Story and photos by Saniya Purohit
At the age of twenty one, I have made a hobby out of collecting air miles and one-way plane tickets. My belongings fit well within the 23kg luggage weight limit, and the exhausted wheels of my suitcase find shelter in the maze of airport departure and arrival halls. My plane tickets have been used as page markers, and after crossing two oceans, four continents and six countries, I have created and adopted my own dialect and creed, which I tend to revise depending on the geographical destination.
“Where are you from?”
A question that is so easy for some of my classmates at Northeastern to answer is nearly impossible for me to respond to. Usually, people refer to the place they are born as their home or tend to associate that area with their motherland. Everyone seems to belong somewhere, but life for immigrants and nomads like me is a little different. Even though my story consists of a spectrum of locations, individuals who have had to relocate even once often end up dedicating their whole lives attempting to define their homeland.
I was born in New Delhi — a complex city I fall in love with every time I visit, subsequently fall out of love with all its chaos, then fall back in love again and make it my own. Delhi has its own distinct character, a unique vibe and its very own background music if you listen closely enough. It is so many things at once — it is majestic and it is narrow-minded. It is rich and it is poor. It is colorful but also unsafe and overbearing. It has a happy buzz, but I am also aware of its bad reputation. With all its flaws and perfections, with all the progressive and conservative views and with all the heartbreaks and possibilities, I still find myself coming back to it and embracing its imperfections. Delhi is like a boyfriend you can’t seem to get enough of or ever break their heart. Delhi and I: We’re the perfect definition of the relationship status “it’s complicated.”
At the age of five, my time in the organized mess of Delhi was over and the company that employs my dad shipped my family headlong into the orderly city of Singapore. My North Indian palate was quickly replaced with chicken rice, crab curry and sugar cane juice. These foods were starting to become my comfort food, and I no longer needed butter chicken or Indian yellow dal to feel warm and wholesome. Singapore was shiny, safe and in contrast to Delhi, extremely systematic. I originally butchered Mandarin but soon started adding a “La/h” after every sentence just like the locals did. However, before I had the time to get accustomed to the tropical afternoon downpours and develop efficient routes, I found myself rerouted to Johannesburg, South Africa.
I spent two years there, during which I attended a Catholic school. My Wednesday mornings were filled with strolls to the school chapel along with hymns and verses of the Bible, which I slowly began to memorize. I was beginning to explore new theories of religion and race, ones I had not yet been exposed to. They introduced me to a new world of beliefs and values, as well as instilled discipline in my daily routine. My family was neither black nor white, but rather labeled as “colored,” which is a race everyone seemed to accept and be on good terms with. This wasn’t the case for some of my other friends though. Through them, I experienced the legacy of Apartheid as well as what it was like to be judged based on your skin color. I was fed on melktarts, boerewors, sunshine, and an ample amount of slang that seems to make no sense to people besides South Africans.
Soon after I had learned basic Afrikaans and began to think of the country as my potential home, I was then redirected once again. I traded in the South African wildlife for the high life of Dubai — a city that saw me tucked behind dune bashing cars and in Dhow boats during the weekends. I burned my tongue on Arabic pronunciations and unwritten laws and soothed myself by listening to the melodies of Muslim prayers every Jumma (Friday), known as ‘Namaz.’ The work week was from Sunday to Thursday, while the weekend was Friday and Saturday. Waking up on a Sunday morning to go to school felt extremely strange at first, but we soon got used to it. Making friends at an international school was easy, and it was starting to feel like I belonged. However, my time was limited.
Following my short, year-long stay in Dubai, two and half years in Aix-en-Provence, the south of France, ensued. Amongst the drowsy mountains, I adopted an outdoor lifestyle and embraced the provincialism of Aix. My weekends soon consisted of visits to the lavender fields and ski trips to Mont Blanc. My Arab accent soon became heavy with the southern lingo, and it wasn’t long until I spoke like a Marseillaise sailor. My life’s accelerator slowed down, and I was beginning to enjoy the tranquility. The rule of having a two-week vacation after every six weeks of school, as well as an hour-long lunch break, really spoiled me. It was straight from that lethargic French lifestyle that we had to pack our bags and convert to the extremely fast-paced life of America.
The United States, which seemed like an immigrants’ dream, a place where everyone seems to belong and be treated equally, automatically categorized me as “Asian” at immigration. But am I even Asian enough to be labeled as such?
In Ellicott City, Maryland, I soon learned how to y’all, drawl and pledge my allegiance to the flag. I can successfully interpret the date and weather, and no longer stumble over feet, yards or miles. I am slowly getting used to American culture and values, even though I am often referred to as Indian. I left India ages ago, and while a part of me seems to belong there, I carry with me a whole different collection of traditions and customs — ones to which I have no birth right but that have become a part of me and travel with me from one corner of the world to the next. I have borrowed principles and lessons from every religion and culture, as well as imitated accents to form my very own unique dialect.
Whenever I return to India, I feel like an outsider at times; a tourist in my own country. But when I talk to people of Indian origin here in the United States, I feel too Indian. I am somewhere in between and don’t know what place I can call home. Home is a place you feel secure and comfortable, a destination you want to come back to, somewhere you have your loved ones. No single place seems to do justice to all these things.
During my last winter break in high school when I went back to Delhi, I visited the school I used to attend for their Annual Day Event. My cousins currently go to school there, and my kindergarten teacher happened to be my cousin’s teacher too. I almost didn’t recognize her and felt like my whole childhood flashed in front of me when I spoke to her. I told her about how I’ve moved around so much and live in the United States now, and she was thrilled to know that I still remember her teachings. While I spoke to her and stood there on my old stomping grounds, I saw students my age walking around as well. At that moment, it struck me: if my dad had said no to the move, if I had stayed back, I would be one of those children now. Seeing them made me feel a mixture of emotions. A part of me felt jealous of those kids, jealous of their life-long friendships, jealous of the fact that they lived with their grandparents or at least somewhat close to them, jealous of the fact that they knew everyone at school, jealous of the fact that they were familiar with a place, jealous of the fact that they belonged, jealous of the fact that they have a home. However, a part of me felt truly grateful for everything my parents did, for educating me globally, making me so adaptable and teaching me life lessons not everyone at my age had. I realized that my parents could not have raised me in any better way possible.
Immigrants like me live a life of constantly trying to fit in, trying to adapt and trying to stay true to our heritage while embracing the culture of the area we are surrounded by. But where do we belong? Will we ever have a home?
So, when people ask me “Where are you from?”
Nowhere, I think.
“Everywhere,” I answer.
The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition).