We were driving somewhere. All that we could do was look out the windows at the other cars, the streets, bus stops and people. Mom took a deep sigh and said “This is not your home. You are not from here.”
This scenario played out multiple times in my childhood. In many ways, directly and indirectly, my mother would assert that we came from “back home.” She never even said “Africa.” Back home to me was this far away, inaccessible land where she left her happiness. She told me she used to be one of the fastest people in her village. She told me how the women could dance in ways to make your jaw drop. The food. The music. The air. The beauty. Whenever she talked about “back home” she smiled the most I ever saw. Then she stopped, almost immediately and sighed. Sometimes it seemed like she waited for me to leave so she could cry.
Because of my mother’s assertions, I believed I too, was not American. I didn’t understand the concept of nationality beyond that I am where my mother is from. I grew up with a false sense of ethnicity and belonging that filled me with pride and a strong sense of self.
It took me many years to critically evaluate who I was. I was Black and Indian. My Indian mother and her Indian parents were born in East Africa. Grandfather from Tanzania. Grandmother from Kenya. My mom was born and raised in Kampala. Although she ate choka and curries and spoke Gujarati, she was also fluent in Swahili.
In 1972, when the Adi Amin regime tortured and expelled the South Asian community, my mother and her family ran for their lives. She was only 15 years old. After living as a refugee in Austria they were sponsored by a church to enter the United States. She was multilingual but she refused to speak English for some time. She was stubborn, too smart for her own good and got in a lot of trouble in school.
She probably feared that assimilation meant the death of her identity and she held on strongly to it, putting her past on an unrealistic pedestal. Eventually she met married my father. They divorced and my mom raised my brother and I as a single mother.
How many of us would be able to leave the USA and live somewhere else for the rest of our lives without missing it in some way…never really tasting the authentic food (no matter how bad it is for us) nor hearing the voices, seeing the mannerisms, and the small day to day symbols of our culture and society?
When I met other 2nd generation youth and their parents I noticed a major difference. Their families were much more well-adjusted to society and had completely different outlooks. I could see that on the other hand, my mother was deeply affected losing her home at a young age. When I researched it more, I discovered the serious psychological impact many refugees face fleeing war and political persecution which makes their experiences very different from immigrants who willingly choose to move somewhere to attain a better life. I know that this is one of the reasons she has a fear of planes and has never traveled outside of the US and Canada since she came in the 70s.
My mother’s deep sadness has always been the backdrop of my childhood memories. There were times, however, where she was different. Once when we were driving she saw a mother at the bus-stop with her children with many bags. My mom made a U-turn and called her from the window. She insisted the woman get in. We drove her to a shelter and my mom stepped out of the car and gave her money. Another time, I remember scooting over while several children got in the back seat with me. My mother tried speaking to their Hispanic mother in broken English until we were able to get them to their destination. She never said a word about it afterwards. Growing up, every day when I came home from school and passed our dining room table which was unusable because of all the gifts she received from her patients in the hospital. She turned her deep longing into acts of kindness for others in need, but she never said a word about it.
I spoke with her on the phone the other day and heard her talk about retirement for the first time. “What will I do now?” she said. She started crying “Where the Hell am I going to go?”
I shouted at her, “Mom this great!”
“Finally!” I said. I had to get the words out. I was alone in the house but I worried someone would interrupt me in that moment. I shouted, like my life depended on it…
“You could go back! You could go back mom.”
She stopped crying.