Packing Up Some Memories

I am reminded today, while packing up my books for an impending move, of an evening during my senior year of college when Haena, my roommate and close friend, drove us down I-80 to a theater in Sacramento that was playing The Namesake

My memory of the afternoon is that it was overcast and breezy. I had been away from Lahore for four very long years by this time. Those first four years were longer than the eight years that have followed. I ached for the city. In Davis, on my home from classes every evening, I walked by a house on 5th street that had a planter of gardenias outside, which reminded me of jasmines, a poor substitute, but so pleasant. Back then, I was still talking about graduating and going home. Every time I bought a book, I thought about my options -- how would I take all my books back? There was no FaceTime back then, and I was lucky if I could catch pixelated glimpses of my family on Skype from time to time. They were still using dial-up.

And here I was -- seated to watch the movie adaptation of a book, which had so beautifully captured the immigrant experience that I had been moved to tears while reading it. The movie opens with a view of a busy street in India, the buzz of conversation, the makeshift marketplace, people, faces, activity, color. It could be any street. It could be streets I had seen and passed each day of the first 18 years of my life. Nostalgia crashed into me and I was caught in its ripples and the surf. I was pinned under its weight. For the first several minutes of the movie, and at many moments after, I cried and shredded a packet of Kleenex to pieces. 

I close my eyes now trying to conjure the emotion that rattled me so on that long ago day. The yearning to go home is gone. The idea of home is gone. My home, physically, is gone. My parents have sold my childhood home and are now located in a completely different part of Lahore. My home, moreover, is here  -- I remind myself, shake myself out of the reverie, stretch my shoulders and brace my back against the chair that knows me so well. It is interesting how malleable the idea of home becomes over time, how the sense of belonging inches away from one reality and towards another so imperceptibly, like land sinking. 

Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake, lives most of her adult life in America, looking forward to the brief trips she makes with her family to her hometown in India. She is a different person there, not the quiet volunteer at the library, not a scared woman driving a car, not a mother trying to understand her very American children, but alive in a different way, vivacious, happy. Which is her true self, I wonder now. The self she embraces only in the company of her relatives and in the comfort of her country where everyone speaks the language she thinks in, where native faces from long ago days surround her, where her favorite street-snack is available on every hawker's cart, or in her clean picket-fence home in America, in the silence so crisp that the hum of the air conditioner can be heard, in the waves crashing against rocks on the beach where she goes clad in her sari and hand-knitted cardigan? 

And obviously, the real question here is not where Ashima feels at home, but where I do. Is the city where you grew up still your home if you can truly only remember broken memories pieced together in a mosaic? Is it still your home if the streets you remember have different names now? Is it still your home if the river you romanticized in your poems is all but dried up? And more importantly, are you brave enough to find out?

Simple Transformations - Tomato, Corn, and Avocado Salsa

In one of the episodes of short Sesame Street videos titled Food for Thought, Elmo looks at a fuzzy round thing lying on a table outside Hooper's Store and wonders what it is. A group of Super Foods, "foods, who are also heroes" comes to enlighten him. "It's a kiwi!" says a Banana. They encourage Elmo to try it. "You want Elmo to try this kiwi?" Elmo asks plaintively. "But it's so fuzzy!" The yellow Cheese Wedge laughs and her red cape shivers a little. "That's only the outside peel. Inside, the kiwi is a juicy and delicious fruit!" One wave of her cape and the fuzzy kiwi transforms into wonderful green slices of one of my favorite fruits. In the background, Grover exclaims with a mixture of awe and envy, "They have got some serious superpowers!"

I agree with Grover. It takes serious superpowers to transform something so completely, render it inside out, succulent and sweet instead of hard and fuzzy. This is a reality. But it is also a reality that you simply need a knife, a little skill, and some time to achieve the same transformation. Both are true - one is more likely to happen than the other. Do people transform, like foods? Can we slice through someone's nature and turn them over, discard their abrasive exterior and somehow touch the tenderness within, because I refuse to believe that they are entirely devoid of any vulnerability at all? I refuse to believe that I am only hard and fuzzy, all angles, rough edges, sandpaper-like frictional, grating. Can I, too, take a knife to this exterior (or acquire a magic cape) in order to transform? Do I wish to? Sometimes, I do. Sometimes I wish to have a happier disposition, more optimistic, less exhausted, more attached, less distant - because I remember being that way. I remember expressing love - and I still do in my own way - but that old way was different.  Sometimes I covet it.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to clean out the garage. In one of my old boxes with term papers and blue books, I found my journal dated 2006-2008. That notebook bound with faux-leather, bought in bulk from a sale at Borders, was privy to so much of me that has changed. Pages upon pages of ramblings. Two pages on the image of a flower. Another on strangers in the bus. Five pages on the idea of a story, dialogue, uncomfortable exchanges between characters, because I was holding honesty back. I was trying to hold on to things back then, things I have since let go. Several pages on planning a wedding that never happened. The sketch of a dress. Music. Food. Invitations. I felt bitterness seep into my body from the dank air around me as if by osmosis. It swelled inside me until I could feel it thrumming into the tips of my fingers. I tore up the pages and receded - shook myself away from that girl with plans and her ability to see happiness even on a mid-day bus among strangers. If I were to take that bus today, would I see the same things and think the same things, or would I roll my eyes and look away, stare at the landscape running past my vision, time flying, places, too?

