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.

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 :)

Great Expectations, Greater Lessons

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. The school I attended for a good portion of my time in Wisconsin, The Prairie School (the land it was built on used to be a prairie—terrible, I know), was a “college preparatory school.” As part of its philosophy, Prairie prided itself on unique approaches to primary and secondary education. One such method was that we didn’t receive real grades, well, until high school. Rather than traditional letter grades based on a numeric system, we were placed into one of three categories: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, fails to meet expectations.

In many ways, this system was great. Although one could argue that it is subjective, one could say the same about a numeric grading system for particular subjects. With the expectation-based system, the goals could be clearly laid out and a student would simply have to try to achieve those goals. Perhaps this is where my goal-oriented nature came from, but, as a student, I found it easy to understand what my teachers wanted of me and what would allow me to be an excellent student. I still learned a lot, but I also felt the reward of “exceeding.”

However, expectations can also be very bad. Setting up an image in our head before we are even exposed to what we are judging, we often create a situation for ourselves to be let down or disappointed. Many times, though, it is not that the subject did not meet expectations, but that the expectations we selected were not an appropriate method to measure success or achievement. I’m sure this happened with many students at Prairie, as it happens in many other aspects of life.

Kuala Lumpur skyline representing some LGBTQ  equality.

Kuala Lumpur skyline representing some LGBTQ  equality.

When I was planning my time in Kuala Lumpur, I worried about my high expectations. I had decided a few weeks ahead that I wanted to spend a good amount of time there, rather than the couple of days that I had been spending in cities. Throughout my Asia travels, I had met dozens of other travelers who all raved about Kuala Lumpur, many exclaiming that it was their favorite city in Asia. Thus, upon the statements of others and the expectations I had created as a result, I found a WorkAway job in the city so I could spend a longer period of time there, while also keeping myself busy and having a different experience.

It would be a lie if I said I did not have expectations. I knew that the largest Sikh community in Southeast Asia was in Kuala Lumpur, and that the city boasted a diverse community overall. Because of this, I anticipated increased awareness of other identities and communities, beautiful examples of unity and diversity, and an insight into how to successfully create a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. I certainly saw a lot of this, but I also learned about many problems which taught me even more. (I’ll talk about these more in my next blog post.)

I also had many expectations of what my WorkAway experience would be like. As a side note, WorkAway is a cool website that allows travelers like me to work with organizations, communities, or other entities in exchange for room and board. Thus, it allows travelers to save on the necessities while providing much-needed groundwork to the hosts. I found a social enterprise to work with, Earth Heir, and I anticipated doing a lot of blogging and writing for them. Although I did some of this, I also did a lot of things I didn't expect. Like going to a live taping of a Malaysian morning show, meeting with women from an indigenous tribe outside of Kuala Lumpur, and going to a regional conference on micro-finance. Certainly well outside my usual experiences, but it’s been a fascinating experience that I’ve really enjoyed (largely because of my super cool & inspiring boss).

But, the one thing that I’ve had, by far, the most expectations for has been my Bonderman Fellowship. I remember the shock when I initially found out I was a recipient, and the disbelief that followed for many days after. Next came the terror and fear. Would I be able to do this? Could I, of all people, really travel all by myself for eight months? I doubted it. And yet, here I am, almost five months in, and doing completely fine.

Founder of Earth Heir, Sasi, looking over some products with a woman from the Mah Meri indigenous tribe.

Founder of Earth Heir, Sasi, looking over some products with a woman from the Mah Meri indigenous tribe.

The trip has been essentially nothing like what I expected. It’s been a lot easier in some ways and a lot harder in others. There have been days where I wanted to go home and many days where I wished I could make these months last forever. Luckily the latter has largely outnumbered the former.

In many ways, the trip is much calmer than what I expected. I haven’t had to outrun violent riots or bargain for my life in back alleys, I haven’t lost all my belongings with no idea where the nearest embassy is located, and I haven’t met anyone who wants to do me any harm. Basically, it’s everything Western media doesn’t tell you about the rest of the world (surprise, surprise). I’ve met good-hearted, kind, and giving people. I’ve fallen in love with cities and then been heartbroken when I had to move on, only to fall in love again.

That’s the problem with expectations, though. We often think that things need to be a lot grander and outrageous than they are for it to impress us, but it’s been the simplicity of everything that has been the most unexpected and the most beautiful.

Through everything, I’ve been reminded that, a lot of the time, expectations aren’t that great. They may set clear outlines, but they also create a box, limiting what I, what we, can expect of the world around us. Through our expectations, we say that this is what we want and all that we can see happening. Our vision becomes narrower and smaller, allowing for less surprises and learning. So even though these last few months have been nothing like my expectations, they have exceeded anything I could have imagined, and that has been the greatest gift of all. I’m feeling incredibly thankful for all that I’ve learned and even more excited for all that I have yet to see. Most of all, I’m trying to do it with an open mind and no expectations.

Social Entrepreneurship and Earth Heir

Something that should come as a surprise to no one who knows me well is that I'm a bit of a workaholic. (That may also be a bit of an understatement.) One of the hardest parts of this fellowship has actually been the lack of a routine, the lack of work, and not being sure of what exactly I'm moving towards. As time went on, I was able to realize the incredible growth and knowledge that is occurring for me everyday, something that I'm very grateful for. But it was still difficult to continue on this journey that doesn't really have a set destination or path.

I started to love the surprises and the moving and became more comfortable with carrying my entire existence on my back in smelly busses and hot trains and dark taxis. But then—all of a sudden—I was half-way done. The crazy, scary, mysterious 8 months that I'd be spending abroad were already slipping away. From now on, each day would be moving closer to the U.S., a place that now seems a bit scary from afar, and further away from this wonderful journey and these beautiful places and people.

Maybe to find some reassurance or to find something familiar, I reverted back to workaholic Harleen. I found a job.

For the last two weeks, I've been working with Earth Heir, a social enterprise based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Earth Heir focuses on sustainability and ethical fashion, bridging the gap between artisans and those who want to appreciate the art and fashion they're creating. The organization works with artisans in five different countries, designing products that draw from traditional craftsmanship of that culture. Then—the cool part—they help the artisans sell these products and ensure that they receive the price they truly deserve for their work.

