Josna Rege

282. It’s Only Temporary

In Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on September 1, 2014 at 4:22 am

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When our family first immigrated to the United States, I was quite certain, at age fifteen, that I would leave as soon as I came of age. Year after year, decade after decade, as I completed my undergraduate studies, went to work, paid taxes, traveled to different parts of the country, married, and had a child, I continued to tell myself that my sojourn was only temporary; more than four decades later, here I still am. “Temporary” turned out to be a very long time. But as long as I thought of my American sojourn as temporary, I did not make a whole-hearted commitment to it.

Officially, my immigration status remained that of an outsider: Permanent Resident Alien (as if I were a species of space invader), which I proclaimed with pride, even braggadocio. One of my mentors in graduate school, Prof R. Radhakrishnan, had made the point that for many immigrants to the United States there was little emotional incentive to acquiring citizenship when it entailed a loss, a fall from the condition of sovereign citizen to that of a minority—a process he called “minoritization.” Like many immigrants, long after I could have become a naturalized citizen I continued to feel that I would lose more than I would gain by doing so. Indeed, I might have chosen to remain a resident alien had it not been for the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. After September 11th, when even immigrants with permanent resident status were threatened with losing basic civic and human rights, my sense of insecurity as a non-citizen finally outweighed my reluctance to give up my other identities and I filed for naturalized citizenship. (There was another reason I decided to file when I did, and that was my growing sense of irresponsibility. I couldn’t vote, and now that my son was old enough to do so, what kind of example was I setting him?)

So, like many immigrants, I found myself staying, but all the while refraining from putting down roots very deep, looking backward as much as I looked around me. As the years passed I realized periodically that I had lived, loved, and worked in the U.S. for half, then two- thirds, then three-quarters of my life. This was as permanent as it got. And yet, emotionally, I continued to look elsewhere for sustenance, to my parents’ places of origin.

Of course, everything in this world is temporary; but that makes it all the more urgent that we pay attention and cherish the here and now. Everything changes and passes away, and while we are looking elsewhere, it flows right on by. This does not mean that we must live for the present—at least, not for the present alone—but it does mean that we should live in the present—as the Sufis say, in the world, but not of it. I accept that I am nourished by other soils, but I must also remember to be here now, precisely because it’s only temporary.

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  1. Great post. It’s odd, that feeling of transience that some but not all feel. We are like different plants or trees — some thrive from being taken out of their pot and transplanted to a microclimate that suits them, some wither away and die however much love and attention is lavished on them. I find it hard to put down forever roots — three different countries, thirteen or more ‘permanent’ or semi-permanent homes — and while I’ve loved living in most of these places I haven’t yet found a place where I thought This feels like home, I could imagine being here till I die, here’s where I’d like my ashes scattered. I’m sure there are many others like us feeling like this, enjoying where we are now, living in the present, but knowing it is truly temporary.

    • What a beautiful response! Thanks again. I’ve read your comment several times over and every sentence is a gem. So sorry for my delay in replying. Your observation that while some transplants take while others wither away is so correct, and is something that is often overlooked in the emotion-charged debates about immigration. In the U.S. there is this prevalent feeling that immigrants are lucky to come here and that there is no question that they will have a better life than they could have had back home. Of course, that is nowhere near the experience of the migrants themselves. When I return to visit family I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if I had never left, and occasionally fantasize about buying a place there for my retirement. But in in general I do try to live in present. Perhaps those of us who can never feel a sense of permanence—and you are right to point out that we are many in this age of migration and mobility—should recognize that this is the best way to live on this troubled planet in these troubled times. If you haven’t read it, I recommend a terrific essay in this vein by Salman Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” in which he sees the condition of the migrant as the condition for our times.

  2. I have found that it is true for me – living fully in the present and committing myself fully to what is here and now is the most satisfying way to live. Not that I manage to do that always, being human, and full of inconsistencies, yet I know without a doubt that looking back on my most fulfilling and joyful and meaningful times are just those times when I dove in with everything flying and gave myself fully to what I believed was God’s plan for me at that moment.

    • Dear Marianne, you are a model to me for accepting the present joyfully and committing yourself fully to it. I love that image of diving in “with everything flying.” It’s something I’ve always found it hard to do–at least in my adulthood–and always seem to hold myself back a little. Thank you, dear friend.

  3. This was quite an awakening for me, as I assumed all immigrants craved becoming US citizens. I never thought about your perspective – that becoming a naturalized citizen would have less status for you. I feel very naive sometimes.

