My father is highly vulnerable to the new coronavirus. He has acute diabetes, which is complicated by kidney and heart diseases. More and more, he makes reference to his death, which may now arrive sooner. We have not seen each other face to face in a year, each of us living under pandemic-related restrictions. He is confined to a condominium in India, and I to a rented apartment in Cambodia, after decades during which we both traveled relentlessly.
He raised me as an immigrant, to seek myself in movement. He left India forty years ago to seek his fortune in Dubai. I grew up believing in his dream of finding success in a foreign place. Even as a boy, I knew that I would one day leave Dubai and not return to India.
My father was the first in the family to emigrate. Our family is Brahmin, and by tradition we should have remained rooted in India. But my father saw himself as a maverick, an upstart in his family. So he shook off tradition, and, like many immigrants, some portion of his identity.
Still, in Dubai we were only a few hours from India by airplane and, in any case, we were surrounded by thousands of Indians who, like my father, had migrated there for work. My father wanted me to travel farther, so that I should continue his journey. “Where will you go,” he asked me, when I was only eight years old, as if my departure were already certain, “Europe or America?”
I grew up in Dubai not knowing the security of a permanent home. The United Arab Emirates offered immigrants only a precarious status. Our residency depended on my father’s employment; if he lost his job, our family would have one month to leave, no matter how many decades we had spent there, whatever relationships we had developed, or whether my sister and I were in the middle of a school year. Although he kept his job and his work visa, in thirty-five years of living in Dubai, we never moved from the same apartment: my father felt that to do so, in an effort to improve our lives, would bring with it the fear of losing a better and more cherished home. We lived with few attachments.
He wanted me to go west—and he praised Western societies that allowed immigrants to become citizens. Assimilation offered immigrants a permanence, acceptance, and respect that we could not enjoy in Dubai.
And so, obedient to my father, I stepped out into the world. For university, I went to America, a land of immigrants, a mongrel society of mixed races, ethnicities, and national origins in which everyone, no matter how recently they’d arrived, considered themselves natives. I arrived at Yale a week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. Over the months that followed, I felt the growing pressure on foreigners to prove they were benign.
I changed how I looked, dressed, ate, and spoke. I made sure to shave before passing through international airports; otherwise, the security staff were more likely to interrogate me. Most men on their terrorist watch lists resembled me, while Western terrorists didn’t make their lists. At the immigration lines at John F. Kennedy Airport, I sometimes left behind those classmates of mine who were from Pakistan, as they were detained for hours.
When I returned to Dubai from Yale, my father remarked on my altered accent. He became resentful. “You can stop talking in that way,” he said. “You are not any better than us.” He told me that my American girlfriend would never understand me, or my food, and that perhaps my children could aspire to be American, but I could not.
I was evolving, but not, after all, in my father’s image. That reality shocked him. It was as if, by not speaking to him in an Indian accent and by not rolling my r’s as he did, I had somehow betrayed him and us.
“Who am I becoming?”
An immigrant inevitably asks this question. I had understood, growing up, that my family was proud of its traditions. We were of high caste, high sub-caste, and high sub-sub-caste. But our culture had little meaning in the United States and Europe, which had their own, de facto caste systems. Nor did Indian social codes confer any status or guarantee of success; in fact, India’s caste system was itself referred to pejoratively. My roots were of little utility. So I shed them.
I even began to ascribe a lower value to my culture and traditions. My new home demanded subtle new allegiances. Every country harbors implicit nationalist myths, and the modern West’s sense of superiority is an extension of the old colonial notion of the Orient as primitive. India was dismissed as a “developing nation,” and ancient Indian traditions were seen most often as beside the point, if not downright exotic. My intellectual and cultural inheritance became a private treasure, not shared or understood in my new home.
My father, meanwhile, was realizing who he had become, and how much of himself he had sacrificed in Dubai. He began to want to leave. A European colleague of his had confessed to him that he had been trained to lord it over Asian employees in the workplace. This came as confirmation to my father that he had not grasped the racism that lay behind the insults he’d received over decades. During my summer vacations from Yale, I heard him chafing over them and repeating their words.
For years, my father had labored to prove himself. Now, he realized that they had always seen him as less than them.
Yet my father had also succeeded. He had risen to become a member of the board of directors in his corporation—it was this measure of success that he prized and wanted for me. By then, though, I had different plans: I graduated from Yale and, instead of taking a job offer at Goldman Sachs in New York, chose to turn myself into a journalist, reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I wrote books, first about Congo and then about Rwanda. Following my father’s instinct to travel farther afield, I worked in places he would never have considered.
