Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

499. Thoughts on Fathers and Fatherhood

In Childhood, Family, parenting, people, reflections, Stories on June 20, 2021 at 5:33 am

As the hour clicks over into Father’s Day I can’t help but think of the fathers in my life, especially my dad and Andrew, my husband and our son’s dad. I can’t gush about them Hallmark-style, though; I love them both too much for that.

It is hard to be responsible for another person’s life. Fathers have long had to bear the responsibility for supporting their families financially, for literally keeping a roof over their heads; but in addition, many fathers provide so much more security for their children by their loving presence, the quality of their attention, and the model provided by their active parenting. Both my dad and Andrew provided that kind of security, each in their own distinct ways.

My father did everything wholeheartedly, with tremendous energy and conviction. He sang me to sleep, patting me rhythmically on the back as he did so. He read to my sister and me, throwing himself into each of the characters—voices, accents and all. He always believed us when we told him of a wrong done to us at school. When the nuns told me that left-handedness was a sign of an untidy mind and tried to make me use my right hand instead, he marched right over to set them straight. If we wanted something he would make it for us in secret—stilts for me, a doll’s house for sister Sally, Christmas cards for our mother to send to her family. Although Mum disapproved of my reading at the dinner table, Dad set an example for me by doing so, and I gladly followed his lead. He taught me how to swim by making me jump off the end of a jetty into the sea. He raised his voice when he got animated, agitated, or argumentative and inadvertently taught me to do the same.

Dad wasn’t afraid of trying new things, traveling to places where no one in his family had gone before, where he didn’t know a soul. He shared his adventures with us by taking us with him wherever he went. How can I ever forget the trip to Bhutan that we all took together in 1964, when I was ten? He emigrated to the United States from India when I was fifteen and Sally ten. Unsettling as that move was, we made it together, and Dad plunged into our new life as he did everything else—unafraid of meeting new people, doing things he had never done before from cross-country skiing (actually, Mum made him do that) to barbecuing, and teaching Americans things he knew and they didn’t.

My father was a teacher and an urban planner by profession but also an artist—a talented painter. His work involved interactions with all sorts of people, and he was a good communicator and a social animal. But his art was a personal passion and he followed it alone and single-mindedly, never forcing it on us unless we expressed interest in it, in which case he was delighted to share it. Same with all his pursuits, from tennis to swimming to leatherwork to orchid-collecting to weight-lifting to yoga. He practiced them avidly but didn’t impose any of them on us—except when he took up Maharashtrian cookery; then we were glad to be his guinea pigs as he worked his way through the cookbook.   

Thinking back to Andrew as a young father, he plunged into the new and unfamiliar role even before our son was born, attending birthing classes with me and driving me to the hospital in the snow with a midwifery manual in the back of the car. He gave Baby Nikhil his first bath—I was too afraid that I might scald or drop him—and pampered me so much after the birth that I didn’t have to change a single diaper for at least two weeks.

When we lived on the farm Andrew always played actively with little Nikhil and Eric, making building blocks for them and building teeteringly tall towers with a string tied to the bottom block for the boys to yank gleefully and cry out, “Accident!” Guess who picked up all the blocks every time only to build them up all over again? (It certainly wasn’t me.) In the winter he helped the children make snowmen and a built a Zamboni to smooth the ice on the pond so that we could pull them around and around on sleds. In the early spring he took them with him to tap and collect the sap from the maple trees; and in the summer he trundled Nikhil to the garden to pick tomatoes in the little red wagon. He built an easel that was permanently set up in Nikhil’s room with a fresh sheet of paper and watercolors at the ready, where Nikhil drew his first stick figures and, after watching 101 Dalmations, a terrifying painting of Cruela de Vil with fingernails almost as long as her hair.

Later, when Nikhil was a schoolboy, Andrew carved and decorated wooden swords and shields for him and, at one memorable birthday party, made a sword for each and every one of his friends. When he had map-making or model-building homework for school or Cub Scouts (which were notorious for assigning complicated projects like go-carts that only the parents could make), Andrew was right in there with him, problem-solving and thinking it through systematically. He assistant-coached when Nikhil was in Little League baseball and again, in high school, for Ultimate Frisbee. I don’t think he missed a single one of his games.

My first job after completing my graduate studies was too far away for a daily commute, so for several years I had to spend two nights a week away from home. During those years Andrew was responsible for getting Nikhil up and off to school on time. The task became progressively harder, since teenagers are notoriously sleep-deprived. Because Andrew couldn’t bear to jolt Nikhil out of bed he would invariably let him sleep a little longer, missing the school bus. In senior year of high school I don’t think there was a single day that Andrew didn’t drive him to school in the morning, even though the bus came to the door.

how to cut a pomegranate (az

Looking back, I see that Andrew was the laid-back parent where I was the anxious one. When I fussed and fretted too much over homework, a messy room, troublesome teachers, or college applications, Andrew would find a way to defuse the tension. During the seven months we lived in India while I was doing my dissertation research, Andrew played cricket with Nikhil and his cousins, bought and filled brass pichkaris (super-soakers) for playing Holi, learned and showed Nikhil how to break open a pomegranate into a perfect star-shape. I, on the other hand, was making sure that he addressed all his aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles correctly or that he ate using his right hand (hard, that, since he was left-handed).

While I graded student papers or sat for hours at the computer, father and son would play boisterous games of darts and watch movies together (some of which I might not have approved of had I been there). Later, when Nikhil was a budding filmmaker his dad was his biggest fan and supporter, always on hand to make or repair anything that needed his carpentry or design skills, taking on every project as if it was his own; later still, reading his screenplays and giving him feedback; or dreaming up his own movie plots and sending them to Nikhil; or making bound notebooks for every member of the cast and crew.

