Photograph by Prima Alam
Enter, stage left, a woman raised in the West but rooted in the East, the age-old immigrant story, the proverbial clash of civilizations (though she’s never bought into that oversimplified narrative). She comes of age like her peers, quickly, wildly, and defiantly. She flinches reflexively at words of obligation - should and ought and must - because she cannot see their relevance in the land of opportunity.
Her parents, in the shadows of stage right, stand aghast. Raised in a culture that privileges the voice of community, they dare not speak personal pipe dreams and desires aloud. Who is their shape-shifting daughter, who shows flashes of both the culture in her blood and the one she wears over her brown skin, and yet is neither one nor the other?
ACT ONE: FAMILY
I am in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, and we are driving with no purpose other than to feel the possibility inherent in the evening. There is a party at my house tonight, full of relatives who would ask biographical details to see if any details have changed. Name, age, what do you want to be when you grow up? We don’t see these people often enough for them to come into focus, so I would try for the hundredth time to memorize faces, names, relationships. Every gathering is a reunion for our parents but a meet and greet for the children. Once, I asked my mother to help me write down our family tree but I couldn’t find a piece of paper big enough to fit all the branches.
My presence is nonetheless always required, though I am never consulted regarding my own plans for the evening. I must attend, because any meeting of families is impossible unless each unit is complete. I currently have ten missed calls, and they all scream “Mom” with increasing urgency. I see the name flash again on my phone, and I send it to voicemail, letting my other hand catch cool currents of air outside the window. My mother laid out an outfit this afternoon for me to wear, loud crushed silk shot through with heavy gold thread. I have been the dutiful paper doll for every other gathering, but tonight, I could not put on the appropriate face, so I do not make an appearance.
She did not come, so we had to play her role. Every aunt, uncle and cousin forcing us to answer questions on her behalf. We all relish these gatherings, to be able to spend rare time with one another with a comfort and familiarity which does not extend to any other aspect of our lives. She does not find similar solace in blood ties.
She views family as a flat plane, but really it is a pyramid, sloping up to our elders at its point. Those forming the foundation are critical; without them, or any of us supporting one another, the structure crumbles. How to tell her that she will have her freedom of choice when she has earned her knowledge and her place?
ACT TWO: EDUCATION
Two years into college, after I’ve had my fill of experimentation, I call my parents to switch my major. I’m changing from biology to fine art, I tell them, and they react straight from their script, which is to say with great alarm and distress. They already have doctors, so why do they need me to be one?
I send them photographs of my art, in which I try to make feelings tangible, to communicate with them through slashes of paint because words are woefully inadequate. I send them an invitation to my final show. They shuffle through the gallery quietly, spending a few seconds on each piece. But when they find me at the end of the line of paintings, I do not see pride on their faces, only deep and abiding concern.
Every time my mother comes to my apartment, a tiny studio barely large enough for a double bed, she does the dishes. Actually, she asks me first if I’ve thought about going back to school or getting a job, while we are surrounded by the canvases that already speak to my chosen profession. Then she stands at the half-sink getting splashes of water on her clothes and scrubbing paint-encrusted pallettes and food-stained plates. Pouring down the drain the feelings she cannot express to me.
When you know struggle, you do not wish it upon anyone else. How could you? You wish for your children a life better than you have lived. You wish for them an easy life, where the paths are straightforward and lead reliably to security. If there are roads like this - doctor, lawyer, engineer - we do not know why someone would not take them. It’s like rejecting a buy one get one free coupon; we paid for the education, and the career was supposed to come with it.
We took cars and trains and airplanes all the way to a different country, simply to reach an endpoint we could trust. Or that our parents told us we could trust, because we put our faith in those who know better. She thinks chaos and uncertainty will fulfill her. But beauty alone cannot sustain you; art cannot feed you. What else can keep you whole like stability?
ACT THREE: MARRIAGE
I introduce him to my parents at the most awkward of lunches. They are usually the most sociable people - you have to be, when you grow up with relatives constantly coming and going - but now they are silent. My partner tries to carry the conversation but can find no purchase beyond one-word answers. He gives up and I try to block out the sound of all of us chewing.
He is confused as to the problem, and honestly, I am, too. Could my parents possibly have expected an arranged marriage, one in which I would have no say? It has to be willful blindness if they did not see my life leading inexorably to this result, a partner who doesn't share my religion or skin color, but most importantly, shares my love.
The wedding planning is particularly uncomfortable. My parents have moved on to resigned acceptance, and my mother sends a guest list of hundreds. All of these people are necessary, she says, and all of those other people are necessary because the first people are necessary. We are peeling every layer of relatives inward, but I wonder when we will reach the center where my partner and I are standing.
At the wedding, we are too drunk on joy and cheap wine to care about disapproval. In any event, there is none. I watch my father dab his eye as we say our vows, and my mother weep openly. We are surrounded by a crowd of relatives who vibrate with contagious happiness. An entire community of people, all here just for us.
It wasn’t what we would have wanted, though we can’t quite explain our objections. It wasn’t him so much as the idea of him. At that first lunch, we saw the disintegration of everything we worked for, all the values we believed in. When a girl gets married, she is no longer a part of her old family; she becomes a member of her new one. And so we had brutal dreams about the death of our culture at the hands of our daughter.
We wanted a logic for her union, one we could understand beyond amorphous “love”. Love is not a flash of lightning, a single glance, or infatuation; it is familiarity and companionship cultivated over a period of years. How else to know that you should put in that time and effort than by ensuring you are aligned with your partner as far as possible? It is a matter as elemental as finding the right seeds for the right soil.
We wanted a marriage with room for our culture, one that would rear children with a knowledge of our gods and languages and histories. We preferred our odds if she had accepted even one of our attempts to set her up. But we met him a few more times, and slowly he became more than the man who stole our daughter. We learned of his openness, curiosity and kindness, and how, in loving our daughter, he accepted all parts of her, not just the ones she pre-packaged to show him. Perhaps, we thought, this was the guarantee for which we’d hoped.
The wedding was beautiful, of course; everyone we knew and loved was there, which is one of the unstated purposes of the occasion. When we took her hands in ours and passed them to her partner, we didn’t even feel like we were losing her. We gazed at her radiant face and thought maybe, finally, she realized what we had been trying to say: all we wanted, in the end, was for her to be happy.
Exit, scene left, SHE and the CHORUS, on paths that do not run strictly parallel but endlessly diverge and converge, weaving a web to hold them in a strange and unknown land.
Nina Sudhakar is a writer, photographer and lawyer. Originally from Connecticut (by way of parents from India), she most recently lived in London and is currently based in Indiana. Her work is forthcoming in The Equals Record, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and re:asian. She writes about travel and culture on her website Project One Thousand (http://www.projectonethousand.com).