Inspired by Cameron Esposito’s “Home alone: Lost in your work”
“The senses, moving toward their appropriate objects, are producers of heat and cold, pleasure and pain, which come and go and are brief and changeable; these do thou endure, O traveller. Take heed. Match eyes with darkness. Because only time will march by thy side, guiding thee unto an endless unknown.” — Bhagavad Gita: chapter 2, verse 14
The last thing you remember is the way your index finger clings to the pages. Fixed eyes dart from left to right as silent lips trace the outlines of your mother’s language. You’re spread-eagle on your grandparents’ bed. You can smell sticks of incense sizzling into embers on a side table. You hear younger cousins gasping to climb trees in the summer heat. But the best part of you knows you’re nowhere near. You’re in the air. You’re floating.
Arjuna’s chariot smolders. The horses stampede, their manes rippling in the feral, blood-choked stench of carnage. Metal grating, sparking against the tides of battle. The hooves’ deathly cadence drumming in your ears.
A water-propelled cooler throws cold air across your face. The breeze caresses still limbs as your grandfather enters the room. He asks what’s in your hands and when you show him, you can’t help but notice a distinct pride lighten the time-worn creases on his face. He asks where you found it. You point with enthusiasm at his cupboard. When he sees you answer, he can’t help but notice a distinct fire liven the curiosity in your eyes.
He teaches you the meaning of knowledge. He teaches you the meaning of hard work. He tells you why it separates the weak from the strong. He tells you his story.
So you keep reading. You read about things you never even knew existed. You read about things that still don’t exist. You see the power that breathes through good storytelling. You question why certain devices leave you writhing in anticipation while others dust you with morsels of confusion. Slowly, very slowly, you learn the importance of a flawed character. You learn about conflict. Your eyes search with more confidence. Somewhere, that moment where you read your first curse word is still preserved, where you can still hear your gasp turning into a sigh, and then laughter. You wonder where the stories come from, about the people who wring them from life and tame them onto a page. You wonder if you can see them in their work. You wonder if you will ever truly understand what they’re whispering, let alone be one of them.
Time passes. You move away. Your parents tell you it’s for your own good. You see your grandparents once every two years. You miss how the sticks of incense smelled. Nothing looks the same. People don’t look the same. V-necks. Sweater vests. Leather boots. Mustard stains. People speak in strange accents. They make fun of yours, the way you pronounce your T’s and R’s, the way you say “ve” instead of “we.” No one knows your mother’s language. You only hear it at home, but the best part of you can grasp some semblance of beauty in the way it lilts through the walls, shielding you from this strange new world of grocery stores and white people. Your accent changes. You’re thankful it does. There’s a pang of regret because you’re thankful. Eventually, suddenly, you stop hearing your mother’s language altogether. Months pass by before you notice any signs of its disappearance. You wonder if this is what growing up feels like.
You finally meet people who look like you. You try talking to them in her tongue, but they stare at you politely, embarrassed for you, and explain how they were born here. You understand why they feel embarrassed for you. You sense anger coursing in you. When they notice stereotypes surrounding them, again they say “we were born here and have never even had a chance to visit there.” They reiterate why, on the inside, this makes them as American as blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. So what does that make me? They celebrate your culture, but the worst part of you says they’re pretending. You want to tell them this, but never do.
Time passes. You go back home — your real home. You hug your grandparents longer than they’re used to. You swipe sugary blobs of milk cake from the pantry. Your fingers toddle along brick walls. On the roof, your aunt unfurls a tartan blanket. She presses out chili peppers, to be seared dry under the sun’s glaring heat. In your cousins’ stares, you catch snubby ruptures of hesitation. You try scribbling into speech all the ways you’ve changed. You fumble. Knees buckle as gagging mouthfuls of acrid self-doubt stalks down the back of your throat.
You don’t use your American accent when you talk to them in English. Air collapses inside your neck in the moments before you catch yourself swerving between dialects. There’s a brief shock accompanying the realization that you can switch. You switch. You’re ashamed of this. Your tongue dries. Your lips purse. You swallow, the way you would if nervous saliva perched in the fleshy parts of your cheeks. You switch back.
You pick up your favorite book, the one your grandfather so gently put in your hands all those summers ago. You see dancing, mocking letters. The writing that once let you scale faraway realms now escapes you. The words still drip through the corners of your mouth but on the page, they’re blurred, alien, distant. You knock. No one answers. You keep knocking. You panic. You pound harder. That’s what your grandfather taught you. You feel an entire world drifting away, and the worst part of you lets it.
The table is set. It always is. The chairs pushed in. Your grandmother is sitting on the ground, her back against the doorway, her legs swept out on the kitchen floor, hands plunged in a goopy mess of coconut powder, brown sugar and khoa. You watch in silence as she molds the batter, parceling each sticky little goop into its own little envelope of bread. Deft fingers seal the envelopes before tossing them in a hissing fryer. They beckon to you, pass you a cake. Oil still bubbles on its surface. They brush flour across the spine of your favorite book.
