Coming Home

Part I: Endings

A couple years ago, I left school for a week to travel to upstate New York for an interfaith conference. The space, an old monastery in the autumn-colored hills of Garrison, was appropriately grandiose for the work we wanted to achieve that week. Brought together by the Nathan Cummings Institute, our goal as community faith organizers and leaders was to find ways to bring together our various religions and ideologies in order to address the changing political and social landscape of the United States.

Although the state of the country over the last year clearly changed in ways we never expected, what sticks with me from that week are the daily faith reflections. Each morning and evening, an individual from a different community shared a key practice; something from their faith that they felt represented a key ideology for them and the community. I particularly recall a lesson from a wiser, quieter man who was one of two representatives of the Indigenous American community. In sharing his beliefs, he talked about the concept of time, but rather how many Indigenous communities viewed it differently from Western culture.

“Time is not linear, but circular. In Indigenous cultures, we don’t believe that something occurs once, never to happen again. Rather, we are moving in circles, passing by moments again and again, building upon previous understandings until the circle is complete.”

Time certainly seems to have stood still in Cuba.

Time certainly seems to have stood still in Cuba.

This understanding of the passage of time struck me. It spoke to my anxieties of change, perhaps built up from years of alternating schools and homes and towns. It came back to me again these last few days, as I completed the circle of my Bonderman Fellowship, although I felt in my core that there would be many more circles to come, as there have been many on this trip alone.

Waiting for my final flight back to the United States, I went and picked up a coffee and a lunch in one of dozens of airports I’ve visited over the last year. I listened to echoes of languages distant and familiar, announcements of departures to places I’ve gone and have yet to go, but felt the same butterflies I felt almost nine months ago. Last night, I walked around the dusk-lit streets of Habana Vieja for the last time, feeling the same sense of nostalgia I did during my last night in Ann Arbor, my final night in Michigan, and so many other final nights in homes I’ve made this last year. As I finished this Fellowship, so many asked me, “so, what’re you doing next?” and I felt the frustrating déjà vu of a recent graduate who realized she’d only gotten away from that question for one short year.

My mom asked me yesterday, on my final day abroad, how I was feeling. Was I ready to come back? I told her, although I was excited to see everyone, I couldn’t help feeling sad. “Why,” she asked, “you never know what’s next.”

Leave it to the wisdom of a mother and a world traveler—having made homes and lives in two countries—to remind me that borders are human and there is always something coming in the future.

What’s next?

Part II: Beginnings

Familiarity is a funny thing.

As quickly as new lands became familiar and welcoming, homelands became distant and foreign. Early last week, I boarded a flight from Lima to Fort Lauderdale, one of my four flights in my voyage from Peru to Cuba, and I felt my breath getting quicker, my lungs feeling tighter in my chest, and I knew, for once, it wasn’t the altitude. As scary as other lands had seen from far away, my own USA had become a distant, scary land, and as excited I was to go “home,” I was terrified that I wouldn’t recognize the place I had left a quick and long eight months prior. I didn’t know if I was going home at all.

The problem with your world getting bigger is that everything that it was before seems a lot…smaller.

After spending 287 days out of the last year abroad, I struggle to identify what exactly I am returning to. As I have changed and become a new person over the last year, I know I can’t expect that what I left behind has not changed. I know that these places and things will have continued their cycle of growth and learning, and I just hope that I will be able to fall into the same puzzle when I return. If not, perhaps it is worth remembering that certain things are meant to be outgrown and there are sequels for a reason: sometimes we need to begin again.

Part III: In Betweens

My last day in Cuba was drenched with an unrelenting humidity and a suffocating heat; one that made locals and tourists alike want to crawl out of not only their clothes, but their bodies. We all watched the sky, waiting for the torrential downpour that would save us from the stickiness between limbs that returned after each ice-cold shower.

I alternated between trying to spend as much time outside during my final day in Cuba and hiding in the air-conditioned glory of my apartment room. I reflected on the previous week, a wonderful whirlwind of days and nights wandering through Habana and Cuban countryside with Rasna and Harnek. More so, I recalled how “at home” I had felt, even though I was still thousands of miles away from “home.”