As a father, Andrew was very like my own dad in one respect: he would never force his child to do the things he himself did, especially chores that involved hard physical work. While many fathers would make their sons mow the lawn, shovel snow, chop firewood, or work on the car, Andrew would quietly go out and do all those jobs himself, giving Nikhil the time and space to develop his own interests and skills.

This Father’s Day, I honor my own father and the father of our son. Even at times when they themselves may have been struggling, they remained loving, active, and supportive presences in their children’s lives; they both gave of themselves unsparingly without pressuring their offspring to follow in their footsteps; and they both took tremendous pride in their children’s accomplishments. It’s going on five years since my father passed away, but hardly a day passes when I don’t remember something he taught me or smile at one of his exploits, sayings, or quirks. It’s going on fifteen years since our son grew up and left home, but I feel sure that he could say the same of his dad.

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498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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491. Anticipation, Not Dread

In Aging, Music, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on January 26, 2021 at 2:06 pm

I’m one of those people who can go from zero to sixty in an instant: a human panic button. It doesn’t matter whether the precipitating factor is a trivial matter like the milk for my tea going bad or an enormity like the war on Yemen: in either case I’m on a hair trigger. I’ve always insisted that I’m not really anxious, that it’s just my way of letting off steam; but this has allowed me to dismiss the corrosive effect of my explosive behavior, not only on my own well-being, but also on people around me. It must be exhausting to interact with someone who is perpetually on high alert about one thing or another. And, I’m increasingly recognizing, it can be exhausting to be that person.

“There’s no problem here.” This proposition has presented itself to me two or three times in as many weeks, raised by different people in different settings. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as irresponsibly acquiescent, when vigilance and resistance is required at this time. Of course this world is rife with problems. But as Pete Seeger reminds us in Turn, Turn, Turn, there is a time and a season for everything. And nobody would accuse the author of If I Had a Hammer of acquiescence. 

What would it mean to tell oneself that there was no problem here? Our meditation teacher has asked us to give this question some consideration. Of course there are many problems, internal and external, small and large. But what purpose does it serve to identify with every problem? Perhaps it does nothing but get one’s knickers in a twist. Might it not be better all round to be able to discern whether or not a given situation needs to be considered a problem in the first place, and whether making it a problem does anything but give one an adrenaline rush?

Moving from the impersonal “one” to the first person—me, that is—how might it be different if I pushed a mental pause, rather than a panic, button when each new situation presented itself? It would give me time to think and space to breathe. It would allow me to assess the seriousness and scope of the situation. It would enable me to determine whether it was something I could affect positively by my actions, and if not, to simply set it aside rather than fretting needlessly about it. And if it was something critically important to me, that pause would allow me to consider how I might address it most effectively.

An example that I’m dealing with now. Next week I start teaching again after a semester-long sabbatical leave. During this time my colleagues have been learning how to use videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom to conduct their classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that I have a lot of catching up to do. I could sound off about it—and believe me, I have—or I could start addressing the situation. Is it a problem? Not necessarily, because I have the time and the tools to deal with it before it becomes a problem. However, my default mode would be to make a tremendous fuss about it and demand that all my friends and my long-suffering spouse make a fuss about it too. Wouldn’t the best course of action simply be to get on with it, asking questions and getting answers, revising my syllabi for the new situation, and reminding myself that my students are likely to be struggling with it much more than I am. It is in the nature of this situation that we will encounter problems—personal, political, psychological, technological—but we are in it  together and we must deal with it together. The trick for me is to look upon my return to teaching not with dread, but with anticipation, and to prepare for it accordingly.

I can’t do anything about the zero-to-sixty phenomenon that seems to have turned me into a Senior Citizen overnight; but I can adjust the hair-trigger 0-60 setting on my fight-or-flight response. In fact I must: it’s unsustainable at my age. What I’ve come to see is that a panic response makes it impossible to deal with any situation optimally. Quite the opposite: it turns every new situation into a problem.

Yes, there is a problem here, but it’s one of my own making.

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490. A Continuation

In Books, Music, Politics, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases on December 31, 2020 at 8:08 pm

A continuance is a request by a party in a criminal case to reschedule a court date. The date can be for a hearing or a trial.

As the year draws to a close, at least for those who measure the passage of time by the Roman calendar, the internet is abuzz with messages bidding 2020 Good Riddance and looking eagerly to 2021 for new beginnings. For my part, I’ll be grateful for the chance of a continuation.

Of course we are desperate to draw a hard cut-off line under the ravages of the past year and celebrate the prospect of a return to life after COVID-19. Most of us realize, though, that we will never return to the old normality; which, in any case, was already unacceptable. Furthermore, metaphorically turning the page on 2020 will not end the pandemic or restore the lives, homes, and livelihoods lost to it. It will not end the endemic violence in our societies and around the world. It will not bring equality under the law regardless of race, class, or creed. It will not repair the fabric of our communities torn apart by greed, hostility, and mistrust. It will not feed hungry children, mend shattered lives, or heal broken hearts.

Those awaiting new political leadership, either in anticipation or in dread, may well find that in fact the new dispensation will not be much more than the old dressed up in a different style. (Here’s how The Who put it in Won’t Get Fooled Again and I must admit the truth in it, though I still resist the political cynicism.) There will be some movement, whether backward or forward, but either way we will just have to keep on pushing if we want to translate those new faces at the top into positive change in ordinary people’s lives.

