The Line Of Immigrants

There’s something life-affirming about entering an immigrant space. That’s why, whenever I return from a long trip, I crave a stop at a local farmer’s market to shake off my jetlag and my dullness.

This morning at the Cupertino market, a pear-shaped Indian-American was covertly biting into a jujube to test its value-proposition. Two south Indian women, both shaped like a butternut squash, kvetched about finding no kenaf (gongura) leaves at the stalls.

A circuit of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Korean-Americans had grown roots by a stall selling vine-ripened tomatoes, flat beans, green peppers, winter melon, bitter gourd, okra, and broccoli flower.

“Where’d you get that lemon grass?” I asked of a reedy Chinese-American surveying okras. “There!” the woman snapped back, pointing to a nearby table. I was about to turn towards the lemon grass in slight irritation when I saw a smile grow in her eyes and she and I recognized, simultaneously, our common Asian heritage in which a smile must steep, even if only for two minutes, before it can be delivered.

Together the two of us began colluding for attention from the stall vendor. But the array of rooted customers in front of him crackled in irritation: “Hey, wait, the line begins here!” Bags in hand, I trudged to the end of the line and awaited my turn, chafing at the rudeness of immigrant-Americans on the matter of lines. In the countries we came from there were no vertical lines, only horizontal.

Before I headed home, I stopped to buy grapes. “I want the sweetest,” I said to the vendor. He pointed to the big, purplish black things in a basket. “But these have seeds,” he said. I popped one in my mouth and bit in. The skin was thick. Grape syrup sloshed over my tongue. Sweet. Sweeter-than-honey sweet. Then I hit seed, that stuff of life.

“That’s perfectly fine, I’ll spit the seed,” I said to the young man, handing him two dollars for a pound of the blackest grapes most redolent of all immigrants, old and new.

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Who Was I?

A weekend could upend my idea of who I was. It could rock the premise on which I had built my social, professional and literary life as an Indian-American in California.

On Friday evening, someone dismissed, categorically, the quality and approach of an Indian-American magazine I respected and had worked for over the decades. “Why couldn’t the magazine hire better writers?” she asked.

On Saturday afternoon, some people in my writing group offered breathtaking analyses for a story penned by a talented member. I came unhinged. Should I appreciate the story? Or marvel at the succinct and lyrical analyses by fellow writers who had mastered both writing and analysis? How could I improve at both?

Later that evening, at a birthday party, a young Sikh gentleman sang Hindi melodies from the 50s through the 70s. For years, the tunes had pierced my ears and drenched my soul. I went to bed that night wondering if I should distance myself from such music. It weighed me down. It was another reminder that my parents had departed. It was proof that my father, the late but always punctual Daddykins, who read me and made three Xerox copies of every story I had ever published, had really, completely departed.

Early on Sunday, I was in Dublin for a prayer at the new home of a cousin’s son. The young man and his wife were just starting out in life. Their road was not yet locatable on GPS. I thought about my first home in San Jose’s Evergreen area. Our home had been built on new land cleared for starter homes. Now, after four moves and 32 years, I had dropped roots in an old neighborhood of heritage oaks, stately firs and meandering trails. We had raised two children into thinking, mature adults. Yet, in a matter of forty-eight hours, I felt lost, unanchored, somehow.

On Sunday evening, I rose to sing India’s national anthem in unison with 18000 others in this welcoming valley of dreams. Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, was on his first official trip to the Silicon Valley. He was on a mission to enlist CEOs to realize his dream, Digital India, for connecting all the people of India.

Between the rising and falling strains of the anthem, I believe I heard another sound. The soundless swish of Kleenex on cheeks. The sound of sadness that all immigrants must hear in their hearts on some days. The ring of American careening. Of silent hyphens clattering to the floor.

Was I American? Was I Indian?

Who was I?

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