So, no, it is not easy to transform people like that kiwi. There is no superhero to put a salve on old hurts. Nevertheless, people do transform at their own pace. My contrast from the girl who lived in the pages of that journal is, in itself, a transformation. It took years, but it happened. A transformation towards more honesty, the willingness to remain steadfast in what I want rather than what others want for me, and new loves - this blog, cooking, my baby, meaningful relationships, little matters, nothing more. 

And it pleases me to see this transformation, simple, yet profound, agreeable - it gives me a certain kind of peace, almost. So, that lingering sense of coveting what is lost diminishes further. It pleases me to transform things, too, particularly food. On Monday afternoons, even if I am bone-tired, I go into my kitchen and start lining up ingredients for my weekly forays into the world of Bon Appetit recipes. Rebecca arrives and starts setting up her camera equipment. She photographs ingredients whole, like each part of the Bon Appetit Tomato, Corn, and Avocado Salsa above, and then transformed, combined together for a wonderful and refreshing snack. No superpowers here, I do not possess any - just a knife and a cutting board, some skill taught me by a wonderful woman who loves me far more than I deserve, and time invested with care and concentration. Does this transformation please me, too? Well, the pictures speak for themselves.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

To Bottle Up Some Happiness

It was about two months ago. I came to work really early in my exercise clothes and went out for a walk soon after my cup of coffee. Even now, as I attempt to reconstruct the feeling I had on that morning - of pure, reckless joy, a perfect abandonment of all negativity that so often permeates through and out of my body, the wind slapping me across the face, not harshly, but playfully, like a jab in response to a joke, not a rebuke, the tall weeds of the Matadero Creek Trail brushing against my legs making me only peripherally aware of the presence of critters or ticks around me - it's all completely diluted. It is not possible to capture everything I felt on that morning, the rush from being on my feet, walking up the trail with breathtaking views around me, as a reconstruction. Margaret Atwood says it best in The Handmaid's Tale, "It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many."
What I can reconstruct with reasonable assurance that I am in fact describing the very heart of everything I felt that morning is in one simple, unassuming word: happiness. Two months later, I continue to sit at my desk every morning, enjoying my cup of dark roast coffee and my solitude. In the quiet lull of this office with glass walls and sharp white light, before footsteps and voices and keyboards begin to register on my consciousness, I try to conjure the feelings of that morning. I try to will myself to wear my hiking shoes, rise from my desk, feel the breeze of the peninsula before this summer's solstice, but all I get in return from myself is a rigid kind of complacency. Sitting still in this stillness is oddly satisfying, but it never evokes the unadulterated happiness I felt on the trail. Yet, I stay here, morning after morning, simply thinking about happiness and not actually doing anything to feel it again. 

If only there were a way to bottle up happiness. Then I would grab some from the air, pluck small droplets of it, gingerly, and pour them in a bottle. I would take a whiff of it every morning or drink it like Harry's Felix Felicis for luck. And then I would go out on the trail again, fueled by this happiness - a gold elixir, the consistency of molten metal - to collect more, always, always, more, more, more. I would have all kinds of bottles containing all kinds of happiness then. The happiness of walking barefoot on a beach at Half Moon Bay, far enough from the icy water of the Pacific that it doesn't touch my feet, but close enough to smell the ocean. The happiness of jasmines blooming on ordinary streets of Lahore, full-mouthed, drooping, their fragrance almost tangible. The happiness of the cool stone floors of the Lahore Fort and that of taking my shoes off and feeling it strong and stoic under my feet. The happiness of running across the roof-top in fierce monsoon downpours in the summers of my childhood and that of eating sliced oranges on the same roof-top on dry, sunny winter afternoons. The happiness of looking at the Golden Gate Bridge from a distance, the topmost spires hiding behind floating clouds that sometimes look like scattered petals of a jasmine plucked from Lahore. The happiness of having looked at the Badshahi mosque, no clouds covering its minarets, but majestic all the same. The happiness of my baby's untamed giggle and mother's startling poetry. The happiness of holding a fountain pen for the first time in Class 4B and graduating from using lead pencils. The happiness of walking on stage after working harder than ever before in my life, in my cap and gown, and graduating from UC Davis. The happiness of new, forbidden, precocious love in the corridors of high-ceilinged houses in Lahore. The happiness of old, trusting, giving love in the look exchanged over my glass-top dining table in San Jose surrounded by people yet solitary in the confines of this moment. The happiness of having true, lasting friendships on both sides of an ocean. The happiness of being a hybrid, of being here and there, of loving California and Lahore, of belonging to both places in some ways, and belonging nowhere in others, of being a mother and a daughter, of endless possibilities. And of the ability to choose.