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

The last few weeks have flown by (as the rest of the trip), but it's been a blur of meetings and writing and photography and learning. Sustainability and ethical consumerism is, unfortunately, one aspect of public policy I never really experienced, and it's been really fascinating to slow down start that process now. Seeing how much ethical consumerism ties in to race, culture, social class, government, and so many other factors is just another reminder that, if we truly want to be socially conscious beings on this planet, we cannot pick and choose which issues and which people we want to stand up for. It's all interconnected.

One moment that still sticks out is when I was able to meet one of the artisans, Uncle Kl Ng, who crafts beautiful baskets, chairs, tables, and so many other things out of rattan. Below, you can check out a video of him working on the Earth Heir Nelly Bag. The way his hands moved so quickly and effortlessly captured my attention for minutes on end and I was in awe of how much he could make from so little. The way he intertwined pieces of rattan reminded me of all the thoughts and ideas in my head from the last few months, starting from strands and weaving together, one by one, to form this larger, beautiful idea. I think my process still needs a bit more work, however, before it looks as good as Uncle's rattan pieces.

Working with Earth Heir has been a fascinating journey, and I'm excited for all that I'll learn as I continue to work with them over the next couple weeks. Also, keep an eye on the Earth Heir blog, as I'll be writing some fun things for them, as well!

Assalam Alaikum

The somewhat nice thing about traveling is that I’m able to ignore what’s going on back home, at least to some degree. At a time when Islamophobia and white supremacism seems to be on the rise, it’s nice to be able to disengage and just focus on what’s in front of me.

Home seems both very distant and very near right now. As I enjoy the tropical weather around me, I’m thrown off by the abundance of Christmas carols and decorations everywhere. I rarely read the news, but I also don’t need to because every time I meet someone and they hear I’m American, they share their views on the election and most recent Donald Trump incident, keying me into the fact that things are, essentially, still getting worse. For the first time in my life, I’m actually thankful to be away from home because I truly believe that I am safer outside the US than I would be in it. The worst interactions I've had in the last few weeks have actually been due to the animosity of fellow Americans. And those feelings alone are ones that I’m having trouble reconciling with my traditional feelings of home.

Definitely one of the most unique mosques I've seen—Jamiul Alfar Mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Definitely one of the most unique mosques I've seen—Jamiul Alfar Mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Recently, my brother found out he was accepted into U of M for next fall, to no one’s surprise but his own. After the initial excitement died down, we started talking about logistical things that come with college, whether he decides to attend U of M or not. Discussing potential majors and programs, sports and extra curriculars, we landed on the subject of roommates. Knowing that I went in blind for roommate selection my freshman year (and had a wonderful result), my brother started mentioning the idea of doing the same.

I paused for a moment, first asking him whether one of his closest friends, a Muslim boy from his school, had been accepted. My brother said he had. “Well, you know, not that this should be the only reason you guys are roommates, but it may be smart to live together. Just because, you know, as a practicing Sikh and practicing Muslim, in this day and age, you can’t really guarantee that going in blind will be okay, or even safe, anymore.” As soon as the words had left my mouth, I immediately felt ashamed for even putting the thought in his brain. “Actually, sorry, forget it.” “No, no, you’re right…I’ll talk to him.” Our conversation moved on.

I am constantly in awe of the South Asian, but specifically Sikh diaspora, that I see throughout the continent. In Hong Kong, in Bangkok, and I’m sure in other Asian cities I will visit, the Sikh community has truly thrived. I was fortunate enough to be in Hong Kong when the Sikh community there was protesting against current social injustices in Punjab (which you can read about in my past blog post). I only had a few hours before my flight to India, but I was able to join them, and it was an eye-opening experience.

As we marched down streets from the gurdwara to the Indian embassy on Hong Kong Island, we saw crowds gather and traffic stop. Police was guarding the cordoned off lanes the entire way, but I felt something different from what I normally feel in the US. Rather than feel nervous, that the police were there to ensure that we didn’t do any damage, they actually felt like they were protecting us, the protestors. Many on the street engaged in conversation, and cars stopped to take photos of the signs that youth were carrying. At no point was there any animosity, simply curiosity for what had taken over Hong Kong’s busy streets that day. Honestly, it was how things are supposed to be in a modern community.

Ironically, it was in South Asia, where Sikhism was created, that I have faced the most trouble. I was denied entry to a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka because I refused to remove my dastaar (Sikh turban), which the guards saw as a security threat. In India, I had to be careful in my own home state of Punjab as police and government prevented Sikhs from peacefully protesting the unjust conditions that the government has created for decades. In a conversation with some close friends the other day, we realized the sad reality. In the two places we should feel the safest, the US and India, we are probably the most at risk. In our homelands past and present, it is where our identity is most misunderstood and targeted.

In Islam, the traditional greeting is “assalam alaikum,” directly translating to “may peace be upon you.” Ironically, this faith community is one that is experiencing anything but peace right now. Through the demonization of an international community, the safety of Muslims, and other communities, has been forgotten. As in the US, I’ve been mistaken for Muslim more times than I can count on this trip, even by other Muslims themselves! Yet it has brought a strange calm, because rather than the confusion being led by anger, disgust, and hatred, it comes from a place of love and familiarity. It comes from people who are also trying to find their place in the world through a community that they love, and are simply being accused for the bad actions of a few.

I’m discouraged by the fact that my home is a place that I can no longer trust to keep me safe, but also inspired by the success stories of community that I’ve seen through my travels. I’ve seen that it is possible to cherish many types of people without hurting others and it is possible to be knowledgeable about various identities, and even be respectful if you aren’t. Most of all, I hope that the US can start to re-learn that the most success happens when you realize that there is always room to improve, and that there are always more strides to go to reach the top.

Diaspora, Nostalgia, & Becoming Something

Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.
— Salman Rushdie

Out of all the questions I get about the Bonderman Fellowship—from “how did you convince your school to give you $20,000?” to “how does your husband feel about you traveling the world alone?”—there’s one that I, somewhat surprisingly, have barely been asked. Why did you even want to do this fellowship?

