As I settle into a comfortable reading position, legs up on the bench, book in hand, and phone at a considerable distance away from me, three young women approach me.
“We’re taking a survey for our class. Would you be interested in answering a few questions?”
I state my name and consent to being recorded. First, they want to know what I think of the current president. Then they want to know if I think immigration laws in the United States need any change. I am hesitant. I try to decide if I must launch into a short speech or if I should just answer in phrases.
I like to think of myself as the one that leaves. In these twenty seven years, I have packed my life in two suitcases many times over, one black and the other light blue. They are the companions that do not disappear. I take my clothes and notebooks, my scarves and earrings, the greeting cards and the letters, and things my mother stuffed in when I was not paying attention.
I have lived in three countries, each wildly different. In Kuwait, I experienced an idyllic childhood, only vaguely curious about the women who were hidden away behind meters of black cloth and in gleaming houses. In India, I experienced much joy as a child, and frustration as an adult finding footing in a patriarchy. The old and the new waged battles every day. Studying, working and living in the United States; I found a country which gave me unimaginable personal freedom, but one that always seemed eager to be rid of me. It made me promise I would go back each time I came in.
Dropped onto the island that was graduate school, I almost believed this was America, with its sea of Asians and a few token white people in class. When someone talked about sports I didn’t know, all I had to do was drift to another group, and we would complain about deadlines, assignments, tests, grades; we were good at finding perverse pleasure in our shared state of sleeplessness.
Later, I moved to an almost white suburb for work, and discovered a unique problem. It wasn’t as easy anymore, this ‘being myself’ thing. The lessons came to me in spurts, and each time, the small indignities chipped at my confidence.
A colleague scrunches up his face walking past me during lunch.
“What is that you are eating?!”
“Sorry! It’s probably pungent..it has tamarind..”
I give incoherent explanations as he moves to his desk. It must smell odd to someone who’s never had it before, I reason to myself. But the next time I make it, I do not cook enough to have leftovers.
“Your English is good,” they look at me with surprise.
They want to know how.
I pause for a moment, before I launch into the dialogue I have memorized. The one about how I was taught in English at school, how I have known the language since I was a toddler. But the next time I say lorry for truck, lift for elevator and maths for math, and when I pronounce can’t with an open-mouthed sound, I find myself shrinking a little.
“I’ve always wanted to ask one of you people this,” he says, and I can see the three dots appearing and disappearing.
He is composing his message.
“Is your hair black everywhere?”
I do not reply.
“You hardly need makeup,” someone offers, this time touching my cheek and looking at their finger soon after.
Did they think the brown would come off?
Author and public speaker Brené Brown says, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” Only recently did I understand I spent too much time trying to fit in, when all I should have done was learn to be comfortable in myself.
I leave often. When I return, I bring with me the smells of different places and stories of cities where the rain fell differently. I carry inside me the speech of different people. These days, though, I also carry within me a quiet confidence. This is who I am: brown, loud, unapologetic. Sometimes I smell of my kitchen.
I see the young women going around the Plaza. They spot me, still sitting with my book, shifting in my chair and waiting for the feeling to come back in my legs. They wave at me.
“Thank you for your answers, you were our first!”
Did they come up to me because I fit the common description of Outsider? Am I the Immigrant of their Imagination? Maybe my answers will help them find another label for me.
I do not have any grand stories about how I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was three. I spent many years writing college essays and English homework for cousins, friends, acquaintances. It is only recently that I have started writing for myself. I am also a frequently unemployed environmental engineer, tea lover and connoisseur of smells. I think I am funnier in Tamil, but I haven’t yet been able to get people to agree.
Connect with Anusha online via her blog, and as @anusrini20 on Twitter and Instagram !