Maybe one day you’ll tell me your story.
~Bruce Wayne to Diana Prince, Wonder Woman
Everyone loves a good origin story, right?
I recently got my hands on some old photos from waaaay back in the day. I haven’t seen them in forever. And as I’m getting ready to finish the last couple posts documenting this amazing trip…it feels appropriate to preserve this history here.
My husband reminds me not infrequently how lucky I am (not because of him – although that comes up too), but because my parents chose to come to the US. He’s visited my family in India with me several times, and it’s pretty obvious my life would be very different had I been raised there. Looking back at these old photos now, as our own trip comes to a close, there’s a little bit of symmetry between their journey and our own attempt at living abroad this past year:
- Us, a young-ish couple venturing out temporarily on a moderately risky, adventurous journey far away from home.
- Them, a much younger couple venturing out indefinitely on a far riskier, less adventurous journey, much farther away from home. And with a lot less money.
So maybe it’s not that it is similar, but rather that their journey is just chapter one of the long story that ultimately leads me to be sitting here on a comfortable couch, typing this post, surrounded by chai and Indian food and family, fresh off a trip of a lifetime.
Coming to America, the Un-Funny Version
So you see, my son, there is a very fine line between love and nausea.
~King Jaffe Joffer, Coming to America
My parents’ motives for coming here were just like many immigrants. They considered the US the “land of milk and honey,” a phrase used incessantly in my house, despite how little actual milk and honey there was. We flirted with the poverty line for most of my life until I was in high school – at which point we graduated from ‘working poor’ to the uber-dramatic and overly wordy socioeconomic status of ‘risen from poverty middle class’ (i.e. no more reduced lunch, yay!). Those are actual socioeconomic classes, btw. There are twelve. Who knew.
It’s so weird to think about my parents coming here because they really don’t seem like the type to do something like that. They aren’t risk-taking, adventuresome, adaptable people. Growing up, I was frequently struck by and frustrated with how little they acclimated to the US after years of living here. Instead, they were well…very Indian. Super intense about anything education-related or anything they deemed brag-worthy, then totally lax about literally everything else; creative mostly in finding ways to take a modern luxury and hamper it so that it worked like the Indian equivalent; totally obvious about who the favorite kid was (none of this oh we love all our kids equally, they’re all so different crap); continuously in a state of stress; and periodically crazy.
But somehow they did it – took a risk to come so far away from home, did it with little monetary or emotional support, and then spent the next couple decades struggling to carve out a path here. And when I say struggled, I mean real, actual struggling: arriving in the US with 8 dollars, enduring severe culture shock, taking on difficult, menial labor, surviving a Midwest winter in a dilapidated apartment with no heating, barely avoiding deportation, and countless other challenges.
It’s hard to truly know anyone’s full and layered story, but suffice it to say life was pretty difficult for them, and as a result, difficult for us – albeit in a different, considerably less severe way. And through the lens of their hardships, so many of their quirks and oddities make so much more sense. They couldn’t afford to worry (literally and figuratively) about the trivial, and I’m starting to think that was the best thing we could have learned. Sure, as kids we were an especially odd brand of weird and awkward, sticking out for a host of reasons – shabby clothes, crazy hair, crappy car, small house, weird habits, and unfortunate attempts at using context clues to interpret terms like “white elephant sale” that every other kid in class understood. But we learned to deal and somehow all turned out relatively normal and successful. I mean, we’re all screwed up in our own special ways, but who isn’t? (yes, dear reader, that means you too).
And more than reaching the zenith of ‘relatively normal’, there is something oddly satisfying to me about the fact that all of their kids (now) have taken a gap-year – left their jobs to travel and work on personal pursuits. These people who aspired to have very little – just stability, normalcy, and food on the table, would ultimately have kids that would grow up to have both the desire and means to do something not so stable, not so normal, and not so little. I love that. But I should disclaim here that they don’t share this perspective AT ALL. As I said, very Indian. And even aside from that, you can probably see why hearing these types of plans engenders a ‘does-not-compute’ type of reaction from them.
Normal is overrated, anyway. I’m grateful for all of this history now because I see how it changed us kids in interesting and different ways – but that all make a kind of sense. I’m not sure we would have some of these qualities under other, more comfortable circumstances. None of us are materialistic, image-focused, or entitled. Two of us are fiercely independent and two of us are just…fierce. We all lean toward the philosophical. My siblings are both extremely generous, and I, on the other hand, turned into a fanatical saver – saving for emergencies I’d dream up that would never come, squirreling away cash as a teen until I could meet the minimum to secretly open a bank account, and then spending the next few years setting up additional emergency funds (ya really never know, people) in the form of savings accounts, CDs, and IRAs.
But hey, as Professor Stein told Cisco last night on an old episode of the Flash I just watched…”what makes you different makes you special.” Where was that phrase 20 years ago when I really needed it.
What’s In A Name?
As we’ve been traveling around stateside, we’ve been lucky enough to visit many friends – often ones we haven’t seen or spoken to in years. It’s crazy how formative some of these people have been that I’m only now appreciating: my childhood best friend that made herself available with 10 minutes notice to assist me in a clandestine mission (and to make fun of my clothes, which according to these photos the mad layering skillz started real early), my high school best friends (pictured below) that were unequivocally my salvation (and the Jerry, George, and Kramer to my Elaine), and the first person at my first job who made me think I might actually be good at the whole work thing (and then didn’t get mad at all when we broke her guest bed on a recent visit — seriously, try explaining that one — but then retaliated shortly after by backing into my rental). And there are a handful of other amazing people that I won’t discuss in detail here, but who continue to amaze and impress us – as parents, creatives, cooks, and just general delights.
And while these people shaped and influenced me and taught me humor, my parents had people in their lives that were impactful to their lives in a far more fundamental way. They would be the first to say they survived here in no small part because of the kindness and generosity of others.
I don’t know many of these samaritans, but I know of two older women in particular who were extremely gracious and generous with my parents when they first came to the states (we are at one of their homes in the picture below). I vaguely remember the women, but I clearly remember my mother describing them – talking about how much these women cared for my parents and acted as surrogate mothers to her and my father, and surrogate grandmothers to my brother and me. I can only imagine how important they must have been to two, young Indian immigrants trying to make it in the wild Midwest. And I guess I don’t totally have to imagine. At least important enough to name their daughter as an homage to these women – a fairly creative concatenation, or portmanteau if you will, of their first names: Mariana and Agatha.
When they make a comic book version of me as a superhero (or villain, I’m not picky), that’s the bit of the origin story I hope they keep.