Spending one of our first days in Havana at the Museum of Revolution to learn more about the fascinating history of Cuba.

Spending one of our first days in Havana at the Museum of Revolution to learn more about the fascinating history of Cuba.

This last year has made me think…how much do we really need to make our homes? Is it the people or the places or both? And how much responsibility do we each hold in making our places homes for everyone else?

In one hour, I will be getting on my flight back to the United States accompanied by all the butterflies in my stomach. In a lot of ways, I’m back where I was at the LAX Airport, waiting for my flight to Tokyo. I know it will take some time for the dust to settle after I land at my (temporarily) final destination, but I’m thankful for the “eight months of discomfort, growth, change, and finding new homes.” I’m thankful for all the adventure I found and all of it that found me. To all of the people who took me in, showed me kindness and love, and opened their doors and their hearts to allow my head, heart, and spirit to grow.

Although this last year was about un-learning, these next few months will perhaps be dedicated to re-learning. Re-learning what my home was and can be, and that, in fact, my reason for leaving was to learn how to make it better, and that will require sacrifice on many ends. The hardest part of travel is feeling that I have left myself in so many places, and now I’m not sure what parts of me I will be taking back “home.” But I am reminded that the door to these new worlds and families and homes and loves is forever open, it’s simply up to me to step through it.

¿Algo más?

Laid back is not really my style, which is quite evident to anyone who knows me even the tiniest bit. It’s why, before I started Bonderman, I assumed I would spend most of my time in cities and urban jungles, just like the way I hope to spend my “post-Bonderman life.” But within a few weeks of my fellowship, I realized that, in order to truly connect with individuals, disconnect from Western influence (as much as possible), and immerse myself in the experience, cities were not the way to go.

South America has put that to the test even more. Even in the largest city on the continent, Buenos Aires, I found myself wandering through sleepy, residential streets, on edge because of the incredible, pin-drop silence of this “bustling metropolis.” I was shocked by the way that, even on the major streets, strangers said hello to each other, people stopped for conversations. Meals stretched from one hour to three, as waitstaff took their time getting to the diners who took even more time. Life has seemed to move in slow motion these last few weeks, but it has allowed me to try to slow my mind down, as well, as I enter my final two months abroad.

A traditional past-time in most South American countries is a post-siesta gathering amongst family and friends, usually including cakes (four in this case), and endless coffee and tea.

A traditional past-time in most South American countries is a post-siesta gathering amongst family and friends, usually including cakes (four in this case), and endless coffee and tea.

Another obvious statement: right now is a scary time to call the United States home, and it is even more painful each time I hear it from another person not from the States. Every individual seems to have an opinion on our upcoming election and who the new leader of the not-so-free world should be, which I have no qualms about since they will all, undoubtedly, be impacted by the policies of our next President.

I have had earnest strangers ask me whether I really think Trump can win, what I will do if he is, am I scared? I assure them that I have faith in my fellow Americans, trying to convince myself as much as them, while we ironically drive by the Trump Towers that’s being built in Punta Del Este, Uruguay.

During one of many lazy afternoons, accompanied with maté, lemonade, and snacks, I found myself deep in a conversation on politics, world affairs, and religion. The best way to remember your Spanish? Try explaining a religion most South Americans have never heard of to them, and then answer their innumerable questions. About an hour into the conversation, I realized my tone was different, that their tone was different. This was a conversation I’d had countless times (albeit in English) and yet it all felt…different.

Rather than me feeling that I had to defend, explaining and giving excuses, I was sharing my honest opinions, my deep beliefs and fears, while the people across from me probed honestly, lovingly, with pure curiosity. The beautiful, and sad, difference I’ve found between the North and the South of the Americas? Only in one of them do people truly care about their neighbors, the strangers they’ve just met, their fellow humans. The 2016 elections have only been an even clearer reminder of this ugly truth.

Making a delicious, vegetarian dinner with two of my beautiful Uruguayan hosts.

Making a delicious, vegetarian dinner with two of my beautiful Uruguayan hosts.

