Three months ago we left the snows of upstate New York for the hot breezes of Chennai, which sprawls along the Bay of Bengal down near the southern tip of India. My wife, Cecilia Van Hollen, an anthropology professor at Syracuse University, is doing research here on women and HIV/AIDS. So while she treks around the city visiting hospitals, support groups, and the homes of HIV-positive women, the kids and I get a taste of family life on the other side of the world. I’m tethered to my writing and editing career via DSL and FedEx, sending magazine articles, NPR reports, and book manuscripts to distant editors who are fast asleep during my working hours. Lila and Jasper, meanwhile, are in school and gamely adjusting to their fourth home base in as many years. Cecilia and I feel more than a twinge of parental guilt at all this uprooting, which we’ve undertaken, ironically enough, to situate ourselves eventually in a place where our family can finally settle down.
My own visits to India extend back to 1987, when I met up with Cecilia, my girlfriend from college, at the tail end of her year studying in the festive temple city of Madurai. Afterward we settled in the San Francisco Bay Area but stayed closely connected with India—Cecilia studied Tamil and Hindi and worked toward a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, while I practiced my tabla bols at the Ali Akbar College of Music. We returned to India in 1995 with 6-month-old Lila, trading our tourist backpacks for a stroller and diaper bag and setting up house in Chennai (or Madras, as it was called then) for Cecilia’s dissertation research. So India is familiar ground, but living here with school-age kids is an entirely new experience. Our daily routine follows the familiar patterns of the life of working parents back home—coordinating school drop-offs and play dates, consulting with pediatricians, juggling work appointments with teacher conferences—but the details are all changed. We pack lunch boxes with murukku snacks and chapatis as well as juice boxes. The kids do classroom craft projects for Pongal, a South Indian harvest festival, as well as Earth Day. When we go for a quick dinner out, we eat crispy dosas and sip fresh satukudi juice. In the little garden outside our apartment, we swing the plastic cricket bat and watch the geckos scurry away from our footsteps.
In the hectic months before leaving the United States, Cecilia and I did our best to give the kids some notion of where we were going and what we’d find there. We pointed to our home in America on the illuminated plastic globe, spun it halfway around, and found the black dot marking Chennai. We counted the airplanes, taxis, and days it would take to travel 8,000 miles. We talked about how Chennai basks in tropical warmth while we’re shoveling snow, about how it’s dinnertime there when we’re having breakfast, about how people in Chennai eat with their hands (cool!), sometimes off banana leaves (even cooler!). As the departure date approached, we drove one drizzly morning to our nondescript post office to apply for passports. In the parking lot, Jasper peered out the car window like a turtle emerging from his shell to see if the coast was clear. In a near whisper he asked, “Is this India?”
If only getting to India was as quick and straightforward as a drive across town. From past trips we were used to dealing with visas and vaccinations and marathon flights, but our life as a family of four added layer upon layer of complexity: renting out our house, managing the mountains of mail and bills, stockpiling medicines for asthma and malaria and dysentery, finding an apartment in Chennai, investigating school options … Ultimately, the school decision was more or less made for us, because we found only one school in Chennai, the American International School, that had openings and would take kids on a short-term basis.
Overlaid on all these practical matters were the anxieties of traversing a volatile world increasingly antagonistic toward Americans. Right before every trip we’ve taken to India, the newspapers have demonstrated why we’re either cavalier or crazy to take kids to such a perilous place. When we were preparing to bring 6-month-old Lila to India, there was an outbreak of the plague; in 2002, a heat wave killed more than a thousand people in southern India, and finally we had to postpone our trip at the last minute because India and Pakistan appeared to be on the brink of war. During the lead-up to our current stay in Chennai, the India headlines in the U.S. media concerned the less sensationalistic subject of outsourcing, but State Department terrorism warnings provided ample reasons to stay home.
Cecilia and I spent many late nights talking about all the logistical and emotional challenges of this passage to India, and our perspectives couldn’t have been more different. As the child of a foreign service officer, she had lived in Turkey and Sri Lanka, so heading overseas is, to her, a natural family venture and an opportunity for cultural immersion. By contrast, my parents still live in the house where I grew up, so making a temporary home in another country is, literally, a foreign idea. Perhaps because Lila had lived in India before, she adopted her mom’s enthusiastic outlook on this trip. Jasper, on the other hand, is, like his dad, much more of a homebody. But where I’m saddled with grown-up contemplation of the past and future, Jasper has that enviable little-kid focus on whatever is right in front of him in the moment. In our pretrip discussions, Cecilia and I shared the hope that a comfortable day-to-day routine and the companionship of Sammy, Jasper’s exceptionally well-loved and well-traveled stuffed-animal puppy, would make Jasper feel at home in Chennai, despite the exotic surroundings.
