Some people say home is a place. Others say home is simply where the heart is. I guess I lean more towards that idea because, in my opinion, home is a term that is constantly shifting and molding relative to your current state. Right now, home feels like my old Boston apartment, which is falling apart, but still cozy. However, in early January, home was so clearly Chennai, India.
My parents were born in Chennai, a city in the southernmost region in India of Tamil Nadu. Throughout my life, my family and I would fly there to visit relatives and attend family weddings. I travelled there every other summer until the age of 11. After that, my sister went away to college, and our bi-annual trips ceased to exist.
After nine-and-a-half years, I finally set foot on Indian soil again. At the start of the new year, when Boston was ravaged by freezing temperatures and petrifying snow, I entered Chennai amidst clear skies and an 85 degree climate. It was the most surreal moment of my life, seeing my entire extended family waiting outside. There is something about returning to the land of your ancestors, after having spent your life in a completely different culture, that leaves you at a total loss for words. I could already feel eyes boring into me as I stepped out in my bright red, cold shoulder top and rugged Converse. Although my skin tone made me belong, it was clear I was an outsider.
However, within a day, I felt like the Tamilian woman my parents dreamed I would’ve been, had I grown up in Chennai. Every morning, I began my day with a refreshing shower via bucket. To conserve water in India, there are no 30-minute-long, scalding hot showers or fragrant bubble baths. You fill up a bucket with water and use a large measuring cup to dump the water all over your body. After my “shower,” I would pull on a new salwar kameez, a long embroidered tunic with matching pants and a chiffon scarf, and pleat my long hair into a neat French braid. This was my disguise, my chance to finally see what it was like to be an adult living in South India.
One of the most shocking differences between my daily life in Boston and my hectic two weeks in Chennai was the food. I’ve grown up eating South Indian food at home every night. The wafting of cardamom and cumin throughout the house is as clear a memory as any other I have from my younger days. My mouth waters at the sight of chicken kuzhambu, lemon rasam, and masala dosa. However, it’s a radically different experience in Chennai. Every dish was handcrafted by my strong-willed aunts who spend bewildering hours in preparation. Three meals a day felt like ten with the sheer number of platters on the table. Endless plates of Jasmine rice and breads ranging from parotta to uttapam made us lose what little self-control we had. By the end of breakfast, we were so full that we couldn’t imagine eating another bite that day. And yet, the saga continued. Needless to say, we all put on quite a bit of weight those two weeks. Every pound was worth it.
The food slightly made up for the traffic laws, or lack thereof. In a mile-long drive (which could take up to ten minutes), there would be a chorus of harmonized honking. More motorcycles and scooters occupied the road than cars; two-wheelers allow drivers to maneuver between lines of traffic because, shockingly, there is no such thing as lanes. Staring out the window with my jaw dropped, I’d see, on the back of motorcycles: four-person families, women clutching infants, and passengers carrying anything from ladders to five-foot metal rods. It was very chaotic and frightening, and yet, accidents on those streets are far less likely than on those to which I am more accustomed back home. The traffic in Chennai feels like a chaotic, yet synchronized, dance routine. It’s difficult to watch, but impossible to turn away.
While I miss Chennai, I am thankful to be back to my normal routine. My two-week disguise as a Chennai girl helped me reconnect with my roots and develop a greater appreciation for my culture. Navigating the severe cultural differences was tough for a woman who was born and raised on the other side of the world, but it was an experience that has taught me that describing countries as “third-world” or “under-developed” doesn’t equate to their being any less hard-working, passionate, and driven than we are. Returning home has also helped me understand that my life is how it was meant to be. It’s difficult at times to distinguish which places feels like my real home; I guess that’s why most people attach the meaning of “home” to people and experiences, rather than a physical place.
Photos provided by: Swetha Amaresan