And I perhaps went too far. In Congo, I met a Frenchwoman: we married and I took up French nationality. India does not allow dual-national citizens, so that meant I had to give up my Indian passport. The French consul who processed my citizenship application asked if I wanted to change my name, to make it easier to pronounce for French people.
“But Fabien,” I said, for we were friends. “You realize what you are asking?”
He had to ask me, he explained; it was an official requirement.
“But is my name so complicated?”
“Many people choose to change their names.”
When I next saw my father, he taunted me—as if I should have taken up the opportunity Fabien offered—“Anyway, you’re not Indian.”
“I am what you made me.”
I felt betrayed.
Our choices as immigrants catch up with us and reveal themselves in who we become. In the end, how dear to me were my culture, my language, my roots, and where I came from? I did not wear our Brahmins’ sacred threads around my torso; at each religious ritual, the priests blessed new threads for me to wear, which, after a day or two, I once again took off.
In time, I had studied in America and France, worked in America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and had a daughter, born in Canada. My life was spent flitting between places as far-flung as the Central African Republic and Cambodia and sojourning in the Western countries that my father considered synonymous with success.
To many, such a life is inconceivable. Travel is still riddled with colonial inequalities: our passports determine how many borders we can easily cross. To be on the move is to be willing to leave behind what we have built and to start over again. In the places I have lived I have felt like no one in particular, just someone from far away.
Two winters ago, I paid a visit back to my ancestral village, at the southern tip of India. My great-grandfather’s home there was left to me, on a small plot of land. He, too, had been a foreign correspondent, reporting from North Africa and Myanmar during World War II. But he had kept his home, in our village of a few hundred people, and eventually returned to it.
When I arrived there, the villagers saw me as a privileged heir seeking to take possession of my property. They squatted on fields still legally owned by Brahmins. It led to a kind of stalemate, a standoff—for I knew that those who came to reclaim land risked violence, even murder. The villagers had effectively taken over our property without right, but I could not claim it back. I drove through their neighborhoods sensing their apprehension and hostility. But the fields did not interest me; it was my great-grandfather’s house that I planned to renovate and live in, and next door build a cabin in which to write.
I wanted a home to call my own, and in search of similar comfort, I sought out my father. He had moved back to India and now lived in a condominium, in a building shared with hundreds of other Indians like himself: all returned from abroad, where they could never fully belong. People like my father have made communities unto themselves all across India: colonies of retirees from foreign lands, misfits united as a new family.
We took a trip together through Thailand and Myanmar. I wanted my father’s reassurance, but instead I felt his alienation. One evening, I left him at our hotel to go out to dine with a journalist colleague; I returned to find my father gone. He had left no note at the reception desk. Unable to bear waiting for me, he made me wait for his return. I sat up, sleepless, in bed, knowing nothing about his whereabouts.
Over the following days, I observed him show exaggerated kindness to strangers, helping elderly folk cross streets through the chaotic traffic. We ended our journey in a fight, each feeling wounded, saying we did not want to see each other again. But then, the next morning, he asked if I wanted to travel with him to China.
I said this was not the time to discuss a new trip. He felt my rejection and retreated into talk of his career success and coming death. “I am a self-made man and I will die a self-made man.”
Migration had indeed granted my father worldly success. But I wondered if either of us realized what we had given up.
Often, a generation of immigrants assimilates in their new society, in order to help the children achieve the prosperity that their parents had dreamed of. But in our case, I felt my father had sacrificed his son to his dream. And as each of us took to living in movement, we had moved apart.
I last saw my father before the pandemic. We sat across from each other in his apartment, talking.
“You and your sister had it easy,” he said. He felt we had suffered less than he had, that we’d had to endure less and give up less.
I tried to commiserate. “Corporate life in Dubai was hard.”
“You can still become a CEO,” he returned.
“I don’t want your kind of success.”
That rankled with him. “You have the luxury to say that. You inherited this luxury.”
It’s true that I will never fully appreciate my father’s sacrifices. Yet the immigrant life he handed me has been arduous enough. Even in Canada, a relatively welcoming country, I was taunted for being a head-scalper—a racist slur against their First Nations people, but one apparently applicable to anyone with brownish skin.
The reward for an immigrant’s sacrifice is the accumulation of wealth. I am thus allowed a portion of success: with my gratitude, silence, and self-effacement, I pay for my share of property. Immigrants live out such trades. So immigration gives, but it also takes away. These days, I no longer offer to assimilate or expect to be granted a home, in the deepest sense of that word. The societies I immigrate to can only do so much for me. Like my father, I find in them only so much, a certain narrow success, only a partial belonging.
I travel for my work, and I still carry the love for travel that my father gave me. But my itinerant life has led me to belong nowhere. The immigrant dream he handed me can no longer serve as my destination. I make myself anew: in his shadow but progressing from it, I still journey onward.