Of course we all know that the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an arbitrary marker. Every moment of every day is a new beginning, if only the individual and the collective have the will to make it so. But new beginnings are not brought to fruition in a moment. So many people are forced to keep their lives on hold, in hostage to the whims of those in power. They are in limbo, waiting for a court hearing, a judge’s ruling, unable to make long-term plans. But the longed-for ruling, when it comes, may be a hard cut-off, a decree of immediate deportation or a sentence to lifetime imprisonment, whether literally or metaphorically. In  such cases, we may prefer a continuance to a final ruling, because it allows more time for us to work for change.

In U.S. law, when a court grants a continuance it means that the court date is temporarily suspended or postponed. When work is permitted a continuation, it means that the process underway can continue. It may not be completed, but at least it has not been terminated. There is still hope.

Progress is like that, moving in fits and starts. We continue to work as long as we can, and often a continuance is the best we can hope for. Those of us who are still here can celebrate that fact and recommit ourselves to preventing disaster capitalism from hi-jacking catastrophe yet again.

The prospect of a continuation is a positive one because it allows us more time not only to restore balance after a crisis, but to set things to rights, to set ourselves on a sustainable path, to heal divisions rather than merely to win.

In Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, three siblings whose family was broken apart and dispersed in the wake of Partition have become even further estranged over the years, by their different circumstances, their different personalities, and a series of misunderstandings and long-held grudges. When one sister, Tara, now living in the U.S. returned for a visit to her sister Bim in India, they finally began to make a breakthrough, but only when it was nearly time for them to part again. Tara begged Bim, who was ready to dismiss their precarious new understanding, to recognize that they had made progress. Said Bim, with her characteristic impatience:

‘Don’t be so silly, Tara—it was all so long ago.’

‘Yes, but’, cried Tara desperately (and with one of my favorite lines of all time):  ‘but it’s never over. Nothing’s over, ever.’

‘No,’ Bim agreed, growing gentler. . . Nothing’s over. . .Ever’.*

Tara seemed comforted to have Bim’s corroboration. . .  At least they had agreed to a continuation. *

Nothing’s over, ever; even this terrible year. And yet, as we remember Auld Lang Syne all over again, we are right to put 2020 behind us and to welcome 2021. Our struggles will not be over, not by a long shot, but we have been granted a continuation. Happy New Year!

*A confession: when discussing this passage in my book, Colonial Karma, I actually misquoted it, using the word ‘continuance’ rather than ‘continuation.’ Setting it right here, more than 15 years later, proves that it’s never too late to correct one’s mistakes.

The quote above is from Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. Harper and Row, 1980, page 174.

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481. Ghost Town*

In Education, health, Nature, places, reflections on July 23, 2020 at 2:59 am

This summer I’ve been taking evening walks through UMass, a sprawling 1450-acre campus that I never explored when I was a graduate student there because I was too busy taking classes and teaching, then racing home to my family. At the time I only knew a few buildings besides Bartlett Hall, the decrepit building that housed the English Department. Bartlett was joined by a dank, underground hallway to Herter Hall, where one picked one’s way through puddles and water dripped from moldy ceiling tiles. The 28-story library towers over the valley, once chiefly farmland, before the boom of the 1960s that made “Mass Aggie” (Massachusetts Agricultural College) the flagship campus of the Massachusetts state university system. (Apparently the architect Frederick Holmes Olmstead had advised the founders of the college to build only low structures on the campus, but as UMass grew, the tall buildings proliferated.) In 1994, toward the end of my studies, it was renamed the DuBois library, after Western Mass native W. E. B. Du Bois, whose papers are housed in the library’s archives. But in my day, even that wonderful, well-stocked library was a place I raced in and out of, putting up my coat collar and wrapping my scarf around my head as I entered the wind tunnel that whipped perennially around the tower. I ran up and down those 28 flights of stairs to beat the elevators and vent my excess energy, only registering with my peripheral vision the student murals that graced the stairwells.

Back in my day the Lederle Graduate Research Center was on the northernmost edge of campus, and the polymer research center was under construction. All I knew about polymer science was that English and polymer science graduate students were having parties together, since men were in short supply in the former cohort and women were thin on the ground in the latter. But now the university has spread in all directions, with a proliferation of imposing new buildings (here’s a map). And now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are almost all empty. The UMass campus, usually bustling with more than 30,000 students, is a virtual ghost town.

Now I have the eerie privilege of walking the length and breadth of the campus without encountering a soul. It is at once uplifting and uncanny, seeing the plantings in glorious flower with none but me and the rabbits to enjoy them; the usually manicured lawns and meticulously maintained walkways with weeds rearing up tall between the paving stones; locked buildings and cheerful signs reading “Welcome Students” with nary a student in sight.

While my natural bent is toward the Humanities, I feel unusually strong feelings of awe and a deep sense of loss as I walk among the many soaring, well-funded buildings of this highly respected public research university. With my normal cynicism suspended with regard to the funding sources and research priorities of fields like polymer science, I think of the brilliant young minds taking on the complex challenges thrown at us by our times, normally burning the midnight oil in the campus laboratories, now stuck at home working remotely and alone. I admire for the first time the way new buildings, all metal and glass, have preserved the original brick ones, their modern design features and the surrounding landscaping deliberately incorporating the old into the new.

Walking under an elevated glass-enclosed walkway between two buildings, I am admiring the decals of bird-silhouettes affixed to the glass to deter real birds from flying into it, when something on the ground catches my eye; a dead bird. Sobered, I walk to the main road through the campus, where, even now, construction of a new dining commons continues, with the old one now a demolition site. My eyes are drawn to an old building squeezed between the new construction and the portable toilets on the worksite. In my day it was the Institute for the Advanced Study of the Humanities, directed by Professor Jules Chametzky, where I defended my doctoral dissertation. Now it looks like the little house in Virginia Lee Burton’s picture-book of the same name that I read to Nikhil so many times in his childhood. Squeezed in and being squeezed out, only to accommodate ever-larger dining facilities to please the customers in the new consumer model of higher education.