The only time I remember someone asking me is actually during the interview for the fellowship. I recall the anecdotes I shared of being first-generation American, wanting to work with immigrant populations in my future career, and hoping to understand these identities before I begin my work. I talked about past internships on Capitol Hill and with advocacy organizations, future hopes of a career in policy and education, and a desire to bring together communities who have been separated by their individual and collective struggles in finding new homes. I thought that, through these months of traveling, I could start to string together an idea of what these identities mean and how they are translated across oceans and miles of earth. But, as it often is, even this has proven to be much more difficult and complicated than I expected.

you broke the ocean in

half to be here

only to meet nothing that wants you

–immigrant
— Nayyirah Waheed

In my trip to Sri Lanka, I decided to make a small change in how I had been traveling. Rather than try to travel throughout the country and visit a variety of places, I wanted to simply get to know one place, one community, very well. I was lucky to find an incredible host family in the south, in an area called Dharga Town. Part of the Tamil Muslim population of Sri Lanka, they also knew the notion of being a minority in your own home. I also resonated with their ideas of many homes, of being part of the diasporic identities that define so many generations today. Although from Sri Lanka, the husband and wife had spent many years in Malaysia, while the wife pursued higher education. Four of their five children were born there before they returned to Sri Lanka, and the oldest ones have fond memories of their early childhood in Kuala Lumpur.

One night, after dinner, I was speaking with the wife as the five kids slowly nodded off after a long day of school and play. She shared stories of her time in Kuala Lumpur, of her classmates, and all the outings and adventures they would have. She talked about how much she loved the diversity of her school, and all the different cultures she was able to learn about. This, in part, is what inspired her and her husband to start hosting travelers. They wanted their children to continue to learn about the world, even after leaving the melting pot of KL. As she talked, she paused on a story of one of her friends who had moved to the States. “You know, she got married and left, and I never really heard from her again….I guess that’s what happens when people leave.”

Just a few weeks later, my dad was sent to India for a business trip, specifically to his childhood city of New Delhi. I called him a day or so after his arrival to ask how he was enjoying it, particularly because it was also his first time back in 16 years. All he said was, “Everything is different. It’s all changed.” It was enough for me to understand. Even in all my moving around in the States, I’ve never been able to move past my anxiety of change. Because it’s inevitable. As much as our prior hometowns and friends and families change, so do we. And when we “come home” or try to “go back,” there’s only hints of what we used to know.

The formation of a diaspora could be articulated as the quintessential journey into becoming; a process marked by incessant regroupings, recreations, and reiteration. Together these stressed actions strive to open up new spaces of discursive and performative postcolonial consciousness.
— Okwui Enwezor

The struggle of diaspora, of immigrants, is not only the struggle to have others understand your identity, but even to figure out how to identify yourself. We are constantly changing through our experiences, defined by the communities around us and the labels attached to us. When someone asks, “where are you from?” they hope to create an image of you based on notions of a country that you simply reside in, whose own history often does not reflect your own.

Above photos: Although not much physical difference in the famous Taj Mahal hotel over the 30+ years since my dad last saw it, the history of it has changed. In 2008, the Taj experienced a terrorist attack in which hundreds were taken hostage and killed inside this hotel, and many others, in Mumbai. Events change things as much as appearance.

As I’ve tried to gain an understanding of the immigrant experience, I’ve seen how varied and intricate identities can be, whether it is that of one community or even an individual. Even a person who has lived in one town their entire life is impacted by the separate parts of their collective identity, and it is all these parts together that shape the way they view their world. Through traveling, I’ve become more realistic about how much I can truly learn about the countries I’m visiting and the cultures that I’m experiencing. Although I can gain small bits of knowledge and broaden my awareness to become more accepting, in reality, I still won’t know that much more about these communities than when I began.

So, then, how can I work towards my goal of creating a better environment for immigrants and their children in the US, particularly given today’s political climate? I think it comes through aiding this journey of “becoming,” and creating an environment that allows an immigrant to fully delve in and start their process of consciousness in a new home. Ensuring that basic measures are taken for the health, safety, and happiness of these communities will allow them to focus on creating their own notion of self and family in a new nation. As we all try to open our minds and hearts to these communities, even though they may be much different than our own, we must understand that it is a mutual process of learning. Diaspora is not just about the country that a people left behind, but also the place that they’ve landed, and the people who embrace you and ask, “how can we make you feel at home?”—rather than turn their backs—make all the difference.

The Colonized Mind

I sat on the crowded, cement bleachers watching school children rush down to the street in their wrinkled, white and navy blue uniforms. Old speakers blared grainy-quality bhangra and Bollywood music as dozens of girls formed smaller circles with their friends, their shoulders bouncing up and down while their hands circled the air above them.  Indian soldiers stood by watching, keeping the boys in the bleachers to form their own lines of friends, making their best effort to show off their dancing skills in the crowded seating area. Keeping the boys separate from the girls was apparently the easiest way to assume nothing too scandalous—or dangerous—happened. After watching for a few minutes, I started to let my mind wander, watching some construction workers repairing the bleachers across the road. One of the worker’s toddler ran back and forth on one of the rows, keeping himself occupied while his father made money for their dinner.

Suddenly, there was a roar from the crowd, and I looked back down to the street. A few white tourists—again, only females—had joined the dancing students, causing excitement for the local Indians. The crowd cheered and clapped while school girls quickly brought the women into their circles, teaching them moves from the most recent Bollywood film. Pre-teen girls fought over the white women, and I watched as one of the tourists stepped back to pull out her iPhone and take a video of her friends with the school girls, then turning around to film the crowd cheering them on. I wondered how she would caption it when she shared it on social media.

Crowd waiting for the daily flag lowering ceremony at Waga border, the only open entry point between India and Pakistan.

Crowd waiting for the daily flag lowering ceremony at Waga border, the only open entry point between India and Pakistan.

I lifted my eyes again, first to the right, where the Indian flag flew in the wind above a portrait of Gandhi, and then to the left where the Pakistani flag flew above a portrait of Nehru. In between stood the metal gate, separating two pieces of land which used to be one. I looked down at the ground where I sat—at the breaking point of Punjab—between portraits of the two men who split an entire people into two.

***

After a delicious lunch at a Himalayan restaurant, I walked through the old architecture along the water in Hauz Khas with a friend from Michigan. She, Indian-American like me, had moved to Delhi after undergrad, and we were spending the afternoon catching up.

We make our way through holes and stairwells, jumping off ledges where a step or two have broken from stone to rubble. A few passerby hear bits of our American English and glance at us, but, after seeing our faces and the color of our skin, most assume their ears have played a trick on them, and they continue talking with their own friends.

