One popular urban legend that is familiar to the Indian immigrant community deals with the so-called x= x+1 syndrome. This equation is a mathematical representation of the dilemma faced by the well-established Indian immigrant (typically a male) who has embraced America and its values in his early youth and prospered in ways that have eluded his desi brethren left behind in the land of his birth. After the initial euphoric years spent pursuing professional success and material wealth, in mid-life he is faced with the conflicting reality of the life he has created for himself and the pull of the Indian values that he was brought up with. Although the prospect of moving back to India appeals to him, he is unable to give up his comfortable American life with its peaceful monotony and predictable routine and therefore postpones his return to India to the following year. In this case, “x” is the current year while “x+1” represents the following year, the year of his return.
In some ways I am that immigrant who is facing the same dilemma. I have spent more than a third of my life in America enjoying an apparently easy life surrounded by material comforts. But the intangible moments are the ones that stand out most vividly in my memory. The feeling of pride at my graduation ceremony after a challenging but thoroughly enjoyable time in graduate school, the feeling of gratitude when comforted by competent and caring nurses after I burst into tears during a particularly tough time, the humiliation of being asked to abruptly leave during a job interview because I did not have a green card! As I mentally review these years, I realize that all of my experiences here, good and bad, have enriched and enlightened me beyond what I could have ever imagined. Here I have endless avenues for personal development available to me should I choose to pursue them. In my case I consider “x” to be the number of amazing experiences I have had and the next unknown one which I might have if I continue to live here.
But in many ways I am not that immigrant. The most obvious reason is that I am a woman. I am also not in the midst of a mid-life crisis brought on by a stagnant career and disillusionment with grown children. However, there are days when I exclusively think of returning to India. On hot summer days when I long to wear a saree from my vast collection and step out without drawing a second glance from strangers. At times when I am tired of defining, yet again, my mangalsutra, defending the bindi on my forehead or explaining the intricacies of an arranged marriage. On a cold and lonely Diwali day when I wish for an official holiday so I don’t have to explain the origins and significance of the festival for the nth time to interested colleagues at work. One evening when I am feeling particularly incompetent as a mother and realize the magnitude of all the wisdom I still need to imbibe from my parents. On those days “x” becomes the number of compelling reasons that I have listed for returning to India and the ones I have not yet articulated enough to put down on paper.
So I vacillate between these conflicting frames of mind knowing that home really is where one can safely engage in the pursuit of happiness. I know in my heart that I can do it in both countries and that is the basis of my predicament. If I lived in a society where I was constantly treated unfairly because I am a woman or because I am a minority, the decision to leave would not be so vexing.
Regardless of the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the two cultures I am fully aware that the lessons I have learnt in my life are truly universal. Humans all over the world are more alike than dissimilar even though we tend to dwell on our differences. Living peaceful lives, making a decent living and raising a family with strong ethical values are common goals. Extraordinary people are everywhere. I have been inspired by both the exemplary teachers who taught me and the extremely hard-working students that I have taught. I have benefited not only from my mentors but also from my interactions with those who sought my help. I have matured from dealing with sympathetic bosses as well as supportive subordinates. The opportunity to better our lives and fulfill our dreams are largely a result of our efforts and the drive to succeed depends more on will and not so much on location.
I could continue to hold forth on the subject of “whither India” forever but I have several activities planned for the weekend including yoga class, reading a new book borrowed from the public library, the chance to attend a rare music concert and the “x + 1th” opportunity for self-improvement that awaits me.
Ranjani Nellore works as a scientist in the Bay area and manages the responsibilities of motherhood while pursuing her multiple interests.