When I step off the plane which I have been on for the past sixteen hours, I am immediately hit with the biting cold that is Delhi winter. The smell of pollution and smog drifts into my nose. For most people, freezing and polluted air is the opposite of a comforting experience, but the air is refreshing and the smell is what I associate with my favorite place in the world. I drag my carry-on off the sky bridge, and my shoes are met with the familiarity of the faded orange carpet decorated with geometric patterns. After sleeping for the majority of the flight, my sister and I are energetically skipping with excitement to see our loved ones, oblivious to the fact that it is three in the morning, local time. We speed walk through the quiet airport, chatting about what we are looking forward to; I think about the way my grandma’s chicken curry tastes or the afternoons I spend chatting hours away with my other grandma.
As I exit the sky bridge, I am reminded of what it feels like to be home. The feeling of warmth and comfort that consumes me is something that I only feel when I am in Delhi. Exiting the plane in San Francisco gives me a sense of relief of being literally home after a long vacation, but often feelings of sadness emerge knowing that my vacation is over. Walking into Indira Gandhi International Airport only brings excitement, comfort, and genuine happiness to my soul.
Though the airport is quiet, as we approach immigration you can feel the bustling excitement of children anxious to see their cousins and grandparents, and college students itching to eat home-cooked meals again. I stand at the top of the escalator at immigration, staring at the four hands above the cubicles; the giant rose gold hands are representative of different poses that are done during the traditional Bharatanatyam dance. These hands feel like a warm hug. Those hands mean that I am just one door away from hugging some of my favorite people in the world. We make it through immigration, continuing to speed walk through the maze that is Duty-Free, a new series of strong scents from perfume and alcohol hitting us. Once we reach baggage claim, we anxiously await our numerous large suitcases which are filled with our clothes for our month-long trip as well as gifts for our family. With smiles on our faces, winter jackets on, and a full trolley of suitcases in hand, we head outside to the meeting area.
My sister exits the doors first, and though I can’t see her face, I see those of my grandparents, uncle, and cousins, lighting up. My grandpa walks towards us, and my sister and I abandon our bags in the middle of the walkway so that he can wrap us both in a bear hug. My grandpa is always the first to hug us, but certainly not the last. We make our rounds, embracing whoever has braved the cold, early morning to welcome us, getting smiles from strangers who are also about to see their loved ones.
After a quick tussle with my grandfather, who insists on dragging the heaviest suitcases, we make our way to the car. There is a broken sidewalk which we must overcome before we can get the luggage into the car. Every time a trolley full of bags goes over it, we hold our breath to see if a suitcase is going to fall and lie in the middle of the road until my dad can come to pick it up. Though it is the most stressful experience trying to get eight heavy suitcases across a busy street with a broken sidewalk, it makes us all laugh and despite the chaos, I would not trade that moment for the world. My sister and I pile into the car with our grandma and she pulls out our favorite biscuits which she knows we crave and miss. The whole way home to my paternal grandparents’ house, we crack jokes, catch up, and eat our snacks as the sun rises. Our annual trip to my favorite place in the world has commenced.
I didn’t grow up in India, nor was I born there, but this annual pilgrimage has not only made it feel like my second home but my happy place as well. However, it has not always felt this way. This same airport routine takes place every year and the sensory experiences I can describe in my sleep have always existed, however, a few years ago I was too focused on the negative aspects of this experience to value the comforting ones. All my life, I have spoken and understood Hindi fluently and well.
However, as an American, a local can pick my accent out of a crowd. My cousins, parents, grandparents, and babysitters would lightheartedly tease me about certain pronunciations, and I used to take that so seriously that I wouldn’t even try to speak the language. Even the immigration officer would see my Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card and American passport and ask me if it was my first time in India. People would think of me as spoiled or privileged and ungrateful because I am from America and still calling myself Indian. It was wrong on their part, but that is just how nuances in identity work. While these were small events, as an impressionable young child, I would start to question my belonging and negate the extreme happiness I felt in India with the small jokes about my dual identity.
I still have difficulties with my identity, but the difference is that now I have learned how to embrace both parts of my identity. Being Indian and spending so much time in Delhi has taught me that identity is not uniform and legal documents don’t define me.
Now, when people ask me about America and how “my country’s government is so crazy,” instead of getting annoyed or feeling mocked, I embrace it. I recognize that I have the privilege of living in an extremely different country and people are genuinely interested, so I happily answer them. In fact, sometimes I like to make it known that I’m from America; I will deliberately talk in English or wear a Bay Area sports jersey because I have learned to have pride. In fact, it has even made me friends even in India. I have struck up conversations with multiple tourists who have heard my accent or seen my jersey and we have connected on one part of my identity.
Adding on, due to COVID-19, I have not been able to visit India in almost two years. The absence of these feelings of comfort and happiness has made me better appreciate and understand how much those experiences and that place mean to me. It’s unfortunate that the absence of a feeling, and not the presence of it made me grateful for Delhi, but nevertheless, I no longer take that sense of true happiness for granted.
India is “my place” and not only because of the comfort it gives me but also because of the challenges it has thrown at me. Challenges that have taught me to be resilient, and have also helped me find myself and better understand my identity. I hold India near and dear to my heart because of the people and experiences it holds. No one can take that feeling away from me. A passport determines citizenship, but emotional attachment and love are what dictate identity. It is also what keeps pulling me back to my favorite place in the world – Delhi.
Ayanna Gandhi is an 11th grader at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds.