It always happens like this.
A snow storm. A rain storm. An inept travel agent. I can never seem to get overseas in a timely, relatively painless manner. Lexy and I have a nonstop, 15-hour flight to Delhi ahead of us, and we’re still trying to get to 30th Street to catch the train to Newark. The streets of Philadelphia are treacherous and the snow keeps coming. My fiancé, Joel gets us there finally, and I worry about him driving back in this mess. I’ve already gone from zero to paranoid in 60 seconds, worrying that something will happen and I’ll never see him again. It’s a family trip — we take one every year over the holidays — and since Joel and I aren’t married yet, Dad said, “Next time, honey. Next time.”I’m 28 and I’ve never seen Dad’s native country.I’m 28 and I’ve never seen Dad’s native country. So here we are, my younger sister and I, with our Ralph Lauren suitcases and our iPods and our emergency credit cards. We’re on our way to see Dad’s only brother, and his brother’s family, who are pretty much strangers to us. They came to the States once when I was 12. Lexy was too young to remember, and I barely recall anything of importance. There’s no time to eat now because the train was late, and now we’re late for the flight. We see a Friday’s as we rush past the terminal. We look at it longingly.
Four hours go by. We’re still on the runway. I’m contemplating a lot of heavy topics, including my own mortality. A few days earlier, I got sick from too much thyroid medication. My doctor had given me the wrong dose. My body went into overdrive, so I hadn’t slept in days. My mind was exhausted but my body was SO EXCITED. Every day felt like a heart attack waiting to happen. I write in my journal: “There’s something about being on a plane that makes you think about dying.” I think about India, and how it might affect me, if at all. I wonder who I am. Will I be afraid of what I might find when I finally see it for myself? Is this a part of me that should remain dormant? Does being a first-generation American mean anything? I’m having an existential crisis, right outside Terminal C, in the middle of a blizzard. My heart is racing. My palms are sweating. I’m delirious and Lexy is hungry.
“I want a cheeseburger,” my sister groans. “I need a cheeseburger.” We’re tucked in under her baby-pink Snuggie in a row toward the back of the plane.
“Cows are sacred in India,” I say with a mouthful of trail mix. Earlier in the week, we had a deep conversation at Target about what snacks to buy for the flight. Lexy cautioned against buying junk food because of an apparently strong aversion to using airplane bathrooms.
We survey the passengers. Babies are crying. Women in bright pink and yellow and green silk saris are talking to their husbands in Hindi. I notice that Indian people do this thing with their head when they’re talking. They look like bobble-head dolls. I try to mimic it. “Cows are sacred in India,” I say again, this time in the accent we use to tease Dad. Dad lapses into it when he’s alternating between English and Hindi. “Have some nuts.”
Lexy lets out an exasperated sigh and slumps back in her seat. “If this is what India smells like, I’m gonna die.”
I furtively eye the woman next to me to see if she’s offended.
It’s so hot in here. I can’t breathe. Only 15 more hours.
When we get off the plane, I’m near ready to faint. I’m sick from the meds and the stale air and from not sleeping. Joel has already gone to bed and woken up again, but it’s still Saturday for us. Lexy and I hold hands as we navigate Delhi International. Mom and Dad have been waiting outside the terminal for hours now. It hasn’t hit either of us yet that we’re in South Asia.
“BATHROOM!” Lexy’s half-running. I feel a split-second burst of energy, remembering that my bladder is about to burst, and follow. I notice a kiosk selling Philly-style pretzels and Dasani. America’s influence really is everywhere. As soon as I open the stall door, my jaw drops. I look around because I’m not sure that what I’m seeing is actually real. There is no toilet. Only a hole. In the ground. (Mom would tell us later that the airport had an “American” bathroom, too). From the adjacent stall, I hear, “Uhh … Nini? What do we do?” I can’t stop laughing. I can’t stop gagging.
It hits me.
I wake up to someone poking my shoulder. God, it better not be Lexy. There’s no way I’ve been asleep for eight hours. My eyes reluctantly open and focus on a boy, my 9-year-old cousin Saras, who has wormed his way between me and Lex in the bed we’re sharing on the third floor of this heavily guarded home somewhere in Delhi’s wealthy section. He giggles and the poking continues. Just five hours have passed since leaving the airport, which means I’ve been asleep maybe four. This is an interesting way to meet someone for the first time.
