Around the World in 33 Days
Yena Sharma Purmasir traveled around the world – from New York City to London, Oslo, New Delhi, Auckland, and San Francisco.
I grew up knowing one thing for sure: I was going to live in New York City for my entire life. It was my little prophecy, my quiet promise. There was absolutely no harm in this. If you had to pigeonhole yourself to one place and one place only, New York City is not exactly a bad deal. It comes with all the trappings for a fabulous young adult life, all the fixings of steady economic opportunities. These were not the things I thought of, certainly not when I was in elementary school. What I understood was something more sentimental. I wanted to give my one-day children something I didn’t have. I wanted them to have the option to peer into my childhood: Here is where mommy used to ride her bike, here is where mommy used to live, here is where mommy got her first kiss. My two parents could only give me fistfuls of their own histories: my mother’s old photographs, my father’s wild stories. Even my little-kid mind knew it was doing a terrible job at piecing together the truth, whatever that was.
I wasn’t going to make that mistake. My children would live in the same country, the same city I grew up in. They would know me. We would, finally, have a deeply-rooted sense of permanence. To get any wanderlust out of my system, I traveled in my early adulthood. I went to a small liberal arts college state lines’ away. I worked at summer programs in the Catskills Mountains. I studied abroad in New Zealand, which is pretty much as far as I could go without leaving the planet. Everywhere was nice, but nothing felt like home. Although, if I’m being more honest, I always left before I had to seriously question what I needed to feel at home. Not just a place to live, but people to live with: a mother to love and scold me, a best friend only 10 minutes away. These are the things I miss when I’m gone from home. The things I miss when I come back are harder to define.
My first year out of college, I worked a record twelve months with no vacation time. In-between jobs and with a wild energy, I dreamed up a travel itinerary that made all my friends gulp. In 33 days, I wanted to see London, Norway (Oslo), India (New Delhi, Agra, Raipur, and Pune), New Zealand (Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch), and San Francisco. On average, I would be on a plane every three days. It was not going to be an easy vacation, but I relished in it. I booked my tickets. I messaged friends in each country, telling them I would be in town. “You’re staying with me!” they all promised. It was that easy.
It was mid-September when I finally got to London, the very beginning of the trip. I was staying with an old friend, Jamie. It seems relevant that Jamie and I met at an international summer youth leadership program. It seems even more relevant that I was a student at the program when Jamie was the director. That was seven years ago. Now, Jamie and I are friends. We just completed another summer together, this time as colleagues. I met her at London Bridge, in a coffee shop, as I furiously tried to access wi-fi. By the time we got to Jamie’s house, it was the end of the day and we were exhausted. The rain had been unforgiving, pelting down on us as we walked through the city. We trekked up the steep hill and she pointed to a modest house on our left. “This is it!” she said and then we were standing in the hallway, talking to her family.
Jamie is a 30-year-old white woman and she owns her own house together with her brother, Harry. They live together with his partner, Charlotte, and their infant child, Thomas. The house has been newly renovated, all the work completed by the three adult occupants. In fact, they have plans to further expand the property. Harry wants to make the kitchen bigger. He wants an upstairs bathroom. During my two-day stay in their home, I witnessed lots of conversation around this ongoing project. On his way into town, he brought a series of paint samples, sister shades of blue. Jamie and Charlotte glanced at them during their morning tea.
My 50 hours in London were largely spent outside, sightseeing and visiting museums. In the evenings, when we came back, Jamie and I would stay up late. We’d sit in the dining room, one of the rooms that everyone wants to expand. Once we moved into the den, which plainly belongs to everyone: bookcases and framed photographs and Thomas’s toys piled in a corner. Before my visit, Jamie had talked to me in length about her home, how heavy that word felt.
She had said, “Before I bought my house, my parents used to keep all my books. But, I wasn’t living with them. It was like there wasn’t a space that was just mine.”
There are books all over Jamie’s house. She showed me her favorites. We spent an hour going through a book of figures and data collections, a Christmas present from her parents a few years ago. Without meaning to, I think of my mother when I think of this definition of home: a place for books. My mother who had a large library in her New Delhi home and couldn’t possibly bring all those books to New York. Any time I buy a “classic,” how her face pinches and she tells me that she used to have an older edition. Jamie’s work and pleasure involve travel. She hadn’t been home in months. Now that she is, she confessed what great relief it is to live with a family that includes you and simultaneously doesn’t need you. She has found the solution to independence without the risk of heavy loneliness.
