My father leans his tall frame over the balustrade. He is inspecting his garden to make sure that plants needing protection have been tended to; each one has a small dried bamboo-leaf thatch roof supported on sticks that traps the night dew and prevents moisture from getting into the leaves where it can freeze. There is a chill in the evening air. Tonight, the temperatures are expected to dip. An overnight frost is long enough to kill his delicate new seedlings.
I grasp the importance of his job, and why he concentrates so much, and perhaps, that is why, I have chosen this moment to ask my question. I had blurted the only sentence that came to mind.
I stand on my tippy toes, bolstered by my elbows, chin resting on a flat surface of the low wall, staring at the garden. I am preoccupied with feelings that clang inside my head. Thoughts jumble themselves up till I don’t know what to say but the urge to question does not pass. With effort, I marshal my words, enough only to voice the same query again.
“Is native a bad word, Daddy?” I say, louder this time.
The wall overlooks a sunken garden with symmetric flower beds, tall trees and short shrubs. Even as a toddler, I took a keen interest in digging, mulching, weeding, watering, planting, feeding, and all manner of care that my father lavishes on his garden. He has taught me the name of every flower. There are foreign ones: Calendula, Sweet Peas, Tulips and Larkspur as well as Indian varieties of Chameli, Gainda, Gulab. I can classify what blooms when. I am proud because I can identify a plant just by looking at the shape of its leaves. He has taught me to study the different categories of root systems and so, I know how to prepare the soil for a plant even if its foliage is foreign. Despite different attributes, I can name a plant’s lineage and family to decide conditions for its nurture.
I go with him on his annual winter trips to nurseries to buy exotic plants that thrive in our cool climate in the foothills of the Great Himalaya mountains that dominate our lush, valley landscape. I listen to the questions he asks master gardeners and find the answers fascinating. He learns, not only from experience, but also by gathering information from experts. He wants facts.
That is why I know he will be truthful in his reply.
He says, “I haven’t seen you gardening of late. What’s keeping you busy, Maya?”
“I don’t have time anymore.” I pout. “I am reading to improve my English. Remember, you asked me to check out library books, and so, I did.”
In addition to Dickens, Shakespeare, and classics in our curriculum, I had discovered new writers. So far, I had read every title by an author called H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines and She – my favorite) and was reading Rudyard Kipling now. Their powerful imagery transported me into thrilling escapades in foreign lands but occasionally I would be jolted from this imaginary world into my world because I could not relate to the subordinate status ascribed to local inhabitants by patronizing explorers.
“Adventure stories are the best, especially those set in Africa and India. I enjoy English literature now, but sometimes I don’t understand what they mean when they write native,” I continue.
“I see,” he says. “Did something happen?”
“Somewhere I read – bloody native – it seemed nasty; or is it only a description?”
He waits a while then adds, “Native is not a bad word. But first, tell me, in this garden, which flower do you like best?”
His voice floats across fifty years and thousands of miles with the clarity of the sunshine that surrounds me.
I am on the Stanford Dish, a small hillside preserve in Palo Alto, where every so often, during my lunch break, I go for a walk; alone or with co-workers. Today, I am here because I signed up for the annual United Way Day of Service with a group of South Bay volunteers to restore the area to its natural habitat. My job is to clear out space, dig a hole, plant oak seedlings and pull out the non-native species overtaking the hillside. They are overcrowding the California scrub oak. The non-native plants suck up too much water and have ridden the hillside with squirrels, I am told. I learn from biologists about the flora and fauna in these foothills. I treasure this chance to be outdoors but my heart weeps when I must pull out a healthy plant.
“I like them all, daddy,” I remember saying. “A garden won’t be pretty if we only had one type of flower.”
“I think so too,” he continues. “Native refers to a person, plant or animal originating in a particular region. In this garden, plants come from all over the world so some are native while others are not. If left untended, plants can overgrow and choke one another so we weed and trim. Other times, we must help the plants from far away, live in a different kind of soil, humidity, or temperature. With the right care, the plants adapt and then they thrive together. When they do, our garden is prettier.”
“Am I a native, Daddy?” I had persisted.