    When you get right down to it, we ALL have temporary residential status in earth; we better live the moments as they pass.

    • Thank you for your empathetic and reflective comment, Sammy. I don’t think that your assumption is so much a result of naivete, but rather, of the dominant view of immigration in the U.S. In reality, many immigrants, even from the earlier waves of immigration in the 19th century, have eventually returned home rather than staying and putting down roots. Others stay, struggling to make a go of it, but dealing with losses as much as gains. They can only do the best they can with what they have and hope that on balance the gains outweigh the losses–if not for them, then at least for their children.
      And I love your last sentence. Thanks again, J

      • Josna, immigration is such a historied and emotionally charged topic, and I hope you and many others will continue to write about it. I am struck by some of the comments and responses – and there is so much to ponder.

        I don’t know whether to post lengthy comments and questions here or write some posts of my own. It will certainly take me awhile to marshall my thoughts. And If I decide to further the conversation, I certainly want to do it in respectful and informed ways.

        Two things I think of immediately – the United States is such a huge and varied country that I think it doesn’t serve any of us well to assume there is a prevalent opinion about immigration (despite the vocal talking heads who will opine to their last breath). Second, it’s all about perspective. We view things from our own personal experiences and influences.

        I need to figure out what influences my perspective and try to understand the perspective of others, like you, before we can figure out what works, what doesn’t and where to find the solutions that best fit who we are as a country.

        You have really got me thinking, and I thank you again for your haunting prose and provocative posts.

        • Thank you for this, Sammy–and apologies for my delay in responding. I suppose I feel compelled to talk about immigration from my immigrant’s perspective. You’re right that there’s not one perspective on immigration in the US. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there are certain dominant narratives–ones that have more power and currency than others and that we internalize unconsciously. I see the Coming to America story as one such narrative–one in which it is always seen as an escape from a terrible place to a far better place, somewhere where only the most ungrateful would be unhappy and only the laziest would fail to find opportunities for advancement. I exaggerate, of course, but that’s the dominant story, of which there are many variants. That might account for why it was surprising for you to read that migration entailed loss as well as gain, and sometimes more loss than gain. Please forgive me for my often-strong assertions. I never intended this blog to be any kind of a political platform, but rather a place where I could tell my personal stories. It’s a delight I never originally anticipated to be able to enter into all sorts of conversations with thoughtful readers like you. Thanks again for responding so sincerely.

        • No worries about response time, ever, and please forgive me if I made you feel defensive about your post. Truly you made me think about the many losses there are for immigrants in moving from homelands, and I will continue to seek people like you who can give me new perspectives.

          I expect this will continue to be a difficult topic here and in Europe, and there are so many issues within issues. Colorado is a state that benefits enormously from immigrants with high tech skills as well as a huge requirement for seasonal workforce for agricultural and tourist industries. We also are not a “union state” and our business leaders understand how crucial it is to address the immigration policy in economic terms. How that plays out politically remains to be seen.

          Keep writing; keep opening eyes, and thank you for listening and engaging. We CAN make a difference one relationship at a time.

          Take care, Sammy

  4. I’ve never really felt that I had roots anywhere at all. Even in the workplace, my cubicle / workspace was devoid of any evidence of a family / roots. Of course, I was (am again) a consultant, a transient worker, content to find a quiet area of the office to do my thing and leave.

    Life, too, has seemed like that for. Leaving “home” or the land of my birth in 1997 was a semi-conscious decision driven by reasons of family. Professionally, it has taken me backwards, for large portion of my career here I was able to contribute only a fraction of the output I was used to producing when in India. In that sense, there is a sense of loss, a sense of waste.

    Just the other day, on the way to yet another airport, the taxi-driver asked me where in India I was from originally and my initial response (as always) was to go “uhh… I was born in Delhi, lived there for a wile, lived in Ahmedabad and then spent 28 years in Calcutta. So I’m not sure where I’m from”.

    Despite the 28 years, I have never quite seen Calcutta as home and I don’t see Mississauga, ON, as “home” either. In the last 17 years, I’ve had 8 addresses. Even now, I have a permanent home in Mississauga, but a temporary home in Saskatoon.

