Passages to India and roadblocks on the way

Stories from The Book

It’s 4 a.m. Dawn has yet to break, but I am wide awake, riding in the car alongside the rest of my family. My dad turns to my brother and me. He warns us, “I expect you guys to behave.” He pauses and looks to me in the rearview mirror, adding, “especially you, Zobia.”

My father is driving our family to Los Angeles International Airport. My mother, brother and I are about to board a 20-plus-hour flight to India. It is the summer before second grade, and this is the first trip to India that I can clearly remember.

I remember sitting in the back of the car pouting because this trip was the reason I was missing my friend’s waterslide party, the first waterslide party I had ever been invited to. Not just a pool party, but a waterslide party, nothing short of life-changing in the life of a 6-year-old. Secondly, I had no real desire to leave my hometown for the summer. I had plans for the Fourth of July, sleepovers with friends and trips to Six Flags Magic Mountain. However, my attempts to plead with my parents to stay in the states were in vain, and I was on my way to spending three months in a foreign, developing country.

Growing up, my parents, who had raised their children in a country far from where they were born and raised, always emphasized the importance of staying connected with our roots and learning about our culture. I’ve been to more desi parties than I can count, gone on weekend trips to Artesia, California’s Little India and watched plenty of Bollywood movies.

Whenever there is something to celebrate, we go to our local Indian grocery store and buy as much mithai (sweets) as we can possibly have in one sitting — barfi, ladoo, rasmalai and whatever other sugary goodness we can get our hands on. Our television had all the common American channels — CNN, PBS, Bravo — but also many of the common Indian channels — Zee TV, Star Utsav, etc. Actually crossing the Pacific seemed like the most logical next step in understanding more about this part of my identity.

Arriving in India is always a bit of a culture shock for me, but never more so than on that first trip. Living day to day in a developed country, it is easy to become wrapped up in that world and assume that everyone has the same amenities and blessings that I do. Yet, traveling to India forced me to get out of this headspace and realize the realities of the world outside of mine.

I’d imagine that the experience for anyone arriving in a different country for the first time is different, but what I first remember from getting off the plane in India is noticing a different smell — India reeked. Leaving the airport, we were immediately confronted by beggars, of which many appeared to be disabled, in the most abject conditions. I even saw girls my age dressed in rags, doing cartwheels and all kinds of tricks on the road to try and get lunch money for the day.

But beyond this, India offered me things I could never get anywhere in America. I grew up listening to my peers talk about going to their grandparents’ houses over the weekend or spending the night with their aunts and uncles. In America, my parents and older brother are my only family. Here, my family is a nuclear family, estranged from the extended family and the relatives and friends my parents grew up with. Traveling to India, I got to meet all my cousins, get spoiled by my grandparents  — on both my mother’s and my father’s sides — and learn more about my heritage.

What I can remember most from my first trip to India was enjoying spending time on my grandparents’ farm. In America, my entertainment was mostly television or internet games, but where my family lives in India, there is very little access to this, and internet is used rarely, if at all. Being there, I learned to adapt and would take advantage of what I had access to.

Every morning, I would go on a tractor ride with my grandparents’ workers and watch as they made sure the irrigation systems were working properly and fed the cattle. I’d help pull out weeds and chase around chickens in the chicken coops. My cousins and I would chase each other in the grass fields, and I grew to appreciate an entirely different way of life from what I had in America.

If I could go back and tell my younger self on that car trip anything, it would be to embrace the experience of being able to go to India. Being complacent and holding on to all that I had in America was fine, but I was closing myself off to a whole different world that was equally a part of me, weeds and all.

Zobia Quraishi writes the Wednesday column on being Muslim and first-generation Indian American. Contact her at [email protected].