But when we finally arrived in Chennai, both kids were shell-shocked from the teeming exoticism of every street. Autorickshas, cars, scooters, and buses squawked their horns and vied for every spare inch of roadway. Dogs, cows, and water buffalo sauntered past coconut and sugarcane stands. Bullocks with green-and-yellow-painted horns pulled cartloads of straw. Mothers cradled babies on the back of motorbikes, their luminous gold-threaded saris flapping in the wind. Bony beggars tapped on car windows. Men in plaid lungis slept on the curb. Mud-and-thatch huts crowded onto the banks of a stagnant canal, next to gargantuan billboards for cell phones and gold jewelry. Chennai’s riot of color and activity left our normally voluble kids almost completely speechless. Only in the hotel, where they could play their new StarFlyers computer game while Mom and Dad made endless calls about apartments for rent, did Lila and Jasper resume their normal stream of commentary, arguments, and questions.
Somehow, after three or four exhausted days, Lila and Jasper began to assimilate their new surroundings and relax. A tougher challenge was getting used to the attention and affection lavished on them everywhere we went. Jasper, as the younger of the two, was constantly quizzed about his name and country, kissed on the forehead, pinched on the cheek, asked to pose for photos, and presented with sweets and gifts. (He’s now got quite a collection of miniature Superman comics in Tamil.) As a toddler in India, Lila got the same sort of celebrity treatment, and she loved it—everyone in India, it seemed, wanted to play with her. But as a fourth grader with emerging self-consciousness, she soon grew tired of the stares and greetings, however friendly and well-meaning.
On Lila’s first trip to India, she was, culturally speaking, an open book; she spoke her first words in Tamil and English and would have grown up effortlessly bilingual if we hadn’t returned to the States when she was a year-and-a-half. This time around, both Lila and Jasper arrived as fully Americanized kids, accustomed to Chuck E. Cheese’s birthday parties and PB&J; with the crusts removed. So Cecilia and I make an extra effort to ease their culture shock—and our own—with tastes of home, which, in this era of globalization, are pricey but readily available in Indian cities. We buy countless cartons of apple juice, which is one of Jasper’s main requirements for happiness. We stop for an after-school treat at Baskin-Robbins, and take a break from the mountains of white rice by ordering Pizza Hut or Domino’s (local flavors include Peppy Paneer and Supreme Tandoori). And from time to time we make a day trip to a tranquil beach resort where Western tourists and expatriates sauté themselves in the blazing sun.
From the kids’ perspective, perhaps the most popular import awaits us whenever we check into a hotel: Cartoon Network. Lila and Jasper have the misfortune of growing up with parents who don’t see cable TV as a necessity on par with food, water, and shelter; so India, oddly enough, has turned out to be where they are getting to know Powerpuff Girls and Pokémon—in Hindi. (Those shows, by the way, are much better when dubbed into a language you don’t understand.) The kids have picked up some of the TV jingles too, like the bouncy little number that plugs Nestlé Choco Sticks: “Khol, pichak, khaa, aha!” Lila and Jasper’s rendition comes out something like “Cool pacifica, uh huh!” which is a lot catchier than the English translation: “Open, squeeze, eat, enjoy!”
The availability of all these foreign luxuries means that expat families, whose numbers have grown dramatically with the boom in international business, are now able to block out, to a remarkable degree, the country in which they live. That kind of separation isn’t possible, even if it were desirable, for Cecilia, whose research carries her each day into neighborhood health clinics, dingy public hospitals, bare-bones offices of nonprofits, sleek research centers, thatched huts, and mazelike concrete housing projects. Unlike some of the expats we’ve met, we want to take advantage of being here as much as possible, and do things—like getting blessed by an elephant—that we could only do in India. But we’re careful to keep our ambitions on a child’s scale. So we alternately explore the city and retreat from its relentless intensity. One day we shop for sandalwood powder and palm-leaf baskets outside the 500-year-old Sri Kapaleeshwarar Temple, and Jasper rides a tiny hand-turned Ferris wheel. Another day we go to the swimming pool, dial up Pizza Hut, and watch Space Jam on television.