    Who, then, am I? What have I lost and and what have I gained? Am I one of those who have lived in the now? If I was a famous man, someday someone would write about me and maybe answer that question as you have attempted to do. I have no answers myself.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. It strikes me that you are living the answers and, if your blog is any indication, you are living them with humor and grace. I’m glad that you pointed out that, professionally, immigration was a step backwards; it’s true for many immigrants–I know it was for my father–and many non-immigrants don’t realize this.
      I’m also glad that you pointed out that your sense of unbelonging was not wholly a function of your migration to Canada, but was something that your peripatetic upbringing bequeathed you and that you felt even when you were in India. Nowadays there are fewer and fewer people who can truly say that they feel rooted in an ancestral place.
      Here’s wishing you and your family much happiness and fulfillment. Following your blog, which I enjoy, makes me quite certain that you are living in the now–as much as any migrant can.

      • Thanks for the good wishes, Josna. It is strange to have someone feel that I am living in the now since so much of my blog is stories from my past. But I know what you mean. I try to live today, and feel even more inclined to do so as I get well into my middle age or dotage, as some would have it.

  5. I can completely understand how you feel. I feel the same way in the US and yet, now that I’m spending a substantial time for the first time at my place of “origin,” which isn’t really my place of origin because I was born elsewhere, I feel I can’t connect and feel like running back home to certain places in the US. Yet, when I’m there, I feel like coming home here. And more and more I travel back and forth, I can’t find a home anywhere.

    I feel like I want cherries and mangoes to grow in the same place because both fruits I like and that’s impossible. 🙂

    • Thank you for this, “bottledworder”. Perhaps we are some of the luckier ones–having not one, but two places to come home to. There are precious few of us who can honestly and wholly claim one place as our place of origin, or whose birthplace corresponds to the place where they feel most at home, or who even have a home to which they can return. I wonder, too, if mangoes as good as the best Indian ones grew in the U.S., whether we would love them with the same intensity? As economic globalization has meant that more and more products formerly available only “back home” are available any time, any place (for a price), I have found myself reacting with disappointment. English sweets, for example: a large part of my delight in them was that I could only get them when I travelled to England. Now that they (or some of them, anyway) can increasingly be found in any large U.S. supermarket, most of the magic is gone. I always enjoy your comments and wonder at how you find the time to respond.

    • And strawberries, too. The lack of connection is something I totally understand. I’m a stranger everywhere. Only the relative degrees by which I am a stranger differ. If I went to my place of “origin”, and I did in 1994, for the first and only time in my life, I felt like a wide-eyed tourist, unaccustomed and unaware, totally befuddled by what I was seeing.

      I must add too, that as an immigrant I have experienced much doubt, fear and mistrust from immigration officers. “In our country” is a phrase I have heard many times. Despite my passport, which clearly indicated that I too was a national of “their country”.

      It is difficult to express that feeling of dismay, despair, distrust and anger that is engendered. On both sides….

      • This is true. This is the particular source of insecurity for the diaspora. Yet, those who set down firm roots and chose not to move out “abroad” (such as the people of my generation I’m seeing after a long interval here in Calcutta) often suffer from doubt as to whether they made the right choice by staying put and missed out on something even though they are satisfied every other way. We are living in a world where globalization is a reality and while the Indians of the new generation no longer have the fascination for the “West” as the older generations did, no matter which option they choose, stay rooted or become peripatetic, they’re bound to suffer from self-doubt.

      • “It is difficult to express that feeling of dismay, despair, distrust and anger that is engendered. On both sides….”
        I hear you. I think you’re speaking of the returning Non-Resident Indian or Indian Canadian/American on the one side and the Indian living in India–especially the immigration official at the airport–on the other? Of course, there are also comparable exchanges with customs/immigration officers at the other end, when returning to Canada/US (though I can only speak of the US). In both cases it makes the person of Indian origin feel like an outsider, something that undermines the feeling of homecoming that they/we so long for. Both Here and There, we are continually made to feel like the outsiders that we are, since Home is always complicated–not so much a place as a feeling.
        That dismay and anger on both sides is real–and no one’s fault. After all, that feeling of homelessness and outsider-ness is often a product of privilege. There are many people who yearn to emigrate but don’t have the resources to do so. It must be galling for them to have wealthy (relatively speaking) Non-Resident Indians coming back and expecting to get a red-carpet welcome. After all, they chose to leave (or so the non-emigrant may see it) and now want to have their cake and eat it too. They should pay through the nose as foreigners do (he may be thinking) then at least their money can be of some use to the country.
        I have had comparably difficult experiences when re-entering the United States, notably with one immigration officer who couldn’t understand why I was still a green-card holder after all those years. What was wrong with me that I hadn’t chosen to become a citizen as soon as I possibly could? It’s hard to describe the feeling I had when I re-entered the U.S. for the first time after becoming a citizen, and was greeted, in Miami Airport of all places, with a “Welcome Home”! Though I long for it, will I ever be greeted with such words at Chhatrapati Shivaji International in Mumbai or Heathrow in England?