The neighborhood that Jamie moved into is overwhelmingly full of people of color, particularly from South Asia and Southern Africa. Her entrance into the community is part of the slow, seemingly harmless process of gentrification. Jamie knows this. She pointed it out while we were sitting on the bus, on our way to Greenwich Observatory. In the next few years, this space will start to look different. The prices of property will steadily increase. Sure, things will start to look better, but at the cost of something else. What Jamie had initially liked about this community will also change.
“In five years, we’ll probably sell it,” she said like home was also an investment. Of course, this makes sense to me and still, I think of all the time it has taken them to mold the house into their own: how Jamie and Harry took turns painting the walls and moving furniture and the blueprints of expansion they draw and redraw.
She told me that a Black family lived there before them. Apparently, the children used to eat their food in the den, while the dining hall was used as a sort of storage. “They weren’t using the house to its full potential,” she argued, which sounded like a reasonable truth. Jamie and Harry still receive bills in that family’s name. It’s hard to imagine the space, now so overwhelmingly theirs, having belonged to someone else. It is even more difficult to imagine the house not living up to its charming potential: when it was home to a family that didn’t care for correcting and rebuilding. Now, they are doing their living somewhere else, the children eating while watching television – just like I used to.
I landed in Oslo, Norway a few hours after my friend, Rasa arrived. She goes to university in Bergen but came home because I was coming to visit and because she was running in the Oslo marathon, midst a crowd of 23,000. She met me at the arrival gate with her father. When I turned to say hello to him, he shook my hand and smiled, but didn’t say much. On the drive to their home, about an hour away from the city center, I realized he didn’t speak much English.
Rasa is a friend of mine from the same international program. In 2006 and 2007, she was the female representative from Norway. I attended the program in 2008 and 2009, representing New York and the United States at large. We met this past summer, after years of hearing about each other from mutual friends. The course of our friendship spanned exactly 14 days in the real world, but on campus, it felt like months. When we said our teary-eyed goodbyes, I promised I would see her again. A few weeks later, I sent her a Facebook message: “Guess who’s coming to Norway?”
During the summer, our students used to joke that we looked like sisters. This is partially true. Rasa and I both have dark skin and dark eyes. Our hair though different in texture, mine straight and hers curly, is the same shade of almost black. It is a great irony that we have both represented our incredibly Western nations, nations that continue to discredit our national identities.
Rasa’s parents migrated to Norway from Iran, because of a political turmoil I had only ever briefly considered in history class. As polite as her father had been at the airport, her mother was every bit as affectionate at their doorstep. She kissed both my cheeks and patted my shoulder. “My English is not very good,” she said slowly. “You call me Nasrin, okay?”
Before I arrived, her parents had told Rasa that they were embarrassed by the state of their home, a house that they recently moved into. I laughed as she told me this, looking at their immaculate living room and the piano in the corner. “My mother would say the same thing,” I admitted, “but it’s not like a hotel. A home should be a bit messy.”
Until our first meal, Rasa and I didn’t talk much to her parents. Nasrin busied herself in the kitchen, after pouring us both a glass of sweet juice, something purple and rich, distinctly not American. Farshad worked on his laptop. When all the food had been put out on the table, we sat down. Immediately, it became apparent that we would have a significant language barrier. Her parents spoke perfect Persian and Norwegian. I only spoke English. We gestured to each other and slowed down our speech. Rasa played translator between the three of us. We all held in our responses, laughter or seriousness, until she was done with her part. Every few minutes, her parents would point at my plate and then at the abundance of rice and fish on the table. “More! More!” Her mother looked at Rasa and asked quickly in Norwegian and then faced me, smiling: “You do not be shy. You must eat more.”
Towards the end of dinner, the phone rang. First Farshad left and later Nasrin, though she left us with a teapot full of fresh tea. “It is family,” she apologized, “we must go talk.” I looked at Rasa who shrugged her shoulders. We gossiped about silly things and only a floor above us, her parents might have been talking about something very different – or perhaps, very much the same.
The next night, after Rasa ran in the marathon and we ate dinner with other friends, we came home late. It was past 10 and I knew that Rasa was appropriately exhausted. She stretched out on the sofa. I sat next to her and her parents sat together to my left. When she fell asleep, I blinked at her parents. We had been in the middle of a conversation and without our translator, there was the great possibility that we wouldn’t be able to share our thoughts.
