An Absent Vocabulary

I often find myself mired in thought comparing and contrasting my new life in the United States to my life in India. Recollections and epiphanies come to me during mundane dinners, at supermarket checkout counters — even during spiritual discourses.

Each month I struggle to do justice to my position as a reluctant and informal ambassador, hoping fervently that as I vocalize my observations about both cultures I also reawaken and clarify my rather murky sense of self and identity.

Almost every week I struggle to explain fuzzy existential and far removed issues to folks back home: Why do Americans complain about housework despite having so many timesaving appliances? Why does the immigrant Indian community celebrate Diwali (The festival of lights) on weekends? Why this? Why that?

And almost each day, while I drink tea by myself, I remind myself to enjoy the richness and aroma of the tea and try to avoid listening to the voice playing in my mind: “You liked tea because it signified something. Does it still?”

That voice in my head repeats provocatively. Teatime was my time with my mother and brother; time spent relaxing, time spent bonding, time stolen from the onslaught of life’s perpetual errands.

In my early months as an immigrant, my lunches and teas would get the better of me — leaving me depressed, sometimes tearful, missing home. That doesn’t happen anymore. I am happy that a symptom has faded away, but has the disease, this looped drama, playing in my mind?

Disease is the state of being ill at ease. But on a cynical day, I feel that the word is synonymous with the state of being an immigrant. As my sense of powerlessness grows, I often marvel at the illusion I used to have that I could decide the degree of my assimilation and separation. Now that seems nearly impossible.

My first few months went by in a blur. “Learn this.” “Get here.” “Get there.”

Perhaps a part of it has now been accomplished. I know the difference between a Macy’s and a Nordstrom. I have trained my tongue to pronounce “schedule” the way the American ear likes to hear it. I laugh delightedly on jokes by American stand-up comedians. I have started reveling in the inescapable “Do-it-yourself” philosophy of my adopted country.

Yet I often wonder that in this process of learning, how much did I unlearn and how much more do I have to go? Each time this fear strikes, I try, in vain perhaps, to control the process of my adaptation — to never forget where I came from, to become only so much of an insider that I understand the issues of this new land while still remaining the outsider who can offer a fresh perspective.

The other day someone said to me: “So, you’ve been here for awhile. You should be well adjusted by now.”

I guess I am. With each passing year and each subtle adjustment I make, I become interesting fodder “back home” for extended family and acquaintances to analyze. An aunt hugs delightedly and tells me that she is so happy that I am still the same. An acquaintance spots a few of my “American” mannerisms within 10 minutes of association. They are both right. And wrong. For the truth is always somewhere in between.

For me, and perhaps for many others like me, the intangible fallouts of immigration started kicking in only after I seemed to have successfully wrestled with the tangible fallouts of immigration. After the mad rush to make sense of the system had subsided. After you have learned to drive on the freeway, navigate the healthcare system, and much more, you realize that your phone calls to extended family start feeling increasingly threadbare.

You rely on old memories and idiosyncrasies to craft conversations. And as soon as you set the telephone receiver down, you ruminate on this greater vision immigration has unexpectedly ushered. Longing alternates with pragmatism and then, perhaps, at parties with others who chose to live in the United States, you ponder the pros and cons.  Depending on your mood, you let one place win over the other.

Like characters in a novel which take on a life of their own, eluding the grasp of their creator, so too is the effect of this new geography. When blissful ignorance yields to unsettling realities, the mind grasps for acceptance of the new reality.

I rationalize. “Let us be grateful,” a voice inside me whispers. After all, this is a great century to be a nomad, a wanderer or an immigrant, as my older friends reassure me. Email, voice mail, snail mail, Web cam.

True, short of touch, I am there, wherever I want to be, deluding me into thinking that I know what is going on in that place I once called home. And should my longing get unbearable, the airport is barely an hour away!

Twenty-four hours on a Transpacific flight is all that that separates me from a once-lived world and a new world that gives me the seductive opportunity and the infrastructure to do cutting edge professional work. But one weekend as I got back from my first writers’ conference, I thought, “How lovely if this would happen in India!”

But it doesn’t. Not right now. And that is among the many reasons why I continue to stay.