        • I haven’t really seen too much of that on the Indian side, though, of course, I’ve only been there 3 times in 17 years. It’s been the Canadian immigration folks who’ve been antagonistic and, I would say, definitely racist in their profiling.

          I used to drive into the US from my home in Niagara Falls, Canada everyday for work for a couple of years when I was still holding an Indian passport and I got all kinds of grief from the US border guards. It used to be the same guards everyday. They saw me in my car every morning, but still made comments about my job, “why are we hiring people like you?”. They checked and scanned my passport and H1 visa and commented on how I was taking away their jobs. I could understand the thinking but not the regularity of it all. I mean, seriously, get over it! The Canadians coming home every evening were generally disinterested but occasionally suspicious. I got yelled at for 45 minutes for having 3 sandalwood letter openers, which my wife had got from India as token gifts, in my car. Total value $ 1.25 Canadian. Apparently I failed to declare it. A lot of “in this country” and “we do” this, that and the other.

          I also spent a couple of years flying into the US every Monday and flying back every weekend. That’s when I saw the Canadians really become rude. I’ve heard them say “welcome home” just once in my life.

          Once, I spent 3 weeks in Buffalo, NY. I used to drive in a rented car Monday morning and drive back Friday evening. Coming home, the guard was very confused by it all. “where do you stay in Buffalo? In a hotel? You drive a rented car? Your house is just 1 hour 15 minutes from here! Your company pays for all this? Why would they do that?”. 20 minutes of explanations failed to totally convince him, the line of cars waiting for us to finish became longer and longer as we talked this over. He finally let me come back home, without being fully convinced but unable to find a reason to hold me.

          I dislike all border guards. Only one time did I have this US border guard exchange pleasantries. She looked at my picture on the Canadian passport, looked at me and said “You’ve gone considerably greyer, but, hey, you’ve still got hair! Welcome to the US!”.

          That’s once in 17 years in North America and 4 years of regular commutes to the US.

          Adhey adhurey, is I believe, the correct way to describe us.

        • I love this reply. So you were speaking of your experiences at the US/Canadian border. I totally empathize, and your anecdotes absolutely infuriate me. I had a similar experience in the year or two after Sept. 11, 2001; every week on my drive back from work up in new Hampshire I would be stopped at a border control post (yes, they can legally set up a border control post within 100 miles of an international border) and made to show my identification. For some reason I was stopped every single time in their “random” checks. In those days I wasn’t yet a citizen and at first didn’t routinely carry my green card, since I had it at home for safe-keeping, so I was hauled into a tiny trailer parked in a rest area off the highway. Scary stuff. Showing them my faculty ID didn’t do any good at all.
          Bless that one US border guard with her rare human response. I haven’t had the best experiences on the Indian side, either. When I finally got my Person of Indian Origin card, the photo happened to be a terrible one. The Indian official at the airport didn’t hold back from telling me how ugly I looked in it before giving me clearance to go into the fast-track line.
          But rather than (or as well as) adhey adhurey, outsiders who only half belong, I’d prefer to think of us as richly multi-faceted, better able to adjust to this rapidly changing world, and privileged to have insider perspectives on many different worlds. After all–going back to my original post–none of us really belongs.

  6. So sorry, Dear Readers, for my slowness to respond to your heartfelt comments. I posted this story on the eve of my return to teaching, and have since spent a sleep-deprived week preparing syllabi and lesson plans, I promise to respond properly this weekend. Until then, many thanks, J

  7. ” I’d prefer to think of us as richly multi-faceted, better able to adjust to this rapidly changing world, and privileged to have insider perspectives on many different worlds.”

    Yes, I agree with that. And that does not make “them” feel any better or less bitter.

    The ones who stayed are suspicious and wary of the ones who left. And the ones who left are wary of the ones who stayed behind. Both sides are, dare I say, a tad contemptuous of each other. As Bottledworder said, both side are constantly questioning their decisions, at least the intelligent, introspective types are.

    My god, that must have been scary, getting pulled over inside the country, without ever leaving it!

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