The Little House

But this fall, far from the usual 14,000 undergraduates living on campus, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy estimates that only 7,000 will be returning to on-campus housing. Another 8,000-8,500 students usually live off-campus in Amherst and surrounding communities, and it is not yet known how many of them will be returning to the area, since most students will be taking their classes remotely. The chancellor did not give figures on how many of the additional 7,000+ graduate students, many of them international students, will be returning in person for the fall. A deep uncertainty pervades the community and the surrounding town—students, faculty, administrators, year-round residents alike. The  buildings across campus will continue to be maintained, at considerable expense, but many of them will remain empty.

I walk on, past the new Life Sciences complex to an older section of campus, past the faculty club, housed in the oldest building in Amherst, past the greenhouse to the permaculture garden, a teaching model of conservation and sustainability, working with nature rather than against it. In its wisdom the university has retained a gardener to cultivate it through the summer, and now, in mid-July, it is a riot of abundance. As dusk falls, two young women come by and encourage me to pick whatever is ripe. I pinch a few springs of peppermint and a scarlet runner bean and breathe deeply as I tread the garden paths in their labyrinthine peace. It is time to head home.

In time, the students will emerge from their enforced retreats and bright young minds, not only in fields like computer science, polymer science, and engineering, but also in agriculture, natural resources conservation, economics, history, labor studies, sociology, anthropology, and yes, literary and cultural studies, will return to tackle the many challenges that human beings have brought upon ourselves.

As for me, I haven’t retired yet. While we may be shut down on the outside, we are digging deep into our inner resources and coming up with rich compost. University campuses may be ghost towns now, but this hiatus has been not only necessary, but sorely needed. It’s time for a radical reboot.

                               *Thanks to The Specials for their 1981 song Ghost Town.


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464. Middle Age

In 1990s, Aging, Family, Immigration, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 16, 2020 at 10:26 pm

This is the thirteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Middle Age.

In the late 1990s I officially entered middle age, if the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary and the United States Census are to be accepted. Since they both designate middle age as the years from about age 45 to 65, I am just moving out of that middle period now, and entering a whole new stage of life. But can I cast my mind back to those years in which I was still approaching it? To be honest, it is all a bit of a blur.

During the decade of the 1990s our son moved from starting kindergarten to finishing his first year of high school, with the dizzying array of activities that fill those years. How busy we keep our children! In parallel, I completed my doctoral work and started my first fulltime faculty position, a 215-mile roundtrip commute north of us. Rather than relocate our nuclear family, which was settled happily in a congenial community with our parents on both sides having recently retired nearby, I opted to drive up on Tuesday mornings, rent a room in a house for two nights a week, and return home on Thursday evenings. I suppose it worked, more or less, but it was exhausting, and the almost-continuous shuttling made it hard to simply rest in any one place for long. Sometimes I wonder what it was all for. Perhaps that’s the nature of the striving that defines so much of our working lives. At the time it seems essential; but in retrospect, not so much.

Despite how officialdom defines age groups, they also vary depending on place, education, and social class. In the mid-1970s, when I was looking into midwifery, one of the paths I considered for a time after college, the British midwifery manual labeled a thirty-year-old first-time mother an “elderly primipara.” (Now, by the way, that age has been scaled up to thirty-five.). In  the 1980s when we moved to a farm in a rural community I was an ancient first-time mother at thirty. There were plenty of grandmothers not much older than I was. But when in 1990 we moved to the university town where we still live, I was enviably young with a kindergartner at 35, since so many women had postponed having children until they were established in their professional careers.

The 1978 portrait of the Brown sisters (© 2014   Nicholas Nixon)

There’s another interesting thing about the relativity of age: one’s perception of one’s own age in relation to the rest of the population. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I was younger than most other people round me. Whether or not that was indeed the case, I was caught up in my youthful concerns and nobody else really mattered. In my later thirties and forties, I still felt on the young side, but noticed that there were about as many people younger than me as there were older than me. But increasingly, entering my fifties and on up into my sixties, I’ve become acutely aware that I am either the oldest person in the room or alternatively, one among many grey-haired or bald people in my age group, with nary a young face to be seen.

  The 1988 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

How did my perceptions square with actual population demographics? In 1980, when I was 25, the median age of the U.S. population was 30, so I was younger than many others, but comparatively speaking not as young as I had thought. Ten years later, in 1990, when I was 35, the median age was 32.9, so I was just about in the middle; and by 2000, when,at 45, I was entering middle age, the median age of the U.S. population was 35.3, making me fully ten years older than the average American. I still didn’t feel my age.

The 1999 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

All through the 1990s I had the metabolism of my youth. I was pretty much the same weight as I had been in high school, and I still could and did eat anything, and as much of it as I liked without the scales moving in the slightest. My hair was getting greyer, but I was dyeing it at home with an peroxide-free German product that looked very natural, so nobody noticed but me. I seemed to have boundless energy, too, although the long commutes were silently taking  their toll on my system.

It turns out that I was a kind of Dorian Gray through most of my middle age, in that while until age 55 I was regularly considered the person in our group of friends who had aged the least, I was living as if there was no tomorrow in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. The hidden painting was the one that was aging, not me. But sometime in my early 60s it all caught up with me at once, the middle-age spread, wrinkles, thinning hair, “senior moments,” the inability to concentrate after a certain hour in the evening. Suddenly, it seemed, far from looking young for my age, I looked considerably older than my agemates who had been steadily taking care of themselves. But perhaps that too is all a matter of self-perception.

