The airport seemed like a morgue in the Dark Ages through my toddler eyes. Everyone looked ill with excess travel, sick from impatience. Menacing towers, which looked to be in fact, men, glared at me as if I were someone to suspect. As if I didn’t belong. The expansive line of Immigrations painfully edged forward, but my mind scampered away to curiosity. What was India like? Was I going to enjoy it? What was I going to do there? We finally reached the stern officer in sky blue, equipped with a stately handlebar moustache. He and my dad exchanged sympathetic glances and polite greetings, as if they were old friends, seeing each other for the first time in years. He did the same for my mother and sister, but stopped at me.
“Born in the USA? What is this boy doing in an airport in India?”
Everyone laughed, but I didn’t. Regardless of what he meant, it hurt my toddler mind deeply. For the first time in my life, I felt different. I felt guilty of my presence, guilty to be who I was. As I walked into the streets of India, the kids stared at me for quite some time, and chattered accusingly amongst themselves. I did not dress like them. I did not act like them. I did not talk like them. I felt like the aliens I had read about so avidly from the comics back home.
I tried fervently to make myself the epitome of a native Indian boy, but my relatives constantly hindered my progress. Cricket is like baseball. Flats are apartments. Auto-rickshaws are like taxies. I constantly reminded myself these things, but no matter how hard I tried, these concepts would not stick.
Language became a ruthless and unforgiving adversary. My parents had prepped me well prior to the trip, yet still I was hit with unfamiliar phrases. While my accent was consistent, constructing the words proved to be a grueling task. I realized any slight mistake could question the quality of my parents’ teaching, and slowly I stopped talking. I was limited to a stubborn shake of the head for no, and an eager nod for yes. I was always the quiet one, the one who said very little, but they didn’t know why. I wouldn’t let them know, for my alien nature would be exposed.
Years come and go with new perspectives. The toddler state of mind was black and white, frank and simplistic. I was so driven by stubborn anger and frustration that I never really tried or wanted to search for the answers I needed. Questions of doubt and difference gradually became answered by my friends, schoolmates, and teachers. We all realized our experiences were not so seclusive, and countless stories met laughs of recognition and understanding. Time allowed for me to accumulate the points that define who I am, whether it is by a distressing day at Immigrations, or the inability to master a language. By birth and by residency, I am an American. But, by the principals I abide to and the traditions I willfully obey, I am an Indian.
I don’t feel different anymore. Rather, I feel honored to have the opportunity to share and experience two cultures simultaneously. The polarity of the two nations sometimes proves to be troublesome, but also adds a contrast that intrigues me to the point of enlightenment. It now seems amusing to imagine a confused little boy, paranoid of his imminent transformation into an unknown being. Paranoid of becoming an unfamiliar creature in unfamiliar territory; not able to identify with his environment. I was once an alien.