Thirty Years After: Reflections On Migration

Thirty years ago on this day, I migrated to the US. At New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, I boarded a British Airlines flight to London Heathrow from where I would board a connection to New York City, and set off. My mother and my best friend dropped me off at the airport; my grandmother had bought me a one-way ticket with her savings as a farewell gift. I ran to the gates; I was eager to leave, eager to move on to a new life. Thirty years later, in at least one measure, I haven’t gone too far; I’ve only moved from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Brooklyn in New York City; I’ve remained stuck on the East Coast, only able to make a short hop across the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York City–with a short, two-year stint in between in Sydney, Australia. But much–besides the progression of visas and residency permits from F-1 to H-1 to ‘green card’ to ‘US passport’–has changed.

Then, I was twenty; now, I’m fifty. Then, I was single, about to commence a graduate program in computer science and go on, hopefully, to a ‘respectable’ job. Now, I’m a husband and a father, a professor of philosophy at one of America’s largest urban public universities. Then, I would speak of a ‘home’ left behind; now, I can only write ‘home’ in scare quotes, even as I acknowledge that I have found one on this side of the world, one in which my daughter will grow up and find her way about, one whose well-being and future concerns me more than other places elsewhere; it is the place in the world to which I’m the most committed, emotionally and politically.

I’m a mongrel now; I sound funny to both Indians and Americans because my accent has morphed; both ‘sides’ have accused me, on occasion, of being insufficiently ‘genuine,’ of not being ‘the real thing’; immigrants can never be the McCoy; we will always be ‘outsiders’ no matter where we go; more than one group can tell us to ‘go back where we came from.’ Back in India, I feel like a tourist who can speak the local language really well; that land too has changed while I was ‘away.’ My in-laws live in the US; my daughter will find grandparents only here. She will know little of India and where ‘I came from’; she will not speak an Indian language. Children are always strangers to their parents (and vice-versa); the children of immigrants perhaps even more so.

In an essay I wrote recently, I made note of my aspiration at one time to be an ‘American immigrant’–it was a description that spoke of both success and a virtuous kind of work, one that elevated the very being of those who undertook it; it was how I understood the American immigrant experience from afar. Like all things observed from a distance, many of its most crucial features became visible on closer inspection; the life I was to undertake in the US would be considerably different from what I had imagined it to be. I was often found wanting; as was, it seemed, my home of choice. I considered myself prepared for this new life; I was not. But those shortfalls, those gaps, those mismeasures, they all added up to a new understanding of myself and this place. ‘America’ and ‘I’ both acquired new contours thanks to this encounter of ours. America acted on me, and I on it; it was bound to be an asymmetrical relationship; I changed more than America did in response to my presence here. But I like to think I’ve made this little patch of mine distinctive too, and brought to it my own peculiar and particular stamp, my own unique influence and signature.  My childhood in India colored my sense of time and space and still influences the way I see the world; but America, and its landscapes and light and air and skies have crept into my being too; they too, now, afford me the lenses with which I sense and experience the world.

In these three decades past, I learned, in America, all over again, that I was not and could not be, a self-made man; that I would always rely on the aid and succor provided by others. Sometimes they were other immigrants; sometimes they were Americans, of all stripes, kinds, and colors. They all helped me, all loaned a helping hand. Some loaned me money, others bought and cooked me meals, gave me a place to sleep, told me where to go, what to do, spoke up for me, taught me, loaned me books, read my writings–this list could go on. I’m not a self-made man; I’ve relied, unashamedly, on others, on friends, family, and strangers. An immigrant’s story can never just be about the immigrant; it must also be about all those who made that life possible. I’m glad that others have helped write the book of my life; and I’m glad that so much of it has been written in America, by Americans.

My political stance often casts me as hyper-critical; it is an anxious one, eager to make this land into a better one for my family and my friends and for the communities that have given me a home over the years in this land. My concerns for my former homeland are far more limited; my political ambit is circumscribed by my location and my available commitment; I have become an American by dint of where I live, and what I care about the most.

I have not stopped moving yet; I sense more displacement in my future. I am reconciled to it; it seems like a way of being. Indeed, I feel restless now, astir again. Migration induces a restlessness that will not cease; the initial inertia of our first home is never regained. I used to bemoan the lack of a resting place; now, I could not abide the absence of motion, possible or actual. Other migrations might lie yet in my future.

