On Friday night, Neeti and I met another couple at Mali Restaurant in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood of Atlanta. Mali is our favorite Thai restaurant. I’ve rarely had a bad meal there and, best of all, many servers know me and what I like. As soon as we sat down, our server brought us sparkling water (she knew already we prefer sparking over still). The servers at Mali also know my favorite dish and how I like it (Prik King, vegan with fried tofu and veggies, no mushrooms, joy hot). There’s an Indian restaurant in Decatur that Neeti and I also like to frequent. The servers know us, where we like to sit, and what she and I both like to order. Once, as soon as we entered the restaurant, the hostess took one look at me and, without a word, checked to see if my table was available. The food and service at these restaurants are top-notch, however, they earn my loyalty by remembering me. Once, one of the servers at Mali asked me where I’d been because it had been a few weeks since I’d stopped by to eat. She/they had missed me.
In the last few weeks, Neeti and I have become American citizens, renounced our Indian citizenship, and decided to move (me) back to India for a year. We married in July 2011 and lived for the first couple years in Northern Virginia. Atlanta, however, has been our first real home together. It’s also the longest either of us have lived in any one place in the United States. Every place I’ve called home since 1996 was due to a professional choice, not a personal one. What called me to move from one city to the next was always a job, not family. While that was also the reason we moved here in 2013, Atlanta has been good to both of us, as a family and for us professionally. With all of these transitions, I am wondering about how we cultivate our sense of belonging and where, and what, we call home. And, like a relationship, belonging goes in both directions. I can easily say now that Atlanta is my home, but does Atlanta claim me? When I move to Mumbai in August 2020, will Mumbai claim me? How will I know when I’m home and where I belong?
In October, Ray and I were walking through the streets of Washington, D.C. between meetings at the end of a long day. We were talking about Enabling Leadership and the pros and cons of making the move. Ray has been a great sounding board over the last couple years, and he prods and provokes me to think differently and clearly. I brought up this concept of home and what it’d mean to have come to the United States in 1996 as an immigrant, and now to return to Mumbai in 2020 as an immigrant. What will I call home? Will I ever reclaim my origins or roots? When other families are celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas, for example, Neeti and I have no traditions to celebrate or remember then, and I wonder a few times a year, usually around those holidays, at what cost to our sense of belonging, family and identity has our immigration and separation from our families occurred? I will return to Mumbai but a different person entirely from my parents and my culture, and not just because of the passage of time. Ray listened and said, “Isn’t it part of the immigrant experience to never feel at home anywhere?” He added, about his own experience, “My parents were refugees, which is completely different when you can’t go home. For all the years I’ve been here [in the United States], I’ve never felt quite at home anywhere.”
At recent open houses at The Children’s School, I’ve asked prospective families to contemplate the difference between a house and a home, and a school and a community? Every house is not a home, and every school is not a community. The responses are similar from one group and event to the next. The audience will usually say that home is family, home is where you belong, home provides safety. I think of the Cheers theme song now, and while I didn’t grow up on the show, I know the show, the song and the characters well enough to appreciate the show’s response to my question.
My parents moved houses after I left Mumbai in 1996 to come here. Every visit back for me has been to this new house, not the home where I grew up for the first sixteen years. I don’t have long memories associated with this newer place; I never made what is my room my room since every visit was a couple weeks at most. I was there each time as a visitor, not a resident. The same can be said now of the city and country. What I’m returning to in August is a house, not a home. This time, though, I’ll be returning to the city and country as a resident, not a visitor. I’ll make sure they know my name now, what I like and prefer, where I like to sit, and they will miss me, and I will miss them, when I’ve not come in for a while. And I’ll give myself a chance to make my room, and my parents’ house, my home.