Something else happened to me as I approached middle age that was less about self-perception than about how one is perceived by others. Not just anyone, though; I’m talking about women in particular. At a certain age, women just disappear; once they are no longer perceived as sexual beings, they are no longer noticed at all. I had read of this phenomenon of middle-aged women’s invisibility and my mother had been telling me about it for years. She would storm in, furious at having been passed over while waiting for service in a store in favor of a much younger woman. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she would fume. “I complained, but then they looked as me as if I was crazy and answered in patronizing tones as if I were a child.” I would sympathize with her but had no idea of what it was really like until it started happening to me. With regularity.

Still, despite the messages from society, I persisted in feeling younger than I was. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, found that the older people get, they younger they feel; until they’re about 30 they feel their actual age, but by age 45 they feel ten years younger.

What has advancing middle age meant to me as an immigrant? Having come to the United States when there were very few immigrants here from anywhere except Europe, I feel like a living historical archive, that I have a lot to share with those who have arrived more recently. I also feel less lonely. As a 1.5-generation immigrant (known as such because they bring with them or maintain characteristics from their home country, meanwhile engaging in assimilation and socialization with their new country), I feel that I can understand both first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And as I move into and beyond middle age, I delight in the fact that the demographics of the American population are starting to skew in favor of immigrants and people of color. While I was in a tiny minority when I first arrived in this country in 1970, when immigrants made up only 5 percent of the population, in 2020 it has risen to nearly 15 percent; if you additionally count the American-born children of immigrant parents, we are looking at fully 28 percent of the population.


Going back to that 2009 Pew Research Center survey about growing old in America, it found that people aged 75 and older had a count-my-blessings attitude when asked to look back over the full arc of their lives and measure it against their expectations. Younger people, by contrast, were much less forgiving of themselves. I am learning to replace judgement with acceptance. My invisibility—a magic cloak for older women. My steel-grey hair—I embrace it. As for my middle-aged spread, I’ve always been scarecrow-thin. Now I’m what Indians of an earlier generation would have called “healthy”, before Euro-American norms reshaped their standards of beauty.

Looking back, I feel protective toward the forty-year-old me, approaching middle age. I want to give her a gold star for effort, but also give her permission to slow down, breathe, and enjoy life a little more.

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463. Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment

In Books, Britain, Family, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, reading, reflections, Stories, United States, writing on April 15, 2020 at 1:51 pm

This is the twelfth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment.


Loch Lomond, looking south from Ben Lomond (Wikimedia Commons)

For migrants, longing comes with the territory. Many migrants—especially women—did not choose to leave a place they loved, where they themselves were known and loved, and where many of their nearest and dearest still live; it is only natural, then, that they would yearn for home and for those they left behind. At the same time, they must love and protect those who migrated with them and who may be particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of everyday life. Finally, they have a duty to themselves, to allow themselves to live in the present, to open themselves to the possibility of love flowering anew.

In the 1990s, after not having traveled much in the 1980s, I took three or four short trips to England, one for an NEH summer seminar that allowed me to stay in London for the better part of a summer with Andrew and Nikhil joining me for a month, and one long trip to India, where Andrew, Nikhil (then 8 years old) and I stayed with family for nearly six months while I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation. These visits allowed me to renew my connections with the beloved people and places of my own childhood and of my family, which, in an important sense, helped me maintain my equilibrium back in the United States. By the mid-1990s I had lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Was it still not home for me, and if not, was I living too much in the past?

                             Early-morning view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

So many expressions of love are outpourings of longing. Langian, the old English word for ‘long’, means to grow long, prolong, and also to ‘dwell in thought’. It is also related to the German langen, ‘reach, extend.’ Immigrants in particular, unless they choose to burn their bridges completely, to cut themselves off surgically from their past lives, are particularly susceptible to this complex and persistent emotion. But if you think about it, many if not most of the most moving poems and songs of love are in fact songs of longing or loss. Kālidās’s Meghadūta, or Cloud-Messenger, comes to mind, a lyric poem written in the 4th-5th century CE in which a yaksha (nature-spirit) in exile for a year asks a passing cloud to convey a message to his wife. In song, think of The Water is Wide, Loch Lomond or Danny Boy. In fact, songs that celebrate love fulfilled are few and far between. The Beatles’ And I Love Her is a beautiful expression of love realized in the present. John Prine’s The Glory of True Love springs to mind, too, mostly because it is so uncharacteristic of the rest of his love songs.

Hampstead Heath, North London

My mother never stopped longing for her family and home, even though she lived away from them for nearly 65 years. In her late seventies, just as, unbeknownst to us, Alzheimer’s Disease was beginning to attack her mind, Mum joined a group called The Power of Now, after the book by Eckhart Tolle. In it she struggled with the idea of living in the Now and ceasing to dwell in and on the past. She argued with the group and with herself, asking how she could and why she should let go of what was, in her view, the very best of herself. Sadly, the fog of Alzheimer’s descended soon afterwards, progressively robbing her of her precious memories. However, even when she could hardly talk, evidence of her continued love for her family in England would still surface from time to time, and her remaining sister and brother in turn continued to express their love for her, calling to talk to her on the phone every week, even when she could no longer reply.

I have just started participating  remotely, via Zoom, in a daily mindfulness meditation session with John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). As he says, we only are alive in this one moment, now”, and mindfulness practice trains us to make our default refuge our awareness in and of the now. Like most people’s, my mind has the habit of dwelling everywhere but here, and I am reaching gratefully for this gift of being fully present in the moment as one of the unexpected silver linings of this terrible pandemic. (This does not mean, though, that we censor or condemn our mind when it we find it reaching across time and space; just that we observe it, and bring it back here, to this breath.)