Farshad cleared his throat and said with a quiet dignity that he suffered with dystonia. “It makes it hard to talk. Sometimes I start to stutter.” He smiled sadly and then looked at Nasrin.
“It’s okay,” I said and then leaned forward. “There is no rush. We can all speak slowly.”
Nasrin shook her head kindly. “You are not like other Americans – they talk so fast! You speak very nice. I can understand you and I am not very good at English.”
I sat up straight. “Please don’t say that. You both speak English very well. I only speak one language. You speak three! It’s amazing.”
We met each other humbly here and continued our conversation. I asked hesitantly why they decided to come to Norway, out of all the countries in the Western world. Farshad told me the story of their migration, how he had studied in Sweden and learned the language there. When it was time to leave Iran, he wanted to come back to this part of the world. Nasrin did not know the language, but she would have to learn. They left everything behind in an effort to survive. Nasrin learned Norwegian and then had to become a teacher, the only career option available to her at the time. Farshad was a doctor. They had two wonderful daughters, who had to grow up without the presence of family. And what’s more, they did not have many friends. The Norwegians they met were cold and aloof. No one ever talked to them. Nasrin described their existence as a lonely one. She missed her family and friends and belonging to a community. “It is better now,” she said, “but in the beginning, it was very hard. Norway is not a perfect place.”
I had heard this story from Rasa once before, back when we were working. A student asked us to talk about someone we were proud of. She talked about her parents’ migration. I remember looking at her face, briefly illuminated by someone’s flashlight. I had thought she was so brave in that moment. As I sat with her parents, though, I felt my admiration shift, rightfully, towards them.
“You know, before I started this trip everyone told me how much courage it takes to go so far away by myself, but it doesn’t, not really, not like this. People like me, people like Rasa, we are very lucky. We will never understand what it was like for our parents, who must have had so much courage to leave their homes to go somewhere else. It is something we can never even thank you for.” I had started crying at this point, but I managed a watery smile at Farshad and Nasrin.
Nasrin stood up and walked over to me. She kissed my head. “We are, how you say this? We are the same sheep.”
I nodded along fiercely. They asked me about my parents coming to America, how a woman from India and a man from South Africa fell in love in New Delhi and then made their way to the oldest democracy. I told them how I grew up with virtually no biological extended family. Instead, I spent holidays with family friends, children of Indian descent. I told them how I was visiting my mother’s family in India in the next portion of my trip, a combination of relatives I had either met once or not at all.
“Good,” Farshad said, looking at his sleeping daughter. “Family is important.”
We woke Rasa up two hours later, after we had talked about more things. They were curious about America, which internationally seems like a haven for migrants. I spoke honestly and candidly, thinking about my mother’s experience, what I have grown up witnessing. Is America better than Norway? I’m not sure.
In the morning, I said bye to her parents. As I thanked them, I said, “You made me feel like a daughter. Please let us meet each other again.” Nasrin waved cheerfully at me from the doorstep. Farshad dropped me off at the bus stop and gave me that same polite, kind smile.
I arrived in India 16 hours later. The last time I was in India, I was 12 years old. It was a family vacation and we were supposed to spend two months touring the country and visiting relatives. Things took an immediate turn for the worse when we actually landed in New Delhi’s international airport. Outside were young children, naked, openly defecating on the street. Old women gathered around the car, begging for money. I spent the first two weeks weeping every night, feeling so incredibly guilty of my privilege. Even if we weren’t rich in America, we certainly could feel rich in India. I had never expected to face such intense poverty. Children tried to sell things to me and I whimpered in my broken Hindi that I had no money. At night, I would tell my mother, “That could’ve been me. If you and Daddy hadn’t come to America, if you and Daddy were different, that could’ve been me.” We left India after that. Whenever anyone asked, I would gloss over the pain that defined that summer. I didn’t know when, if ever, I would have the nerve to face my mother’s homeland again.
The first thing I noticed about India, this time around, was how it wasn’t as bad. Not the state of poverty, but my own perception of it. I barely flinched at the men who came to the car window, asking if they could wash it. I wasn’t scared of the starving dogs on the street. Outside a temple, a bunch of children gathered around me, calling out to me: “Sister, you promised you’d give us something.” I smiled at them and then turned away. It didn’t even hurt. Later on, I wrote a message to a friend: I think I miss that old sensitivity and righteousness. I like to think that I haven’t changed, but I must have. I used to cry at the unfairness of the world. Now, I guess I don’t.
