How it Feels to Be Immigrant Me

Today I am far from the home I barely knew, in a place I still don’t entirely understand, in a land I cannot yet if ever call my own. I may be among the few trapped on this bridge between two wildly incompatible worlds, between an ever widening ravine, indecisive about which way to travel—the past or the future? I cannot comfortably adopt that phrase clumsily glued together to make sense of my kind forever condemned to this uneasy balance: “Indian-American”.

I became some sort of American at the age of five, where else but in Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, not far away from the Little India that generations of immigrants have constructed in the suburban sprawl of New York City. But my destination was Savannah, Georgia, the antithesis of the bustling mass of bodies and sweat and smog that is Delhi—a naive infant of a city compared to the age-old metropolis that birthed and killed empires spanning nations and ages, the abode of the god Indra, the native land of the sweet Urdu that flowed from the mouths of Muslim Sufis, the seat of the yoke of the British imperial dictatorship. All this weight of history marching ahead, in a shy infant who sheepishly spoke in an incomprehensible accent a language his ancestors reviled. That was I.

Before my arrival, America was an abstraction, a label on the map to be memorized to exhibit my ability and be accepted to a private selective kindergarten, a name uttered in whispers by gossiping retired aunties looking for a son-in-law for their daughters, a distant land where people went on holiday to see their relatives to the envy of the whole neighbourhood. Landing in that airport and spending two hours getting through security suddenly made America concrete. Even then, the months that followed were the hazy blur of a dream. I did not speak much in elementary school, embarrassed by the strange sounds that made up my Indian-accented English. The circumstances of my birthdate necessitated that I attend a private school; in Savannah, this meant I was the only non-white student in perhaps the entire school. However, at this age there was no acute awareness of identity in me. White people and brown people were after all just people, and these egalitarian and innocent views that all children seem to hold allowed me to become a part of this community in America. I soon made friends with my classmates, eventually overcoming my shyness and adapting my speech to a neutral American accent. I enjoyed school since the intense competition of India was nowhere to be seen; I developed an appreciation for the individualistic culture I had been placed in. I eagerly wore this new identity like new clothes gifted on a birthday, tossing aside my old language, religion, and culture for the opportunities that America promised.

I only felt this loss at the age of twelve. That was when an eighth grader compared me to a terrorist in a joke. It was also when I realized I was now monolingual and had no comprehension or speaking ability in my native language, Hindi. For the first time I was aware of being the “other”; it was a rude awakening for me, as sheltered as I had been. I had chosen to run to the other side of the bridge, to embrace a new world, but on the way I forgot to look behind me. Now I wondered if I had been rash in giving up my old life so quickly, as distant as it was now. What were the benefits of assimilation if I still didn’t gain acceptance? Was the melting pot really any better than the salad bowl? These experiences led me to reexamine both sides of my immigrant identity, and reclaim the other half that I had tried to leave behind on the opposite side of the globe. The cosmopolitan nature of my new home (the third in a decade) in the American capital only reaffirms my newfound beliefs.

The relationship between the Indian and the American within me is at best one of civil debate and at worst a civil war. There is no harmony between the two. One calls the individual out to assert themselves and track a new path in life, while the other emphasizes seeking what is good for the community and making sacrifices for the greater good. One calls for complete disregard for tradition and convention while the other finds strength through it. But these are only trivial issues compared to what the last generations of Indian immigrants were subjected to. There has been tremendous progress in our condition in the United States; there is no reason to feel disadvantaged as an immigrant in this age. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allowed greater immigration of Indians and the formation of support groups for those fresh off the boat, anti-South Asian hate groups are now three decades in the past, and now South Asians constitute one of the most well-off demographic groups of the country. Racism persists, but it is not institutionalized and many non-South Asians are aware of and fighting against it. There was no great struggle that characterized my immigration, just speed-bumps that were soon crossed and left behind. Certainly we had much fewer financial difficulties than the last generation, which left India with a few month’s rent in cash and the clothes on their back looking up to an uncertain American Dream. The future is open to me and the obstacles in the path are mere trifles.

Language is inseparable from the diverse array of Indian identities. Mine is the practical, haughty Hindi of Delhi, sole claimant to the title of national language yet disdained by many as an imperialist language not far removed from British English. This is the consumerized Hindi of cheap Bollywood kitsch and celebrity gossip, but also the divine Hindi of poets and kings centuries in the past. It is also the Hindi that directs governmental policy and the language that whipped nationalist fervor in 1857 as it resounded from the mouths of patriots in the Gangetic plain who swore to exile the despots that had killed India. No, this is a Hindi rendered into a husk of its former self, stuffed with English loanwords that have no natural native equivalent. But even this Hindi is inseparable from my identity. In English, the words come out of my mouth in a precise march, each mathematically evaluated and mechanically regurgitated—a vehicle for logic, or argument, but not joy or anguish or fear. As an immigrant, it is inevitable that I grow close to my adopted language, but the Hindi buried deep into my soul makes me aware I speak a foreign tongue no matter how native my accent has become. I lost this language at the surface but soon enough rediscovered and relearned it over the course of a year in 9th grade. Listening to the song-and-dance sequences my homeland is (in?)famous for and reading the pristinely arranged words of the poet-saints Kabir and Surdas from centuries ago brings a certain contentment that Shakespeare and Dickens cannot provide. Whether it is the high Hindi, sweet Urdu, or earthy Punjabi that graces my ears, I become one with the diverse speech of India. The balance between the two parts of this misaligned identity is maintained by keeping the best of both worlds—in language, it must be India.

Is there any great difference between my experience and that of other Indian immigrants? I think my path is uncommon—many choose to assimilate, finding their old life more of a burden than a necessity to succeed in a foreign land. On the bridge crossing that great ravine, most choose to race across. The pain of the journey is but a pinprick compared to the great wealth and fame that is on the other side of the chasm. But I waver between the two sides and hope the bridge can hold my weight. An uneasy balance, but for a sentimental fool what other choice is there?