I want to close this reflection with a quote from the late, great Toni Morrison’s perfect novel, Beloved, which I have just finished teaching. In the penultimate chapter, Paul D, who came back into the protagonist Sethe’s life after an absence of two decades, left again, and now re-returns to find her in mourning for the lost ghost of her dead daughter. He attempts to comfort her, but Sethe is disconsolate, saying, “She was my best thing.” Gently, tenderly, and without any judgement, Paul D responds.

     “Sethe,” he says. “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

     He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” His holding fingers are holding hers.

     “Me? Me?”

As immigrants, as human beings, we owe it to those we love who are here with us now, to give ourselves to them in the present. More importantly, we owe it to ourselves to live fully in the here and now. We are, each of us, our own best thing.

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451. Life Depends on It

In Books, health, Inter/Transnational, reading, reflections, Work on March 22, 2020 at 3:37 pm

Still from David Gladwell’s film adaptation of The Memoirs of a Survivor

A friend just wrote to me that she feels as if she is living in Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor; so do I. So do I.

It’s been interesting to see how quickly we can make drastic changes in the way we live if our lives depend on it and if the authorities tell us that it is essential to do so. One day we hear the term social distancing for the first time and the next day we are practicing it (and rightly so). One day we are getting up and going to work and the next, we are working from home indefinitely (with or without pay). One day we are in the thick of a critically important election campaign and the next, primaries are being postponed with little to no opposition, despite fears of the general election going the same way. No such drastic action followed when more than 50,000 children died of starvation in Yemen in one year alone; or when we received dire warnings of impending climate catastrophe from the scientific community; or on the numerous occasions when the current U.S. President has overstepped the limits of his constitutionally defined powers for what seemed like one time too many.

Passengers in a train in Chennai on March 19, 2020 (PTI)

We are living in conditions we never dreamt of just a few short weeks ago, and there is no end in sight. Nevertheless, I’m sure that even as each of us goes through the motions mandated by our leaders, a part of us is watching and seeking to understand what it all means. What kind of a world is going to emerge at the other side of this crisis, and what can we do to help shape what that world will look like? We feel the need to act, not only for ourselves but for the future.

COVID-19 scenarios and benefits (Washington State)

We know that the wealthy and powerful are working hard to ensure that they come out of this on top, that even as patients gasp for breath, healthcare workers run out of masks, and hospitals out of ventilators, they are in the process of restructuring the system to consolidate their power still further. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, has called it a pandemic shock doctrine; in a March 16th video, Coronavirus Capitalism—and How to Beat It, she warns of this opportunism but suggests that the unfolding  global disaster also offers the opportunity for transformative change from below—if we demand it with the same urgency that we are now putting into hoarding toilet paper.

Yesterday I read an article about the millions of workers in India’s informal sector who are suddenly out of work; there are no provisions or protections for them. It’s the same with gig workers around the world, or part-timers without benefits. Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, pointed out on March 15th that because the United States doesn’t have a public health system worth the name, millions of Americans will be left without adequate care and coverage. In the face of this crisis, authoritarian rulers around the world are acting to protect themselves and their own but, aside from empty posturing, have little of substance to offer their people except for draconian measures that may well become permanent, unless we act and keep on acting to create a different future.

In the meantime, we do what humans do: we hunker down, obey orders from above, share frenetically on social media, and do our best to ensure that we and our loved ones survive. But we are also working hard—albeit  in place—to gain an understanding of this developing situation, reaching beyond and deep within ourselves to help create a just and sustainable future for us all. Life that’s worth living depends on it.

P.S. If you read The Memoirs of a Survivor, do let me know what you think. Love, J

Shelves at a Tesco supermarket after panic buying (Picture: Michelle Davies)

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449. The Farthest Field

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, Music, Nature, parenting, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on February 15, 2020 at 11:47 am

painting by Jim Turner

As I advance farther and farther into the territory of old age, I notice that time is doing funny things. It’s a truism that time speeds up as one gets older, and so far I must report that it appears to be true. (It’s mid-February already; weren’t we just marking New Year’s Eve? My friend’s granddaughter is ten already? Surely not; didn’t we only just celebrate her third birthday?) The events that follow inexorably upon each other—daily, weekly, semester after semester, annually—seem to be scrolling by until they are almost a blur. I used to be pretty good at anticipating, preparing for, and keeping track of them; now I can barely nod to them as they gallop by, while—unless I exert a tremendous effort of will—I am increasingly a bystander rather than a participant.

It’s not just the pace of life that I notice, but also the problem of desire. Increasingly, if I miss a meeting or a deadline, I find that I don’t much care. As Arundhati Roy wrote (in a very different context) of her main character Rahel (at the “viable-dieable” age of 31) in The God of Small Things: “Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered.” Am I letting myself go, as my mother would have put it? Succumbing to inertia, as my father warned me when he was the age I am now? (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself.) Is this a phenomenon I am simply to stand back and observe, or do I force myself to jump back into the fray?

The thing is, I do care, deeply, and have never stopped caring, about the people whom I love and the struggles and injustices in this world. I want to keep acting in it until I can do so no longer. But, as John Prine wrote in the voice of an old man in Hello in There, “all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream”(see TMA 333).  As I watch history repeating itself I’m still trying to sound a warning note, but increasingly allowing myself to let younger people take the lead.

