Days before I move across the country, I remember a childhood dream. My family lives in a four-story home, open to the world like a dollhouse, with matchstick-sized stick figures on every floor: on the first, my parents, my brother, and me; above us, my maternal grandparents, Ammamma and Papa; above them, my paternal Patti and Thatha; and at the very top of the house, my favorite aunt and my great-grandmother. We are together separately, with private entrances and shared kitchen, individual quarters and communal responsibilities.
I nursed this fantasy of intergenerational living throughout my childhood. We spent summers in India and Thanksgiving with friends, something that set me apart from peers who spent school breaks at stay-away camp and holidays at Grandma’s. The joint-family house was the answer to all those months of absence and unending flights. “But now it will never happen,” Ammamma says ruefully. Now, both my grandfathers have passed away. Now, the members of my dream house live on three separate continents.
How far is too far to be away from your family? How close is close enough?
We, children of immigrants, have seen first hand the challenge of living time zones removed from one’s parents. My parents have struggled for years with the fact of having aging mothers in India, who have no desire to live with us in the States (“too mechanical,” “too antiseptic,” “too boring,” “too distant”…no green card, anyway), but long for a kind of sustained togetherness that our annual month-long visit strains and fails to approximate. They used to find solace in aerograms. Now my Patti looks daily at photos of my newborn daughter, scrolling through baby’s tumblr from start to finish in a penitent bedtime ritual that probably only reinforces our distance.
Generations past left India for those nebulous things called economic and educational opportunity, which were assumed to reside in the formerly ascendant United States. Today, of course, the imperatives of migration are less certain. In 2009, Vivek Wadhwa showed that 86% of Indian students matriculating at United States universities and earning post-graduate degrees believed that “the best days for [India’s] economy” lay ahead, while the predominant attitude regarding the United States was doom and gloom. Just four years later, the rupee is in free fall and “India rising” seems less like prophecy than a cruel joke.
Where does opportunity live? Where should you chase it? In a world of uncertainty, which country do you bank on, and in? Is it better to stay close to home? Better to take a chance on a new frontier?
It’s hard to say where the future resides, in a post-American world or a renewed American dream, in India Shining or another brain drain. But immigrants like my parents have learned an important lesson from their own irrevocable flying of the coop: keep parents close, children closer still. In the Bay Area, this actually seems possible; unlike in many parts of the country, there are jobs, universities, resources to lure children back from out-of-state universities and cross-country love affairs. Who wouldn’t want to live in sunny California, land of the year-round farmer’s market, tech mecca, where slow foodies and investment bankers live side by side, bicycle to work, lunch at vegan taco trucks, and send their children to bilingual pre-schools?
When my Midwestern husband and I tell people that we are moving from Berkeley to Princeton and then on to Chicago, with no definite plans to return, even professors who should be accustomed to the vagaries of the academic job market look at us agog. “Why would you leave?” they ask. “And when are you coming back?” This chauvinism, this classically Californian provincialism, would be laughable (as if there were nowhere else worth living, no seasons to celebrate, no ethic beyond that of the entrepreneurial) if it weren’t for the fact that my parents are here. If we stay away, will we be repeating the past?
If we come back home, will we regret it?
The advantage of being far is that when you come together it is always a special occasion. Your routine is on hold; grocery shopping is deferred. The advantage of being near is you are part of each other’s daily lives. This is also the disadvantage; you risk bad habits exposed.
This summer, my husband, daughter, and I moved in with my parents for the four months before our big cross-country move. We were lucky to be able to do it, to have parents willing and able to feed and house us, help with baby laundry and baby baths, to provide us a structure of support and environment of love in which to negotiate baby’s first weeks and our own, uncertain, exulting transition into parenthood. Friends-both theirs and ours-were surprised and even impressed with how seamless our cohabitance was. Of course, my husband and I had the really sweet deal, but my parents loved having their granddaughter home and didn’t feel (I hope they didn’t feel) too terribly exploited.
For the first six weeks of summer, my Ammamma was with us, and so for a short time my old dream was reality: four generations under one roof. My brother was living at home as well, working nearby so he could be close to his baby niece. Often, we were doing our own things and keeping to our own schedules. Someone was at work; someone was asleep. My grandmother went for walks, stopping to pick up fruit fallen from a neighbor’s tree for her lemon pickle. I was preoccupied with baby, who was learning day by day more about being alive and at home in the world.
But we were together, in one house, not because we had to be, but because we chose to be. We chose to manifest our belonging to each other in one amazing summer that brought my childhood dream to life. This is what I’ll remember when I contemplate my next move. My brother bought the pizza. My grandmother sang bhajans to my daughter.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.