My friend talks about living in India and passing as local, I talk about traveling through and passing as local, even though I know less about India than the ex-pats living here. We make our way back to the parking lot where we will go our separate ways. As we walk towards the exit, a group of three Indian boys almost runs into us, as two of the boys hold back one of their friends who seems to be running after something.

My friend and I follow his gaze and see a white girl, walking away, not realizing what is happening behind her. The boys laugh and shove each other playfully and my friend and I share a knowing glance, barely leaving a pause in our conversation as we continue walking.

***

“Aap kahaan se hain?”

Where are you from?

Sometimes I say Punjab, sometimes Delhi, sometimes I say both. Wherever I am, I tend to say somewhere besides there. But, for the most part, I’ve stopped saying America.

If I did, their faces would scrunch up with confusion, and I know they would want to ask the never-ending follow-up: No, where are you really from? Even in India, it seems I can’t escape this question.

Traditional Indian banyan tree, known for large branches that extend down to the ground, creating new roots and thus new trees.

Traditional Indian banyan tree, known for large branches that extend down to the ground, creating new roots and thus new trees.

When describing someone who has come to visit, or a person who is from another place, Punjabis will describe said person as “baahro(n) aaieaa,” or from “the outside.” In America, I am also often told that I am an outsider. White tourists in India look at me as if I am infringing on their perfectly manicured vacation and white Americans want me to leave “their” country.

So, although I feel a twinge of guilt each time I lie about where I’m from, how else can I describe everything that happened and continues to happen in the dash between Indian and American? How do I quickly explain that my dad came alone for better educational opportunities and my mom fled from government corruption and genocide? How do I explain in a few sentences that, even with my thick midwestern accent and American passport, I still struggle to find my identity in a nation I call home? How do I summarize that my parents fought battles I cannot even fathom so that I could one day travel the world on someone else’s dollar?

“Mai Dilli se hoo(n).”

“Mai Punjab tho(n) hai.”

I’m from Delhi, I’m from Punjab.

At least here I am.

***

A Nepali man in Goa makes a circling motion around his head, then signals to mine and asks me, “You do this every day? In America, too?”

I realize that all men, whether in India and America, ask the same questions.

***

India may have gained her democratic freedom in 1947, but the minds of the people are still trapped in socially constructed ideologies from the West and fallout from the politics of more than one hundred years of British colonization.

Essentially every Indian I talked to—from a rich business man to a humble rickshaw driver—admitted that India’s government is as corrupt as it gets, despite boasting “the world’s largest democracy.” Yet, it is always in a matter-of-fact tone, as if reporting the weather. Apparently it is something that no one can change, as India has been ensnared in generations of bribery and family squabbles and a never-ending chase to please the Western nations that ruined it.

One of my favorite books I read in undergrad, perhaps for biased reasons, was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Reading it was one of the first times that I felt any sort of nostalgia for India as a nation, or motherland, and when I started to gain an understanding of the meaning of the dash between my two intertwined ethnicities:

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, everyone of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.

In remembering this quote, I found some peace for my confusion, for why I actually feel at home in a nation that has caused so much pain for my community. Why, as soon as I landed, it felt like 16 years had passed in the blink of an eye. Even in a country whose government would blame me for my own murder, because I decided to be a Sikh, or my own rape, because I was stupid enough to be born a woman. Even here, I for some reason feel like I belong.

Despite all of its wrongdoing and injustice, India has reminded me that I am part of a larger world and a history that started before me and will continue after me. Nations will be born whose names I will never know and other nations will disappear before my eyes, just like my own Punjab has. But my duty is to remember that I am part of this, as we are all part of this world. And it is all of our words and actions together that will create a history for future generations, from which they can create their own version of the world.

Punjab is Burning

In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.
— Octavia E. Butler

To travel properly through Punjab, to see its acres of farmland and roadside dhabas, its colorfully painted trucks and tractors blasting keertan and bhangra music, one must take a bus. Varying in size and comfort, from people sitting on the floor and on luggage to each person having their own seat with a Bollywood movie playing in the front, these busses go from Delhi all the way east to Amritsar, where Punjab was cracked in two, all the way south to Chandigarh, where the mountains provide a backdrop to the perfectly organized city.

These bus rides often last hours for even short distances, due to narrow roads that didn't foresee the invention of the automobile. Bus drivers weave through scooters and cows, tractors and rickshaws, hoping to make it to the destination at least relatively on-time. Between acres of farmland will come quick bursts of towns and cities, filled with shops and lights and food and honking horns, only to be followed by the peace of farmland again.

Riding during the day allows one to take all of this in. At one point on a recent bus ride, I smelled smoke, and looked outside to be shocked by flames leaping up in the middle of a field with black smoke billowing in the air. It seemed that it would take everything with it—burn down the whole state—as the dried crops could be easy fuel. But I noticed this multiple times on my ride, and researching it later, found that burning excess from paddy straw is common to decrease the cost of disposing it properly. Unfortunately, this has had negative side effects for the local environment and crop.

Punjabi culture is vibrant. Our food, our clothes, our shops, and even our language bleed colors more than most could imagine. But painted against the brown and dying fields, the dried river beds, and polluted gray skies, these colors only serve as a reminder of how far we've fallen.

Looking up at Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

Looking up at Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

Punjab directly translates to five (punj/panj) rivers (ab). The land of five rivers. But after partition some of these rivers and a lot of land went to Pakistan and what was left for the Sikhs was taken by India, one by one. But history started long before partition, and is too much to cover in a few hundred words. What we've been left with is a diasporic community spread across nations and continents, a community divided in a broken homeland, and leaders who look like us but would rather see us bleed than lose their own throne.

If you want to know what nostalgia smells like, come to Punjab. It's in the air, foggy from smoke and car exhaust. It's in the streets with a family begging on one corner while an overly-lavish banquet hall is filled with wedding festivities of the upper class (or here, as they say, caste). It's in the brown fields and dirty, yet still limited, water. It's in the broken down houses, cars, and shops, once surely seen as signs of grandeur. It's in the music...

A lot of bhangra songs are about how great it is to be Punjabi, and most of us like them, being traditional feel-good, pump-up songs. One time though, with one of these playing in the background, my mom told me, "I used to love these songs, but now I hate them. They've left nothing for us to be proud of."

