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

Hope, Change and Jalebis

It’s been 2 days since the nail-biting finish to months of campaign watching, wringing of hands over reports of voter suppression, elation/relief at the gaffes by Romney and team that slowly revealed the truth about them, anger over republican ideas on “legitimate rape”…and I can’t stop smiling and feeling relieved it’s over, and it’s gone the way of the people.

The last time, in 2008, which was also the first time I voted as a citizen of this great experiment called America, we had spent watching the election night coverage at my friend’s house. A whole bunch of us were there, excited for the historical night. We had some doubts, but were mostly optimistic. This time, though I was alone at home, since Raj was traveling and I was dreading the prospect of watching it alone – the stress was killing me!

So, the new me called some friends over. To make jalebis! I say the new me because I’m discovering myself all over again since we moved from the corn fields and cold winters of Muncie, Indiana to beachy, marshy Florida. And kind of surprised at what I’m finding in me! I had left behind some longstanding friendships__ some true, some dysfunctional but all comfortable__and started anew, not knowing a single soul in Florida. Just like 22 years ago when I got married, moved to the US, then quit my job, got pregnant and moved to Muncie. The difference was, we were just starting our lives together then__raising 2 children, a job, a career and building our future took care of any anxiety about making friends.

But last year was different. Our kids were both in college. It was going to be a clean slate for me again__ but this time, I had no day to day responsibility of kids or a job to keep me occupied. I had to find things to do to make myself from going crazy.  But, I’ve realized over the past year, that people are people, and most are good, normal people just like us. Once I got over the mental block of extending my arm in friendship first, it got easier and easier.

I am now happy to report a small group of friends that I can call for almost anything__be it an illness,  to go to a music concert or  desi movies with,  to go shopping, or to come make jalebis with me on a week night and watch Mr. O getting reelected! And these girls have full time paying jobs, and kids living at home!

Well, they came, and we made jalebis and jangiris! I had the batter ready, one filled the ziploc bags to pipe the batter into hot oil, we all took turns making crazy swirls in the hot oil, and one dipped them in the sugar syrup. My husband kept calling every few seconds announcing the latest electoral vote count. It was better than a bar! Noisy, smoky and full of laughs. We finished just about the minute when Ohio was called for Obama and Karl Rove started unraveling on air. We all sat around the tv, and took a couple of pictures with my cellphone to mark the moment. And I instinctively picked up the phone and dialed my Muncie friend’s number – at whose home we had watched the last election. Then noticed that she had posted on my facebook wall almost at the same time!

There is change in me – we are, after all, organic, and without change, we might as well lay down and die. There is new confidence about my ability to start over and a renewed faith in people. There is hope that I will build friendships that will last a long time. Like the ones I have going on, long distance. Best of all, there is at least four more years of (what I am predicting to be) a historical presidency!

O eating a jalebi! Coincidence? Don’t think so!

Here’s a video of a professional chef making jangiris that we found on Youtube. While ours aren’t this perfect, (it is only our first time), they are GOOD! We celebrated Obama’s reelection with fresh hot jalebis/jangiris!

Life without a blackberry…Day 2

Today was officially the 2nd day of my life as an unemployed citizen of the world.   No blackberry, no carrying around 2 cell phones, no deluge of emails.  

My dear husband was worried I would become a total bum, and made sure to make appointments for the furnace guy and the water filter guy to show up at 8:30.  SO  set the alarm for 6 am, but then slept till 7:30.

8:00 Had my morning cup of coffee with some left over rava idlis.  Checked my personal email, facebook, blog and had spent all of 30 minutes. 

Starting to get a little worried how I was going to spend the rest of the day.  Oh and by the way, also cleaned up kitchen, loaded the dishwasher, all before 9 am.  

8:30 am – furnace guys show up.  Started reading the book ‘Panch Kanya : The 5 virgins of the Indian epics’ that is basically a dissection of the 5 most courageous women of Indian epics – Ahalya, Tara (Sugriva/Vaali’s wife), Mandodari, Kunti and Draupadi.  Totally fascinating!

10:30 – water filter guy shows up.

11:00 – Drag myself away from the book, and go to doctor’s appointment to get a bothersome shoulder/neck pain that I had been ignoring for weeks, checked out. 

12:30 – see the doctor after an hour and a half, book about half-finished – read about Tara, Mandodari and Kunti all waiting at the doctor’s office.

12:45 – home from the appointment, quick lunch of left overs, and off to Panera to meet 2 friends for coffee, and go on to watch M Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller ‘Devil’.

2:50 – realized we’d been so engrossed in talking, we missed the movie!  Continue to pour our hearts out on life, middle age, the much maligned and cliched ‘mid-life crisis’, letting go of kids, learning to live lives brand new with husbands of 20 + years with the kids for the most part gone, book club, movies, …..