Of my 10 days in India, seven of them were spent with my mother’s family. I stayed in New Delhi, in Sheikh Sarai. My oldest cousin on my mother’s side, Gaurav, was my own personal tour guide. He is 33 years old and recently divorced. His marriage ended months after his mother, my aunt, died. Now, his father is losing his hearing and becoming the kind of elderly person that young people roll their eyes at. The entire stay he only asked me one thing: “Are you all still living in the same apartment in New York?”
“Yes,” I answered, with the slight shame that comes with not yet owning property. “Houses are expensive,” I explained, though he was already done listening.
I had stayed in this same apartment the last time I was in India. Now, there is the photo of my aunt hung up on the wall. This is one of the few changes. The others include adding two western toilets and repainting all the walls to a classic off-white color. I slept in my cousin’s room while he slept on the living room sofa. Later on he told me that he hadn’t been sleeping in his room for a while now. Not after everything that had happened.
During the first half of my trip, we drove to Agra. I told him I had to see the Taj Mahal. We woke up at 4:30 in the morning and were on the road before 6. We took the Yamuna Expressway and watched the sun float up higher and higher. Gaurav asked me what kind of music I liked and then played his favorite rap songs. When a Hindi song accidentally came on, he immediately skipped to the next track. It didn’t matter that I had told him that I liked Hindi music. What connected me most to India was muted for most of my stay.
Gaurav is one of the few people I’ve met who has never been outside his home country. As we looked at my American passport, the only suitable identification when traveling abroad, he told me the story of how he almost went to France. It involved his first serious girlfriend. For some reason, his visa application was denied. “I have one stamp in my passport,” he said, laughing, “and it’s not a good stamp.”
Eventually the two of them broke up. After that, he started dating the woman he would go on to marry. They were married for about a year. He told me vehemently that he would never get married again. “Women are the problem,” which was something I heard repeatedly, for many reasons. Gaurav’s big dreams sound like the vague dreams of a lot of young people. He’s waiting for his father to die. He wants to quit his job. He wants to go live in a beautiful hill station, McLeod Ganj, where he could teach children and spend his free time staring up at the sky. “I’m jealous of your trip. I want to do something like this too.” One day, Gaurav took out all the photos of his time at McLeod Ganj and showed me the view, the mountains.
What Gaurav has seen is his country. He has traveled up and down the subcontinent. He boasted that the pilots of domestic flights recognize him by face. Still, when we were in Agra, he looked around like a tourist. “This is my third time here,” he admitted, which makes sense. I don’t know many nationals who spend their spare time looking at tourist sites. At the Taj Mahal, I tried to imagine what kind of love would be worthy of such a magnificent structure. Our guide, a young man named Mohammed who is studying art, talked a lot about architecture and history. Between each fact, he surreptitiously looked something up on his phone. He confessed that he also wants to study in America. More and more, my life back home felt like a fairytale, something that made me lucky.
Two days after Agra, we woke up early again. This time, to take a plane to Raipur. My grandmother, my only living grandparent, lives there with my uncle, his wife, and their two daughters. I had only met my grandmother once before: in 2000, when she came to New York to help my mother take care of my father. My father had been in a terrible car accident, which resulted in serious injury and illness, including a leg amputation, an onset of throat cancer, a complication with a decade old pacemaker, and, eventually, death. He passed away a week after my grandmother left, which has always seemed like a cruel coincidence. Her time with us was marked with continuous familial discord. She didn’t like my father, my father was sick, my mother was scared and sad. My clearest memory of my grandmother is of her saying awful things and my father crying. I had never met my uncle, aunt, or their daughters before. On our way to the airport, I sent my mother a quick Facebook message, sharing thoughts I couldn’t possibly say aloud.
On the flight to Raipur, I put on my makeup and Gaurav took a nap. In the taxi to their apartment, I barely spoke. When we got there, my uncle, Darshan, was standing outside. I had never met him before but he had my mother’s face, soft and familiar. I hugged him, which is rare in India, but so common in America. He called me his child. We took the elevator to the apartment. Outside the door, my grandmother stood, smiling and crying. She was wearing a dark blue sari and her silver hair was twisted into a low bun. She turned me over and then said, “You are so thin! You must eat something right now.” Behind her, my two cousins laughed: Chutki, who is 18, and Pinky, who is 17. They towered over me but called me their older sister. My aunt, Kangana, hugged me and then ushered me inside.
