The Question of Identity and Living in Exile

I’ve been overwhelmed, and inspired, by everyone’s response to my move in August to India and join Enabling Leadership. I titled it “My Next Adventure” because that’s what it feels like: an adventure that will take me to places I don’t know, people I haven’t met, and experiences I don’t have. It will transform me as a person, an educator and a community leader long before I can claim any impact on others. Many commented on the last paragraph of my letter:

In August 1996, I came to the United States as an Indian citizen on an American visa. Three weeks ago, on December 19, Neeti and I took our oath of allegiance and were inducted as American citizens. In August 2020, I will return to India as an American citizen on an Indian visa. I was an immigrant when I came here; I will be an immigrant when I go back. While I was born in Mumbai, I grew up in cities all over the United States. I left one home in 1996. I leave home again, even if temporarily, to reclaim part of what I lost. Now I get to do the work I love, that challenges and inspires, in a country and a continent that was once home for me.

There’s a personal journey and story here that’s at least compelling to me. Only recently have I begun to wonder about what I lost in 1996 and the 24 years since. I wasn’t even fully conscious at that age, I wasn’t independent or self-aware (and rare is the teen who is) and I gave up home and family without a lot of thought and reflection. My parents knew what they were giving up, but I ignored or dismissed their thoughts and feelings, focused only on the possible opportunity for me and what I’d gain. Every change, I’ve learned, comes with unintended consequences and unknown (at the time) impact. The move to the United States did two things simultaneously to who I was and who I’d become: it drove a wedge in my identity as an Indian, brown man, immigrant, and it accelerated my development into something mixed. I’m now neither fully Indian nor fully American. I’m Indian here to those who don’t know me, and I’m American when I visit India, again to those who don’t know me. I’m not biracial and I’m not actually bicultural. While there are pieces of me that still retain the Indian parts, those are more superficial with my inner transformation almost completely American, and my outsides are still Indian.

It was at sixteen, while in Asheville, that I first became conscious of my Indian roots and identity. For all of the years prior, growing up in Mumbai, I was living in a sea of those who looked like me, walked and talked like me. While India has vast differences among its own people, I never questioned those differences then and didn’t have to come to terms with them. As soon as I became the Other, someone with a foreign accent, clothes that didn’t match his peers, and other subtle and overt differences that were a daily reminder to me, and them, of my alien roots, did I realize that I was not like everyone else. I wasn’t in the majority, or at least felt I wasn’t, in any conversation and at any table. The table was never set for me and I was the guest.

Sixteen years old and at Mumbai Airport, about to board my flight to the United States

As I prepare for this move back to Mumbai, I wonder: is it possible to reclaim what is lost? Can one really go home again? One mentor and guide said, when I was lamenting the notion of being an immigrant here and in India and whether I’d ever know what is home, that it’s the nature of immigrants to never be at home in any one place. So, where do I belong if I’m the Other in both places? And, what does it mean to be mixed even though my biological roots are derived from one place, but my cultural roots are a jumbled mess?

I’ve done DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) work in the United States since 2003. I’ve been a diversity director, led conferences and workshops, taught and facilitated institutes, created my own leadership institute for aspiring minority leaders, still lead a monthly book club to teach and learn about inclusive leadership, and have given keynote speeches or presentations to numbers exceeding a thousand. DEI work anywhere is complex and delicate. It is nuanced, deals with the group and the individual, it’s personal and it’s professional, it’s about children and adults, and it’s ongoing with success almost never guaranteed and failure only one minor step away. While I’ve done this work for 17 years now, it has mostly been outward facing. It’s only because of this transition – and the reflection stemming from my decision to jump onto another platform in my birth country – that I have begun to turn the lens inward.

I’ve been stocking up on reading material on India over the last several months. I’m re-reading a book right now, The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The 2019 edition contains a Q&A with her at the end. Her response to one of the questions, quoted below, captures what I feel too, and wrestle with here.

The question of identity is always a difficult one, but especially so for those who are culturally displaced, as immigrants are, or those who grow up in two worlds simultaneously, as is the case for their children. The older I get, the more aware am I that I have somehow inherited a sense of exile from my parents, even in many ways — superficial ones, largely — I am so much more American than they are. In fact, it is still very hard to think of myself as an American. For immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children. On the other hand, the problem for the children of immigrants, those with strong ties to their country of origin, is that they feel neither one thing nor the other. The feeling that there was no single place to which I fully belonged bothered me growing up. It bothers me less now.

Even when it’s a conscious choice, like the one I’m making now at 39, the exile is not unreal. I’m the immigrant, and the child of immigrants in Lahiri’s description. It’s also what I’m ready and most excited to explore and chronicle during my journey through India this fall.

6 thoughts on “The Question of Identity and Living in Exile

  1. You are an excellent writer. You are an American. You are an intellect. You are a citizen of the world. You are at home wherever you choose to lay your head. You are going to experience many things, make an impact on more lives than you will ever know AND you are…going to be missed.

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