I realize that the mere fact of getting older doesn’t let me off the hook. I have responsibility for those around me. Roy’s “the less it mattered, the less it mattered” is a real thing, and at the core a symptom of depression, as indeed it was in Rahel’s case. Surfacing from those depths requires more than an  act of will. But there’s another responsibility I have now that I am officially an Elder, and that is to step back and take a long view of the frenetically unspooling action of the world. As long as I am alive I can’t stop acting, and I certainly can’t stop the world, but it is high time that I gave as much time and attention to reflecting upon action, most especially my own.

If I can’t stop the world, I can endeavor to slow it down, at least long enough to hold it for a moment in my mind’s eye. Looking back at the events of the past month, decade, fifty years—for February 6th marked the 50th anniversary of my first arrival in this country—not with nostalgia, but with as much honesty and insight as I can muster—I must try to learn something from it all while I still can. Last month I found a bag full of diaries, including my schoolgirl diaries from 1966 and 1968, and hardly dared read through them in my jaded hindsight, to look with compassion on the mostly-clueless young me, emoting and reacting and taking so much for granted. I made myself do it, though, and among the typically adolescent banalities, found threads that carry forward to the person I still recognize today, in all her flaws and fierceness. I see now why people of a certain age write their memoirs, not so much for others—although no doubt they hope to be able to pass on something that they have learned—but for themselves, as they try to make sense of all that has unfolded in their time and their place within it.

Two more observations before I put the laptop away, dress, and plunge into this busy Saturday.

I want to note the distinction between the words farther and further. In the United States, according to Merriam-Webster, “farther” tends to refer to physical distance while “further” more often refers to metaphorical distance. “Further” also means “moreover” or “additional”, depending on whether it is used as an adverb or a verb. But Merriam-Webster further observes that the two words have been used interchangeably for a long time, and the distinction is by no means a clear-cut one. While The Cambridge Dictionary (U.K.) makes similar but more nuanced distinctions between farther and further, it ultimately maintains their interchangeability. In its book, “farther” is used to refer not just to distance (for which it says the more common word is “further”) but to distance away from the speaker. Since we experience the past and project the future in terms of their distance from ourselves, “farther” is the operative word here, for my purposes. But why does this matter here?

Roger, the beloved founder of RUSH, the singing group I participate in every month, recently passed away, to our abiding sadness. In the last couple of years he had introduced us to a number of songs that looked ahead to the as-yet-uncharted territory of death and dying, and retrospectively I see that he had been preparing himself and us all to face what was to come with courage, and even with gladness. One of those songs was The Farthest Field, which I now sing with gratitude for his farsightedness. Death is not metaphorical.

And a memory of my dear mother, who died nearly two years ago. As the Alzheimer’s advanced, that dreadful disease that progressively blocked her cognitive pathways and ultimately took away her voice, all time seemed to her to fold, like a closing concertina, into the present. Of course I can’t know exactly how she experienced it, but one Christmas season found her taking out all the old cards sent over the years by her distant family members and lovingly displaying her favorites all over the house. Our first reaction was one of annoyance: why was Mum taking out all these old cards, and mixing them up with the new ones that were starting to arrive? How would we be able to tell who had sent us cards this year? But upon reflection I thought differently: Mum had always treasured the Christmas cards sent to us by her family in England, no matter where in the world we were living. Now, as the significance of any time of year— indeed, of Time itself—was fading rapidly, what mattered to her what the joy which welled up in her as she handled each of these precious expressions of love. Increasingly, I too find myself sharing Mum’s feelings about these cards. It is February, and I have put away the cards with overtly Christmassy images on them, but have left some of the others up, simply because they are beautiful and continue to bring me joy.

Oh my dear friends/I truly love/to hear your voices
Lifted up in radiant song;
Though through the years/we all have made/ our separate choices
We’ve ended here where we belong.

There are further adventures ahead to which I look forward with anticipation and, of course, with some quickening of the heart. As the songs tell us, this path is each of ours alone but also, that we are all on the journey together, and I take heart from that fellowship. Until Time folds up like a concertina for me I will make the effort to stay engaged, but must increasingly take time out to pause and reflect on what it all means and how far I have come.

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446. Musings on Multiculturalism

In culture, Education, Food, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories on December 7, 2019 at 1:49 pm

Our new house is just a block away from the campus of the University of Massachusetts, the largest public research university in the state. For the past four years in a row its dining program has been ranked the best in the nation, bar none. My family can attest to this; my nephew Tyler completed his four years of undergraduate studies at UMass this year and in his first year, I remember, the often-rocky path from home to dorm life was made smooth by the fabulous food. Better still, family members eat free, so we would regularly be invited to join Tyler for an all-you-can-eat meal with a dizzying array of choices, master chefs and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Since Tyler graduated we don’t go as often, but it’s a terrific side-benefit of having UMass on our doorstep. Last night Andrew and I walked over to the nearest dining commons for dinner, since we didn’t feel like cooking and on Fridays there’s fried fish on the menu. Among a great many other things.

During the stressful last 12 days of classes, UMass Dining is additionally featuring special treats, comfort foods, and student favorites every day. Yesterday, according to the schedule, the special was the intriguing-sounding Jian Bing crepes, today, sticky rice with mango, and tomorrow, Tonkotsu Ramen bar. But when we entered the main dining hall all we could see were the regular stations—the fish with roasted acorn squash and stuffed red peppers, the gluten-free Jamaican jerk chicken and sesame collard greens, the risotto bar, made to order as you watched, stir fries, also made to order with a choice of ingredients and sauces, the obligatory pasta and pizza sections, burgers of course, including vegetarian black-bean burgers, salads of all descriptions, organic teas, milk from the local dairy farm, fresh fruit and hot chocolate to go, in compostable cups. But ornery as I am, I was disappointed. Where were the advertised specials?