The last few weeks, months, years, have been hard for Punjab. But, again, there's too much to cover here. All you need to know is that, for the first time in decades, Sikhs came together to say enough. We've seen enough bloodshed and let enough go, it's time to take a stand. Hundreds of thousands of Sikhs collectively came to the consensus to remove current political puppets and find ways to self-advocate and put the power back in the people's hands. The process may have been rushed or flawed some will say, but it was also the first time in decades that a broken people made an attempt to mend.

I selfishly missed the beauty in this until it was almost over. Wanting to attend the event myself, I was caught up in my own anger when government-blocked roads succeeded in stopping me. I wanted to be a part of this community and faith—one I've felt distanced from for quite some time, something I didn't admit out loud until I saw how my frustration had blinded me into making the same mistake as too many other Punjabis.

Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

You see, I believe Punjabis are born with broken hearts, mirroring our own land that has been conquered and divided too many times to count. This does not mean our hearts are small though. Rather, we often give far too many second chances, have expectations that are far too high, and foolishly think that everyone else will return the immense levels of love that we give out.

I strongly believe that Punjab will rise, soon and strongly, without hesitation. Yet all great things take time and work and suffering. We often keep compromising with each fall, saying that we will make things work, and it's not until we're at the bottom of the well that we see that we should've fought harder to stay above ground.

Sign at Jallianwala Bagh describing how at least 120 people jumped to their death in a well instead of being shot during an unprecedented attack by the ruling British. Amritsar, Punjab.

Sign at Jallianwala Bagh describing how at least 120 people jumped to their death in a well instead of being shot during an unprecedented attack by the ruling British. Amritsar, Punjab.

In order to move forward though, we need to stop repeating the mistakes of those who have oppressed us. Including women in these conversations is essential. Sikhi is a faith that actively preaches gender equality and the significance of females, yet the involvement and acknowledgement of women has been close to zero. There is also a need for the empowerment of youth, as they will be the ones to carry the movement forward into the next generation.

Most importantly, though, I believe in the power of diaspora. Most commentaries on the notion of diaspora talk about the pain of a community splintering and trying to create new hyphenated identities, but through the last few days, I saw its renewed strength. Sikhs do not just belong to Punjab anymore. We belong to Kuala Lumpur, which holds the largest gurdwara in southeast Asia, boasting a community of nearly 800,000. We belong to Canada, where Punjabi is now the third-most spoken language in its Parliament. We belong to the U.S. and the U.K., we belong to Kenya and Chile. Sikhs have grown and spread and put down roots in many more places than Punjab. And uniting these communities, including all of its voices, will strengthen our fight for our homeland.

Overlooking Anandpur Sahib.

Overlooking Anandpur Sahib.

Punjab has gone through lifetimes of violence, bloodshed, wrongful incarcerations of our community leaders, rape of our women, murders of our children, and representation by our own who then go on to put their own financial success above the lives of Punjabis. Punjab will move past this; the wheels have already started rolling, and will continue to until we're back in green farmland and blue skies and have rulers of our own.

But first, Punjab will burn.


More Information/Additional Reading

To read more about the Sarbat Khalsa meeting that just occurred, involving the traditional Sikh process of communal gathering and resolutions, check out the following websites:

http://sarbatkhalsausa.com/faq/ (What is Sarbat Khalsa?)

http://sarbatkhalsausa.com/ (information on Sarbat Khalsa meetings in US)

https://www.facebook.com/revivesarbatkhalsa/ (acting as central data repository for US Sikhs & more)

To read more background on recent events in Punjab, check out this primer:

http://www.jakara.org/punjab2015

To read more about the impact of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan on Punjab, check out the following articles:

http://www.global.ucsb.edu/punjab/journal/v19_2/Sandhu.pdf

http://faculty.washington.edu/brass/Partition.pdf

To read about recent government-induced violence against Sikhs in Punjab and India,, check out the following report:

http://ensaaf.org/publications/reports/descriptiveanalysis/

To learn more about Sikhs in general, check out the link below:

http://sikhcoalition.org/resources/about-sikhs

Feel free to reach out with any additional questions!

Lessons from China (or why museums are the best)

Just like that, another month and another country have passed by. This trip is going so much faster than I expected, so I took the last week to reflect and recuperate in Hong Kong. China certainly proved to be a challenging and trying experience, but I'm excited about all the connections I made, all the personal growth I saw, and, of course, all I learned. Here's what I'm leaving with:

History is Often about Who Discovered It and When

I've always been a museum junkie. Perhaps it's because my childhood was shaped by them. Instead of trips to the movies or arcades or wherever else kids spent their free time, my dad took every opportunity he could—even on family vacations—to take me to a museum. So, whenever there's been a rainy day so far, I had no pause about how I would spend it.

Poly-chrome glazed statues, developed during the Tang Dynasty.

Poly-chrome glazed statues, developed during the Tang Dynasty.

One such day in Xi'an, I made my way to the Shaanxi History Museum, the largest museum in the province. I became a part of the large holiday crowds and snaked through tourist groups, taking extra care to find the few descriptions that had been loosely translated to English. I remember the pangs of jealousy as I saw others deeply discussing the artifacts in front of them, reading detailed timelines and historical contexts. I suppose I could have spent money on a guided English tour, but I'm still very much in frugal college student mode and find it hard to spend on anything more than food and a roof over my head.

What I could read, however, were the titles and dates of all the objects, and this was enough to leave an impact. As I went from one object to the next, I saw bronze vessels from over 3000 years ago, the start of modern-day ceramics, and Buddha statues scraping the ceiling. Although I shouldn't have been surprised, all I kept thinking was how much more vast this country's history was compared to the US, and yet if not for an awesome AP World teacher, I would have heard nothing about it.

Walter Benjamin said that "History is written by the victors," but it's also written by those who gave themselves the power to write it. China's history, as well as India and many other colonized nations, is thousands of generations deeper than the US, but youwouldn't know it by watching our news or asking the average student what they know about the countries on the other side of the globe in their classroom.

I keep reminding myself that all of these issues are deeply intertwined with modern-day problems with immigration and international policy. Western nations' refusal to acknowledge the significance and contributions of other nations started with the first white man that docked a ship on land that wasn't his and will continue with the Donald Trumps and Rush Limbaughs of the world. Until we see that history is more colorful and intricate and deeper than we can ever know, and we acknowledge all the players in this complicated story, we cannot understand the full picture.

