A few months ago, my father and his wife were in a world affairs class at Long Beach City College, when a woman approached him and said, “I was once an elementary school teacher in Long Beach, and had a girl named Jeanne Mehta in my fourth-grade class. I noticed that your last name is also Mehta. Are you related to her?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m her father.”
More dialogue ensued, memories awakened from dormancy, and phone numbers were passed from hand to hand with excitement.
This serendipitous event would lead to a flurry of phone calls and eventually to a reunion with this teacher and a collection of some of my closest friends from elementary school. The year we would all revisit was 1965-1966—four decades ago.
When my father and teacher first met in their class, she told him that she specifically remembered our family because we had gone to India that year, and that she still had a scarf I had given to her as a gift. This poignant comment, along with the thrill of connecting with people from my past, caused me to reflect not only on my youth, but also on my Indian heritage.
I was born in March of 1956 during a time when bicultural marriages were quite rare—and even rarer for an American woman from New Hampshire and a college student from New Delhi. My parents had met at a dance in Denver, Colo., where my mother was working as a nurse. My father was studying petroleum engineering in Golden, at the Colorado School of Mines. In short, they fell in love and married; though dismay rippled through their respective families.
My father’s first job after graduating from college was as at the ARCO refinery in Wilmington, Calif. A move from Colorado to the West Coast brought my parents to Long Beach, where they set up their first apartment and began family life with my sister and me. I was the first-born child.
By the time I started elementary school, I knew that my family was unique. My father spoke with an accent, our cupboards bulged with spices, and our refrigerator had unusual condiments like mango pickle right next to the ketchup and mustard. On weekends, large pots simmered with chicken curry, and scents of cinnamon rose from the pilau. Kheer, topped with delicately placed varakh, shimmered on the table as eager American guests looked on at this unfamiliar dessert. This was my life and I thrived in it—yet more was to come.
My first trip to India was during my fourth-grade year. As with most visits to this country half way around the world, ours would not be a short one. My parents had discussions with the principal, who wholeheartedly approved of this momentous experience. “A trip around the world will teach your daughters more than they could ever learn in a classroom. Take them.”
So off we went, for nearly two months, with schoolwork in our suitcases. We went to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila, and New Delhi. At the airport, my huge Indian family awaited us with piles of garlands ready to drape over our necks. My sister Susan and I were in awe that we had so many relatives, who instantly “loved us.” They squeezed our cheeks, kissed our foreheads, and looked at our faces intently: these two girls were the result of a bicultural marriage. One had almost-black hair and fair skin with freckles, the other had golden brown eyes and bronze skin; these features hinting of their mixed background.
During this trip I got to meet my grandparents. This was, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of my visit and remains a treasured memory. Though my grandmother, Biji, didn’t speak any English, we communicated through body language and translations with the help of my father and other relatives. Our time together was precious.
While in India, I took ricksha rides, chewed on sugarcane, smelled samosas cooking in food stalls, and saw beggars for the first time. An indelible impression began to form. How could my friends ever understand what I had seen? The undulating cobras, and imposing presence of the Taj Mahal. The cows in the streets, and the poverty lurking around each corner.
After my return to America, I was a changed person. Permanently. I bonded deeply with my Indian roots, absorbing all I could. I loved the food, music, culture, and family—and the fact that my upbringing was unusual. My friends begged to come to my house to eat Indian food. My mother learned to make curry and dal, and she proudly donned a sari to our PTA “Indian night.” On the weekends, Hindi film music blared through the speakers from our hi-fi, as vinyl records played again and again. And Lata Mangeshkar sang her melancholy songs—none of which I understood, but nonetheless enjoyed.
I wore bangles, applied kajal on my bottom eyelid, and secretly carried supari in my pockets so I could share it with my friends during recess. As I got older, my identity shifted even more, and by 14, I claimed my “real” name, which appeared on my birth certificate: Sarojni. This caused some confusion in my immediate family, but my friends gladly adapted, and I have used this name ever since.
Through the years, more changes would unfold. I would go to India again as a 21-year-old globetrotter, and then once more as a married 32-year-old woman. My husband and I would adopt our daughter from Bombay, and my parents would divorce after 36 years of marriage—due in part to my mother’s lifelong battle with severe mental illness.
Time has a way of weaving circumstances in and out of our lives with the sweet and bittersweet to remind us of its unpredictable nature …
And though a darker side has appeared at times, the light has been the wealth I received from a unique upbringing. I got the best of both worlds. With a constant infusion of my Indian heritage layered into my American life, I truly became a bicultural individual. This set the stage for my future interests in the world: an opportunity to teach English in Japan, and then to continue teaching in Long Beach to the refugees coming from Cambodia and Vietnam. These students knew I understood their immigrant experience.
For those who might have reservations about their children marrying outside the Indian community, here’s some food for thought: We are in America, the greatest melting pot on earth. And once we start integrating, we create an even broader understanding of what it means to be multicultural. I know. Because my sister and I were the result of an East-and-West match, a fusion where customs flourished and memories made an everlasting mark.
Sarojni Mehta-Lissak is a writer from Long Beach, Calif. Her work includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and has appeared in numerous print and online publications. Visit her website at http://sarojnimehta-lissak.com