“Suda suda vadai, suda suda vadai, kase konduva …” Ms. Padma, with her silver hair and crimson sari, serenades Jasper’s preschool class with a Tamil version of “Frère Jacques,” accompanied by my guitar. (The words here are not about sleeping but, like so much small talk in India, about food—specifically hot hot vadai.) Ever since Lila was a preschooler I’ve made occasional visits to my kids’ classes to sing songs, and in this case the teachers have asked me to make it a weekly gig. We do “Frère Jacques” every time as part of a medley of the pre-K top 10, and the languages keep accumulating: today we sing verses in Tamil, English, French, Hindi, and Italian. If we added Japanese, Danish, Thai, Korean, Russian, German, Urdu, and Spanish, I believe we’d cover all the languages spoken in these kids’ homes.
It’s a thrill to see Lila’s and Jasper’s perspective on culture and language blowing wide open in the United Nations environment of this school. The curriculum and some of the teachers are American—the school was founded by people from the U.S. Consulate—but the kids mostly come from everywhere else, and half of them are learning English as a second (or third) language. Lila’s classmates come from Malaysia, Brazil, Bulgaria; she takes Spanish classes during the week and Tamil with me on the weekends, and in the school corridors she hears nearly as much Korean as English. Her exposure to Tamil as a baby must help explain her skill at parroting Indian phrases and accents as well as essential gestures like the South Indian head wag meaning “Okay, fine, got it”—a back-and-forth swing a lot like one of those bobbleheads in motion in a car window.
Jasper, too, has taken in stride the change from “Hi” to “Vannakum” and incorporated Indian-English expressions like “I will do one thing” into his vocabulary. At a time when he’s ramping up for kindergarten and just beginning to sound out short words on his own, he seems unphased by the knowledge that the city around him is encoded with not just the usual ABCs but with another, totally different, alphabet. He relishes the games of linguistic I Spy we play in the car. “I see R!” he calls out, pointing to a billboard for silk wedding saris. “And I see E! For elephant!” He scans around and spies the curls, dots, and Stonehenge shapes of Tamil script, hand-painted on a wall. “I see India writing!”
Cecilia never fails to amaze us with her magical ability to read and translate those fanciful shapes, as well as to comprehend and counter the sonic blasts of spoken Tamil. For the rest of the family, life in Chennai is greatly simplified by the excellent English that so many locals speak (along with, typically, two or three Indian languages)—a key reason a phone call to an American corporation for tech support or customer service may be answered by someone in South India. But the language gulf between America and India is wider than it first appears, because communicating in English here means understanding that a banian is not a tree but an undershirt; that when you want to buy sunglasses you should ask for coolers; that your last name is your good name; that a lakh is 100,000 and a crore is 10 million; that armed robberies are carried out by dacoits; that you erase pencil marks with a rubber; and that you need to show up earlier for an event that has been preponed. In an English-medium school, you learn about maths (not math), and do the oogy-boogy rather than the hokeypokey.
Living in India we quickly learn that we don’t speak English, we speak American. We learn to strip out casual hey-how’s-it-going? kinds of expressions. The odds of making ourselves understood are substantially raised when we imagine ourselves cast in a Merchant-Ivory film (and keep our heads wagging too). The growing influence of MTV and Hollywood, far from promoting cross-cultural understanding, can actually inhibit it: once, when Cecilia, Lila, and I were riding on an overnight train from Kerala, a fellow passenger paused in our conversation and said with a serious expression, “You don’t talk like Bruce Willis.”
Down at school, every day brings a lesson on how national identity isn’t always what it seems. With her Midwestern accent, her bouncy walk, and her tousled blonde hair, Lila’s best friend is unambiguously American; yet she’s never lived in the United States. Another classmate is, by appearance, Indian—his parents grew up in northern India—yet he was born and raised in New Jersey, and Chennai is as foreign to him as it is to us. One of Jasper’s pals also has Indian parents, but she has always considered herself Taiwanese, because that’s where she lived before coming to India. What’s more, so many kids here are products of cross-cultural marriages: Mexican-Indian, Thai-American, French-Russian, Indian-Australian, British-Filipino. Jasper is too young to grasp the meaning of the colored shapes on the world map, but Lila now understands that accents are a far more reliable indicator of people’s nationalities than the color of their skin and hair. “Where do you come from?” is a common conversation starter on the playground at this school, but often there’s no simple answer. Is it a question about where you were born, where your parents were born, where you’ve lived the longest, or simply which country (or countries) you choose to call your own? This kind of dialogue is excellent preparation, I think, for the world of hyphenated identities in which we increasingly live. In New York as well as India, Jasper’s best preschool buddies have been Korean boys just learning English.