The Importance and Power of Communication

China is filled with expats. The opportunity to teach English is not limited in any sense. As someone with a degree in English, and several years of teaching experience, I was pushed even further towards this type of work. Thus, a week of my time in China was spent in the beautiful village of Yangshuo, at an English college for adults.

I had only taught children before, so the idea of having students that were all my age or older was a bit nerve-wracking. I also had very mixed feelings about teaching English, not wanting to contribute to the notion that one must speak English to have success, but also understanding that I have privilege in being able to hold that opinion, too. After all, it is only because my parents were able to leave India that I "speak English like they do on TV," as I've been told time and time again.

Perhaps I let go of these emotions because of how much I bonded with the students and other teachers, or because I couldn't find an answer for my internal debate. But, one day (at yet another museum I should add), I stumbled upon a page from the Canton Weekly News, a paper for the Guangdong region.

Excerpt from the Canton Weekly News regarding the existence of a bilingual paper.

Excerpt from the Canton Weekly News regarding the existence of a bilingual paper.

In it, the paper justified its usage of both Cantonese and English, stating that through this bilingual existence, they allowed a link between multiple worlds, and also gave a chance for those learning new languages to practice and understand.

I also thought about the number of times I had felt frustrated or lonely or powerless because of my lack of language skills in Japan and China. How many times I had wished that learning Japanese or Mandarin could happen in a few days instead of a few years. I thought about how much power my students talked about feeling once they had reached the upper level classes, and how much shame came with not being able to speak English for the new students. With language comes identity and with identity comes pride. It is all about a level of self-recognition.

In this, I realized the issue is not that people want to learn English, it is that native English-speakers often refuse to learn other languages. The number of expats I met who had lived in China for years even and could not speak a single word in Mandarin nor Cantonese was astounding. These individuals perhaps felt that (and many unashamedly said this) they did not need to learn another language because they knew the only one that matters. And perhaps in some ways this is true, but only because people continue to state it as the truth. In denying the importance of a language, you deny the importance of a people. By validating communication between all types of people, all levels of literacy, and all different languages, we can open up new worlds, just like the Canton Weekly News hoped to do.

We're More Similar—and Different—Than We Think

On yet another rainy day at a museum, this time in Shanghai, I wandered through more than five floors of exhibits to see as much as I could before the museum closed in a few hours. I knew that I couldn't see everything, so I picked up a museum map and checked to see what caught my eye. Immediately, one exhibit stuck out: the Chinese Minority Nationalities' Art Gallery. I made my way up to the top floor and walked into the exhibit, immediately struck by colors and patterns all over.

I wandered around, taking in beautiful coats, pants, dresses, jewelry, weapons, theatre props, and more—all handmade, as I had to keep telling myself. What was even more remarkable than the the incredible designs and details, however, was how much these things reminded me of others.

I saw a headdress that reminded me of Native American headdresses. Uyghur designs pulled from all parts of the Muslim world, reminding me of both South Asian and Arab designs. The theatrical masks were reminiscent of those I had seen in Japan. The more I saw, the more I remembered other things I had once seen. The diversity of China was not only its own, but also of the whole world.

In China, I saw things unlike that which I had ever seen before, some which I'm sure I did not understand, but I also met strangers with whom I connected within our first five minutes of conversation. I did my best do broaden my understanding outside of what I had been taught of China and I believe that I did, but I look forward to continuing my learning and continuing to move forward.

Traditional outfits showcased in the Chinese Minority Nationalities' gallery.

Traditional outfits showcased in the Chinese Minority Nationalities' gallery.

love letters to china, part iii

china,

i'm quite awful at goodbyes, which you'll see in just a few days now.

what is home really? as a girl who lived in three states and attended school in at least five different school districts before college, i'm not sure that i'm qualified to speak on this. (you'd think this would make me better at goodbyes, too. sadly not.) but somehow, i feel that traveling to more places has allowed me to better realize what this four letter word could possibly mean.

Father showing son around Beijing.

Father showing son around Beijing.

teaching at english to adults a school in yangshuo, i spent my "cultural presentation" night talking about the history of chinese americans. i felt that it would touch on both my students' history and my own. when i finished, a young man asked me, "would you ever go back to india?"

my mind fixated on the idea of "going back," since i had never arrived in india in the first place, but i tried to share—in my simplest english—the current state of affairs. thinking of the bloodshed and the police brutality and the government-mandated curfew and how i could never go back because punjab and especially india were never mine to begin with. but never was america. and so i cannot go back to anywhere.

my first night in shanghai, my dad's old colleague took me out to dinner and remarked how on his recent business trip to mumbai he had realized how similar india and china were. i nodded and tried to say something intelligent, but i had never thought about it before, to be honest. how could i, since i'm not even sure what india is like to begin with? yet i have always been homesick for the land i do not know.

china has been a funny experience because it has both made me thankful for parts of america i did not even think to be thankful for, but it has also made me feel welcome in new places and given me friends and companionship and confidence and strength. it has taught me how to bargain a vendor in a language i can barely count to ten in and how to signal for which fruit or dumplings i want to buy for breakfast and how to pick street food based on photos and semi-familiar chinese signs.

thank you, china, for making me feel home.

thank you for teaching me and reminding me how we are more similar than different. how even in the deepest parts of your history i am reminded of my own—both the american and punjabi parts of it. your rice terraces remind me of farmland in punjab and midwestern america, your neon lights and skyscrapers reminiscent of new york, your tuk tuks and scooters and traffic like the streets in india, and your pride and strength like all people have—or hope to have—of their own home.

