Diary Of A Lost Soul

I rewrote this post with my current perspective, removed some regional references. Would love to hear your thoughts-whether you are an NRI, or any other kind of expat.

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This article is dedicated to all the souls who’ve lost their identities.  Who don’t know who they are or where they belong.

Let’s start with what I know. I am lost—on many levels.  Starting with my name.  My family calls me Latha.  My husband’s family calls me Srilatha.  Several of my friends, especially of the white kind, call me Sri.  My kids call me Satan and/or Damien (after the evil character in the Omen series—my daughter has this as my caller id on her cellphone), ma (mostly my son), amma, mom, dawg (this from my daughter when she really wants something and wants me to think she thinks I’m cool).

My husband calls me…nothing!  For some strange reason, he doesn’t call me by name (nor I him).  I don’t know what our problem is.  We’ve lived together for 20+ years not calling each other by name.  I am not holding my breath it’ll happen anytime soon.   (Yes I cannot get through a post without bringing up something about you—hey, that’s you there!)

It’s strange because before we were married, he used to call me by my initials and I by his name.

With the Americans, it’s a different story.  At work, they struggled with my name and I with my reaction until I hit upon the brilliant shorthand of Sri that made all the parties happy. Until then, I was Sri-laah-thaa (the emphasis being on the second syllable) or worse, Sri-lay-tha.

I had a client who always called me Sri Lanka—like the country. Didn’t pause or hesitate.  Confidently invoked a small country every time we spoke on the phone.  I never had the opportunity to correct her because a call from her always meant some fire had to be put out.  And I wasn’t going to be picky about how she said my name.

If that sums up all the names I was called orally, the written form of my name has seen even more mutilations.

To name a few: Frilatha (really?), Srilady (who’re you calling lady?), and the ever-popular Srilaytha to name a few.

As if all this is not enough, I recently got an American Express card from Costco.  I wasn’t there when my husband got the cards and went to have the picture taken for the card. So Costco simply decided to put some random woman’s picture on my card. Not just some random woman, but a random WHITE woman. So every time I use it, I get asked for my id.  I would too, if a brown-skinned woman who clearly looks like she could be possibly of Hispanic or Asian origin, with a name like Srilatha, hands me a credit card carrying the picture of a white woman.  It was amusing the first couple of times.  Now I tell them when I hand them the card “I know, that nice looking lady on the card is not me and I’m not an identify thief, I didn’t steal her card.  It’s a mistake by Costco, which will be fixed soon. Here’s my driver’s license”.

But wait…this article is not just about my name—although I could go on about it.  It’s also about my ‘cultural’ identity.

To my American friends, I am Indian.  How much ever I assimilate, I have too much Indian in me to be an American.  They would totally go for my kids as being American, brown skin notwithstanding. They have no trace of an accent, no tell-tale signs of dubious head-shaking slipping in accidentally.

To the hard core *desis on the other hand, I am too westernized—I am not Indian enough. I speak too much English, watch too many English movies, have too many American friends, campaigned door to door for Obama, eat my dinner too early at 6 pm when an Indian would be just having his evening tea…and the list of things an Indian wouldn’t, shouldn’t and couldn’t do goes on.

And then I have these moments when my brain plays tricks on me. Once, I was sitting in a van with my friend Suneeta, outside an Indian restaurant, waiting for my husband who was picking up a few things from the Indian grocery store. We were people-watching.  We saw a number of Americans entering the restaurant and I said “Look at all the foreigners going into that restaurant”.  It wasn’t until my friend started to crack up that I realized what I’d said.  For one brief crazy moment, I was the native while the natives were the foreigners.

Honestly, I don’t know if I really fit in with the Indians back home anymore.  I, with the rest of the “desi” diaspora, am forever locked into that frozen state of “desihood” we were in when we got on that Pan Am flight and had the first sip of Coke, and took that first leap across the oceans to make this country our adopted home.  Sure we make the required trip back to India every two or three years. But every trip is a reminder of the widening chasm between the old, pre-90s India and the current India that’s global in every sense of the word. India as I knew her 20+ years ago, doesn’t exist anymore.

I am completely lost in the current India. As lost as I felt when I first landed in New York in 1990, and received my first cross-cultural shock when I gawked at a man and a woman kissing in public. Coming from the ultra conservative Chennai, where a boy and girl talking in public was cause for a minor scandal, this was a shock. (Until very recently, kissing on the mouth was taboo in Indian movies. They would normally show the hero and the heroine ducking behind two flowers swaying in the wind towards each other, or go behind a tree and come out all happy-looking.)

Something tells me that the day when I will face a reverse culture shock in India is not far away. Or maybe it’s already happened and I missed it.

There were invariably days following these pilgrimages back to India when I would feel sad that I have lost that sense of belonging. On those days I would really crave the sights, the sounds and the bustle of Madras (Chennai as it’s currently known—another change all non-resident Indians have difficulty getting used to.)  All it took was the scent of jasmine wafting in the breeze, a line from an old song, or the earthy smell of  raindrops on soil.  On those days I would really question our decision to live and raise our children here, but those days are becoming few and far between.

I don’t know if all *NRIs feel this way—as if they belong nowhere and everywhere all at the same time.

Sometimes it makes me sad, but most days I think I’m fine with not knowing.  Or knowing I belong to a new breed—a curious mix of a lost generation of Indian and 1st generation American immigrant, a sort of global citizen.  This process has taken several years. The separation from my country of birth hit me hard when I became a naturalized citizen of America. I felt a curious sense of being uprooted I hadn’t felt during the thirteen or so years before that, when we lived, worked and raised our young family in this country, when the singular focus was to get that green card followed by the citizenship. The days following the citizenship ceremony were a mixed bag. I never knew what was coming out of the bag any given day: pride (for my adopted home) or sadness, a tremendous sense of belonging/acceptance or abandonment. But it went away as the months passed, and as we made more trips back to India, longed to be home after three weeks. I am finally at peace with my decision to be a transplant—happily thriving and growing roots in my new home.

*NRI – Non-resident Indian

*desi – a person from India

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