I don’t ride in elevators.

They are not an easy thing to avoid in a city where cool equals a condo on the highest floor you can afford and still own furniture. Since starting Pravasi, a social networking club for Indians, I have met lots of fascinating people who eagerly volunteer to host parties, downtown, in their super-tall buildings, with lots of beautiful elevators.

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Since the age of six I have been terrified of getting into elevators. My mom would have to wrap her hands around my wrists and drag me onto the twenty-seven square foot surface bound for the sky. The double doors would snap shut right in front of my face and I’d cry like every tear that rolled down my face was worth a buck-fifty. A deep-rooted, almost instinctual voice whispered things like: “The doors aren’t going to open.”

“You are going to run out of air.” “You are going to die.” As an adult, I haven’t been able to go completely “elevator-free,” but each time I’ve been at their mercy I’ve experienced this same type of claustrophobic doom.

So I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified when a couple offered to host a Pravasi game night at their condo, in a high-rise next to Lake Michigan. I knew that it would provide a cozy environment for members to meet and relax, so I reluctantly agreed, making sure the building had a stairwell.

One week later I start up a flight of stairs only wide enough for one and a half people. I am grateful for that extra smear of deodorant as I hoof it up the miserably hot concrete chamber to the seventh floor. I breathlessly greet my hosts and dash into their bathroom to avoid panting all over the guests like a lumbering Lab who’s run out of tennis balls. I lean against the sink and suck air into my lungs. The diamond in my nose glitters under the vanity bulbs. I check my teeth for any lurking tidbits. Clean.

My dupatta from the new churidar suit (ordered by mail from Chennai, no less), is wet from the icy rain that’s typical of Chicago’s mercurial spring. I gently shake it out and wrap it around my neck. The tiny, black bindi I’d placed between my eyebrows is gone; one more victim of the city’s never-ending winter.

I make my way around the living room and exchange hellos. Everyone smiles at me and wants to know where I purchased my lovely suit. Maybe it’s because everyone else’s wearing jeans.

Being the only partygoer wearing a traditional Indian outfit isn’t the only thing that makes me an outlier. I am also the only person with waves of dark blonde hair tumbling from my scalp, and skin so pale that I literally glow in the dark. Everyone around me has left behind their loved ones and traveled thousands of miles to live and work in America. Making Chicago my home had only required me to journey across two states, one hour by plane, five-hundred and twenty-eight miles from my birthplace in Kansas City, Missouri; where my ancestors from Germany and Ireland built homes from mud and timber—the prairie lands their sole source of mental and physical nourishment.

My participation in Indian culture started during a short stint in the IT industry about ten years ago. I became very close to my Indian coworkers; satiating their burning curiosities about American life was far more entertaining than trying to force computers to do things they just weren’t willing to do. What is personal property tax? Explain the purpose of paper towels? Where can I meet girls?

And I asked them questions in return—Are all Indians engineers? Who told you it was okay to wear white shoes with black jeans? Do all parents pay for their children’s educations? What kind of girls?

But what I really wanted to know was how their families were so strong. I grew up without my father in an environment where the welfare of the children was not a priority. I suffered from anxiety, depression, guilt, and loneliness from the isolation I felt within my broken home. I decided, even before I was an adult, that I wanted to create a more positive environment for my future children than that modeled by my parents. So, I listened closely as my friends described the sacrifices their parents had made to ensure their successful futures. And I learned that loving families do exist, and that happy children should be the norm.

Participating in Indian culture helps me redefine what family is, and should be about.

Today, I am a daal-loving, pressure-cooker-using, rice-and-roti-making vegetarian whose favorite place to eat on the weekend is, surprise, any Indian restaurant with a lunch buffet. My favorite dessert on the buffet?

Kheer. The first stop I make at both Target and Wal-Mart is the clearance aisle. When I need a mental time-out from the chaos of Chi-town I visit the Balaji Temple in Aurora. Loving to eat good food, bargain shop, and express my spirituality are not new things in my life, but they are things which have been enhanced by Indian culture. This gives me a sense of purpose and pride—even if I’m descended from immigrants who made their mark one hundred years before the smiling faces I meet on Saturday nights for snacks and games.

For two hours we play Pictionary. People attempt to draw llamas, ambulances, and power lines—resulting in a ton of gut-busting laughter, and a few correct guesses. We tease the scorekeeper that he must be tampering with the numbers since his team is winning. The player at the board draws three straight lines and something that looks like either a rock or a giant marshmallow; everyone begins to roar. It’s a room full of kids who have forgotten their work-week woes.

Just before midnight people begin to peel away from the festivities. I give each person a small bag of candies to thank them for coming. After the last guest has left I walk down the hall and head for the exit marked “STAIRS”. It is my choice to take this path. Just as it is my choice to redefine my identity.

When I get to the bottom I simply push the door open and arrive at my destination. I do not have to rely on levers, gears, and pulleys to take me where I want to go.

I need only rely on the compass inside my heart.

Cristina Chopalli is the organizer of Pravasi, Chicago’s premiere Indian social club, and is working on a book about her experiences within Indian culture. She holds an honors degree in education from Baker University.

This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of the magazine.

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