They had just moved into this apartment a few weeks before. Even my mother still thought they were living in their old home, by a lake. I had to explain, in one of our long family phone calls, that they were now living in an apartment complex. There was no lake nearby. I liked the new building. I happened to be there during the festival for Lord Ganesha. There were nightly religious services in the building’s makeshift temple. Many of the residents gathered inside. While the women and men engaged in proper spiritual behavior, the children played loud games of tag. I turned to Chutki and told her that this is exactly what temple is like back in New York. She smiled. “I guess, some things are the same everywhere.” The neighbors said hello to me and made room for me to sit with them. Some of the younger women came over to ask me questions about life in America.
My grandmother is 85 years old. Before she lived in this part of Raipur and the other part of Raipur, she lived in New Delhi. She also lived in Mumbai. She lived in Aligarh. She used to work for the American Embassy. I knew all of this but it is different to hear it from the person herself. In her life, she has witnessed a lot of death. Her husband, her parents, her sister, her son-in-law, her oldest daughter. “At least I got to see you,” she said. “Soon, I will die, but now I have seen you. It is okay.”
When we were in Delhi, Gaurav had taken me to see the family’s old house in East of Kailash. All of them used to live there, my aunts, my mother, my grandmother, even him. This was before they were eventually forced to leave. When we found the house, it was uninhabited, with a heavy lock on the front gate. I took a photo of it and sent it in a text to my mother: Do you recognize this?
She wrote back: No.
My grandmother told me about her nightmares, how she continuously sees the ghost of her oldest daughter. “Sometimes I see your mother too. She used to call me so much. Now, she hardly does. My children have gone so far from me. At least you came to visit.”
My cousins and I slept in one room while all the adults spilled into the living room and the other bedroom. After we were finally alone, we talked about my life. Chutki showed me photos of her friends on her phone. When she showed me photos of about five different boys, I finally asked if any of them were her boyfriend. She got very serious and said no. Pinky didn’t say anything.
The next day, I noticed that my aunt and my two cousins served food to everyone before eating themselves. When I offered to help, they got upset. The men in the family didn’t offer once. No one expected them to. I asked the girls if they hang out with their friends and they shook their heads. The next night, I told them both about how important education is. Chutki wants to be an accountant. Pinky wants to study math. “If you work hard, you can do anything. If you want to, you can even go study abroad. You could live in another city. Do you want to leave Raipur?” I asked.
“Yes!” They said quickly.
Darshan is my mother’s only brother. In the morning, the two of us sat next to each other for breakfast. He barely asked me anything about my life back home. As far as my family knows, I have a college degree and though it took effort, it was not a challenge. Even for Gaurav, I had to convert the cost of an American education into rupees before he understood. “That’s a lot of money,” he said, after a beat of silence. “How did your mother manage?”
Before I left his home, Darshan asked about my mother. “Is she happy?” I thought of my mother who moved away from everything she knew. She told me once, that when she was younger, she never wanted to leave India. She thought she would live and die there. Now, she has been gone from home for 28 years. In America, she has to do everything for herself. She has pushed grocery carts and assembled heavy furniture. She makes the rules in our home. For fourteen years now, she has been making big decisions alone.
I looked at my two cousins, trying to text their friends and also serve roti to the family. The kind of life she saved me from. I said, “Mommy’s good. She’s very happy.”
From Raipur, I took a plane to New Delhi and then another flight to Pune. Pune is a place I have visited before. My father’s oldest sister, Sita, lives there. Sita is the kind of relative you have to brag about, because she sounds like a fictional character. Like the rest of my father’s family, Sita was born and raised in South Africa. By the time she was in her early 20’s, she had become a sort of sensation for the South Asian community there. She used to sing on the radio. She used to dance at functions. In 1960, she left South Africa to go study music and dance in India. She was the first South African girl to be admitted as a student at Viswabharti University in West Bengal. There are photos of her in various news clippings. She kept them all in a beautiful photo album. She studied in India for four years, before going back home to South Africa. She was the oldest of nine children and her mother had died. It was her job, she told me, to help raise all her younger siblings.
