Peeping Panoramas

Dec 31, 2020

7 min read

Belongingness

Did you know that today the United States has over 40 million people that were born in another country, accounting for about one-fifth of the world’s migrants?

Just like most immigrants, I came to the United States (US) with the hope of living the American dream. I moved from India to the US first when I was 21. Growing up in the 1980–90s, I remember that globalization was strongly altering our day to day lives in India, a culturally traditional and economically developing country. Our cultural and socio-economic lives were molding accordingly. Gender roles were changing; more women were starting to participate in the labor force. More non-traditional education and job options were being born. Technology was radically growing as an industry. One popular effect of this transition was the brain drain. I was part of that migration too. This is my story. About my migratory life choices, cultural identity, and belongingness.

As an immigrant, one typically goes through some cultural adjustments, commonly known as acculturation that likely brings with it an inherent psychological stress: cultural homelessness! Today, after years of moving across different geographies, I still oscillate between India and the US, trying to find a cultural anchor for myself.

As much as adapting to the Midwest cold and a demanding graduate student life had a learning curve, I was able to adjust to my new world in the US fairly well. I was a young individual, excited about exploring a new land, its customs, and lifestyle with the hope to adapt smoothly. Here’s why:

  • As someone who was raised in a very protected life for twenty one years, the taste of freedom and independence was super sweet. I basically built a life of my own in the US; not one that was given to me in legacy by my family. That feeling was very special! Over a period of many years, I’ve nurtured some wonderful professional and personal relationships (across continents) that continue to give me a strong sense of psychological safety and happiness. I first learned how to foster those relationships in the US. To me, all these connections are one of my most valued life accomplishments, thus far.
  • In stark contrast to what my education in India had taught me, my educational experience in the US guided me to more than just rote learning. I figured that questioning things isn’t about breaking conformity. It shows my analytical skills and divergent thinking. The differences in opinion are about bringing in a unique perspective, not necessarily about right or wrong. Speaking up doesn’t symbolize disrespect; it means that I’d like to have a seat on the table and have my voice heard. Keeping myself above others doesn’t make me selfish. It just means that I need to prioritize my own needs just as much as others, if not more. Asking for space isn’t a marker of emotional distancing; it just means I have a need to be with myself in my own space. This is how I learned the differences between collectivism and individualism first-hand.
  • (This next one will likely only be relatable for my women friends)! As a female, I could wear clothes that went over my knees without worrying about inviting any trouble, (a ridiculous concept that still suggests that wearing short/tight clothes denotes provocation). THAT freedom — to not be concerned about my (sexual) safety late into the night; to walk alone on the streets at any time of the day; to wear what I wanted, when I wanted (day or night) or wherever I wanted; to not feel like Cinderella who had to get home before the curfew ended — was mind-blowingly freeing! (I did not have the same liberty to feel as safe, as I was growing up or as I now continue to visit India from time to time, even in some of the most developed Indian cities)!

I was enjoying peeling different layers of my own identity but destiny had different plans for me then. I needed to return back to India after some years of living in the US. As much as the warmth of my homeland was comforting, somewhere I found an intrinsic lack of ability to connect with everyone around me. I wasn’t sure what had changed!? Life, people around me, or was it me.. Had I changed? Soon, I realized that I was experiencing repatriation stress.

  • I had to leave the US unwillingly. US was seeing the peak of the 2008 economic recession and I was unable to find myself an employer who would sponsor my work visa then. (I believe that my appetite for adapting to the move would have been greater, if the choice to leave the US were mine).
  • Social norms and mores (in India) that I was absolutely comfortable with for all my life somehow now seemed stifling. I hated being judged for calling out on people’s bullshit — something that I had acquired to do in the US. Whether it was expectations around what to wear or what to say or what to do, I was clearly an anomaly. Even the extended social circles didn’t shy away from judging my non-traditional choices.. (not that I needed their approval but the obscure criticism was discernible).
  • This one was big: Work culture was starkly different. Unfortunately, I had set my foundation to working in a country and culture (US) that I wasn’t in or part of anymore. In India, I was evaluated against standards at work that I wasn’t accustomed to. Here’s some illustrative examples.. Because I chose to leave work right on time after finishing up all my work responsibilities and go to an evening exercise class to focus on my overall health, I was often teasingly called out as the one working part-time. No one paid attention to the fact that I was one of the first people in at work, when most others chose to arrive only around mid-morning or hang around for (breakfast) social chit-chat sessions until eternity. When I chose not to make small-talk during coffee or watercooler conversations or socialize with anyone and everyone at every other work-event, I was seen as a misfit. It blows my mind thinking that I was made to work on the day of my own wedding (when all the time-off I needed was a long weekend). There was no respect for my personal life and work penetrated in my family’s and my life without my approval. That was not cool!

I could possibly get used to these cultural differences over time still but the ability to feel like I belonged there and connected with the ecosystem was absent. Additionally, the opportunity to do more meaningful work in my occupational specialty seemed like it was amiss back in India. Maybe it was an excuse I used to convince myself; I just didn’t strive harder to find better work options there, (because I know India is booming with great opportunities). As soon as I saw the first chance possible to return to the US, I grabbed it. It was a no brainer for me. I returned to the US for work and have made it my home since. It’s been over five years now.

I have traveled back and forth between the East and West, trying to figure out where I belong. I often reflect on who I am, where I truly belong, what my real cultural identity is.. I am unable to find any clear answers. I feel lost.

I absolutely love my (independent) life here in the US. I am happy with my work, my social/professional life, the worldly goods, and whatnot. That said, even after living here for so many years, I struggle to confidently say that I belong here. Whether it is sports or politics or history or simple American cultural references, there are ample times that I feel like I don’t know what that meant. While I ran away from the sociocultural pretenses of my motherland, I do miss the cultural roots that are ingrained deep within me. I miss seeing family and friends and attending the hundred weddings that I chose to be absent at. I often crave those small joys of street shopping, haggling with local merchants, rickshaw rides, roadside eating, and the cultural festivities that I never knew would be so special that I would miss it one day. Sometimes, I feel like a cultural destitute.

What has kept me going through such times of internal crises is my people, in my close circle, who were always by my side. My people are my friends, significant others, and extended family who have accepted me for my grey choices (even if they do not understand them) — not white, nor black, but the in-between choices. When all I needed was a cathartic phone call to pour my heart out; a listening ear to validate my mixed emotions, they were around. It didn’t matter where they lived or what time of the day it was. They were always available. Everywhere I traveled, I was very lucky to find people who I could count on. Despite my nomadic choices, I was able to accumulate one thing well in life: my social capital. Thanks to my wonderful support network that stood by me and gave me an awful lot of love, caring, and empathy even when I didn’t ask for it. That, I think, has helped me the most.

Today, as I keep moving forward in the wilderness of finding my cultural identity, I realize I may never be able to find the answers to all my questions. Maybe, that’s OK! A deep realization that dawns on me now is that maybe it is these people that I belong to, not as much a piece of land or culture. (It reminds me of the saying): home is where the heart is!