Living with Fewer Things and More Love

A few months before I graduated from college, I found out that I was one of three recipients for the Bonderman Fellowship, a $20,000 grant to travel the world. I know, it sounds straight out of a movie, but somehow I was lucky enough to get the part. When I first started traveling, I knew that this year would bring many adventures, challenges, and life lessons. But, as with most things we learn, the ways in which I’ve changed and grown have often been unexpected. A few months into my trip, I wanted to make a change in how I was traveling. Rather than see a lot of a country, moving from hostel to hostel, I decided to spend most of my time in one place. I wanted to learn how to make one place a home and truly get to know it before I left. I searched through volunteer websites and found a family in Sri Lanka who would be willing to host me while I helped out around the house and with their five children.

I arrived in Sri Lanka, spending a few days in Colombo before heading south to the small town my host family lived in. Colombo had been a nice break after five weeks in India, as it was one of the most westernized cities I had visited on my travels. Except for the fact that everyone around me had brown skin like mine, I felt like I had been thrown back to a small beach town in the States. Coffee shops and cafes perched on each corner, malls and boutiques every few blocks, and the humidity hung overhead while everyone waited for an afternoon rain shower.

When the time came, I boarded my train from Colombo Fort Station, barely making the last one before rush hour, which I had been warned several times to avoid at all costs. I breathed a sigh of relief as the train slowly chugged alongside the water away from the station. I watched as the scenery changed from tall buildings to clusters of shanty houses with stretches of beach in between. Two hours or so later, I arrived, and I got off the train to find the oldest child in my host family waiting for me with a tuk tuk driver. We loaded my backpack into the back and were on our way.

The driver weaved through narrow streets and potholes, massive puddles created by daily downpours, and the occasional chicken or cow. I felt the stares of passerby, and started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. As someone who looked somewhat local, but also entirely foreign, Sri Lanka had already proven to be an interesting environment. I realized that bringing myself to a more rural area would only exacerbate that.

We arrived at the house, and my host mom welcomed me in with a cup of tea and some conversation. As I looked around their house, which one could essentially do from the front room, I saw markings on the walls and a few toys and papers strewn in a few corners. She pointed me to one of the few side rooms, saying that I would be sleeping in there. I dropped my bag inside, seeing a bed, a mosquito net, and a fan.

I was given a tour and I quickly settled into a routine along with the family. As they went off to school each day, I would stay at home taking care of the youngest, their three-year-old daughter. Our first few days were interesting, as we both adjusted to spending our mornings with a stranger who spoke an entirely different language. The kids would come home at various times, usually youngest to oldest, as their exams would finish up. We spent afternoons playing cards and I would often break away to help their mom cook or clean when she returned from grading exams, usually an hour after the kids.

Although my schedule day-to-day was incredibly relaxed and mostly spent playing with the kids, occasionally taking them to the beach, and catching up on reading, I started to realize that I was more exhausted than I had been in weeks.

My mind was buzzing with all that was around me and what I was experiencing. From the moment—my first night—when I realized my host family was sleeping on the floor in the common area outside my room. My own cultural background, being the daughter of Indian immigrants, came to the fore, as I told them several times that I did not need the bed and would be happy to sleep on the floor outside. They, of course, refused, and also insisted that this was their normal routine. I believed them, but I also don’t think I got a single good night of rest, knowing that I was in a queen bed on my own while my host family slept on the floor outside my door.

The other strong memory that comes back to me is meal times. Again, as South Asian culture requires, guests are treated like royalty. The kids always asked me to eat first, serving me food first, ensuring that I always sat down first and got first helpings. But, as the days went on, the food supply dwindled because my host dad had not been able to come back from the city and buy groceries. For the first time in my life, I was incredibly conscious of how much I was consuming, how much space I was taking up, and not because of self-image issues. I wondered whether my contributions to this family were truly worth the extra food I was taking away from their stomachs. I felt immense guilt.

But, there were good moments. So many of them. Getting caught in a Sri Lankan downpour on the beach while the kids refused to leave because “they were wet from the ocean anyway,” laughing and screaming as we ran for the last tuk tuk so we wouldn’t get stranded. Playing game after game of Crazy Nines and Go Fish and other weird games we made up with cards. Early evenings sitting at the front door sipping tea, nights going over math homework and listening to them recite their Tamil reading or verses from the Qur’an. I felt so at home.

And so, naturally, leaving was challenging. The day crept up slowly and then quickly, and finally it was the morning that I had to wake up at 3 AM in order to get back to Colombo in time to catch my onward journey. I looked at the sleeping kids’ faces one last time, incredibly thankful for all the love they had shown me over the last couple of weeks. I quickly hugged my host mom, thanking her for everything and us both hoping our paths would cross again. My host dad and the oldest son would be joining me, ensuring that I made my train.

As with all transportation in South Asia, we were late. With just five minutes to spare, I sprinted into the train station and found my seat. As I caught my breath, I looked out the window and saw the father and son, smiling and waving. I wanted to say thank you, but, again, there was so little I could do or say for all they had given me. In the United States, we’re taught and shown that you must physically give to show your love. Presents and money are how we develop relationships. Yet, here was a family who had given me more than I can express, and that was something I will never forget. Focusing less on all the extra “stuff,” and more on love and kindness, I saw that we can have truly meaningful experiences after all.

I’ve always felt that my role in living sustainably could start and end with recycling and conserving water, but to truly have a stake in sustainability and living consciously, we must go beyond those basic steps. Through consciously examining how much we actually need to consume and obtain, we can minimize our footprint and live more sustainably. Living such a simple way of life also showed me how materialistic we can be, but also how that leads to a constant cycle of unhappiness. The more we focus on having things, the less easy it will be for us to find an inner calm because there will always be more things we can have. Focusing on how to make ourselves happy and healthy through relationships, as well as self-reflection and self-dependency, can build a more healthy way of life—physically and mentally.

Originally written for Earth Heir

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

— 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.