A Mother's Day Reflection: My Amma, a life journey from India to New York

Tuesday, May 12, 2020 - 6:45pm

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Sunitha Palat

It’s 1996. The door of the ‘88 Volvo closes with the gentle push of a chestnut-brown, smooth hand. The discounted Macy’s black leather left heel steps forward. With a less assertive movement, the right follows. Back and forth, with pseudo-confidence, the heels click in a straight line up the driveway, as thick, silky black hair moves behind in unison. With each step, my mother looks up from her petite stature. Her bright brown eyes closely monitor how her heels touch the pavement, while refraining from swaying her lean arms; instead she learns to hold them steady against her side. She looks up at their home in a middle-class, simple Atlanta suburb and exudes all the confidence she can. Stand tall. Walk with purpose. Be confident. They need you as much as you need them. My father’s calming, rational voice echoes in her head as she practices. At the age of 29, my mother was learning how to walk like an American.

In 1993, my Amma had just immigrated to the United States from India to marry and be with my father. In the following three years, she had my older brother, studied for and passed her Step 1 and Step 2 Medical Exams and began to prepare for residency interviews. After volunteering at Emory’s hospital, she quickly noticed how people in the U.S. walked differently from her. In India, women hold the pallu (sash) of their saris in their right hand, keep their left close to their body and glide. “Here, women were swinging their arms when they walked — it’s just different in jeans.” Every night after getting back from her shift, she would practice walking up and down the driveway, deliberately monitoring her movements to prepare for the American professional environment.

Changing the way she walked was only one part of the adjustment. She would listen to hours of NPR to learn the American accent, took notes on how to eat baked potatoes and other American foods to avoid looking confused during interviews and learned how to have small talk about Christmas dinners and the Fourth of July. Although seemingly minor, these adjustments were difficult; in her resilience, my mother has become a strong American medical professional. 

These adjustments took small forms in her everyday life, but the hardest moments were those she could never get back — missing her grandparents’ funerals, the births of her nieces and nephews and the aging of her own parents. Immigrating left her with a feeling of irrelevance in the lives of those she loved and a longing for her simple life back in India. I remember our conversation when I asked her what she imagined her future life would be like at my age.

“When I was 20, I — hm. I imagined myself practicing there.” She said before she paused “I didn’t see much more than taking care of the family’s daily needs, wanting to be around family, being in the culture you identify with.” Her emphasis on family stung me, especially knowing that my brother and I will never be able to replicate those bonds with her loved ones while growing up oceans away. “I never thought I would live somewhere else, never.”

This myriad of experiences has defined her life into two chapters. As she and my father raised us, they became more engaged in American lifestyles, putting their strongest cultural inclinations to the side for the sake of our ability to “fit in” to our New York suburbia, where we have lived for the past 18 years. They disregarded speaking Malayalam (our native language) at home to ensure we would have strong English accents, let us choose basketball and soccer over bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance) and shlokas (prayer lessons) and learned how to make rigatoni alla vodka, buffalo wings and many of our other favorite acquired white suburbia tastes. Even their socio-cultural expectations adapted in raising us — both my brother and I dated (white) people, were not forbidden, but responsibly cautioned about drinking underage and were taught to pursue our genuine interests over anyone’s expectations. Some could call us white-washed, but looking back, I see their selflessness and strength permeate in how our happiness was consistently put before anything else.

Yet, giving up parts of her identity has isolated my mother. Without keeping up with the traditions and faith she’s grown up with, I know she feels distant from her past and distant from her present. It comes out in dinnertime conversations when she expresses her desire to move back to India — for at least a few years — to spend real, quality time with her parents. It comes out in the occasions she will stay dressed in her sari all day, even though the function it was required for ended hours ago. It comes out in her reactivation of her devotion to her faith. She’s trying her hardest to cling on to some part of her identity before it dissipates. I can’t help but question her overall confidence in the decision she made twenty-seven years ago. 

“Do you think we’re better off?”

My mother hesitated for a second.

“I don’t know — if money was the only thing, we would’ve done well there too. I don’t know. Can you really say being in America is better than India? I don’t know.” 

The vagueness of her answer will always confuse me — what was this all for? It’s a question I will never have the answer to. If she never immigrated, she would have the life she once dreamed of: stability, family and comfort in tradition. On the other hand, she would never have shown the world — shown us — how much strength, bravery and independence she truly has hidden within her. Her life experiences have curated her dynamic, wise and seasoned personality, making her a strong mother, wife and role-model. Most of all, she wouldn’t have my dad, her best friend and soulmate, which I don’t think she could trade for anything. 

As a first-generation child, there is an ever-existing feeling of pressure and gratitude placed onto your life — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m consciously aware of the sacrifice made for me out of unconditional love and faith in a brighter future. It’s made me study harder, respect my family even more and yearn for my highest potential — I do not want to let their sacrifices go to waste. Yet, seeing my parents isolated from their families, struggle (at times) to fit in with their white neighbors and try their hardest to raise us in new environments and situations has frustrated and upset me. Hearing my mother have doubts to this day about her decision to immigrate pains me — at the very least, I want her to live a life without what-ifs. 

As I lay down on my parents’ bed, I watch my mom get ready for the temple: she carefully puts in her jhumka earrings, admires her elegant sari and is overcome with a look of recognition. I can almost imagine her ten years from now fulfilling the empty promises she makes at our dinnertime conversations. Perhaps my parents will move back to India, for at least a few years, and live in the undisturbed beauty of their home state. Yet, perhaps they will simply retire in a suburb of wherever my brother or I settle down and build new traditions with us and our children. The future is definitely unknown — but for my mother, it always has been.

She gracefully moves her right hand to the pallu, keeps her left close to her body, grabs the grocery list to run errands afterwards and glides down the stairs. Step by step, she floats over the pavement, as if she was floating down the stairs of her Kerala apartment. She disregards the list — she knows when she comes home she will change back into her sweater and sweatpants, remove her bindi and take her jhumkas out. For dinner, she’ll cook me my favorite rigatoni alla vodka — it’s always been for the sake of the children.

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Courtesy of Sunitha Palat

 

Sunitha Palat can be contacted at spalat@umich.edu