashamed. You realize it is all based on the calculus of support, on poll numbers organized by demographic and interest group. There are things people will tolerate and overlook, if there are prizes to be had. They can hold their noses and point to a legislative agenda that is both precious and partisan. You thought he had teetered over the edge when he endorsed racists, that every decent human being would step away in disgust. You find this does not turn some stomachs, and now you know nothing will.

So you have arrived at this moment of revelation—of disappointment, of betrayal, of lost illusion. Not about the unpopular president, but about the very fine people who keep him in office. You feel the lifetime you have lived unspool, despite the hugs you’ve given and received, the laughter and tears you have shared; despite the passport, and the hard-won sense of belonging. The assumptions you made about kinship feel naive, and the bonds forged over decades, insubstantial. You wonder about everyone outside the circle of your closest friends, the ones whose hearts you can’t know. What about neighbors, people you sit next to in planes or smile at in the street? What about other parents? How much of the darkness do they own? How much can they condone and not own?

You make your children’s breakfast and pack their school lunches. You try not to worry about your children, or their children and grandchildren, who may be brown, black, almost-but-not-quite-white, and every shade in between. You try not to think about their arc of history, newly begun, and how it seems to tend relentlessly backward to darkness and division. Perhaps in a moment you will turn aside from despair, find some glimmer of optimism or incipient agency deep within. Perhaps the moment will come when you feel the strength to do something, anything. For now, there is only despair and enveloping darkness.