A few weeks back, when the fourth grade was learning about Bangladesh, the subject turned to rice farming. For a class presentation, Lila’s teacher asked parents to bring a rice dish from their home countries—a no-brainer for the families from India, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Brazil, and other countries that pile on the rice. But what about us? We eat plenty of rice, but all the dishes are borrowed from somewhere else: Chinese stir-fries, Mexican beans and rice, Indian curries and idlis. The only uniquely American rice dish we cook is wild rice, but fat chance finding that in Chennai. We consulted the class’ two other American families, both of whom had decided to bring dishes from other countries in which they’d lived (Thai sticky rice, idlis). After much dinner-table discussion and expensive trips to several markets, we managed to assemble something resembling tacos, with shells from Texas, Indian rice and cheddar cheese, and salsa from Denmark. A quintessentially American dish after all.
“Paaaypa! Paaaypa!” The nasal call of the paper recycling man pierces through the bay window of our apartment, and Lila responds with a pitch-perfect imitation. We’re sitting on the stone floor, stuffed from a dosa dinner, and finishing our third round of memory match; in Chennai, separated from our closets full of stuff, we have rediscovered the amazingly versatile, eminently portable deck of cards. Cecilia has changed out of her customary salwar-kameez and into denim shorts and a T-shirt. After all these months in India, it’s an arresting change of identity, and a reminder of our impending transition back into American life.
Over on the desk, the image of a shady Vermont swimming hole grabs our attention; the laptop computer, left idle, has started a random slideshow of our digital photos. We circle around the screen to play what has become another favorite family game: name the location of each photo before it vanishes.
“Amber Fort!” says Lila, as the screen flashes a family portrait atop an elephant in Rajasthan. “Jain temple!” counters Jasper, at the sight of elaborately carved stone pillars. Next comes Jasper in his Scooby-Doo Halloween costume back in New York … then the beautiful kolam design our friend Kalpana painted on our doorstep last Christmas … then Lila’s eighth birthday party in Indiana, late afternoon shadows on the London Bridge, a flower seller in Chennai tying strings of jasmine in Lila’s hair, and an image that makes us all laugh in this stiflingly hot place: Lila and Jasper buried up to their necks in the Syracuse snow. This photo made a big impression when Lila showed it the other day to her classmates, most of whom have always lived in warm climes; one of her Korean friends confessed that at first she thought all the white stuff was bubble bath.
The slideshow game is fun but a little dizzying, just as our lives have been in these past few years. We’re ready to stow away our suitcases and passports and settle down in the New York home that we barely got to know before heading off to India. I’m wrapping up the last few articles I’ve promised before we get home, while Cecilia is sifting through a huge pile of interview transcripts, translations, HIV/AIDS program reports, and public-service ads featuring a witty talking condom. The kids are out of school next week, and soon they will begin the poignantly familiar ritual of saying goodbye to new friends they may never see again. Excitement about being home again, though, seems to be drowning out any sadness they may feel about leaving India. They’ve both been plotting out precisely what they’ll do the moment they step through our front door in America. Lila says her first act will be to call her friend Emily, while Jasper plans to make a beeline for the trunk full of stuffed animals who’ve missed him terribly.
I know from past experience how the orderliness and efficiency of America, which we so often crave while in India, will seem a little eerie once we’re actually back. The stores will look cavernous (every grocery store in Chennai would probably fit inside a single Wal-Mart), with a self-service credit-card swipe completing a transaction that in India involves three or four helpers. The streets will look resolutely brown and gray and white, with hardly anyone passing by or ringing the doorbell or even noticing us at all. But that feeling will pass, and all the American things we’ll be so happy to have back—bagels with cream cheese, extended family, clean air, trails through the woods—we will soon take for granted all over again.
A couple of weeks before leaving India, we escape Chennai’s sticky summer weather and visit Kodaikanal, a hill town with a distinctive American legacy dating back to the missionaries who settled here in the 19th century. Kodai, as everyone calls it, has a long personal history too: Cecilia briefly went to school in Kodai back when her family lived in Sri Lanka, and she and I visited here as backpackers just out of college and again as new parents. She takes the kids and me on a nostalgic tour of the school campus and manages to locate her old dorm, provoking thoughts of how Lila and Jasper will recall their own childhood days in India.
Scanning the menu in a restaurant one night, we are surprised to be greeted by a young Indian waiter with a goatee, baggy pants, basketball shoes, Nike T-shirt, and skullcap—a look that would blend right in on any American college campus but that seems so out of place in India. “Hi,” he says with a jarringly familiar accent. “What can I get you?” As he walks off with our order, Jasper looks puzzled. “Hey,” he says finally, “who’s that American guy?”
Sometimes, it seems, you can see your own home so much more clearly from the other side of the world.
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered and author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter. www.jeffreypepperrodgers.com