Each time I’m finishing my meal, the waitress or waiter always, always, asks, “algo más?” Do you want anything else? Times when I’ve eaten quickly, in a rush to get to my next destination, it’s generally with a hint of surprise, unsure of why I am trying to leave so quickly. What’s the rush? Only a few weeks into my time here, and I’m constantly reminded of the ways we live our lives on fast forward in the States. Hurrying, scurrying, rushing, running to beat the rat race and be first. Always first.

The longer I’ve traveled, the more distant I’ve felt from home, physically and mentally. I certainly don’t feel that I have all the answers I left to find, but the problems in American culture have become increasingly clear to me as I immerse myself in the cultures of others. The United States was built upon the bones and blood of Indigenous communities and slaves, our engines and motors run on the sweat and tears of the working class and the poor, our skyscrapers look up at the clouds but down upon the slums and ruins of those who have been wronged by our justice system, our government, our people.

Between the trees and buildings, American air whispers to us, beckons to us to continue stepping on the shoulders of our neighbors to grasp at the clouds for ourselves. We continue scurrying in our rat race, never looking up until we reach the end, realizing we forgot to look at the scenery along the way. When I spent my summers in the big cities, the promise of the States, I was constantly told and reminded that my Midwestern manners would get me nowhere. Translation: being nice to my fellow citizens was not something to try. When did we develop this mentality? Why are we letting it run our country, choosing our politicians based on how quickly they can dismiss the validity of another human’s life?

I’m not claiming that South America, nor Latin America, has all the answers. I’m only just starting my journey here, and there is plenty to learn and unlearn. But, the one thing I know for sure is that they still remember that, in order to learn, you must listen. And sadly that seems to be a thing that we, in the good old USA, have forgotten.

One of my favorite days in Uruguay was spent in the countryside, riding horses and drinking tea.

One of my favorite days in Uruguay was spent in the countryside, riding horses and drinking tea.

Becoming Asian

Six months ago, I got on a plane and flew across the world to a land completely foreign to me. I didn’t know the language, barely knew the food, and only had vague ideas of the culture from what I’d heard in history class and seen on television. In a lot of ways, it was the same venture that my own parents made when they each left India for the United States. The only difference, albeit a huge one, was that I knew I’d be going back home and they knew they wouldn’t.

I started in nations that were almost completely homogenous—Japan and China—then moved to nations that appeared homogenous but had deep, underlying conflicts of religion, culture and caste, and language—India and Sri Lanka. Finally, I moved to nations that appeared to be success stories of melting pots and diversity, the beautiful picture I have always hoped for America—Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. Yet, even with these visions of perfection, there were darker sides to how it was achieved, an unnerving insight into the people who were crushed under the foundation stones of each society. (FYI: Indigenous populations are treated like shit everywhere.)

When I first arrived to the continent, the politics of self-identification were murky. Each time I had to explain that, yes I was born in America and have an American passport and have always lived there, it somehow stung even more than when these incidents happen at home. It was a double-edged sword of confusion. I saw the remnants of colonialism as brains white washed to think that the image of America was one of a psychotic business man running the country, money and power falling from the sky, and beautiful, skinny white people ruling the world. (The other pain was how parts of these beliefs weren’t far from the truth stretched just an inch further.) But I also questioned my own necessity to identify as such; why was I so uncomfortable, so pained to be seen as Asian?

Loved celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong with Cathy, another Bonderman Fellow, and being able to share and discuss our experiences thus far.

Loved celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong with Cathy, another Bonderman Fellow, and being able to share and discuss our experiences thus far.

As always, the answer to this is also not straightforward. The histories I have with being Asian, specifically Indian, are deep and dark and convoluted. I spent many (subconscious) years hiding my identity and everything about me that made me different. I was ashamed to wear Indian clothing any place that my school friends may see me, I obviously never brought Indian food to school or fed it to my friends when they came over, and I ensured that my knowledge of American pop culture was up to date, even though I wasn't allowed to consume anything besides PBS Kids until the age of 10. Yet, I also had to balance this with working to pursue the dreams my immigrant parents had for me, preserving my heritage in a culture that was all too unfamiliar and willing to erase it.

