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.