A Grandmother’s Gift: A Curiously Significant Number

I’m a numbers nerd; in all probability, this stems from being a sports fan. I calculate sports statistics in my  head; I can effortlessly multiply any pair of two-digit numbers in that same location; I retain an astonishing number of odd numerical markers in my cranium. As such, some numbers acquire a significance that goes well beyond their mathematical properties. Over at ESPN-Cricinfo, in the course of my blogging on cricket, I’ve written two posts on ‘curiously significant numbers’;  here and here. Some numbers, of course, possess a significance that owe little of their provenance to sporting connections. One such number is 7290.

That number represents the amount, in Indian Rupees, that my plane ticket to the US–for my original, home-leaving journey–cost in 1987. But I didn’t buy the ticket myself; my grandmother did. That’s what makes this number special.

In the summer of 1987, shortly after I had obtained my student visa from the American Embassy in New Delhi, I traveled to Central India to visit my grandmother (and sundry other members of my father’s side of the family.) My grandmother was not happy to see me go; she remained entirely unconvinced I needed to travel so far from home to obtain an education and find a career; she was concerned about the effects of ‘Western culture’ on me; she worried I would marry ‘a Christian woman’ and be lost to our family forever, discarding my familial and cultural roots and transforming myself into a stranger. But she could not bring herself to discourage me from going; she could not, indeed, muster up more than a worried query or two about whether I would be sufficiently resilient in the face of all the temptations that would soon be sent my way.

The reason for this reticence, of course, was that my enthusiasm at my impending departure was palpable and visible; I was eagerly awaiting the date of my long flight and my first glimpse of what would be my new home. My grandmother knew I had encountered many disappointments and frustration through my undergraduate years; she had heard me kvetching about them on many an occasion; she knew I had invested considerable hope in my graduate studies; and she knew the US had come to represent a promised land of sorts. She would not piss on this parade; she would not dampen my glee with wailing about how she was going to lose her beloved grandson to the evil forces of cultural imperialism. I like to think she trusted me to not lose myself; I like to think she loved me too much to not have too many ambitions for my life.

So, putting her troubled thoughts temporarily to rest, she resolved to give me a going-away gift. One afternoon, the day before I was to return to New Delhi, she called me into her room, and told me she wanted to give me a little something that would remind me of her in the US: she would pay for my ticket to the US. She asked me how much the ticket would cost. I told her the quoted price. She called our family accountant and asked him to bring a checkbook. Then, sitting on her bed, she bade him write me a check for the amount I had indicated. I returned to New Delhi with that precious check in my baggage. I paid for the ticket a week later. And caught my flight another week later.

I visited her five more times–in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1996. On each occasion, not knowing whether I would see her again, I burst into tears at the time of departure. In 1998, I received news from my brother she had passed away–at the ripe old age of 87.

She had been right; I never forgot her gift. Or her.

Of Cricket Fans And Memoirs

Last week, I sent in the draft manuscript for my next book–“a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom”–to the editors at Temple University Press. The book, whose description, not title, I have indicated above, will now be reviewed, revised and then finally rolled off the presses as part of the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass of the College of New Rochelle. By way of providing an introduction to the book, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting–what else–the book’s introduction below.

Continue reading

On Not Failing the Soccer Tebbit Test

A few days ago in a post on the US men’s soccer team, I wrote:

I find myself cheering for the US when it goes up against a European soccer powerhouse. When they play South American, Asian, or African countries, my underdog sympathies kick in.

Well, on Sunday night, the US was most certainly up against a “European soccer powerhouse” – in this case, Portugal.  And so, as promised, I was cheering for the US. But the nature of my support was markedly different. I think it marked a turning point for this naturalized American citizen of fourteen years.

First, I had noticed–even during the game against Ghana–that I was urging the US on to a win. The US are underdogs in the Group of Death, and so, despite their African opposition, they had my support.

Second, my sense of anticipation of Sunday’s game was palpably distinct from the sensations which have preceded past games played by the USMNT. I was keyed up; I had scouted my immediate surroundings for a viewing venue (my family and I were spending the weekend at a cabin in Bethel, NY, and so I needed to find a restaurant or bar with a large screen television); I had secured all the necessary home-front rights and permissions; my daughter’s sleep time had been suitably delayed; my wife would accompany me. We showed up early, found a table, ordered food and drinks and set ourselves up. This felt like a Big Game; I have never, ever set myself up for a US men’s soccer game like this.