“Yes, you are, Maya. So am I. So is Mahmoud. Many of our friends and relatives have moved here from somewhere else. Meena Mausi moved here from Punjab. Mr. and Mrs. Roy moved from far away Bengal, where the weather is different. They had to learn a new language, eat new kinds of food and wear different types of clothes. Still, they are classified as native because they are Indian. Your English teacher, Mr. Martyn is from England where the weather is much the same as here, but he is not native to India. However, he has lived here almost his whole life so you could say he has become native to the area like Meena Mausi.”
“So, when someone calls you a native, is it good or bad?” I dogged on.
“After some time, it is not possible to differentiate native plants from non-natives irrespective of appearance. We grow a prettier garden. It is the same with people. Native does not imply good or bad. A garden of people living happily together is what we call a civilization.”
I had stomped away.
I remember thinking he does not understand the gravity of my question; but of course, he did. It was just that I was growing up too fast, and he wanted another year of innocence from his child.
He fulfilled my curiosity with a literal answer but he did not address the underlying question about judgement implied in the usage of native in books I was reading. I was too young to be satisfied with the greyness of his reply; I wanted answers in black and white. He was wiser; he knew that one day, I would appreciate the image he had unfolded for me. And, when needed, I would know how to act.
I sit back on my haunches, soak in the sun and take a well-deserved break. I turn my head around to see my fellow gardeners. I recognize no-one; yet the group camaraderie of individuals engaged in a common purpose is as physical as the benevolent sky above me.
I reminiscence about my father’s choice of words and rephrase: natives as well as immigrants flourish here. I live in a civilized country.
I believe I am obligated to preserve the character of my adopted country. Also, I must fulfill this duty; for my daughter’s sake who is born native but feels a foreigner in her own country. I must; for my sake.
With my brown skin, I don’t appear native to Palo Altans. However, I am home here and a foreigner in my native India; where my father and mother survived tumultuous years of colonial rule that culminated in an independent India in 1947, and where they died at peace with themselves and the world.
My colleagues, friends and relatives share with me the dream of justice, equal opportunity and fair-play. My principles are reflected in the actions of individuals around me. But now I worry that the people I know are but a small slice of America, and so, on this hillside today, I am acutely aware of changing political climes and I reflect that maybe, it is changing my behavior for the worse.
The other day, mistaken for a Latina at the grocery store, I was rude.
“I bet I’ve lived here longer than you,” I said.
Recent migrants to California who have not seen persons with my features set in brown skin, often err this way. Usually I smile to prevent awkwardness as I tell them I am from India.
Yesterday, I had snapped. Perhaps, because I confused a friendly overture for insolence? I cannot allow that behavior. It is honest to acknowledge differences; indeed, it is the essential step before discovering similarities.
I am first generation immigrant from India and easily mistaken for Hispanic or Native American. Unlike India, where races have intermingled for ages, America is young and curious about where we came from; DNA studies offer no conclusive proof, but there is enough evidence to show that the earliest settlers came here in boats on rising tides. Or they travelled across the Aleutian Islands from Siberia and parts of Asia, further south. The current popularity of software applications identifying ancestry and the easy availability of DNA typing tests, is another indication of our collective obsession with race and origins.
We know we come from all over. I want an America where we care and create community; where we smile at strangers on our lunch-break walks. I respect the land I have adopted and, I rationalize, so must the strangers around me.
I raise my head and look up into the sky till the sun warms my skin.
Bright as the clear sky, content as the companionship of gardeners, a feeling grows within my heart. My garden of people will prosper if I express love, understanding and trust. Whether I am mistaken for a native, or I am mistaken for a foreigner, I am here to flourish. Whether they believe that I belong here or that I should leave; whether they think they own the rights to the resources of this land and I do not; no matter what they reason – I must cultivate this garden.
I look at the stranger next to me and smile.
“Aren’t we lucky to be outdoors and have the opportunity to make new connections?” I introduce myself, shake hands and we pause our work to admire the hillside. I marvel at the ease with which, despite differences, we have found common ground.
I plant a seedling, pat down the soil to cover and nurture its roots and promise to do my part in this civilization called America.
“Thank you, Daddy.”