Muslim Quarter shops, Xi'an

Muslim Quarter shops, Xi'an

what is home, really? i think it's the woman doing laundry in front of her house who smiles and gives directions without me even asking, through gestures and laughs, when she sees me wandering lost in the streets. it's the driver who cannot find my hostel at the address i gave him but signals for me to wait in the car while he runs up and down side streets in the pouring rain until he sees it. it's sitting in the lawn of a mosque after friday prayer and seeing all the kurtas and hijabs walk out into the street to the rest of their weekend. it's the street vendor who recognizes me from the day before and that i don't eat meat and brings up the same order for me again. it's the farmer who helps me get my bike out of a ditch when i take a wrong turn and end up losts in the villages of yangshuo county.

i sit in a bus and watch a grandma confidently eat cherries, or some fruit that looks like them, spitting the seeds to the ground without a second glance. i wish that i had the same confidence, to look forward and get rid of what is not needed without a doubt. i see how the sun has wrinkled her skin after years in the fields and happiness has wrinkled the corners of her eyes. perhaps she is going to pick up groceries from the next town or maybe she is going to see family. we make a stop and another woman gets on, they know each other, and they exchange banter lightly with laughs. eventually the second woman goes further back in the bus to sit down. the grandma returns to her cherries, seeds falling to the ground, her eyes never looking away from home.

love always,

h

love letters to china, part ii

hi again china,

how many foreigners have you seen on your country roads, grin plastered to their face, as they felt the wind while they fly across the dirt on their rented bikes? how many tourists have wandered the bund at night, their smiling eyes lit up by the neon lightbulbs that make it feel like day time? how many travelers have trekked with their backpacks across your paved sidewalks and dirt roads and felt as if they were discovering more of themselves than the foreign land they found themselves in?

Cycling around Yangshuo County.

Cycling around Yangshuo County.

i know i am not the first, but you made me feel like it. i felt like i was new, as i uttered semi-profound statements at late nights in hostels, my "friends" that i had made (not even 6 hours earlier) nodding and sharing their own profundities. we find love in all that is even semi-familiar because none of it is.

i hang out with the white american male who says stupid things with a confident arrogance that makes me want to break out my middle-school tae kwon do skills. but i stay quiet because the nasal way he pronounces his vowels and his familiarity with the great lakes and american politics remind me of home. i wander yongkang road in shanghai, filled with only expat bars, no intention to enter, but just letting the english roll off me. my ears miss familiar words. even as i sit in a much-too-expensive coffee shop, owned by an american, listening to the french girls next to me, i feel at home because the way they laugh and gesture and joke reminds me of it.

people told me before i left that the first time i would truly feel homesick is when i actually fell ill. perhaps this is true. but even as i learned how to vomit into a squat toilet, i felt that i had actually come home. by making me feel pain, i had felt welcome, because this is how america has taught me to understand home. there is not happiness without a great struggle, and my time here has certainly been a bit of both.

i have wondered almost every day when it is right and when it is okay for me to challenge others when they say something i find upsetting. somehow, in this cross-cultural, worlds away experience, it is no longer black and white. the anti-black jokes and privileged statements and debates about immigration and american politics all take a new spin because i am not in america but i am america now. i am part of the problem.

Biking on the old city wall, Xian.

Biking on the old city wall, Xian.

sometimes i pass as someone from a neighboring land but as soon as i open my mouth my words and accent betray me and if it's not that it's the blue booklet of paper in my purse that gives me a ticket to almost anywhere. here, i am part of the problem. i'm the country that can't give up its love of killing machines enough to see that we're killing ourselves. i'm the country whose police are allowed to decide who lives and dies without trial. and i am the country that thinks any country that isn't white enough isn't good enough. because i am part of the problem, i think i cannot speak against it.

but it is good for me to realize this responsibility. as a woman of color in the u.s., i can often get by without claiming any, simply shouting about the discrimination i face and forgetting the ways i benefit too. your people have challenged me to see that i do have a role in all that goes wrong, because simply disagreeing is not enough. i see it in the way people bargain and how they don't stand in line and the manner in which they live. if something doesn't suit you, if something isn't right, you can't count on anyone to change it but yourself.

the first time i felt content in china—in urban china—was when i was pushing my way through crowds in the hutongs in nanluoguxiang during golden week. yes, the week where literally every single chinese person has holiday and all flock to the most famous parts of the country, like this market in beijing. yet, it was in this crowd, with all these people, smelling the food and the roar of voices and vendors shouting out their prices and goods, and families finding each other, celebrating together, that i finally felt why i had come.

i don't think i've ever fallen in love, but i believe that was the moment, if we were really two people to have a romantic relationship together. that was the one i would recall. in that moment i knew that i had come to see a people who had a history deeper than time itself and a beauty that no quality of camera or photo could capture and a culture that no number of blog posts or love letters or words could convey.

i had come to see this with my own eyes so, for the rest of my life, i could close my eyes each night and see it painted across the blacks of my eyelids for me to remember in my dreams.

yours truly,

harleen

New favorite coffee shop—in between a mountain and a farm in Yangshuo County.

New favorite coffee shop—in between a mountain and a farm in Yangshuo County.

English, Japanese, and the Choice to Westernize

I keep pinching myself, expecting that I’ll soon wake up from this weird and crazy dream. Ten full days have already passed since I arrived in Japan and it still seems surreal that I’m halfway across the world in a country where I can’t communicate much more beyond hello, goodbye, and thank you.

Tokyo skyline from the Metropolitan Government Building.

Tokyo skyline from the Metropolitan Government Building.

The last week or so has both felt like an eternity and the blink of an eye. Spending my first six days in Tokyo ended up being fascinating because of its strange similarity to Times Square, but also the shock I received when I was not able to have a meaningful conversation with most people around me. Having spent the last few summers living in big U.S. cities, I had no trouble navigating public transit or other aspects of city life, but the issues came in ordering food (considering both the language barrier and all my dietary restrictions) or even trying to make friends in my hostels. I found myself trying to learn about a culture and country with no way to ask questions, or even just listen and learn.

Yet, even without doing much communicating in my first few days, I was able to see and learn a lot. I spent my first day visiting the famous temples and shrines of Nikko, where I saw the historic appreciation for and representation of Buddhism in Japan. The next day, I was thrown into the opposite environment as I visited the crazy streets of Shibuya, Harajuku, and Omotesandō. These districts are known to be the go-to shopping neighborhoods in Tokyo, and with the shops come large crowds and Japanese pop culture. As I walked down the streets, it was strange to see stores like Zara and Louis Vuitton—reminiscent of 5th Avenue in Manhattan—but still have the street signs and conversations remind me that I was very much away from home.

The third day, however, finally provided some insight for me into Japanese history and culture. I visited the largest collection of Japanese art at the Tokyo National Museum and, mostly due to descriptions being in English, I was able to understand the progression of Japan from the traditional castles and the Tokugawa shogunate to today's bustling cities and skylines.