When she was 31, after her father remarried, she decided to move back to India. “I didn’t like South Africa anymore. I felt like no one cared for me there. I wanted to go back to a good place.” That was in 1971. Since then, she has been living in India. She never got married, never had any children. During this trip, I finally had the courage to ask why. She told me the story of her first love, a boy she knew when she was 18, how she wanted to marry him. Shortly before their engagement, she found out that he had been having an affair with a girl in a neighboring city. That girl was pregnant. He wanted to marry my aunt anyway. “After that, I had no interest in marriage, or men. What do they say? Once bitten, twice shy.”
Sita is 78 years old now. She used to work for a doctor and through that professional relationship, she became a part of his family. His daughters treat her like another mother. When she needed to have surgery for her broken hips, those girls paid for it. Because of her arthritis, she only has full mobility of her thumbs and forefingers. Still, she cooks all her own meals, cleans her own house, crochets, beads, and writes letters. Despite her bad hips, she refuses to use taxi services. She walks to the market and buys her own vegetables. When I was visiting with her, she told me she didn’t want me to help her with anything. “What will I do when you leave?” she asked. “It’s better that I stay self-reliant for as long as possible.”
Her home is the same as it was the last time I visited her. Her bedroom is overwhelmingly green. The living room is pink and white. The kitchen is a muted gray, until the sun comes through the curtains. She showed me all her plate ware, gifts from people from over the years. She has kept everything. One afternoon, she took out a book my father had mailed her. He wrote inside it: I love you. Please pray for me. She told me the story of how she went to a specific temple and did the ceremony exactly the way she was supposed to. He died a few weeks after that.
On one hand, Sita told me that she wants to die in India. On the other, she is still living on a visa. Many people have asked her why she won’t give up her South African citizenship. “What if I get sick?” she asked me. “Who will take care of me here? I don’t have anyone. If I need to, maybe I’ll go back home. There is family there. It is good to have options.” Still, when she describes herself, she says she is Indian at heart. There is no other place for her. She is supposed to be here.
While I was with her, we went to visit with her friends. We had tea at someone’s house. They gave me gifts to bring back to America. Another neighbor ordered chicken biryani for me to eat as my last dinner in Pune. That same evening, we bumped into another friend in the middle of the road. When he heard I was about to fly off, he put his hand on my head. “He is blessing you,” my aunt said.
My aunt couldn’t drop me off at the airport because her legs were aching. She frowned as she asked her neighbor to take me instead. When I hugged her goodbye, I promised I would see her again. She laughed and squeezed my arm. “You remind me so much of me,” she said. “You are going to go everywhere.”
From India, I flew to New Zealand. This was the third time I was in New Zealand. As a family, we went in 2003. I was 10 years old then. A decade later, I studied abroad at the University of Auckland. Of all the places I have ever visited, ever seen, New Zealand is among my favorites. When I was a child, it was because of my family there: another one of my father’s sisters, her husband, and their children, all much older than me. I remember the first time I left. I cried all the way back to America. We called my family as soon as we landed, eager to hear their voices, their South African becoming Kiwi accents.
The second time, I sobbed loudly in the airport terminal, on the flight, even in the cab ride back to my New York apartment. I had had a perfect time abroad, with close friends and a heart full of love. It didn’t help that I was leaving a peaceful, happy place to return to my grueling, intense liberal arts college. What I liked about home, the pace and the desire to be ambitious, was also what I liked about New Zealand, the absence of those things. I had spent five months barely reading, barely writing. Instead, I laughed and talked and felt, for the first time, a great inner peace.
Of all the places I traveled to, New Zealand was the only place where I felt less like a tourist and more like someone sleep-walking through a familiar country. I joked with my friends that somewhere here I was still only 20 years old.
I spent most of my time in Auckland either with my aunt, Prabha, or my friend, Olivia. Olivia was one of the first students I met during my exchange. Back then she was 18 and adjusting to her first semester at university. Now, she is finishing up her last semester. “It’s weird, I’m 20 and I don’t feel that different. This is how old you were when you came here and I used to think you were such an adult.”
Olivia is a white and linguistics major. She is from a place called Hawke’s Bay. She’s going back home after graduation, which is rare in New Zealand. Mostly graduates stay in Auckland, hoping to find a job. But Olivia isn’t interested in staying here. She is working towards saving enough money to come to America. My first night, she told me about her plan. “What if I live in New York? Even if it’s just for six months! We could see each other all the time!”
I laughed and then agreed that it would be fun. “But Olivia, you can’t stay in America forever. Or, who am I going to come visit here in New Zealand?”
