I am a stranger once again.
My American self should have arrived when my plane touched down in San Francisco. Instead, she takes her time, slowly ambling down the long corridor to immigration. I’m already speeding down the highway in a taxi, worrying that it might be a week or longer before she catches up. In fact, she might still be asleep on the plane for all I know.
My Indian self usually inhibits my body with such ease and confidence. But now she’s anxious and uncomfortable. She doesn’t want to be here, and is lost in a memory of a recent warm monsoon afternoon in Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras, eating vadas with friends she’s known for decades. “Chumma don’t kathai-fy. Really you kachaked him?” floats through her head when the cab driver turns to ask her where she’s from. “Madras” she says in a Madrasi accent.
My next answer “Taylor and Vallejo” is delivered in an accent that I developed when I was a child during summers spent at my grandparents in Pennsylvania. “Stop speaking Indian, honey. We don’t understand you”, Gram would say. So I did. After 36 years, I’m fluent in American, but still have moments when I’m occasionally startled by my voice. Is that me?
I’ve taken the 8,622 mile trip from Chennai to San Francisco, more times than I can count. But here I am, unsure of who I am, and uncomfortable in a country that I’ve lived in for half my life. I yearn for home.
The Greeks calls this self-exile, xenitia — living as a stranger in a foreign land; a sense of catastrophic loss characterized by a frenzied yearning for home.
I sink into my couch in my San Francisco apartment tired after 20 hours of flying. It is familiar and comforting, but yet, it is not home. The only home I have is Madras.
Roger Cohen wrote about his mother’s struggle to assimilate after she immigrated from South Africa to England post World War II:
“The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.”
I often think of immigrants of the past and of today; brave people who left everything they knew behind, often out of necessity and not by choice. I think about the immigrants who fled and still flee famines and wars to make new futures for themselves, knowing they will never set foot on home soil again. These immigrants don’t have the luxury of straddling the void between two countries, with one foot on each.
Today, the modern privileged immigrant, in less than a day is half way across the world. There are no months of mourning as you make your way by steamer across the ocean. Instead you are unceremoniously herded off an airplane into your new country, crumpled, dehydrated and jet-lagged with swollen ankles.
And some immigrants, like me, are lucky enough to do this trip every year. But leaving is still, a painful, wrenching process. To keep a foot in each country when there is an ocean in between, is not an easy feat. Every time I leave Madras, I ache for home. I long not just for the city that raised me, but for the person I am when I am there.
It is always a struggle to reconcile my two worlds and the two halves of me. It is as much about losing a home as it is about embracing a new identity. I wonder if I will always be made of fragments of two people.
My worst fear, however, is to find out that Madras is not in fact home anymore, and that I am, and will always be, stuck in that uncomfortable place called nowhere.