The flight home: A personal essay

Illustration of maps being joined by a dotted line between India and America, accompanied by related imagery.
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When my brother and I boarded our overnight flight at the international airport in Hyderabad two weeks ago, the aisle seat next to us was empty. We had a long journey ahead of us: a five-hour flight to Doha, Qatar, a two-hour layover and a 16-hour flight back to San Francisco. We were flying back without our parents, which we had never done before. They were staying in India for another week, which my brother and I couldn’t do as we had already taken a week off of school to extend our spring break trip.

The aisle seat remained empty as more passengers shuffled in, struggling to find overhead baggage space or pacifying their infants. Just as we began to get excited at the prospect of not having to share the space with a third passenger, a girl who looked about our age arrived at the last minute with a hefty carry-on and  a backpack. She stowed her bag without looking around for help and sat down in the aisle seat next to us. For some reason, we weren’t disappointed. 

I had noticed her in line throughout check-in and security. It looked like her entire family had come to see her off, and they’d exchanged long, emotional goodbyes at the gate. She had several bulging check-in suitcases, each with a huge handwritten white sign taped onto it stating her full name and phone number. She didn’t smile when she sat down next to us, but I felt an inexplicable closeness to her. I recognized the look on her face. The anticipation of embarking on a new journey in a new country, the pangs of nervousness and excitement, taking turns, overpowering one another in the pit of your stomach. I could relate to it. The feeling of doing it alone, however, I couldn’t relate to. 

“Are you also going to California?” I asked her in Telugu. 

This time she did smile, widely. “You’re Telugu!” she said, her expression bright. She explained in our language that she was going to Chicago to start her master’s program. Her Telugu accent was thick when she said Chicago, pronouncing the first part of the word like “chick,” but she said it with such confidence that I immediately liked her version better. She asked my brother to show her how to fasten her seatbelt, and she practiced clipping it on and off a couple of times. 

“Is it your first time traveling to the U.S., too?” she inquired. 

I had a feeling she would ask this question. When you relate to a stranger on one level, you start to feel like you have other things in common too. 

“No,” I said, smiling. “We live there. We were just visiting Hyderabad for our spring break.”

She was satisfied by my answer. I, on the other hand, was somehow taken aback to hear the words come out of my mouth. Nine years ago, I had also been on my first flight to the United States, along with my family, bulging suitcases in tow. Then, I had been no more American than the girl sitting next to us. Now, I didn’t know what I was. 

I definitely did feel pretty American in that moment. I looked at the Lululemon joggers I was wearing, my bright pink Hydro Flask, my worn out Air Force 1s. I remembered my first month of middle school in America, when I spent days trying to figure out what that circular logo was on every other girl’s yoga pants. I wanted pants with that logo. (I was horrified to find out later that those leggings cost $100 each. These people were buying their seventh grade daughters 7,600 rupee pants?) I wanted to be one of them, as quickly as I could. I wanted the easy route. 

I looked at myself, decked out in the same brands that once eluded me, that once wielded such power over me. Is this what made me American? 

Is this what made me American? 

Despite the years that have passed, every time that I land in India and feel the humidity of the air, hear the sound of bikes and auto rickshaws honking on bustling streets and breathe in the smell of jasmine flowers and mangoes, I am immediately struck by the sense that I am where I was always meant to be. I feel strange kinship with everyone I speak to, Telugu rolling off of our tongues, the words greeting each other in mutual understanding. I feel like I know people I’ve never met before. There is so much color, so much life. There is beauty in familiarity.

That is not to say that my hometown is at a standstill. Each time I go back, I don’t recognize the streets of the city I spent my childhood in. Sometimes there are new malls or a bridge that I didn’t know they had been building. The people in my life are changing, too, getting older. This time, we went to India to attend my cousin’s wedding — the first one in the youngest generation of my family to get married. It was surreal to see her, my akka (big sister in Telugu) whom I had grown alongside, tying the knot in a beautiful traditional ceremony. There is also heartbreak. I couldn’t fight the tears in my eyes when I saw my grandmother’s room, where just three years ago I had sat at her feet listening to stories, now occupied by different family members, her only presence a framed photo hanging next to my grandfather’s.

Hyderabad changes, but it never feels foreign. The city and its people will always be there for me. I am a part of that city, no matter where I travel or where I live, and it will never stop being a part of me. India will never stop feeling like home.

“What is it like?” the girl in the aisle seat asked me. 

“I’ve only been to Chicago once, in high school,” I responded. “It’s cold.” 

I knew that that was not what she was really asking. But I didn’t want to tell her. I didn’t want to tell her what it was really like. The jet lag, the feeling of taking in your surroundings for the first time — the bite of the air, bright-red stop signs you have never seen before, the vastness of the sky. Of having to repeat yourself a dozen times to be understood, changing your accent a little each time until you stop sounding like yourself, until nine years later, you don’t know what you really sound like. Of being perceived with some constant qualifier, of being Indian American, or maybe Indian American? Of not knowing which identity to stress, not knowing which one the qualifier even is. 

Until nine years later, you don’t know what you really sound like.

I didn’t tell her because my experience may not be her experience. And also because my experience doesn’t end there. America is also where I came into my own. It was here that I went through my awkward, disastrously insecure preteen years; it was here that I grew more confident as I began to know more people and figure things out as a teenager; it was here that I became a woman. I discovered my passion for journalism, for politics, for what I want to study and developed a faint idea of what I want to do with my life. I made friends who are now family, friends that I live with and have built a life with — where we are young, and stupid, and sleep-deprived and ambitious, still figuring things out, both terrified and excited to see what comes next.

When I landed in San Francisco after my 16-hour flight and saw my roommates blowing up my phone ready to celebrate my return, I felt the warmth of Hyderabad inside me. Yet in the cool, dry Bay Area air, it had a different tinge to it. Looking at the fading henna on my hands and the mosquito bites that itched less and less as we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought, I missed this. Taking in the calm, sparkling blue waters of the Bay, I was struck by a sudden realization. 

I can belong to two places at once. I don’t need to be Indian American or Indian American. I can be equally, vibrantly both. I can know both Hyderabad and San Francisco like the back of my hand; love dosa and acai bowls the same. I can be two people at once — or one person who belongs to two places, India and the United States making two halves of a whole. I can fly from one city to another and feel like I am going exactly where I am meant to be, whichever way I may be traveling.  

And for now, I’m home.

Saamya Mungamuru is the deputy Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected].