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.

Mitt Romney, Tired Old Tropes and the Myth of Self-Reliance

Mitt Romney‘s comments at a May fundraiser describing 47% of the American population as, roughly, a bunch of no-goodnik moochers are merely the latest expression of one aspect of a peculiar view that many reasonably intelligent folks are fond of espousing. It is a view that insists on imposing a facile dichotomy on this world and its people: the world is made up of makers and takers, of those who produce and those who consume, of those who are self-reliant, independent, rugged types, and those who are quivering, jelly-kneed, dependent leeches. The logical conclusion–even if entirely fallacious–of this line of reasoning is the most ludicrous fantasy of all: the self-made man. (Rather unbelievably, so impoverished and misguided is this view that it has actually provoked David Brooks into writing a coherent sentence or two in his latest Op-Ed; that alone should give you some indicator of the intellectual poverty that lies at its heart.)

It’s not particularly difficult to see why this view is such a non-starter given that we begin our lives naked, bawling, and helpless, and spend the next few years unable to clean up after ourselves, fed at regular intervals, clothed, sheltered, and closely supervised by our parents.  But it persists, a stunning testimony to our ability to tell ourselves comforting fairy tales that elevate us in our own estimation: geocentrism, the Great Chain of Being, perfect self-knowledge, autonomous action, the list goes on. We are, after all, an extremely chauvinistic species, convinced we are God’s finest creation, the summum bonum of all that is good and wonderful about the universe. Once we are done crowning ourselves masters of the universe, why not look a little closer, and impose some further gradations among human beings as well? Perhaps that way, we can determine, even within our closed ranks, who the true summiteers are, the ones leaving the rest of the grubby masses back at base camp. We are, it seems, hell-bent on relying on vacuous, offensive hierarchies.

This misguided view persists even when it is pointed out that almost every single second of our waking lives we come into contact with the product of the labor of others, perfect strangers sometimes, who have stepped up to the pot of common resources and put in their share. (You, dear reader, are reading this post on a computing device, the abstract principles for which are due to a gay man, Alan Turing, hounded to his death for being so. The code for your computing device is the product of, presumably, dozens, if not hundreds of programmers.)

That little mountaineering metaphor I invoked above tells us all we need to know about the stupidity and incoherence of the sad trope of the self-reliant man: even the most austere Alpinist, even a Reinhold Messner-extraordinaire does not summit without having relied on others. Messner went solo to the highest peaks in the world, but he used maps, axes, boots, goggles, warm-weather gear, canned food, ropes, pitons, carabiners; the list is never-ending. Messner didn’t make those with his bare hands. He was a taker too.

The next time you find yourself tempted to classify the world into makers and takers, look up the word ‘ecology’ in a dictionary. Think about how it might apply to the human world. I promise you, a richer world will spring into view. It is an exhilarating vision.