Immigrants

Temple scene from my hometown in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

My mother and father were 29 and 32 respectively when we moved to Montana with just two suitcases. It was about the same time of year as it is now, and I was a couple weeks shy of my fourth birthday. This year marks 20 years that our family has called the United States home.

I never fully understood the limbo-state that my parents have always lived. We talk about settling down, we talk about citizenship, we talk about retirement plans. But over the course of 20 years the dialogue has shifted. It’s no longer about dreams of moving back to India, but rather how many months out of the year we would ideally spend there. Back in India, just a few rusty trunks contain what little remains from homes long bulldozed. Old photos could be all that we have of our former selves.

We left India for a chance at something new. In a place and time where paid work for so many was incredibly difficult to come by, employment within one’s field and course of study was truly a rare chance. Both of my parents had jobs within the fields they were trained in. Yet, when presented with the Opportunity to learn and to earn, to deepen one’s pond of existence, to see what else the world had in store– there was no choice but to take it. And never look back.

In Nairobi, we talk about the expat life. We talk about missing out on family milestones, we talk about loved ones moving on without us, we talk about a lonely existence in a foreign city.

But it’s sort of glamorous. We did something that not many have done; we congratulate ourselves. So it’s alright that during the two, perhaps three, years we spent as an expat we were uncomfortable. Yes, we were stretched across two continents (maybe three)—but it was worth whatever it was we each thought we’d gain by being away those years.

When I think of my parents and so many others like them, I think about what it’s like to be torn across two continents. As long as we are at home we cannot appreciate all that is familiar and comfortable that we attach ourselves to. Yet when we are away from home it is these things we never could appreciate that hurt us the most. Today I thought I smelled the distinctly tart aroma of dosa batter as it hits hot oil on a cast iron griddle, and it immediately put me at ease. It’s the aroma that wafted through my house every single morning of my childhood. My reaction was visceral. But my heart sank when I realized that I imagined it.

I think that in the long run, having to redefine ourselves, our identities in relation to our new homes is what hurts the most. In two or three short years, we sample that pain. But none of us can truly claim to know it.

The smells, the quiet, the noise, the spaces, the textures, the lights, the sights, the human beings we long for! It is not unique. The millions of immigrants who came before us, they too have mourned the loss of Things they left behind.

It is in this that I find solace.

The Idiot

Mountain gorilla who rubbed his face on my thigh

A few days ago I came to the startling realization that in two more months, I will have lived in Nairobi for a year.

That also means that it will have been two years since I left the U.S. and moved to East Africa.

Two years is an odd and startling benchmark in my own mind. When you are 21 years old and freshly graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, two years seem like an eternity. Two years in a land so foreign where, as my roommate Kimmie likes to say, the only thing you recognize is your own shadow. Two years in a place so far away that, looking forward, you can’t even imagine life on the other side of that finite stretch of time. I am nearing that point. That point at the end of two years. And it is so very, very real.

When I was 21 and a fresh graduate I thought I would spend two years in East Africa. I think the ‘about me’ section of this blog still even says that I would spend two years here. I am trying to remember what I thought would come after that. Graduate school seems the most likely next step I would have imagined for myself at the time. Let me start by saying that I am not ready for graduate school. But let me end by saying that I have never before felt like I know and have experienced so little as I do at this point in my life. At this very moment, it seems to me that I have spent two years in East Africa learning how much I don’t know. Continue reading

A quick note on the 30-day Blogging Challenge

A few of you have asked me what happened to the 30-day Blogging Challenge I committed to a couple months ago. Basically, I failed. I realized that writing on my blog every single day is very difficult, especially because on many days I come home late and go straight to bed. So my new goal is to write on my blog at least once every week. I think it’s a much more realistic goal! I encourage you to hold me to it!

Falling in Love All Over Again

“Absence diminishes commonplace passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and kindles fire.” –Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld

The view from my roof terrace

After one year in Uganda and Kenya, I returned to the States for a two-week holiday. In that short fourteen days I fell back into life in the U.S. so seamlessly that my time there seems to have been much longer. It’s true that on the first couple of days Florida felt a bit foreign. The roads a bit too wide, the parking lots a bit too expansive, the palm trees grew in patterns that seemed a bit too planned and orderly. But one week in, and it was almost as if I had never left. As a result, having returned to Nairobi just a fortnight later, I am going through a very peculiar phase. My mind adjusted so quickly to the U.S., that I am looking at Nairobi with a fresh pair of eyes. I feel like a tourist in the very city where I live and work. The avenues I have walked hundreds of times are suddenly smaller. They’re thickly lined with bougainvillea and hibiscus plants that I did not always used to notice. The parking lot at Junction Mall is startlingly tiny, when just two weeks ago that parking lot seemed vast. My perspective has completely changed and it has caught me off guard. Continue reading