Although the museum started off with more traditional Japanese art, the section that caught my attention was from the Meiji period, which was when Japan shifted from its final stages of feudal society into a more Western form. Although many countries went through some sort of industrialization during the late 1800s to early 1900s, it is interesting to see Japan's somewhat active role in this process.

Many descriptions in the museum (pictured below) discussed how the role of art came into play. Emperors and rulers of Japan realized that the traditional Japanese style was not appealing to the West, and so renowned artists were sent to Europe to study and make their art more appealing. Thus, although Japan was one of the few Eastern countries to avoid colonization in a direct manner, they were still impacted by the pressure to Westernize in order to "keep up" with Europe and the United States. The choice to become Western, then, was actually not one, but just another manner in which a non-white country was deemed lesser or not modern because of its decision to maintain its own customs and traditions.

Nevertheless, Japan has kept much of its original culture, whether it is through its shrines, temples, and practice of Buddhism, or through the almost nonexistence of English throughout the country. They are one of the few non-white countries to be seen as "first world," but have still maintained a strong sense of identity. Although I found this fascinating, it has also been incredibly jarring. Many times while walking through the city streets, I would suddenly stumble upon a small shrine surrounded by skyscrapers. Other times, I would leave some of the most historical temples in Tokyo to be greeted by bright, neon lights and food stalls.

This constant dichotomy between Japan versus the West was strangely, but perhaps unsurprisingly, mimicking my own dichotomy between being abroad as a woman of color and American. As I found myself constantly switching environments, I also had to navigate being one of very few non-white tourists, but still being a tourist. I felt burdened by guilt each time yet another local had to switch to English to speak with me or I could not remember the right words in Japanese or could not produce the correct amount of currency.

Each of these moments have been reminders of my American privilege and how they are going to be critical in traveling to these countries. For, each time I fail to fit in, I will be accommodated because I am American. It is also a stark contrast to the experiences my own parents had in immigrating to the U.S., and the experiences that many American immigrants have, in being shamed to learn and adapt as quickly as they can.

These humbling reminders of my privilege have already made me more critical of my own actions, but also increased my desire to better understand my role as a woman of color in the West, a first generation American, and an individual who wants to create better policies for immigrant communities. Although it is easy for me to remove blame because of my target identities, it is as important, if not more so, for me to accept responsibility for the harm that my agent identities can and will do. It is only through this acceptance that I will be able to learn and move forward, becoming a better ally for many communities, as is my goal throughout this trip.

Type of Japanese art that started to form during the Meiji period. Although still having a clear influence from Japanese scenery, the artistic style, brush strokes, and use of shading is more Western.

Type of Japanese art that started to form during the Meiji period. Although still having a clear influence from Japanese scenery, the artistic style, brush strokes, and use of shading is more Western.

These next few days, as I visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their respective memorials and museums, will allow me to continue to reflect on my identity as an American in Japan. Although the process has certainly been difficult so far, I'm looking forward to better understanding my social identities within different contexts, and learning more about Japanese history from the country's own perspective.

ABCs of Travel: Airports, Butterflies, and Confidence

As I finally have a moment to myself, I take a deep breath.

I think today arrived both slower and faster than we all expected. I still remember, 7 months ago, when I found out that I would be spending the year after graduation around the world. I'm not sure if my shock ever wore off, but I hope that I have been able to prepare myself in small and large ways. I slowly began introducing myself to international travel, first through a spring break trip to Spain, and then a month-long study abroad trip to South Africa. I learned how international travel can be incredibly challenging and rewarding, but it requires one to allow discomfort, and to sit in that discomfort and realize the reasons for it in order to allow growth.

On top of Las Setas in Sevilla, España with my travel buddy & good friend, Ann.

On top of Las Setas in Sevilla, España with my travel buddy & good friend, Ann.

Only a few hours into my eight months as a Bonderman Fellow, I have already been uncomfortable. Whether it was the sweaty walk from one terminal to the other in the hot LA summer with a large backpack, or the 3 times I've already gotten lost in this airport, or the long lines, I'm learning to be confident in my abilities and see where they can take me.

I would be lying if I didn't admit how nervous I am. Although I can no longer count the number of times I've traveled alone—be it a plane, bus, or train—and I've spent more time away from my family over the last four years than with them, this trip is a whole new adventure. One thing that my parents created for my brother and I from a very young age was a widespread sense of community. We moved quite frequently and we traveled often. Over the last few years, I've seen the benefit of this; there is no single place I call home and I often feel like I have "family" in many places that I go. My summer in New York allowed me to connect with the Sikh community in Manhattan through my internship. My summer in Washington, D.C. allowed me to reconnect with old Sikh youth camp friends. Although I have been "away from home" many times before, I always felt that home was with me.

But, if there are any disadvantages to this great childhood, it is this: I have never learned to be uncomfortable. Whenever I had a challenge or conflict in front of me, I could often solve it by running to my local "family." I learned to use this as a coping mechanism and, as a result, I think did not give myself the benefit to grow from these difficulties. As I embark on my time of solo travel, I hope to continue to build relationships and families and friendships around the world, but I hope to use this time to also build myself and grow as a person.

While saying goodbye to my family at the airport this morning, a sentiment that had bothered me for several months after accepting the fellowship briefly returned. I wondered, how strong will I be if I've hidden behind my community for this long? Can I really do this?

As my mom pulled me into a hug, I felt her pushing something into my hand. It was money. I looked at her confused, as I had already taken cash out of the bank the night before. She simply said, "savaa lakh." I looked carefully and noticed that it was a dollar bill and a quarter.

"To remember your Sikh tradition."

I smiled, remembering the stories she had told me as a child. Although Sikhs have always been the minority, our armies would elicit the notion of savaa lakh, or that the strength of one Sikh could represent the strength of 125,000. I remembered the email a dear friend, Teresa Mathew, had sent me reminding me of the "army of people" rooting for me in the U.S. I may be alone, but I still have the strength and the army of my family and friends behind me, and it will be this love that will carry me through the next eight months and beyond.

Although there are butterflies in my stomach and I know the 13 hour time difference will not be friendly to me, I am looking forward to eight months of discomfort, growth, change, and finding new homes. After all, "adventure is out there."