When Olivia was 16, she studied abroad in France for a year. Just last year, she studied for a semester in Texas. Most of her life has been spent traveling, settling, and unsettling. She doesn’t like small towns, or at least her small town. She likes cities, but other cities, not Auckland.
Our friend, Jasper, is the opposite. One night, we went up to Mount Eden to have dinner. After the sun had set, the entire city of Auckland sparkled up at us. Sitting in someone’s car, we were all huddled close together, protected from that fierce mountain wind. All of a sudden, Jasper said, “I hate city lights. I don’t think they’re particularly beautiful. They’re all the same, wherever you go.”
Jasper is a 22-year-old chemical engineering student. He is white and from Wellington. When I first met him, he was heavily contemplating leaving university to go do just about anything else. Once, I told him seriously that there was nothing out in the world that he couldn’t find anywhere else. “I just don’t want you to think you can go disappear somewhere in Europe and it’s going to solve everything. It’s not. We are who we are, no matter where we are.”
If this sounded at all like the truth then, it doesn’t anymore. When we were catching up, discussing our relatives in other countries who seemed like distorted reflections of ourselves, I asked him, “How different do you think we would be if we grew up somewhere else?” Jasper, with his Polish heritage, who didn’t quite fit in with his Polish family. Me with my Indian-South African family, realizing how distinctly American I must be. Would we still be ourselves? Would we even recognize each other?
In the car on Mount Eden, I gently laughed and disagreed. “Cities used to be full of devastation. It used to be so hard to live there and now, cities seem like the center of civilization. I know it all looks the same, but it’s different. We’re no longer impressed by widespread electricity, so of course, this seems less magnificent than a sunset, but if you think about it, it’s a big deal. Each light represents a household, maybe one person or a few people living together. They don’t know it, but all their lives are interconnected. We just get to witness their lives coming together in this small way, but in a city, it happens everyday. Even if they feel alone, they’re not really. Everyone here is part of something.”
Another friend laughed. “Rebuttal?”
Jasper turned around from the front seat to face me. He sighed and then smiled. “I don’t know what to say. I really like the sound of that.”
Later when Jasper and I were saying goodbye to each other, he asked me when we would see each other again. Next year seems unlikely. We agreed that 2017 would be the earliest possibility. “Will you come to North America?” I teased, knowing already that he hates America and the mass commercialization, the violence, the general culture.
“Maybe,” he said laughing, because anything is possible. By the time he gets his degree, a lot might change. The world, sure, but also his opinions. “I probably won’t be in Auckland,” he admitted.
Jasper reminds me of Gaurav in a way that isn’t fair. Jasper has traveled through Eastern Europe, has studied abroad in Canada, has backpacked through North America. And still, I think of my cousin wanting to be on a mountaintop. I picture Jasper there also. I think of Olivia and of Chutki and Pinky, who are so desperate to go see the big Western world, who want to live in cities and loft apartments. My aunt in India who lives alone and my aunt in New Zealand, eight years younger than her, who has her own family.
I spent my last two days in New Zealand with them. My aunt, Prabha, has the voice of a singer. Now, she can’t bend. I helped her organize the lower cabinets in her kitchen. Her husband, Jitendra, used to be a headmaster in a school. Now, he is quiet. If it is too bright, he has to wear sunglasses inside. One night, when we were all sitting and watching television, I noticed her staring at me. “It’s just that you look so much like your father,” she said. I laughed loudly and she did too. “I mean, you’re beautiful, but you look just like him.”
When I talked to her about Sita’s fierce independence, she gave me a long, even look. “Don’t you go getting any ideas, okay? You should get married. You should not live alone like that.”
As I was helping her organize her kitchen, she jokingly told me that I should try to find a nice Kiwi boy to marry. “Then you can live by us and we can give you lots of useless plate ware.”
I rolled my eyes. “And what about Mommy? Wait until I tell her you said this.”
She smiled at me, a kind of strange parent smile. “She’d come here too of course. Parents go wherever their children are.”
This is true and untrue. My grandmother who has lived with my uncle for most of her life, but could only stay with us for a few months. My mother who I could never imagine leaving behind. My aunt in India who has lived alone from 1971. When her father started to get sick, he moved in with her sister, my aunt in New Zealand. What happens if parents have more than one child? What happens if you have to do something alone?