This cutting-edge work wreaks havoc on my heartstrings, while giving me nebulous fears and joys. A little bit of geography and a boundless chasm of the mind keep the different pies of my circle apart. And only I know how exquisitely different each pie in my circle is. I know how my days are a crazy mish-mash of feelings. Sometimes I feel completely at home and wonder why we need to stick labels onto feelings like belongingness, while at other times, when I am forced to deal with prejudice, discrimination, and explain life choices like being a writer who writes in English, I wonder, “Why am I here?”

Each day I learn that nostalgia is like an uninvited guest who never really bids goodbye, and every couple of days when you open some closet in your heart, you will find it hiding there, waiting to pounce on you. And then it hits me that these feelings will not go away, and that I have no words with which to dress them.

Our adjustment to geography is unfortunately not as well defined as the geography itself. No matter how much we might try to keep in touch, to prop up our understanding of cities and scenarios miles away through the written word and the spoken word, there simply can be no substitute for our physical experiences. There’s no substitute for the here and now.

With each month that I stay an immigrant I know more people in my new land. With each year that I stay away my nucleus in India shrinks to a highly dense mass. I see myself in my English friend who longs for London (“home”) the moment she sets foot in the San Francisco airport, yet feels strangely unsettled in London and wishes she could go (“home”) to San Francisco.

I see myself in my Indian friend who must buy Indian handicrafts when her craving for colors gets insatiable. I see myself in my Polish friend who prays for an alternative to seemingly interminable flight journeys. I see myself in my younger friend who has just discovered the joys of hopping on a fast-moving train from San Francisco to San Jose. Our names might be different. Our faces unique. Yet our secrets are the same. Despite the pitfalls, the world is our playground. All of us homeless and all of us home.

A few days ago I caught myself getting irritated at a jaywalker while I drove my car in my California suburb and remembered my unconditional acceptance of traffic chaos in my hometown of Jodhpur, India. I christened it “selective acceptance.” For immigrants thrive and struggle with this sense of a bifurcated identity that lets them create different switches in their minds. Switches that are turned off and on depending on their viability to the present moment.

Still, there are many other nameless mental switches longing to be named. Perhaps I could have devoured books on language and come up with some feeble attempts at categorizing them. But my purpose is not to see a few self-coined words as a part of the lexicon. My hope is to see a time when we will have a large working vocabulary on immigration coined by our collective experiences. For that is when its nebulous halo will get slightly better coordinates.

If we are to deepen our discussion, if we must ensure that the richness which our “diversity” has injected into the system, is not submerged into some dense mass of homogeneity, then we must take care to articulate and encapsulate all the insights our immigrant status has bestowed upon us. The mere act of such acknowledgement will reassure those newly uprooted and alone while opening the eyes of the non-immigrant to a world they shall then perceive with far greater empathy.

We must articulate the loss of a once familiar language, the joy of occasionally hearing a word once commonplace and reveling in all its contours and nuances, the reluctance of being put in a ambassadorial position (“So what exactly does this symbol signify ...?”).

Physical distance places a slow, corrosive dilution on our relationships. The gain and loss of friends. Missed weddings. The resigned acceptance of an Internet-discovered home remedy as woeful substitute to a grandmother’s, which, physical proximity allowed, would be passed down through the generations.

Otherwise, those who have vicariously shared these experiences shall attempt, as they do now, to dissect and condense our imagery to fit the conformed dimensions. Reducing to caricature our struggles with a new language, new neighbors, and new workplaces; always focusing on the tangible, the easily perceptible; and tidily neglecting the harder and more elusive aspects of our journeys.

Language is fluid, and at times an imperfect tool. But let us not make it a highly imperfect one due to laziness. And while we find words to convey the gamut of emotions that well up inside us when we hop from one flight to another, all the while hoping to capture the creases on those faces standing across the terminal for posterity, we must understand that we measure our losses by their absences. We must accept that our quantification of our losses has stemmed out of a consciousness of their absences.

Nevertheless, those absences have been gifts, enriching our perceptions. The piercing pain of those losses and the richness of our gains is what we must more adeptly articulate.

When we choose to name something, we acknowledge its presence. We cannot describe or deal with what we do not know or will not admit. Loss and abundance have innumerable shades.

But it is time we added a few more shades to our palette. One word at a time. And even though there may be times when our hearts ache, we must chose to remember that this is a great time to be a nomad.