If only there were a way, I would bottle it all up to remind myself on the bleakest of days that even when I write in one of my poems, "I am not made of permanence," that is a certain kind of happiness, too. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Davis After 5 Years

Becoming an immigrant means you have to compartmentalize your heart. After I moved to California, the first place where I truly began to believe that in some small way I belong here was Davis, CA, where I went to college. It was also where I started to discover my strengths and identify my weaknesses. After graduating in 2008, I never went back until last week. 

I was invited by students and staff who work closely with my undergraduate major Adviser to give a talk on my career journey. It was an exciting opportunity that I readily accepted. Rebecca and I drove to Davis last Friday morning, May 17th. Only in California will you have a day in May marked by dazzling sunshine and a cool steady breeze. Davis was just the same. And in many ways, it was not at all how I remembered it. Of particular and immediate note, many of the students I observed walking around us still had their baby fat, whereas I have not only shed mine, but also acquired the opposite of it - residual fat from having a baby.

When I walked through different campus buildings, I felt a strange mixture of nostalgia and regret. Maybe I shouldn't have been in such a hurry to leave this place and go out into the real world for a real job, I thought. Davis, on Friday afternoon, was in a lull. The distinct red color of Unitrans buses looked brilliant in the soft light. There were very few bicyclists on campus. From a distance, I could see that the Memorial Union, a campus hotspot, was nearly deserted. After giving two talks to eager, bright, and surprisingly attentive undergrads, we went to Downtown Davis.

Let me take a step back and orient you. Davis is the quintessential college town. It's small, charming, and bright. It is bicycle friendly - no, that is inaccurate - bicyclists own that town; they always have the right-of-way. I never owned a bicycle in Davis. Instead, I used to walk everywhere. It is where I first enjoyed this simple, solitary, and reflective act of taking a long walk. It was customary for me to walk 10 miles a day back when I was an undergrad

Downtown Davis inspired me to write many stories and poems. I used to sit at Ciocolat for hours, sipping my iced coffee, eating a Caesar salad, writing, studying, writing again - to procrastinate sometimes, and sometimes simply because the words flowed so easily and freely that there was no stopping them. As I walked away from campus last week, I remembered those streets when I felt like I belonged to them and they belonged to me. I remembered walking on them on freezing mornings, rushing to make it to molecular biology lab, munching on an apple, downing the chai in my travel mug. I remembered walking home from campus, all the way to N Street, on sweltering July afternoons, the very air buzzing around me, mimicking the song I was humming. I remembered walking through the streets of Davis at night with my friends, the best friends anyone could ask for. I remembered telling them about night-blooming jasmine and how it smelled just like the garlands sold at intersections of large roads in Lahore. I remembered everything, even the stronger flavor with which I missed Lahore when I was in Davis.

I felt in some ways as though time had not passed at all. I was here, in the place I first began to call home in this country, I was here and I had never left. If I just walked a little farther, cut through the Amtrak station, past the homemade chocolate shop, through the plot with small gardens and arrived at the yellow house on N Street, everything would be just the same. Haena would be cooking in the kitchen, Bibi would be barking at the door, maybe Sharon would be watching Friends in my room, Inki would be playing the guitar. Maybe Haena would tell me we were having some friends over for dinner. She might say, "I cooked you bulgogi for dinner!" Everything would be just the same. 

"It seems so strange to be here this way," I said to Rebecca. "You know how you associate places with people? I feel so disoriented seeing new faces here. I feel like a familiar face will turn the corner and I will greet an old friend."

So, becoming an immigrant means that you have to compartmentalize your heart. I realized last Friday that Davis is still home to me. I will never forget the kind of freedom it gave me. The freedom to like and dislike. The freedom to agree and disagree. The freedom to simply be, and in many ways the freedom, permission, and confidence to be better, aim higher, achieve more, make a home there with three wonderful people and a golden Pomeranian in a yellow house on N Street, and then here in the Bay Area, while never forgetting the home I left across the ocean

Photos by Rebecca McCue