We were moving from Connecticut to Pennsylvania, and I cried my nine-year-old heart out the entire drive. All my friends! All the New Haven pizza! But that’s when it first occurred to me: my parents once made the move from India to the United States! Far greater than a measly 200 miles. What must it have been like to leave their home country? Leave their friends, their foods, their culture? To step into a land plagued by racism, into an office of paleskins who couldn’t even pronounce my father’s name? Oh, the pain! The trauma!
Welling up with tears, I asked my parents, “Appa? Amma? What was it like when you moved? From India to here?”
My father looked at me in the rearview mirror and said, “Fine.” My mother then turned to me and said, “Fine.”
My stomach dropped. These were deeper answers than I had ever received from them! Maybe even four letters longer! I was touched they felt comfortable sharing with me. Yet, somehow, I still wanted more.
The next year, we did a project in history class where we made a family tree. The lengthy details of my parents’ journey to the States still rang in my mind. I got to thinking about my poor mother. How was she able to make friends in a country so new, in a neighborhood so foreign? Was she homesick? How impossible was it for her to talk to her sisters? Did she ever worry she had made a mistake? Was she moments or milliseconds away from bursting into tears at all times?
My brother told me “they weren’t taught to talk like that” and that I was “projecting.” I scoffed. Maybe she wouldn’t open up to him, but I was Emotionally Intelligent. And this was my dear, sweet mama! I needed to share her pain. I needed to take the burden off of her. So I sat my mother down with a dinky tape recorder and asked, “Amma, how was it coming to America — rebuilding your life, leaving behind your family and friends?”
She looked up at me, her eyes deep as time itself, and said, “OK.”
“Really?” I pushed.
Touching. I let her words seep into my body. I couldn’t believe she told me all that! She was really digging down more than she ever had before. She entrusted me, her daughter, with her powerful, comprehensive story. And I vowed to remember it. For years to come.
The subject next came up when I was in college. It was Thanksgiving, a holiday we neither celebrated nor mentioned. When I got off the Bolt Bus and traveled home, I found my mother flipping through old wedding photos. I was going through a bad breakup with an American boy, but my Gods, what must it have been like for her to not have even dated? To have met her future husband only weeks before her wedding? Maybe she had had secret desires of her own — to be single, to sleep around. Shouldn’t arranged marriage be a choice?! What if she hated my dad? What if she was gay? Now that I saw her sitting — breathing — it was clear to me, the Empathic Understander of Spiritual Journeys, that she was suffering. I had let her suffer! I had to assure her that I was a safe person to talk to. So I asked, “Amma, do you ever wish your marriage hadn’t been arranged?”
She looked at me and said, somberly, slowly, “Huh?”
Floodgates? O-p-e-n-e-d. This was huge. I couldn’t believe we connected across generations in this way! Our bond was sealed! She was basically coming out to me. Yes. That’s exactly what this was.
The years flew by. One day melted into the next. My parents grew older. I got married. We decided not to have children, and I told my family they had to be okay with that because, ultimately, it was my decision. But then it hit me: my parents didn’t have the liberty of such a choice, the same freedom to “not have a family.” To be an “individual.” So on a holiday visit home, while my father recounted an absolutely gut-wrenching six-second tale about getting detained at an airport, I decided to ask him if he had ever longed for a life where he could be free — on his own. What did he wish for? What did he dream of? Did he enjoy being a father? Was he also gay? Had he, after all this time, become who he wanted to be?
It started to drizzle outside. The sun was setting, bestowing a beautiful glow onto our porch, onto the rims of my father’s glasses as he glanced at an article about brain drain. It was the perfect moment. So I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Appa. Are you happy?”
He inhaled deeply and said, “What?”
So simple. So impactful. Did I detect a sob? Probably not. But also? Probably. Now I had officially walked a thousand miles in my parents’ shoes. I grasped everything about them. Their lives, their pain.
So, thanks to the delicate, detailed, and deep stories of my parents, I know the full range of the immigrant experience in America. With my extensive knowledge on the subject, I have written expensive books, given a viral TED talk, and truly done everything I could to spread the intricacies of their story, and the complex lessons I have learned from it. For it is easy to go to my parents for comfort, but as I’ve gotten older, it’s been rewarding to know they can come to me as well. I am honored to be considered a part of their healing process, and I hope they continue to feel that I am The Safe Person to pour all their deepest thoughts into. That they can forever look to me to say “it’s fine,” “what?” and “it’s fine.” For that is a true familial bond.