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.

Susan Matt on Homesickness, the ‘New Globalist’, and Technology

Susan Matt suggests that homesickness still afflicts the ‘new globalists,’ the cosmopolitans who would live ‘abroad,’ whether permanently or temporarily, away from home (“The New Globalist is Homesick”, New York Times, March 21, 2012). And technology, precisely by bringing them back into closer contact with loved ones and old haunts, and assuaging loneliness and longing, might actually be making things worse; it might remind them ever more acutely of just what it is that they are missing. This ‘new’ homesickness  seems at odds with the foot-loose sensibility that is supposed to be the hallmark of the connected, wired, constantly traveling world. The homesickness which afflicted the immigrant in the past is ‘back,’ and it is ever more persistent.

I’m not sure that Matt’s statement below represents the discovery of a genuine novelty:

In nearly a decade’s research into the emotions and experiences of immigrants and migrants, I’ve discovered that many people who leave home in search of better prospects end up feeling displaced and depressed. Few speak openly of the substantial pain of leaving home.

It might be that academics are now paying more attention to homesickness, but conversations about it and the infection of migrant enclaves, conversations and sensibilities with relentless nostalgia has been an enduring feature of migrants’ lives and it has remained impervious to the passage of time. This new homesickness is not new at all; it is just being paid attention to. Those living the lives of voluntary exile have always felt homesick, have never feared talking about it, and have always let it be writ large in their emotional and physical responses to their new worlds.

Consider for instance, that alcoholism is a common problem among international students in American universities; that expat cinema, for as long as can be remembered, has been concerned with the longing for a mythical, displaced land; consider how much the dilemma of the  torn, almost-schizophrenic, personality of the immigrant has been a feature of diasporic literatures. What are these if not manifestations of homesickness, permeating through the minds and bodies of immigrants?

It might be that the immigrant does not bring up homesickness in conversations with ‘locals,’ fearing these confessions might be viewed as evidence of dislike for his chosen home, a failure to assimilate properly, and reason to regard him as outsider in those conversational spaces. But elsewhere, in more welcoming climes, conversation all too easily returns to talk of home, of what remains behind, of the next trip, of the difficulties in reconciliation with two lands that leave them torn asunder psychically.

Matt is right to note that technology–whether it is because of the Skype call back home, the cable television channel in their own language or anything else like that–does not seem to help this homesickness. It cannot. It only serves to remind them that nothing can ever replace the felt sensation of place, the encounter with sounds, light, and smells, born of  the imprint of childhood experiences long-ago sensed and internalized, that  are a feature of physical contacts with ‘home,’ that tap into sensations long ago integrated into their minds and bodies. The phone call and the web cam will not tap into these; nothing quite replaces the walk out of the customs hall, past the immigration desk, out into the arrival hall, and the drive back ‘home’.