I messaged Olivia from Auckland's International Airport, saying that this was the first time I was leaving New Zealand without crying. But a few hours later, right as my plane was taking off, I burst into tears. If I had to give New York up, I think I could give it up for New Zealand. Maybe. Though it seems unfair and ungrateful to think about moving across the world when I consider the huge sacrifices my parents made and continue to make for me. Rooting myself up like that sounds callous, stupid, and frightening.
It was 12 hours later when I landed back in my country, in San Francisco. I took the BART from the airport to meet my friend, Phoebe, at her office. She had moved out West a few months back, after balancing a long distance relationship for over a year. Her boyfriend, Steve, works at Google. The two of them share a standard California apartment. After Phoebe and I hugged, we immediately started talking about this city. “How long are you going to live here?” I asked.
“A year at most,” she said. “I can’t stay here forever. It’s not the place for us.” Phoebe was born in Denver, but spent most of her life in the DC area. She is mostly Black, with the exception of her Indian migrant grandmother. Our senior year of college, we told all our friends that we were cousins, which could be true: our similar, converging ancestries. Steve was there when we first came up with this concept. He grew up in a suburb near Philadelphia, as the oldest child in a large Black family. Already the two of them have booked their tickets home for Christmas, each of them going to their separate homes, only a few cities apart.
In the first hour of my stay, Phoebe and I rolled our eyes at the slow pace of all the pedestrians. Later when we went shopping in Oakland, we raised our eyebrows at the expensive prices. “You’re both not really California people,” I told her and Steve over dinner. They agreed vehemently, in a way that should have made me uncomfortable. It should be strange to live in a home for a brief amount of time and then move. But it isn’t. It sounds like all the movement of college, changing dorm rooms, packing and unpacking.
Perhaps for Phoebe and Steve, home is each other. Next year, Phoebe will be in a Teaching Fellowship program. Perhaps then it will be Steve that follows her. Phoebe and Steve have a very strong no new friends policy. I jokingly asked what they intend to do for the rest of their lives. “What about when you have kids? You’re going to make friends with your kids’ friends’ parents.”
“Nope. My kids are going to be friends with my friends’ kids,” Phoebe said, laughing.
I blinked at her. “Phoebs,” I said slowly, “What if we don’t live near each other?”
This is the kind of question that no one ever wants to answer. It is easier to think that family and friends will be forever contained in a neat universe, where no one is more than a car ride away. My parents both had friends they didn’t see for years. Some of my father’s good friends missed his funeral. I missed my own brother’s high school graduation because I was studying abroad in New Zealand. It turns out that everyone is ready to give up something they never thought they would have to give up. Given the chance, I wonder how many of my relatives I will ever see again, how many of my friends’ children I will see grow up. Not like Farshad and Nasrin, who cannot go back, but like my mother who has been living away from home for 28 years, like my aunt in India who wants to die there, even if that means she dies alone.
I arrived back home in New York late on a Friday night. My mother and brother were at the airport. My mother hugged me tight. We got in a cab, after bargaining the price down from $60 to $40. The three of us alternately argued that we were from New York and knew what a scam looked like. Such a scene should have reminded me of the bustle of India, but instead just reminded me of my American childhood, my mother knowing the true worth of anything.
My sense of home has always been tied inherently to the idea of belonging. New York has been my home since birth because it is the only place I have ever felt belonged to me. Here, I know the streets, the trains, the shops. Here, I don’t need someone else to show me around. In other cities and other countries, I am lost. In other places, I feel like there is nothing anchoring me.
Who knows how different I would be if I was the kind of person who settled and unsettled? The person who moved from continent to continent and could never go back. The person who took a ship through the Indian ocean to go study fine arts. The person who dreamed of living on a mountaintop, only one stamp in a passport. The person who could build a home for six months and feel it was enough. The person who traveled around the world in 33 days and came back home. We are not all the same sheep. Some of us are living lives in direct opposition with each other. What is possible for me is not possible for someone else.
Calling a place my home means it fundamentally cannot be someone else’s, which should make sense. And yet, at the end of my stay anywhere, after brief glimpses into different bedrooms and kitchens, I told them all to come visit me. Maybe, not out of generous hospitality, but so that they could see that I too had my own corner in the world. That despite all the travel, I had a place and a reason to return. That the life I built in and around New York could never be moved. And, of course, that my little prophecy was still just as likely to come true.
The miracle, however, is not that I belong here. It is that I belong anywhere and still, there are some places that feel different. There are some places that feel more important. If I ever have children and I couldn’t give them the whole world, what would I give them? Where would I want them to go?
Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.