5:00 – come home after planning to go watch the movie friday night with the husbands!

Verdict on life w/o blackberry? May be too soon, but I think I am going to like this!!

Top 10 Signs you are middle-aged and restless..

10 You start to wonder what you have achieved in your life

9 You dust off old and forgotten dreams and half-finished projects (that carnatic music lesson you started and had to quit because a. you moved b. your teacher was a creep)

8 You have a renewed sense of panic and an urge to accomplish something – anything!!

7 You nourish delusions of writing the next great American novel

6  You believe you could have been the next Monet/ Lata Mangeshkar/ Jesudas(?!!) under the right circumstances

5 You lose the fear of speaking your mind to the extent that people may think you’re rude

4 You dream of drastic career moves (volunteering at an ashram in Pondicherry for example, or being a traveling reporter for CNN (?!)) without considering practicalities such as qualification, and a husband and kids who still depend on you somewhat

3 One day you are all fired up about getting that promotion, moving up the corporate ladder, and the next you want to retire, travel, see the world and in general, live the life of the bum

2 You aggravate your children by constantly asking they what they’d like for lunch/dinner right after they’re eaten (although this may be just an Indian mother syndrome)

1 You start a blog called Middleaged and Restless and wonder why the hell you started it

Naan yaar Naan yaar Naan yaar….(aka Who am I?)

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

I am lost – on many levels.  Let’s start with my name.  My family calls me Latha.  My in-laws and husband’s family calls me Srilatha.  Several of my friends call me Sri.  My kids call me Satan, Damien (after the evil character in the Omen series – my daughter has this for me on her cell), maa (mostly by 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 an entry without bringing up something about you!)

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

With the Americans, it’s a different story.   You’d think Srilatha is a fairly easy name.  Wrong.  I was called sri-laah-thaa or worse, Sri-lay-tha – by pretty much everyone here for so long that I started telling everyone to call me “Sri”.  Fair enough.   That seemed to fix the problem.

I had a client who always called me SriLanka – like the country. Didn’t blink, pause or hesitate.  Confidently called me that every time we spoke on the phone.  I never had the chance 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 verbally, the written form of my name has seen even more mutilations.

 Frilatha (yeah right), Sriladhy (hey 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 which was all fancy and everything.  But every time I use it, I get asked for my id.  Why? Because it has a picture of a white woman on it.  Yes.  A white woman.  So everywhere I go, I give the card – they look at it, do a double-take, look at me and ask to see an id.  It was amusing the first 2 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 – here’s my driver’s license”.

But wait…this post is not just about my name.  although I could go on about it.  It’s also about my ‘cultural’ identity.   I don’t know if all NRIs feel this way – like they belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time. 

To my American friends, I am Indian.  How much ever I assimilate, I have too much Indian in me to be an American.  My kids,  yes.   They have no trace of an accent,  no tell-tale signs. 

To the desis on the other hand, I am too westernized – I am not one of them. 

And truthfully, 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 whenever we left home to make this country our home.  My Indian values have not changed for the most part – but I’ve adopted some American values.  India as I knew her 20 years ago, doesn’t exist anymore.  India has moved on, whereas I have not. 

And then I have these moments when my brain plays tricks on me – and I’ve noticed other people going through this phenemenon too.   Once, I was sitting in a van with my friend Suneeta, outside an Indian restaurant, waiting for my husband to come back from the Indian store, and we were just 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 moment, I was in India while in America.  It was the weirdest feeling!

A frequent conversation that I have with a friend is about where do we really fit in anymore.    Or do we fit in anywhere? Sometimes it makes me sad, but most days I think I’m okay with not knowing.  Or knowing I belong to a new breed – a curious mix of frozen-desi and 1st generation immigrant.   And then there are days I really crave the sights, the sounds and the bustle of Madras.  All it takes is the smell of jasmine, an old song, or an old movie.  Days when I really question our decision to live here and raise our children here.

I am curious to know what people back home feel.  Do folks who have relatives abroad feel differently from those who don’t?  I am also curious to know how NRIs who returned back home feel. 

To finish this post off, here’s an old song from the movie “Kudiyiruntha Kovil” that more or less aptly describes how I feel – I warned you that I’m a big fan of MGR.   And yes, the crazy MGR is the one I feel like most days.  I bet I can find a song for every emotion/topic in an old Tamil movie.

In spite of the over the top acting by MGR, I love this movie and all the songs.  This is also a favorite of my son, 16, born and brought up in the US.  He calls it the ‘twin thief’ movie.  His other all-time fav Indian movie is Sholay. My daughter’s being “kannathil muthamittal” and “Alai Paayuthe”.   They both love dosai, all the street/chaat food, idli, pongal, would kill for puliyotharai and thayir saadam and mango pickle.  I wonder if they’re confused as I am. Happy for the most part, but confused!