By Sabita Majid
The first coffee of my day is reassuring. Its strong, bold punch wakes me up to hope and possibilities until several hours and coffees later, it’s clear that nothing changes. However, I also cling to humdrum reality day after day because it’s very easy to lose the tenuous balance I’ve achieved. As an immigrant, I’ve got used to the endless cycles of hope, sadness and anxiety that have come from waiting patiently for the scattered bits of my life to become whole.
When I was young and lived in India, creating home and family as a post-university agenda seemed limited. I thought, with dismay, of my older sister who had babies right after getting married and willingly let herself slide into the abject gloom of a domesticated adult life. So while she nursed one baby after the other, I gallivanted around town partying, travelling and telling myself it was all about self-discovery.
After graduating, I left my more secure urban life in Delhi and travelled with a research team into rural India on the path of what we, euphemistically called, ‘development research’. We assumed that our focus on poor village artisans would bring their complex problems, and what turned out to be quite pretentious solutions, to the fore.
We were city bred Indians, snobbish in our attitudes and full of the wide eyed idealism that comes from formal education without real life experience while the farmers and artisans we met were quite the opposite. Most didn’t have formal education and clearly didn’t understand why they were being asked personal questions like how much money they made from weaving or how many cows they milked. Yet, intrusive youngsters like me felt we were entitled to answers from our unprepared interviewees’ who were often too tired to answer our academic queries with any specificity. Numbers, schedules, they’d never quantified or documented their lives in the way we were trying to.
Our research and knowledge led us down different paths all more materially successful than the poor Indians we thought needed rescuing in the many little Indias of which we clearly were not a part but were deriving solutions for.
In the sprawling and chaotic metropolis of Delhi, I had a place amongst my peer group and spent the evenings talking about film-making and social change while listening to Bob Dylan and juxtaposing our western-Indian sensibilities on a very uneven and un-western India. I was an angst-ridden youngster searching for meaning in a country of cruel contrasts. My own identity crisis came from not quite accepting what exactly it was that made me simultaneously Indian and western.
It was easier to know who I wasn’t like. In the process of defining the poorer Indian, I had learned that I wanted my creature comforts and knew I wouldn’t survive the bug-infested mattresses of tribal guest houses in rural India or be able to eat the watery lentil stew day after day in my efforts at uplifting the masses. Nor did I particularly want to converse with village Indians because there was so little common ground between us. While it was easier to describe those things that I was not a part of, it was more difficult to overcome my own self-loathing and guilt about being unwilling to sacrifice more for the greater good.
Time passed and I quickly became jaded when I saw that nothing in the lives of most Indians changed and I didn’t have the stamina to sustain the quest. I became an unsentimental newspaper journalist, got married and moved out of India to sojourn in Dubai for five sweet years of tax-free, carefree living, shopping and living abroad. I had swapped one home for another without batting an eyelid, or so it seemed. We were young and strong and adventurous.
Each year away from home made my husband and I feel more distanced from India until we decided to immigrate to Canada, which held the promise of opportunity although I was only vaguely aware of what that meant. We arrived in Vancouver in 1999, and a year later, our only child was born.
Then, as happy and as proud as I felt being a new mother, I suddenly felt more vulnerable than I’ve ever felt. Life changed dramatically from having been an egocentric newspaper reporter to becoming a jobless landed immigrant, a lonely stay-at-home mother seeking friendships that were hard to come by. More than anything else, I felt completely disconnected from the mainstream.
I was hopelessly out of synch with Canadian living and didn’t feel thrilled at the sight of Canucks hockey games or newspaper controversies about oil sands. Worse still, news reports about Indo Canadian gangs made me uncomfortable while sparse coverage of India disconnected me from my old home.
In many immigrant faces, I saw reflections of myself, but understood that we now lived with a code of silence as it was often too painful to admit to isolation or a sense of despair about the future. Besides, we were the skilled immigrants who had succeeded in making it through the hoops. We had no choice but to try harder. So, despite the loneliness and hard realities, we soldiered on.
I joined job clubs, networked, made polite conversation hoping that I would stop feeling alien, that I could have a circle of friends and start feeling more rooted. But when I was asked questions such as ‘how hard I worked on my accent’ I realized that I had basically lost all the power I once possessed.
Here, I was brown, South Asian and claiming an English language culture derived from India – land of the poor teeming millions with funny English accents. And no, I had no credibility among few of the gentry I met who, probably, patronizingly saw me as a nice enough Indian woman with oversized aspirations. Neither was it possible to melt into the South Asian community as apart from the common ethnicity, often, not much else held us together.
Suddenly, though, I felt more empathy with all the dispossessed groups I had encountered in India. Whether they were poor artisans or regular groups of migrants coming to Indian cities they were desperate to rise socially but disconnected from power in contrast to my peer group. We spoke better English, relatively speaking, and arrogated power to ourselves, which I now see we hadn’t really earned. It had all been a matter of the homes we’d been born into and the networks we had inherited. Much like it is over here.
And so emigrating from India and settling several oceans away has most of all been a humbling experience. I’ve had to reassess social values, re-invent myself professionally and ask the writer in me soul searching questions about who I have become. I have also realized that human nature is much the same anywhere and that I do belong in one of many littler Canadas and that home, in fact, is wherever you decide it is.
I left the familiarity of my old home to enter the spectacular but cruel landscape of this country where I have simultaneously experienced the beauty of changing seasons and harsh truths about earning power and status without helpful relatives or a network. It’s been terribly hard, each rejection causing deep pain, but also firming up my resolve to succeed – this is what immigrants do. I have realized though that my success will be small and limited in scope.
So, I now see myself as a wife, mother and employee whose sense of fulfillment is derived from all three personas I embody — not much of a departure from my own mother whom I really didn’t want to be like.
For me, home is still a work in progress…
I think it’s really become a state of mind, an idea. Family is an integral part of that home, but I’m finding that I really just want to feel at home within my own being. Home is about the family I ‘m part of, the house we live in and Vancouver where we’ve spent hundreds of hours working, eating, sleeping, shopping and hoping. Home is still also where I was born and faced painful realities as I grew up. Maybe, it is also where I have the happiest memories of. Delhi, Dubai, Vancouver, Burnaby. I suspect there are no right answers.
I have staked a claim to all of these places and homes and belong in none of them entirely.
And so, if you see a brown South Asian sipping her coffee slowly, it could be me creating home in my head. It is a plodding journey, but I think I’m almost there…