Later in the day, we all set off for India Gate, the national monument that honors those who’ve died fighting for independence from the British. I see a toothless, barefoot man in a tan jacket and navy blue scarf who is selling cotton candy among the sea of tourists, beggars and government workers. I’m struck by the juxtaposition of his appearance and the neon pink, almost glowing, confection. He says nothing and his gaze is distant. I may have been the only person who acknowledged his existence today. India is like that. There are just too many people here.I can’t believe that these are my people. Only, they’re not my people.Suddenly, I’m deeply saddened by all that I see. Millions of Dad’s countrymen are suffering under the crushing weight of abject poverty. I can’t believe that these are my people. Only, they’re not my people. I am not like them, even though somehow, over the years, Dad’s culture became inextricably tied to who I was. Before coming here, India held so much significance for me without ever having stepped foot on its soil. I now realize that I pity them. Any hope I had for some kind of cultural connection, for a greater understanding of who I am, is replaced by sympathy. I wonder if other first-generation Americans my age feel that way about their parents’ homelands. I wouldn’t know because I don’t know any.
I grew up in a tiny, white suburb of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Macungie wasn’t horrible by any means. Mom and Dad were very Americanized, and socialized us as such. There was never a profound culture clash between school and home. But I always knew I was different, having the naturally tannest skin and the darkest hair in virtually every grade. And the name Sachdev, which no one can pronounce or spell, provoked constant prodding not about who, but “what” I was. I was never an outcast, but I could never fully integrate, either. And I can’t articulate whether it was because I wasn’t American enough, or because I wasn’t white enough. And so I was determined to satisfy my nagging curiosity, to figure out “where I came from.” I’d always thought that this journey, in a way, would set me free. I could finally connect my past with my present, and possibly reach a new level of understanding about myself. I wanted to know where I fit in.
I trail behind my family, walking slowly around the path circling the Gate, as I ponder how someone’s birth place can change everything, how it can set into motion a series of circumstances a person may very well never have the chance to control, manipulate or question. I wonder what Dad’s life would have been like if he had not moved to the States. I wonder if he feels guilty for not staying, or if he feels lucky to have left. Or both. I too am torn.They stare at all of us because we look different, like Americans.The next two weeks are an assault on my senses. Camels, elephants and rickshaws weave in and out of highway traffic. Dad and Lexy and I ride an elephant for 10 minutes. It costs the equivalent of just $2. I watch two men with flutes charm a python out of its woven basket, which one of them abruptly closes until Dad offers a tip. In the two-hour line to see the Taj Mahal, I use my Nikon D60 to take pictures of a decrepit beggar in front of a freshly painted Pepsi sign. I know instantly that the image is iconic, and that I could sell it back home. I immediately feel ashamed by this. Mom tries to hide her pale Polish skin by attempting to blend in with a black and gold silk sari. But they cannot avert their eyes. They stare at all of us because we look different, like Americans. I feel hurt by this, betrayed even, because I came here to belong.
Ugly, bulging, lumbering cows defecate in the street. There is no such thing as a Sanitation Department in India. The country has more than one billion people; more than a million die each year from contaminated water. Mom and Lexy and I aren’t allowed to roam Delhi without Dad or Uncle Vivek; the risk of getting swallowed up by the masses is too great — at least in their eyes. I long to explore on my own. The threat of terrorism is palpable; just a few days before we visited Agra — home of the Taj — a crowded square was bombed. Army personnel, some in turbans, some not, line every street, alley, hotel and shopping center. There is no color on the American terror-alert system to account for this. Dad’s dark complexion and native tongue is no match for the suspicion he raises while walking around with three women who do not look like him.
Male friends show affection by holding hands. Uncle Vivek and Auntie Chinu have 17 servants. None of them will look me in the eye but bow and say “Namaste” when I enter a room. They call me “DiiDii,” which is the Hindi word used to address an Indian family’s elder sister. Mom and Lexy and I buy hand-stitched silk duvets and hand-carved sandstone incense holders and wall tapestries at Delhi Haat, the outdoor shopping bazaar. At the entrance, rickshaws wait for a fare and servant-drivers wait for their bosses. A young man with severely deformed legs begs for food. I see another man passively selling cotton candy. In Agra, we take off our shoes before entering the sacred monument of Fatehpur Sikri. Hundreds of thousands of tattered shoes and sandals line the entrance. I find myself fretting over where to put mine. Typical American. Outside the Taj, Dad hands out rupees to the little ones. An older boy reaches out his hand and hangs his head in shame when Dad scolds him. I can see that he, too, is affected. He is a stranger in his own home.
****India has changed me foreverI travel alone on the flight back to the States. Lexy’s staying another week with Mom and Dad but I have to get back to Joel and to work. I’m still sick from the meds, and now that I’ve seen where I came from, I’m ready to go home. For now, I’ve made peace with my identity issues. I know I have the fortitude to deal with them, whatever they may be, as they arise. For now, I’m simply grateful for all that I have. India has changed me forever.
I make it a point to stay awake during take-off so that I can say a proper goodbye. Who knows when or if I’ll ever return? As we ascend, I watch as the Indian countryside gets smaller and smaller until it vanishes altogether under the clouds.