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Remnants and roots

Oct. 5, 2017
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Remnants of the past are gathered in the musty, dark, room, draped under cotton sheets with block-printed patterns long faded from the sun. I visit this room once a year when I make the 20-hour journey to India to visit my extended family and reconnect with my heritage. This room, the basement in my grandma’s house, always seems to play a pivotal role in the “reconnection” part of my trips.  

Many of my friends know very well where they come from. They see their grandparents every weekend or month or holiday, and they know all their cousins, aunts, and uncles well. Some of them even complain that their grandparents are coming over—to me, such grievances are a foreign concept, because I only see mine once a year, for two weeks or less. These kids also seem to have a firm grasp of their roots. Their origin. Home. But being far from my family has played a significant role in how I’ve turned out so far as a 15-year-old girl.

I’ve always had a connection to India, don’t get me wrong. I know, just by looking at myself, Oh. I’m Indian. It’s almost obvious: brown skin, black hair, brown eyes. I know that my parents lived in India and that the majority of my extended family lives there as well. But that, precisely, is the issue. What exactly does it mean to be Indian? It’s not just skin-deep. Brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes aren’t it—that’s common to thousands of ethnicities. Living in India isn’t it, either. If that was it, I wouldn't answer “New York City” when people ask where I’m from. Seeing family and people from generations behind you on a regular basis seems to help ground you. It gives you a sense of where you’re from—after all, if a tree’s roots are right underneath the tree itself, they’re much more effective than if the roots of a tree were 7,854 miles away from the tree.

My sense of belonging, home, place—it wobbles, like a tree whose roots are 7,854 miles away. Here I have my parents, who speak Hindi at home. My parents make a tremendous effort to grow roots for us so our trees don’t tip over, including going to the Hindu temple and celebrating all the Hindu holidays at home—not all of India is defined by Hinduism, but it defines my family’s version of India—as well as having tons of Indian and desi friends so that we can have as much cultural exposure as possible. These efforts have kept my tree from toppling, and just keep me at a wobble. Nothing can make up for being somewhere where almost everyone is so fundamentally different than you in terms of both looks and heritage, and the culture is so different than the culture presented to you at home.

For this reason, remnants of my family’s past, both here in my New York apartment and in my grandparents’ house, are incredibly important in reducing the steady wobble of my identity tree to the occasional shake. My grandma’s basement, which I again visited this summer, helps transport my roots from my family India back to my daily existence in New York. Seeing my mother and grandfather’s hundreds upon hundreds of old books, with their yellowing, brittle pages, seems to orient me. It gives me a sense of Oh, this is where I come from. I discovered, after exploring the books, that I get my love for reading from my mother and grandfather—we even share a love for Agatha Christie mysteries. My grandfather died when I was 13, just two years ago, but my time with him was limited to my annual two weeks in Jaipur. We couldn’t really ever get to know each other on the level that my friends and their nearby grandparents often do. For me, looking at all of his old books was like unraveling another layer of his identity: sharing the same taste in books brings a more familial sense to my memory of our relationship. That may seem rudimentary, sharing a taste in books—but to me, it’s everything.

The reason I call the books, old posters, hanging naked light bulb, and faded cotton print fabrics “remnants” is that they’re buried and hidden behind things of the present. It’s almost a treasure hunt, finding these things. There’s a bike, shiny and new; modern camera equipment; and even more things of today hiding these things of then. One by one, these old things—survivors of reorganization and storage purges—become like ceramic pots from ancient Assyria: we have to hunt for them, put them together, and figure out what they are. The basement is like an excavation site. You have to hunt for the remnants of the past, but when you find them, they’re priceless.

My mother hunted around her house and my father’s house, and using all the photos she found, she put together photo albums of her childhood and my father's childhood and their early life together. Like the basement, these photo albums are priceless vaults of treasure. When I was younger and people brought their grandparents into school for Grandparents Day, I used to sit and look through the albums, trying to find similarities between my face and my relatives’ faces like the ones I saw in the mannerisms and appearances of my friends at school and their grandparents. I looked to those books to learn about my mother’s and my father’s childhoods, and I always used to ask myself, what would my life be like if I lived in India? If my parents had moved back? If my parents never came here? What would I be if I was normal? To me, normal meant being blonde and pale-skinned, lacking thick glasses, having pretty long hair, and above all, visiting family on weekends. Looking back, it’s actually quite sad that this was my perception of normal. As we all should know by now, normal means absolutely nothing. No one is normal or abnormal. But I was taught to think that my identity tree’s steady wobble meant I was different. Again, this priceless collection of photos stabilized my metaphorical tree, and I believe it has helped shape me into who I am today.

Roots and remnants are two very important yet fundamentally different things. The remnants of my family’s past have shown me that it’s not just my mom who has a “mandir” at home; these remnants normalized all of my family’s Indian and Hindu traditions in my mind. Photos and documentation of my roots, my family, helped ease my feeling of having no origin—no place which I could call home. Even though I wasn’t born in America, I moved here at a very young age from Japan, where my father was working, so people don’t consider me a stereotypical immigrant given that I’ve lived here almost my whole life. Instead, other immigrants have often told me that my voice and perspective don’t belong in the immigrant community. I understand this on a certain level: I’m not simply someone who grew up in a different country and then moved here. But where does that leave me? I’m still a girl torn between two countries. I’m still Isha Chirimar, born in Japan, from India, but living in New York City. It’s not as simple as, “Hi, I’m Isha and I’m American.” “Hi, I’m Isha, and I’m Indian.” I’m simply not one or the other. If I say I’m American, people always look at me funny and say, “No, I mean where are you really from?” And if I say I’m Indian, I don’t sound Indian enough, and people ask, “Where’s your bindi and bangles? Your English is so good! But I don’t hear an accent? Are your parents marrying you off? You’re going to be a doctor, right?” Frankly, this is extremely tiring: I’m tired of the assumption of stereotypes which I try to avoid, and I’m tired of the fact that people simply don’t believe I’m American. If someone has a firm grasp on their identity, they should let others be free to create their own identity.

As of now, I have not quite developed a solution which satisfies both my identity as an Indian girl living in New York City and other people’s contradictory expectations of who I am. I hope that one day I’ll have an answer to this question of “who I am and where I’m from”—but for now, I look to my roots and the remnants of my past.