“Wait, so you’re Maya, not Hannah?”
My new friend stood there astonished, a vague look of betrayal on his face.
When my roommate and I met him for the first time last week, we had jokingly decided to switch names as we introduced ourselves. After he found both of us on Facebook, however, we had to clear things up.
We walked through the Cambridge streets, looking for a pizza place that would seat our group of 11. “So how come you didn’t go back to Chicago for spring break?” he asked me conversationally, a few minutes later. I laughed. “What’s left for me there? I’m out of touch with my friends; none of my family lives there.”
He frowned. “But didn’t you say you went to high school there?” We all laughed again; I forgot that along with switching my name, I had not told him that I moved from Chicago to India in 2012. As I smiled, however, something tightened within me. How had I so easily erased those six formative years of my life?
When I was 12 years old, my family crossed the Atlantic Ocean and returned to Mumbai, India, where my parents had grown up. There were a variety of reasons why we moved from Chicago, but perhaps most central was my parents’ reluctance to grow old in the US.
Growing up in the states, my sister and I mainly spoke English, both at school and at home, because my parents wanted us to fit in to our small, mostly Caucasian neighborhood. After moving back to India, this became a problem: While I understood Hindi and even enjoyed Bollywood movies, studying Hindi at a public school was not an option, so I went to an international school. My classmates were a privileged, sometimes spoiled group whose parents could pay to send them abroad after Grade 12. I’d never been the most diligent student in my American junior high school, but knowing that my parents were cutting into their retirement savings to educate me drove me to work hard, much to the reproach of my peers.
“You’re only smarter than us because you went to school in America,” a classmate told me once matter-of-factly.
America seemed to follow me everywhere. “Maya is a foreigner,” a boy in my class teased as my cheeks burned.
Though some of my classmates had lived in America for years, all traces of their American accents were gone. Mine didn’t go away. Perhaps it was because I spoke so frequently to my sister, or simply because I was older when I moved back. But even once I spoke Hindi fluently, I was scared to open my mouth in public because it was so obvious that I was not from India. I didn’t want shopkeepers to overcharge my family.
I didn’t believe my mother when she told me that my classmates were just jealous of me. I never quite stopped feeling the resentment directed at me — because of my birthplace, my grades, and my height, as I was the tallest in the class.
But other aspects of India were a delight. I loved to curl up with any one of the four newspapers we subscribed to, and I began to recognize concepts from my history class unfolding on their pages. I loved to cook and listen to the radio, the smell of roasting peanuts mixing with the aroma of the pounding rain. My little neighbor would stand beside me, imploring me to read a book with her.
I had just finished moving into my freshman dorm when I heard a knock on the door.
“Yeah?” I said tentatively.
I thought that everyone else was crowded into Annenberg with their parents. Not wanting to go alone, I had skipped dinner for the first time in my life. The door handle turned, and the suitemate who had helped me put on my ridiculously large mattress cover entered, sitting down next to me on my bed.
“My parents just left,” she said, forlorn. The summer breeze drifted through the windows, and she turned to me. “It must have been hard to move in by yourself.”
I smiled and we began, for the first of many such evenings, to talk.
The pattern continued: Every other day, she’d knock on my door, or I’d shuffle over to hers, for an evening of soul-searching or Bollywood movies.
I told her about the other six students from India, two of whom had, like me, grown up State-side and moved back to India, only to return for college.
“They’re lovely, but they feel more Indian than me. I just sound like an American,” I lamented.
“I can relate — I grew up in China,” she explained. Her journey was the inverse of my own, two-thirds of her life spent across the ocean from her roots.
In the 21st century, maybe it’s increasingly impossible for anyone to have a straightforward explanation for where they come from. We toggle between identities, pulling from a jumble of birthplaces and nationalities. When I pretended to be my American roommate Hannah, maybe it wasn’t a lie, so much as one facet of who I am.
—Magazine writer Maya S. Bhagat can be reached at email@example.com.