I learned how to act whiter and, thus, more American. And less Asian. 

But, as I’ve seen over the last several months, being Asian comes in many forms, as does being American. Being an American abroad, and being seen as American, was not so much about nationalism as it was about feeling ownership and prowess when it comes to the English language, being recognized as someone with education and intellect, and as an independent woman who comes from a nation that, ironically, is seen as having a liberal and modern understanding of race, class, relationships, love, and life.

It took me quite some time to come to this realization, and perhaps it only happened in the last few weeks. But I did notice my desire to be identified as an outsider shift once I arrived in India. Suddenly, I looked like those around me and could be part of the group, the first time this has ever happened in my entire life. For those of you who have the privilege to feel this on a daily basis, trust me, it is truly a remarkable sensation to first experience this twenty-two years into my existence.

When I could “pass” as local, I felt a sense of pride. I’m sure there was also a certain elation with paying the cheaper/local prices at tourist spots, but being seen as “one of us” by those around me was a shock. In Japan and China, simply due to the make-up of the nations and my appearance, it had not been possible, and so I chose to identify with what I had been trained to think was the “better” of the two options: American over Asian. But, once I was given the chance to become part of the people, part of a community, my heart and mind took it immediately.

Only a few of the people who have been kind enough to "adopt" me while I was in Asia.

Only a few of the people who have been kind enough to "adopt" me while I was in Asia.

This trend continued as I traveled through Southeast Asia, which houses large diasporas of Indian (and even Sikh) populations who have been calling these countries home for several generations. People, comically, often tried to converse with me in Sinhala, Malay, or a variety of other local languages, so I learned to read body language quite well and give a good enough response through head nodding and shaking to satisfy them. (My accent is still strongly Midwestern, and so I couldn’t afford opening my mouth; it was a dead giveaway.) Although I had felt at home in India, comforted by my ability to navigate the local customs and culture while benefiting from the privilege of being American, I fell even more in love with Southeast Asia, melting pots of cuisines, languages, genetics, and more. I spent significantly more time in the area than I planned—almost triple—and still could not see myself leaving.

In my final days in Asia, my hosts in Singapore summed up my mixed feelings about leaving perfectly. Expats themselves, they had grown up in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, attended school in India, worked and raised children in the UK, and had now been living in Singapore for about five years. In my eyes, the perfect, nomadic existence. But, when I asked how they felt about returning to the UK next year, “going home” in simple terms, I saw anxiety. They told me: “Leaving Asia will be….hard. We never thought we’d leave only to come back. But, in Asia, you’re not the other. You’re simply another. There is no fight for existence.”

Once I was able to let go of my need to be better, fueled by an embarrassment of these identities, and stopped clinging to my American privilege, I saw the beauty in these nations. Their histories run thousands of years deeper than any of the nations by which they were colonized and ravaged, and yet they still strive to succeed despite the ruins that were left behind by greed and desire. In Asia, I saw a chance for many communities to live happily and successfully together with no notion of one deserving it more than the other. I saw the chance to stand in a crowded train during rush hour and be seen and see others as myself, despite physical or mental or emotional difference. After a long time, I saw a chance to be proud in a place that I belong to, and that’s a feeling I hope to hold on to, long after I’ve left.

Asia + Harleen = Bliss :)

Asia + Harleen = Bliss :)

Our Hands Weave Legacies [Guest Post for Earth Heir]

"Not only is the phulkaari a priceless Punjabi cultural relic, it is a piece of my cultural history that ties me to my grandmother. A woman I never had the privilege to meet, as she passed away just a few months before I was born, but a woman with whom—I’m often told—I have many similarities, physical and personality-wise. Each time I trace the neat, clean stitches of the phulkaari, I remember that my grandmother’s hand pieced it together, channeling her own tale into it. A mother of seven, she raised my own mom and my six aunts and uncles, not knowing that almost all of them would leave their small town for the city, and eventually North America. And, with the youngest, my own mother, would come this colorful fabric."

Thrilled to write about a small piece of Punjabi heritage for Earth Heir this week: earthheir.com/our-hands-weave-legacies.