When she offers to give you lessons, you say “yes.” You sit across the table from her, shins wobble in anticipation. She watches you say the letters out loud. EIIIIII. AHHHHH. EEEEE. She laughs when you fuck it up. Smiles when you don’t. In time, you learn how to scribble “MY NAME IS AKSHAY SETH” in massive block letters. That dinner table/makeshift classroom is where she speaks with what you are, not what you used to be. Where you speak with her.
But then you have to leave. You have to go back home.
You’re at college. One of your co-workers is really convinced he’s a great guy. The starchy collar on his button-up shirt bobs up and down, nodding enthusiastically with his head, a gleeful leer carved across it. He wonders out loud if you can still speak your mother’s language. You don’t make eye contact. You press your forehead on the window. Look at moisturized shadows condense as you exhale.
“Yeah isn’t it crazy how I still remember the words I said over and over again for seven years? And then 14 after that.”
He tells you he’s impressed. But isn’t convinced. He asks you to say a sentence in her tongue. The collar’s still bobbing. He wants to give you a high-five and chuckle at the novelty of hearing something alien. You want to punch him in the face but you smile wide and reply “Akshay Seth thinks you should go fuck yourself, you condescending little shit” in your mother’s language. You tell him it means “my name is Akshay Seth and I am an engineering major.”
As time passes, it becomes harder to switch between the two languages. Sometimes you catch yourself speaking with those accents or pronunciations so often used to pigeonhole your culture. Because screwing up just one term, no matter how little it may be — “golf,” “won,” Thai,” “salmon” — means you’re “faking.” That you’re not really from here. It means the smirking fuckface always there to correct you. It means having to laugh along awkwardly. The hot blood exploding on your face in patches of delicate shame.
Other times, you catch yourself saying your mother’s words without the inflections that once lived, breathed between your lips. You think about that wall you hit when you’re angry or emotional, unable to articulate anything going through your mind because it’s playing tug-of-war with two languages. How you’re left sitting there, smothering this belabored stammering, restraining it with silence until you glimpse those brief glimmers — glimmers of your mother smiling, knowing. The understanding in her eyes.
You never tell her how much that understanding means.
So you speak in English. You read in English. You write in English. You get better at painting yourself through words. You make your own stories and sometimes, when you’re feeling brave, you want to place them, gently, in front of your grandfather’s eyes. You never do. Then it’s too late. You don’t understand why the tears never come when you tease out memories of that afternoon with him years ago. When you do cry, it’s done in private where no one can judge. You wonder if this is what growing up feels like.
For brief moments, you find yourself thinking about what it would be like if you went back and never left. It’s a romantic idea. Like the chai wallahs. The coolies hauling luggage across sunbathed railway stations.
Like that time your grandfather took you to a leatherworker’s street stall. You remember the tiny space, the beaten walls. The watch straps and tattered purses and old belts he liked to collect. While you waded in the strangeness, he chuckled at the clunky confusion seeping through your eyes, down your cheeks, in a pool thickening on the dust-layered floors. He examined you intensely and unblinking. He didn’t say anything wise before going back to sniffing the damaged cellphone case in his hand. You remember your grandfather, as if in response, motioning, nodding silently in acknowledgment, admitting “he does know everything about leather.” You remember how you believed him.
You know that venturing back into this world would mean never being accepted as part of it. You’ll always be seen as that outsider who asks what the letters on the road signs mean. You will always be the deserter, the family that never came back. You exist in a state of halves, and slowly, you come to the realization that this means no one will ever truly claim you.
When your uncles ask if you like your new home better than India, you always indicate America, but deep down you’re still half unsure, as if maybe there’s some deeper meaning in the question — thrust in your hands so often — still escaping you. Eventually, finally, you say “I don’t think I’m the same person who left.” You never repeat those words again.
You decide to stop letting your background define you. You decide that if you try hard enough, you’ll get past all the rage, all the blaming so many of your people think is the answer to inequality. You realize why peace escapes those who defend themselves by directing generalizations in the other direction, those who infect serious discussion by hiding behind phrases like “[color] people are …” In more ways than not, you’re still one of them. You try hard not to be. You see why harmony doesn’t matter when you’re basking in vats of congealed self-regard. Only its pursuit.
You see the ways understanding can caress rigidity into change. Why hatred stifles it. So you help them understand. You don’t pander. You don’t condescend. You tell them your story. Plaster it in front of curious, dilated pupils. Dust off its cracks. Highlight the flaws. Scorch them with humanity.
And then you place your index finger on the page. It clings to your mother’s language, whispering silent flight into still wings.
You soar. You brush along clouds of a distant sky, feel sheets of moisture trickle toward mumbling lips. As your eyes drift low, regret wraps you in its stiffening embrace, but in that pain you feel the gusts, the winds of strength carrying you forth.
You accept that this is what growing up is.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.