December 8, 2017
By Ekta R. Garg
Growing up, I lived a duality. My parents migrated to the U.S. from India in the 1970s in order to make a better life for themselves. Their choice determined the course of the lives of my sister and me.
We relished PBJs as much as rajma-chawal (kidney beans in a tomato-based gravy and Basmati rice.) We listened to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston as well as Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle (famous singers for Hindi films.) We slipped into our jeans for a casual weekend at home or got all dressed up to go to a formal function in a lehenga (a formal outfit consisting of a blouse and a long skirt, coupled with a long scarf, all in bright colors and with embellishments and embroidery.)
Us girls also grew up going to India every three or so years to visit family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles seemed like doting elders who would chuckle at our rudimentary attempts at speaking Hindi and marvel that we loved Bollywood films as much as any kid in India. For my parents, however, those people were their parents and their siblings; the people who held their childhood memories and experiences dear.
My sister and I grew to love our extended family as much as our parents did. After all, there were so many cousins who were about our age, and regardless of culture or language a cup of ice cream still tasted just as good no matter what country we ate it in. We built the foundation for a lifetime commitment to these people that drove almost as deep as what our parents experienced.
Almost 15 years ago, I married someone who was born and raised in India. An immigrant. The immigrant experience is nothing new to me, so when I took those vows I assumed that part of my life would be the same as it was when I was growing up.
Some things haven’t changed. I still love rajma-chawal and have since learned to make a mean chicken piccata as well. My husband and I bond over Adele’s dulcet tones even as we use Pandora to listen to the latest Bollywood songs. I still love my jeans for a casual day out, but I’ve long since graduated to wearing a sari for a really formal occasion.
So, a duality, with its caveats. My children have grown up with this duality as well but in weaker concentrations. Due to my husband’s intense training and minimal vacation time through all the years he studied to become an electrophysiologist, we haven’t been back to India. In almost 15 years.
The pull for us to go had also weakened, however, because both of us can easily visit our parents and siblings here in this country. We don’t board flights and lose almost two days before arriving at our destination. We get onto a plane after breakfast and arrive well before dinner. While my extended family has asked repeatedly through the years when we were coming to visit, the circumstances haven’t always lent themselves to allowing for a trip back.
Sometimes, then, you have to bend circumstances to what you need them to be. After months of discussing and hypothesizing about a variety of scenarios, we booked flights to India. The kids have never been, and they don’t know quite what to think.
When asked by her father what she felt about going to India, Eleven answered, “Underwhelmed.”
When I chatted with Nine about our trip, she said, “I know this is going to sound weird, but I just don’t like it when people pinch my cheeks.”
Our kids are smart and conscientious about the environment; their brows furrow when we talk about the dramatic pollution in New Delhi, which will act as our home base for the time we’ll be there.
We’ve also shared some giggles about the trip. Just after the school year started, one morning as we drove to school I explained that we would meet a lot of people and get offered more food than one could possibly consume.
“So, basically, our trip to India is going to be an all-you-can-eat-and-meet buffet,” Eleven quipped, and she and her sister and I broke into laughter.
This past weekend, I described various members of my mom’s family and their natures; the common factor between everyone on my mom’s side is that they all love to chat and can do so for extended periods of time on a variety of subjects.
“Tell us more about the talk-a-lot gang,” Eleven said, fighting a smile.
I’ve repeatedly told the kids that the only stupid question is the one not asked; nothing they wonder or worry about is off limits to discuss. I’ve also tried to share my own ways of handling a trip to India.
“When in doubt, just smile and nod,” I said. “Just be polite.”
“Just smile and wave, boys,” Nine quoted the penguins from Madagascar. “Smile and wave.”
“But, wait,” Eleven went on, and I opened my mouth already to combat what she would ask next; I didn’t beat her to it.
“What if they ask you a question like, ‘Are you from Minnesota?’” She answered her own query with a slightly maniacal smile and nod.
“But I thought you were from Illinois,” Nine said, jumping on the imaginary conversation.
Both girls nodded and smiled.
“But you’re from Minnesota too?” Eleven said.
Nods and smiles again.
“Are you from somewhere in between?” she went on.
Nodding and smiling.
“Okay, so you’re from Nodsville.”
I relented with an eyeroll. “Okay, so maybe just smile politely.”
We’ve also had sobering chats about the amount of poverty we’ll probably see, the dust that seems to pervade every home no matter just how hard people there fight to keep it clean, and the challenges of the sheer population and traffic and navigating it all. I’m really not sure just what the kids will think and feel when we go to India, although I know they’ll share their thoughts and ideas without reservation when they feel ready to do so.
I’m excited to see all my relatives, to reconnect to that other part of my life and to share those people with the girls. It’s another piece of the “puzzle” that kids always think their parents’ lives are. For me it’s a reminder of the good things of that duality that I’ve experienced my entire life.
And no matter what happens, I know one thing for sure: it’ll be some kind of adventure.