Third, there is the business of Reactions to Goals. I groaned at the first goal by Portugal, and hooped and hollered at the two US goals. Indeed, Dempsey‘s goal brought me to my feet and prompted an exultant punch. Finally, that last-minute Portuguese goal left me stunned and speechless. I don’t think I managed anything more coherent than a ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ as a verbal reaction.  For the first time during a US men’s soccer game, I anticipated glory and tasted bitter disappointment. It was the first time I had taken their setbacks to heart.

Finally, there is the matter of fan solidarity. My viewing venue was relatively denuded of American soccer fans; besides my family, there seemed to be only one other couple paying attention to the game. But with them, I found easy companionship, a shared exultation and then, cruelly, at the last moment, a joint fall.

After the game was over, I walked out into the beautiful summer sunshine, crestfallen to the point of incoherence. I had to quickly drive back to our cabin to put our daughter to bed, and kept muttering inanities on the way back home. A couple of hours later, when I had finally calmed down, I ran the various group qualification scenarios through my mind and relaxed just a tad. Who knows what else this team is capable of?

I didn’t fail the soccer version of the Tebbit test. And it happened during the 2014 World Cup.

Relativity and the Immigrant

As a postscript to an essay explicating the theory of special relativity–written at the request of the The Times (London), Albert Einstein wrote:

Here is yet another application of the principle of relativity…today I am described in Germany as a “German savant” and in England as a “Swiss Jew.” Should it ever be my fate to be represented as a bête noire, I should, on the contrary, become a “Swiss Jew” for the Germans and a “German savant” for the English. [originally published November 28, 1919; reproduced in Ideas and Opinions, Souvenir Press, London, 1973.]

A year or so ago, after returning from an academic trip to the University of Luxembourg, I wrote a blog post on some thoughts sparked by my trip. It began with me quoting a short note I had posted on my Facebook wall:

As an American in Europe, I am getting shit for (on this trip): Budweiser (as always), the lack of a really good football/soccer team (as usual) Lance Armstrong (a new one), and the fact that fifty million Americans think universal healthcare is a bad idea and worth repealing.

When I travel in India, I am frequently taken to task for–among other things–American foreign policy; one good gentleman told me, back in 1998, after the US had announced sanctions on India for its nuclear tests: “You go tell Bill Clinton to go to hell!” (I am also subjected to the usual rants about the decadence of American culture and morals.) At that moment, I am ‘American’. And of course, in the US, I’m often treated as an expert on all things Indian, and expected to listen patiently to ample hectoring critique of that nation’s many faults.  Then, I’m ‘Indian.’

This is straightforward. The converse treatment–of sorts–is far more interesting. When my American political activist friends seek to enlist my support for a favored political cause, my national origin is of little interest; at those moments, I’m straightforwardly an American liberal.  When my Indian friends and family seek similar subscriptions, my citizenship and residence is of little interest to them; then, I’m Indian all over again.

I’ve done little for either of these two demographics to brag about so I cannot provide an exact analogy to the examples Einstein provides. Winning a Nobel Prize or two might help; then perhaps both nations could proudly claim me as their own. And no doubt, were I to become an axe-murderer, I would be rapidly disowned by by both nations; America would cluck over my unredeemed origin and India would point to my corruption by the US–those damn decadent morals all over again. Sports fanhood is another interesting domain: I’m often drafted in as an American fan during the time of soccer’s World Cup, and of course, when it comes to cricket, I’m treated as Indian.

My identity is a matter of much perplexity and fascination to me; it remains an ongoing of project of both discovery and invention. It is made as interestingly complicated as it is by these sorts of external understandings of it (and I’m sure, by my bilinguality); I fulfill roles and serve as target or ‘person of interest’ for a wide variety of interests, each driven by its own ends. My attributes receive selective attention depending on these interests and ends; then, one is highlighted at the expense of others and made central, essential, distinctive.

Note: I had always thought of Einstein under several different headings: ‘American academic’, ‘German physicist’, and ‘Jewish’. When I first read this justifiably famous quote of Einstein’s I was struck by how despite the prominence of Bern and Zurich in his biography, I had never regarded him a ‘Swiss Jew.’

Losing and Gaining Citizenships

I became an American citizen more than fourteen years ago. Ironically, my decision to do so was prompted by my leaving the US–for what was supposed to be a two-year stint as a post-doctoral fellow in Australia. I was then a permanent resident of the US, equipped with the famed ‘green card.’ Subject to certain restrictions, I could travel in and out of the US but not wanting to deal with the INS hassling me during my extended stay overseas, I decided to apply for naturalization.

In taking on American citizenship, I lost my Indian one. From then on, I would need a visa to travel to India. My feelings about this state of affairs, as can be imagined, were mixed. (As a post from last year indicates, I’ve paid a certain price for this decision.) On one hand, I had not lived in India for over thirteen years and seemed unlikely to return to take up residence any time soon, if ever. My academic career often required me to travel–for conferences, for instance–and possessing a passport that meant fewer trips to consular offices was always going to be a blessing. More to the point, I had spent those same thirteen years in the US and was enmeshed in its life and politics (and tax regimes). On the other, losing my Indian citizenship felt like a significant distancing from a shared past and culture and history, from family and home. I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a betrayal of any kind–though some unkind friends of mine did urge this interpretation on me. I did however feel I had self-consciously turned my back on an older me.

But at the time, I don’t think I gave the loss much thought at all. I had been thirteen years gone from India; notions of ‘home’ had grown more confused in my mind. I did not find myself in the grip of an existential question of any sort, but rather, considered myself to be dealing with a far more mundane concern: which travel document would work better for me? Because I had become stranded in a voluntary exile of sorts, because my identity had become a more confused entity, questions of citizenship did not feel as infected with nationalist or nativist urgency as they might have.

As I was sworn in on that cold December morning in 2000, I realized it was the first time I had deliberately chosen the citizenship of a nation. My Indian one had come to me by birth; my passport had been mine to ask for; a set of allegiances lay waiting for me to take on. Here, I had inserted myself into the process of gaining a nationality; previously, I had been born into the role. My older passport had been the culmination of a long series of experiences that had reinforced my nationality; my newer one was the first indication of my newer one, the first contributor to the building of a new edifice of identity.

An Independence Day of Sorts: Beginning a Migration

15 August 1947 is Independence Day in India. It is also my father-in-law’s birthday, a midnight’s child. And it is the day I left India–in 1987, forty years later–to migrate to the US.

My ‘migration’–such as it was–consists of pretty standard fare: I began as a graduate student, armed with an admission letter to a graduate program in technology and engineering, headed for a small technical school on the US east coast; later, after obtaining full-time employment and a visa change to a ‘skilled worker in short supply’,  becoming a ‘permanent resident’ and after returning to graduate school to initiate a career change via a move to a different academic field, I would become a naturalized citizen.

But it all began with a one-way journey on a British Airways flight to London and then on to New York. My mother drove me to the airport after a sleepless night; my flight left at 6AM, which meant checking in at 3AM. I had never flown in an aircraft before. (Well, as an adult; apparently, I had accompanied my mother on a short flight in the Indian northeast when I was a six-week old baby.)

The flight to London felt long and tedious, its monotony only partially relieved by the awe-inspiring landscapes occasionally visible through our windows, and the beers we drank and the cigarettes we smoked. (I was accompanied by a pair of acquaintances also headed for graduate school in the US, and yes, in those days you could smoke, at high-altitude, inside the pressurized cabins of transcontinental airliners.)

After arrival at, and departure from, London’s bustling and intimidating Heathrow, I finally arrived, a little wide-eyed despite the exhaustion engendered by yet another eight-hour flight, at JFK airport.  The dreaded INS officers were little softies, and soon I was in the arrivals hall, waiting for an old high-school friend to pick me up.

Through the glass walls of the terminal all I could see was an airport. But I knew I was in a different land. Outside, it was America.

Later as I was driven back to my first night’s digs in Hicksville, Long Island, I marveled–like a good old-fashioned rube—at the cars, the crowded expressways, the gleaming supermarket–and the dazed and confused cash register clerk–where we stopped to pick up supplies. My first meal was microwaved pizza washed down with a Löwenbräu. It was not a particularly distinguished culinary kick-off and gave me some inkling of the nature of a very particular deprivation that awaited me.

15 August 1987 was a longer day than most. I traveled from summer to summer, traversing ten time zones and spent most of the day, ironically, at rest, cramped and uncomfortable, even as I traveled thousands of miles away from all that had been familiar and comprehensible for twenty years. I moved to a place I imagined I knew well but which was to prove, unsurprisingly, far more intractable to my understanding than I might have reckoned with.

Twenty-six years ago, I began the process of placing quotes around ‘home.’