We started with the fish, but even though it was melt-in-the-mouth fresh and flaky, I fretted about what wasn’t there. Still, we enjoyed our first course as I looked around and people-watched. Having endured an undergraduate experience in the early 1970s with a pretty homogeneous group of classmates in terms of race and class, I delight in the international diversity of the UMass student body with so many students from South and East Asia. In my day I had not a single South Asian classmate. But where was the Asian food this evening?

Finally I made inquiries and was directed to an adjacent dining room. There I saw students with promising-looking deep bowls, suggesting the proximity of ramen. But all I could find behind the food counters was the dessert special, freshly made waffle bowls filled with the ice cream and topping of your choice. With ramen on my mind, these failed to tempt. Eventually I was directed to a third room adjoining the second one, and Bingo! There were all the missing specials I’d seen on the online menu. And there, too, were almost all the Asian students.

After racing back to tell Andrew the good news I loaded up a bowl and a plate and came back later for a second plate. After filling the bowl at the ramen station with dumplings and a choice of toppings, I found the Indian food station: pullao rice, naan, chicken, paneer and vegetables, channa (chickpeas), and mini-samosas. Reminding myself that we could make this at home, I took a very modest helping, so as to save space for other choices. It was ridiculous–I was already full, but this food was begging to be enjoyed. The Jian Bing crepes were delicious, made with besan (chickpea flour), egg, and chopped scallions and filled with lettuce, crunchy fried wonton strips, and shredded chicken, and the obliging cook made an all-vegetarian one for Andrew. The station next-door was making sushi to order, but I reluctantly had to give it a miss this time. We ate our fill, followed up with a bowl of sticky rice with mango (delicious) and a gratuitous slice of chocolate mousse pie (too much, I know, but not to be missed) and waddled home clutching cups of hot chocolate (me) and coffee (Andrew). But what I really wanted to talk about was the people.

As I was finding my way to the dining hall with all the deliciousness, I noticed that there were more and more students of color sitting at the tables in the room adjacent to ours, and when I found what I had been looking for, I realized why. On the way back with my first bowl of ramen and plate of Indian food, I saw a long table filled with beautiful, happy, animatedly-talking South Asian students and—I kid you not—a row of young men who all looked like twin brothers of Hasan Minhaj. Now you know that I don’t think all South Asians look alike, but this was completely true, even taking into account my penchant for exaggeration. I was happy to see East Asians, South Asians, students with hijabs, students fresh from sports practice and still in their shorts (it was snowing outside, mind you), students with Santa hats, all laughing and chattering and being warmed inside and out with that delicious comfort food.

Back at our table in the “traditional” room, as the empty plates piled up and I slowed down considerably, my eyes strayed to the students at the tables around us. Even in this room there was a diversity of students, some eating alone, some in couples, and some of the small groups were mixed: men and women, Asians and African Americans, jocks and gaming aficionados, all bonding over food. I can’t say for sure if there were any mixed couples, though, and wondered whether the past fifty years had seen much change in this area, one particularly dear to my heart. There were two women across from us, one South Asian and the other East Asian, and the East Asian student had a large, soft, buttery piece of naan which she was trying to eat with chopsticks. I watched her out of the corner of my eyes with a huge smile spreading over my face, as she tried to handle the naan daintily with the chopsticks, nibbling away at the edges and, as it kept lurching dangerously and threatening to escape, she bit off larger chunks to get it to a manageable size. It looked like one of those contests in which people have to try to take bites out of apples on a string with their hands tied behind their back. By the end of it she was a pro, and, undaunted by the rising carb count, began to tuck heartily into a bowl of sticky rice and mango.

I couldn’t help reflecting on U.S. multiculturalism. It was all here—the benefits of diversity showing in the mixed groups, the exposure of meat-and-potatoes Irish American students to stir fries and sushi, of strictly-stir-fries Asian students to pizza and burgers that their mothers might never prepare at home, the options to suit every dietary restriction. Andrew asked a server to put some kale on his plate of beer-battered fish, but they insisted on giving him a separate plate so as not to accidentally mix a gluten-free dish with a gluten-containing one. But on our way home I thought of the table of Hasan Minhaj lookalikes and the dining room filled almost exclusively with students of color. I thought ruefully of my own student days with not a single South Asian student to be seen (and no vegetarian options but cottage cheese and pasta without sauce), but also, with a pang, of the tables of laughing Latino and African American students to which I didn’t belong any more than I did among the prep-school white American students (we had only immigrated to the U.S. the year before). Much of the time I ate hastily alone and then smuggled some of the meager vegetarian options, such as there were, up to my dorm room for Andrew. Here at UMass, there was not only hot sauce, there were choices of hot sauce, from the ubiquitous tabasco, to Mexican salsas, to the glorious Sriracha. What I would have given for even one of those back in college!

But the celebration of multiculturalism has notoriously meant exposing students to a diversity of holidays and foods but not much else in terms of meaningful structural change. For the most part, despite the diversity in the UMass student body, they still sat together in their separate racial and ethnic groups; and the dramatic demographic difference between the two dining halls was sobering. Still I consoled myself that there had been progress. Asian and Caribbean American students had a taste of their own home cooking and people of their own ethnicity and cultural background to bond with. Although UMass Amherst, out in the boondocks of Western Massachusetts, has far fewer African American students than UMass Boston does, it was heart-warming to see a small group of South Asian and African American students together. And the image that stays with me: the delightful hybridity of that young East Asian student working to maneuver that unmanageably large piece of fresh naan bread into her mouth. Even now, in my mind’s eye, it makes me smile. It’s messy, but we’re getting better at it.

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