The following piece is part of The Aerogram’s collaboration with the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), which documents and shares the history of South Asian Americans.
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The road trip is the all-American family vacation. The United States is big; most families own cars. The logical thing to do is pack up the family and hit the road!
For many South Asian Americans, the road trip has been part of the immigrant experience of exploring a new country and adopting its style of vacationing. To document the family road trip, the South Asian American Digital Archive created the Road Trips Project — a collection of photos and stories of South Asian Americans vrooming across the United States. So far it has submissions from 41 states. If you have a road trip photo from any of the nine missing states — Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, or North Dakota — please submit it!
When perusing the many Road Trips submissions, one theme that emerges is food. A fast-food burger isn’t a desirable option for everyone, whether for reasons of dietary restrictions and/or having a palate adapted to spicy food. Plus, growing up in a developing country can make many immigrants extremely budget conscious. The solution: Pack your own food!
In 1991, for example, Kaumudi Pandya and her sister-in-law spent a full day cooking food in preparation for a road trip from Boulder, Colorado, to Yellowstone National Park. During the drive, the family — which included Pandya’s husband, son, and nieces — stopped at a rest area in Wyoming and ate the vegetarian travel feast: idlis, puris, sabzi, yogurt rice, and athanu.
Sometimes there isn’t a nice rest area with tables and benches, and you just have to eat where you can. In 1997, Chai Dingari and his family road-tripped from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Upon arriving, they parked in the garage at Arlington National Cemetery. There in the car, in the garage, they unpacked their pulao and curries — and filled their bellies. Tummies full, they took a walking tour of Capitol Hill and, among other sites, visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where Dingari enjoyed the dinosaurs.
Of course, prepacked road trip food doesn’t have to consist of Indian dishes. In 1993, while driving down California’s Route 1 as they were returning from the Bay Area back home to Tucson, Arizona, Vivek Bharathan and his family pulled over to eat. His mom turned the hood of the red car into a countertop on which she assembled sandwiches while sipping from a can of V8.
Road trips can make you truly appreciate the wonderfulness of America. In 1984, Chitra Divakaruni and her husband drove from Northern California to Mount Rainier, Washington, in a rental car. In her SAADA submission, she wrote, “I remember the feeling of adventure and excitement. We felt so American!” During the trip, she found out that some peaks and waterfalls in Washington state had Indian names from the Vedas — names given to them by transcendentalists. Regarding these Vedic names, she wrote, “It made me feel we were living in a culture that embraced many people from many countries. I hope that this wonderful aspect of America’s diversity never changes.”
Of course, sometimes road trips have made South Asian Americans feel different and uncomfortable. In the 1960s, Veena Mandrekar and her family drove from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. One day, in small-town Utah or Nevada, the family got repeatedly turned down when seeking a motel room. They’d go to motels with vacancies, but when they would ask for a room, they would be told that the motel just got booked. The next day, while stopping at a café, they saw that the local paper said Gypsies where traveling on an area highway. The family wondered if they were the “Gypsies.” Mandrekar wrote in her submission, “This is the only time we felt as outsiders. At some level it is funny, but it was not so funny at the time.”
American road trips seem only a natural extension of the bold and adventurous spirit of many immigrants. South Asian immigrants traveled thousands of miles to get to America. After that life-changing move, how hard could an intra-country road trip be? Jigna Desai wrote that her mother loves traveling: “In fact, she had one condition for marriage proposals — they had to be willing to emigrate to the United States. Once she arrived in North America, she loved road trips and adventures.” Those road trips included a 1975 drive from New Jersey to Niagara Falls with Desai’s parents, baby brother, and widowed grandmother.
This Road Trips piece wouldn’t be complete without a final mention of Aerogram editorial director Pavani Yalamanchili! During spring break 1991, she and her family drove from Cleveland to Washington, D.C., and then on to New York City.
And remember, if you have a photo suitable for the Road Trips Project, please submit it and help expand what the quintessential American road trip looks like.
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Preeti Aroon (@pjaroonfp) is a Washington, D.C.–based copy editor at National Geographic and was formerly copy chief at Foreign Policy.