November 17, 2018
Culture
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New York
Identity Switch

My father’s job let me oscillate between two worlds. But one of my favorite places was the way station.

By Rima Chodha

My father works for Air-India. He?s not a pilot. He?s a supervisor at John F. Kennedy?s International Airport, right here in New York. Home.

The great thing about his job is all the connections that come with it. Connections with renowned pilots, celebrities traveling first class, politicians lounging in their private planes. And connections to London, Paris and Delhi.

Of course I always took advantage of the limited? free tickets the company guaranteed. And every year we went to India. Home.

I recently discovered that one can have two homes — two places so ingrained they become part of your identity. As a child I wasn?t sure where I belonged; I felt uneasy and confused.? In New York it was a longing for my roots that were half a world away, and in India, a pining for my daily routine in Long Island.

That?s why I always loved the airport. No man?s land. People come and go, like fleeting moments. They all have something in common, though. They know that the airport is for transition only, to connect them to their destinations. Nobody actually belongs there. It is not home.

And this is always the same, now matter what city the airport is in. Every traveler becomes an ambassador, representing his or her country.

Ever since I started traveling, JFK fascinated me. Could there be a better place for people-watching? At Air-India?s terminal, it was always the same scene. As if the same people were traveling every time I was there.

Most prominent in my memory is the sari-clad woman. She?s traditional?maybe Mother India herself. Her three children are uninterested and defeated. They?d wanted to go to Disney World. Her husband mans the luggage cart, wearing the new Polo shirt his wife bought him yesterday.

Their luggage is over the weight limit. I know the suitcases are stuffed with Tylenol, Revlon lipsticks, and other novelty items from the dollar store that will surely impress the relatives back home. They couldn?t go home empty-handed, of course. They?ve been gone for six years. After all, what is there to do in this foreign country in which they reside?? The children have become too Americanized, as it is.

The flight has been delayed, but that is inconsequential. For God?s sake, they are going to India! The woman and her husband wait patiently, their passports proudly declaring their citizenship: ?Republic of India.?

When the boarding call comes, the children sigh collectively and adjust their iPods, shuffling slowly toward the gate. The woman checks her boarding card for the umpteenth time, as if to confirm that this isn?t a dream. Her husband jumps to attention, already nine feet ahead of them with the luggage. Finally, finally, they are going to India.

This is the immigrant?s story. It doesn?t represent every non-resident Indian in America, but certainly it describes a good number of them.

Perhaps since distance makes the heart fonder, the longing for cultural respite has always been stronger for immigrants. I can close my eyes and transport myself to Delhi?s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

The initial step off the plane, and into the airport, may be my fondest memory. I think it?s because I can remember it, and feel it, so well. Most memorable are the grey tiles on the floor. They?ve always? been there. Five-by-five gray tiles, with four rows of circles in each, splattered all over the terminal. I like this because it never changes; it?s the same in my memory and in reality.

The same plane I arrived in is going right back to New York, with more passengers. Often, I sit in the terminal and people-watch some more.

Most prominent in my memory is the Indian woman in Calvin Klein jeans and red, white, and blue DKNY shirt?maybe Lady Liberty herself. Her three children, uninterested and defeated. They?d wanted to go to Disney World. Her husband, manning the luggage cart, in a Polo shirt his wife bought yesterday.

Their luggage is over the weight limit. I know the suitcases are stuffed with spicy homemade pickles, Batik-designed bed covers, and other novelty items from the street vendors that will surely impress the relatives living abroad. They couldn?t go to New York empty-handed, of course. They?re going there for the first time. After all, what is there to do in Delhi?? The children need to have some exposure to become more westernized anyway.

The flight has been delayed, but that is inconsequential. For God?s sake, they are going to America! The woman and her husband wait patiently, their passports regretfully declaring their citizenship: ?Republic of India.?

?Attention all passengers, AI 111 is now boarding at Gate 3.?

The woman checks her boarding card for the umpteenth time, as if to confirm that this isn?t a dream. Her husband jumps to attention. Finally, finally, they are going to America.

This is the Indian traveler?s story.

Too bad that in the glimmer, sparkle, and excitement of contemplating the destination, travelers often fail to appreciate the site of their departure.

I smile because I?ve learned that my South Asian-American identity provided me with a hybrid environment, and an opportunity to find satisfaction and a sense of belonging in two different places. And my father?s job gave me a golden ticket to oscillate between them.

I smile because the customs officials in both New York and Delhi look at me and say: ?Welcome home, ma?am.?

Rima Chodha lives and works in New York City?but only ?til her next oscillation. Reach her at rima.chodha@gmail.com.

One comment about “Identity Switch”

  1. venay oberai says:

    I read the story written by Rima , Its good . But I have some comments on it . I can’t write , because she is my daughter. I love her so much . May GOD bless my daughter always .

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