The first time you return to India, you feel like you are finally home. You can, as it were, strip off your skinny jeans that squeezed your belly, the bra that poked at your side, the heels that chafed your toes. You can slide into your pajamas and fuzzy slippers. Aah. At last.
You didn’t realize that you were uncomfortable to begin with. The body and mind get accustomed to things. You got used to explaining to people where your little hometown, Bhiwani, is. You used to say, it’s in Haryana. But even some Indians stared at you blankly. Then you started saying Delhi. You’re from Delhi. Most people knew – “Ooh, I’ve heard of Delhi” – but that answer nagged at you. It felt like a lie. It was like claiming you were from San Francisco when you were actually from Yuba City. Same part of the state, different part of the planet.
You got used to explaining that yes, even Indians can have green eyes. And not all our parents are tiger parents. Some of them are afraid of ambition. And there’s really no dish called curry. Well, there is karhi, the silken buttermilk and chickpea-flour stew that, made right, breaks into song with each spoonful, its tartness and saltiness in perfect pitch against each other. But that’s advanced Indian. We’re just slogging through Indian 101 right now. I’ll save that for later, after you’ve mastered butter chicken and naan.
You forgot that you had been explaining the ins and outs of your roots, your culture, simplifying some things, flattening others, shelving still others for a later day. You forgot that you were an “other.” And besides, with each passing year, there are more and more “others” like you. The fringes had been growing.
But landing in India – the first time, each time – you are brown in a sea of brown. The masses at the airport, at the train station, at your cousin’s wedding are more or less the same shade of brown as you, with the same, black, semi-wavy hair. You blend in.
But the locals stare at you. You can’t tell why. Your mom says it’s the way you hold your camera, gripping the lens. And your jacket, it’s different from theirs. And maybe the look in your eyes, too. It’s curious. They can tell you are not from here.
Your cousin puts her arm around your waist and marvels that you are the same size as last time. “You Americans don’t gain weight,” she sighs.
Raised in India and the U.S, Vibha Akkaraju writes personal narratives that touch on her bi-cultural heritage. Her work has been published in Big Apple Parent, India Currents, and HerStry. She is working on a memoir about her search for identity as she moved from India to America as a young girl. One chapter of this memoir won first prize at the San Mateo County Fair Literary Contest. Some of her current pieces can be found at https://vibha-akk.medium.com/