A Dream Deferred: Uganda’s Presidential Election

The following blog post originally appeared on the Kiva Fellows blog on February 23, 2011. It was removed from the blog because of concerns over the controversial topic I wrote about. Uganda remains a country in which there is only a fasad of free speech and free press, and as a result I was advised to not openly criticize the current regime in a public forum. I’ve decided to repost this blog post on my personal blog because my hope is for more people to take an interest in Uganda’s leadership and for Ugandans to unite and hold their politicians accountable. Since the post was written, there were several reports that Yoweri Museveni, despite stealing votes, was still democratically elected into office by a majority of Ugandans. Whether those votes were fairly gathered is absolutely debatable. Although written in February, the post still captures my sentiments.

***

A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
 like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

On February 22 at 3:45pm Norbert Mao, one of Uganda’s former presidential candidates for the 2011 general election began his speech by reciting A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. Considering the results of the latest elections in Uganda, a lot has been deferred, including the dream of a free and fair election.

The Presidency, stolen

Friday the 18th, the day of the Ugandan presidential election, was a national holiday. Millions of people across the country hoped that the date would mark the day that a new president was elected into power. They hoped that Yoweri Museveni would finally leave the office after a continuous twenty five years in office. On the morning of the election, several hundred international civilian observers were dispatched to polling stations all over the country. However, right under the noses of Ugandan citizens, as well as the international community, the election was rigged and the office of president was stolen, once again. Continue reading

The 30 Day Blogging Challenge

I have a battle raging in my head.

Every blogger has that romantic period. When you begin your blog. Those first few entries. You think to yourself, ‘for everything I always wanted to say, I now have a medium!’ How exciting is it to know that there may be a soul somewhere out there in the internet netherworld that may chance upon your writing! So you embark upon the journey of the writing life, eager to speak your mind and tell your story. This is how it is.

What’s my story? I began this blog as a college student about one and half years ago. It was a travel blog then. I thought I would be here in East Africa for a fixed period of time. I thought I would tell stories of far away islands, sparkling cities, and remote villages. I thought I would share my encounters with wise women, witch doctors, friendly villagers, and city slickers. I thought I would recount times both happy and sad, of isolation and loneliness, but also of kindness and joy. All of this I have done. And now I am no longer traveling.

I envy other bloggers who have more discipline than I. Even after the blogger’s honeymoon period has lost its allure, they continue to write. I have sat before my computer countless times only to find that I am too afraid that what I have to say is boring, or worse yet, pointless. So I don’t get beyond the first sentence. And I quit. I even tried to fool myself into thinking that what I write is just for me. And indeed it is. But a blog is in fact a public medium, so again I would fall into the trap of being terribly fearful of painstakingly putting words to paper only to find that I have created something bland, mediocre, and not worth reading.

Despite this, I know that as a writer, in order to hone the craft and urge along the flow of words the only thing I can do is write. And write with a fearless abandon. I have to do exactly what I am afraid of. That is what brought me here to Nairobi after all. So today, this 12th day of the 11th month in 2011 I will christen Day 1 of my 30 Day Blogging Challenge to myself. Considering that I always felt like I was too cool for a 30 Day “anything” Challenge, this is a big step. Since these days I have less free time to write than ever before, the challenge is all the more important because it will force me to find the time to calm down enough to gather my thoughts and put them into words. It will be the push I need to think critically about the ideas I have in my head on any particular day. I might be able to identify patterns and gain a perspective that I wouldn’t normally from an unexamined day. For the next 30 days I will write on my blog every single day. My hope is that this exercise will open the so called writing flood gates and make it easier for me to transform my free-flowing thoughts into words, clear and simple.

Wish me luck.

N

Hurt

I might have just gotten tired of being strong.

The view from Ngong hills of Nairobi city in the distance.

I’ve been through so much physical pain in my life that I thought putting a bullet through my abdomen might hurt less. I have been so sick and felt so alone. I’ve been so broken, so shattered a human being that I thought it better to cease to exist. My physical strength has been tested so many times. I have felt like my body has been run through a meat grinder. And I have made it through each and every time. Those who know me personally, know what I’ve been through. But even still, somehow that physical pain does not stand up to the pain I have experienced since moving to Nairobi.

I moved to East Africa last May 2010. I bid my American life farewell. I ran like hell. I left my family behind. I let my best friends go like a fistful of feathers loose in the wind. Continue reading