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.

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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

Nathan’s Office

Nathan at work visiting borrowers of Juhudi Kilimo

“It was my first day on the job,” Nathan says with a wide grin.

“I wore a coat and tie, I looked very smart! I was going to work for a bank, sit in a swiveling chair, and swing my legs!”

Nathan and I are standing on the side of a road. The occasional share-taxi barrels past us, but mostly we are surrounded by the hush of farmland that stretches as far as the eye can see. We’re in the Southern Rift Valley of Western Kenya. Nathan is neither sitting, nor swinging his legs. We cross the road. The mid-morning sun casts our shadows long across the hot asphalt. Continue reading