Yesterday I lost my grandfather. He passed away from a heart attack, without much pain, but quite unexpectedly. And so when I turned up for my citizenship ceremony today, my thoughts turned to the arc of his life and mine.
When people ask me – where are you from – increasingly, I find myself pausing to think about it. But it was not always so. Once upon a time, I would without hesitation point to a village in the southern state of Kerala on a map of India. Being born in China and growing up in half a dozen different countries, the only place I found myself returning to every other summer was my grandfather’s house in this part of the world.
My grandfather moved to what became our home village when he bought a traditional (nallakettu) house here from a Brahmin family along with four acres of land. And it was in this tropical paradise, a few miles from the Arabian Sea, where he raised his family. As the Municipal Health Officer in the town, he was intimately involved in the local community, a cause he carried to the very end. Well after he retired, he conducted himself as an agent of change in the community. In addition to regularly visiting his friends and acquaintances, he raised money for local projects, including building a community hall at our temple.
My grandfather had a strong sense of history. When he had guests over at his house, he loved to talk about the age of the house. Made from solid wood with giant doors that swung open and shut with a mysterious ease, the house hardly seemed more than a hundred years old. But its true age as per my grandfather was pegged at more than four hundred years old. When I first heard him say this, the number was so outside my grasp that I used to wonder whether he was bragging. But over time it sunk in that we were living in a house made completely of solid hardwood, that would outlast any modern home, and could have been around well before the US was colonized.
There are so many stories I could tell about him – how he proposed to my grandmother, how he sang nursery rhymes in marching band tones, how he doted on my mother, how he had the village children over at his house every Sunday to watch the weekly movie on his color tv, how he showered us with more money than his monthly pension every Vishu, how he tried (unsuccessfully) to get me to become more interested in his flourishing farm – but these vignettes into his personality will scarcely convey the ambitious, hard-working, loving, strict, complicated individual that was my appuppan. What I carry away is a man who was not afraid to take risks, a generosity that puts many to shame, a grower and builder of things but also a very stubborn man with a temper (the last of which I inherited).
Once upon a time, I wanted to sit down with him to get his stories down. Unfortunately, I have waited too long to ask him. But my greatest regret will be that he will not have the chance to meet my children in person – I honestly don’t know a person rooting more for our happiness in that department than him.
And so when I think about my feelings becoming an American citizen, I feel an incredible sense of relief, but a sense of loss as well. Where am I from? I was born in China to an Indian couple. I went to elementary school in Frankfurt. In between, I spent a few years in India only moving on once again to spend my middle years in Bangkok. I graduated from high school in Romania. And then was lucky enough to come here to attend college, get a job, meet my wife, have our children and end up at the latest stage of my journey here in the Bay Area. Through all those moves, I could always rely on coming back to Kerala and recharging my batteries at our ancestral home.
For many people, becoming a US citizen is the culmination of a life’s journey. But I have to be honest – as I was swearing the Pledge of Allegiance and leaving behind all formal ties to India – a part of me was rebelling at the thought that I needed to say goodbye to a sense of home I have always felt. I am not a refugee, I have never been persecuted; I am one of the universal citizens, the international school crowd, the privileged few that got to travel the world, live on a Indian diplomatic passport and yet had a place to come home. Why should I become an American citizen?
I was seventeen when I arrived in this country. This coming October, I will have spent seventeen years or exactly half my life here. But all this time, I have never felt a sense of conflict – never once been asked where am I from as if I don’t belong here. These doubts I have felt these past couple of days – they have been from within. So why did I choose to go through with this process? Because as much as I have a place to call home, I have put seventeen years of toil into building a second home. Sometimes, one home is not enough. Sometimes, you meet a girl that changes the reasons you want to move back to India. Sometimes, you end up with a job that makes you happy. Sometimes, you realize how fragile your situation is when your brother calls you with the news that he could be deported on a bureaucratic error. Lastly, becoming a US citizen is the next step, but I doubt it’s the last step for me. I hope as time increases, these things become meaningless because as far as I can tell, I have found happiness in more than one place.
Appuppa, I will miss you greatly but thank you for being you because you gave us our roots so that I would never feel uprooted wherever I go.