As the plane touched down in LAX, I remember the welcome wave of the California poppies blowing in the wind in the spaces between the runway. I remember sitting in my seat, my knuckles white, not quite ready to leave my familiar life in India behind.
This is my new home, I repeated to myself, part of me still in disbelief at the journey that had brought me here.
The powerlessness I had experienced in directing my life during the five hours at the U.S. Embassy paled in comparison only to the weeks of horror the Indian passport office put me through for a simple change in surname to my married name.
My attempt to leave one country and enter another seemed to exacerbate every official’s unhappiness, on both the Indian and the American side.
I remember walking into the long line at the immigration check at LAX, the frowns and curt orders from the officers cutting my vulnerable heart. How strangely devoid of feeling this manner of speaking, I thought.
My folder full of immigration papers slipped and fell down as I shuffled through to find what I thought was being asked, still unused to the American accent. I was half-afraid I must have misplaced something important in the rush of leaving.
After several hours of scrutiny, including the officer forgetting that he had asked me to stand aside until I got my papers in order, I was asked by another officer why I was waiting.
“Don’t keep standing here anymore, Miss, or else we will send you back home!” This coming from an unsmiling, intimidating, uniformed person, made me jump. I have come to realize it was a joke.
I remember walking into the city of Los Angeles and feeling lost in the sea of metal and concrete.
It took me many years before I found myself.
It took nearly a decade for my eyes to well with tears of joy at coming home to California, air hugging the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coast from my airplane window. It took a decade to be as comfortable here as the California grizzly bears and the redwood trees.
I have spent these years wondering what home means to me. What it means to belong to a place and her people.
What I know is that every time I met Americans who showed me decency, friendship, kindness, and curiosity, I felt so much more at home.
Every time I was met with unexplained hostility for not knowing some social rule, refusal of customer service that had been freely offered to the person ahead of me or behind me in a line, faces giving me cold looks or looking away in social situations, I wondered whether I belonged.
Having my baby daughter made me worry about whether her sense of home and acceptance in this country would ever be as warm as the feeling I have for my home country, India.
Home for me is the place where love underlies all interactions. When I touch down at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport and rush to the ladies room, I’m greeted by the attendant’s gentle “please come this way” spoken in sweet Hindi. She is the first person to speak to me, a complete stranger. Even at 3 am, her tired brown eyes hold a glimmer of affection so painfully absent in most Americans as we rush about or stare at our devices.
Here in the U.S. we are polite but we hardly slow down to see the other or to serve the other. We show love only to close friends and family. Even then, everyone is measured, guarded and afraid to speak their mind. Our unease with being our complete selves separates and isolates us from each other.
Ironically, what really established my home in America more than ever was traveling back to India to study yoga and introducing Ayurveda wellness to my travel clients. Seeing the people of my past home with new eyes, seeing the ways in which they stay present and at ease, helped me fill my heart and bring it back to share with my community here.
Only when I took to heart the famous words of President John F. Kennedy did I truly start to feel at home in the U.S. During his inaugural address, President Kennedy challenged every American to contribute to the public good by saying,
“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
When I stopped looking for what my new country could do for me and threw myself headlong into offering the gifts of yoga and Ayurveda to my new country, I considered the U.S. my home. Thank you, President Kennedy!
About the Author
Salila Sukumaran is the founder of Ayurgamaya Wellness Travel Consultancy. The company helps clients organize Ayurveda and yoga vacations in Kerala, India. An avid practitioner of both Ayurveda and yoga, she also teaches Kundalini yoga and serves as a yoga ambassador to India’s Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). The Ministry of AYUSH is a government agency that develops education and research in the field of alternative medicines. Salila resides in the Bay Area with her daughter.