For over a decade, I’ve lugged an oversized orange textbook across three continents in the hopes of re-reading it someday. Economic Migration was an elective I chose, on a whim, while studying development. It sounded interesting – a way of understanding other people’s lives.
The book traveled from college in London back home to Mumbai and then onwards to California.
Last summer, while in the act of decluttering, I finally flipped open the first page. I was startled. Had I ever imagined my textbook would play fortune-teller, accidentally describing my future?
The authors noted:
“International migration is hardly ever a simple individual action in which a person decides to move in search of better life-chances, pulls up his or her roots in the place of origin and quickly becomes assimilated in the new country. Much more often migration and settlement are a long-drawn-out process that will be played out for the rest of the migrant’s life, and affect subsequent generations too…”
I had crash-landed in the Bay Area straight from Mumbai in 2016, an underslept mother with a three-month-old, as new to America as I was to parenting, with little time to absorb the monumental changes between the place I was in and the place I had left behind. My initial memories of the Bay Area had a lot more to do with baby-burping and diaper-changing than observing cultural nuance.
When I did finally have the energy to introduce myself to the neighbours, I was in for a surprise. I knocked on a couple of doors with some freshly baked cake and was greeted with extreme friendliness. I even enjoyed some rather long conversations. But I was not invited past the threshold, into the house.
The cultural differences between India and the US are exacerbated by the vastness of the landscape. Multi-lane roads sprawl endlessly in all directions, a reminder that the US is a country stretched over half a continent.
Nowhere can you feel the immense space as much as at American supermarkets. Comedian Vir Das had once noted that the aisle for breakfast cereal in the US was the size of a school in Mumbai. I was used to walking into tiny grocery stores and asking for Colgate when I wanted to buy toothpaste. I was not used to confronting 32 different variants of toothpaste and nobody around to help me choose.
As the expanse around me came gradually to be peopled with faces I knew, America began to shrink with familiarity. Over time, I too have come to understand the language of a culture that respects personal space and may be uncomfortable with strangers coming home without invitation. I’m now comfortable scheduling time on my calendar for social occasions. I’m equally comfortable dropping by for chai at the home of my Indian neighbors without any planning.
At the heart of the differences between India and the West lie the stereotypical difference between a culture that is collective and one that is individualistic. Toggling between the two can feel a lot like speaking two different languages that are impossible to translate.
When I first moved countries, I thought the ideal society was one that was mid-way between India and America – one with a strong sense of community that did not consume the individual. But over time, as I myself slide from one end of the scale to the other, and back again, I’ve figured that the sweet spot between two cultures can be hard to locate.
Then again, transnational migration can make it particularly hard to pin-point the exact geographical location of a particular culture or way of being. The countless dosa shops, Indian grocery stores selling Wagh Bakri chai and Parachute coconut hair oil, and Punjabi aunties rolling out freshly minted parathas in the Bay Area add to the sense of home away from home.
Thanks to the tech-fueled influx of Indian immigrants to the US, I found myself attending more Diwali parties in Silicon Valley than I ever had in Mumbai. Not so long ago, on a large Bay Area county fairground, a gigantic multi-headed Ravaan was set on fire with as much fanfare as the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
As it turns out, Mark Miller and Stephen Castles, the gentlemen who wrote the lines that jumped out of my textbook, had more to say on the subject, casting a birds-eye view of the life I led:
“No government has ever set out to build an ethnically diverse society through immigration, yet labour recruitment policies often lead to the formation of ethnic minorities, with far-reaching consequences for social relations, public policies, national identity and international relations.”
I was soon to realise advancements in technology added an extra dimension to my own immigrant experience, explaining the ease with which I could straddle two countries at opposite ends of the globe. Unlike the pathos-laden Indian immigrant literature I grew up reading, where migrants yearned for their homeland, my mother and mother-in-law in India can, over video calls, see my children’s milkshake-stained faces before they set out for school, and have occasionally reminded me to zip up their jackets as they peer into my home. This is a far cry from the experiences of an earlier generation of immigrants who had to make do with hurried conversations over expensive phone calls to India – a generation that often clung to the culture they left behind with great fervor.
I once stopped by a chaat shop in Sunnyvale and was surprised to see the television at the store playing a Shemaroo tape of a 1980s Mithun Chakraborty movie. I recalled an old joke about how you could tell the exact year a migrant left their home country: that was the time and place they were still living in today.
That wouldn’t happen to me, of course. I was certain I’d always remain current. Until I was startled one morning, a few years ago, on seeing social media posts of avocado toast in Delhi. My first introduction to this very Californian breakfast was in, well, California. It wasn’t long before I began to receive pictures on WhatsApp of ghoulish children with blood-stained faces trick-or-treating in a middle-class Pune housing society on Halloween.
One night, I had a dream that perfectly reflected my state of being. One moment I was standing in the dark outside a tree-lined Bay Area condominium, calm and orderly. When I crossed the road, I found myself on the bridge at Bombay Central railway station in broad daylight, crowds swirling around me.
I was beginning to live in a place that did not exist anywhere but inside my mind.
Anahita Mukherji is an award-winning Indian journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.