Some days, I’d text my mum my breakfast menu. I’d email her articles I thought she’d like. I’d tag her in Instagram pictures that I wanted her to look at. I’d tweet at her, I’d poke her, I’d like all of her profile pictures. I’d send her Emojis. Even when I appeared offline to the rest of the world, I’d calculate the time difference and I’d Gchat her. This was the arrangement for three years. I hoped she was OK with it.
I know it isn’t ideal for any parent to have to interpret hashtags to know how her kid is doing, but, for reasons I’ve never been able to explain to her, being on the phone with mama used to make me incredibly anxious. So much so that sometimes, even when I was just watching TV with my floormates or walking to class with a friend, I would see mama’s face pop up on my phone, and I’d guiltily push “Decline.”
“In a meeting. Can’t talk. Text instead?”
It’s awful. I know. Let me explain.
See, three years ago, when I left home 8,000 miles away and came away to college in New York, several things started to happen all at once. First, I realized I was no longer in a world where everybody looked, thought, and sounded exactly like me. More than anything, this scared me. So I started to straighten my hair more because I was tired of talking about it. When my nose-ring fell out, I made no effort to find it. My Bombay street-side harem pants were replaced by skinny jeans and seersucker. Most problematically, my accent, which once had been a distinct South Indian singsong, gave way to a more “normal” easy-to-digest American drawl. Sometimes, a stray “macha” or an impassioned “benchod” will still reveal exactly how far India is from New York, but save for those slip-ups, the transition happened quickly and automatically. Now my friends from L.A. and Houston and Maryland tell me I sound just like them. I know this makes it easier for them to relate to me. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Slowly, incrementally, it just sort of happened.
The thing is, mama didn’t know this because I didn’t want her to. I didn’t want her to call her Bombay-born-and-Madras-raised daughter only to find some American stranger on the other end of the line. I couldn’t let myself sound American around mama and I couldn’t let anyone else know how Indian I sound around mama. I didn’t want to remind them that I was different. I was yearning to belong to two places at once, and that’s why I pushed “Decline.” I thought about this all the damn time.
When I grew aware of the ways in which I was changing involuntarily, I began to have a lot of questions, not least of which was the one I’m responding to now. To what degree can I separate myself from home while still belonging there? To what degree do I need to separate myself from home in order to belong here? To what degree should I separate myself from home? Is it weak of me to change? What would my brother think?
It took a few years and a lot of long conversations with close friends, but I can finally answer the calls and the questions both. I have learned that my relationship with home isn’t contingent on what I wear, what I eat, or how I speak. Those things are just habits. My relationship with home is reflected in my values, which won’t change as easily as my accent does. Home is a loyalty to the people who live there, which doesn’t wane in the least when I haven’t seen them for six months, or when I no longer sound like them. They know that. Home is the precise set of circumstances that resulted in my being who I am now. I’m OK with that.
I know now that whether I had grown up thousands of miles away or on the Upper East Side, being at Columbia is a rare and special window to learn from people who are different from me. Embrace it. It is a chance to understand the emotional intricacies of, at least once during your four years here, being in a minority. Take it. It is an opportunity to develop the sensitivity, adaptability, and strength that come from being far, far away from home. Do it.
Separate yourself enough from home to be open to change. Separate yourself just enough from home to know that adapting to suit your new surroundings is not a betrayal to your old ones. Home will always be a part of your identity, and you are not weak for changing. You are braver than you’ve ever been.
Sometimes, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll notice yourself growing and changing in directions you didn’t anticipate. Separate yourself enough from home to be OK with this. When mama calls you and she laughs because you sound different, know that she’s laughing with you. When your friends ask why you have to leave the room when you’re on the phone with your mother, don’t make up an excuse. Separate yourself enough from home to be honest with them. If you’re a little uncomfortable with the ways in which you’re changing, pat yourself on the back. Remind yourself that you’re here to learn. And nobody ever learned anything from being comfortable.
Rega Jha is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing. She contributes regularly to The Canon.