I was standing on Devon, between the intersections of Washtenaw and Talman, when I saw my favorite aunt from India. I was staring at the valiant K from the Kamdar Plaza sign, the Indian grocery store that stood like the sun behind her. The K was wittily designed to look like it was made out of a woman, the arms of the K representing her sari. As my aunt pulled me into one of her beanbag hugs, I noticed the massive crowd that had amassed behind her as if it was Diwali; bright hues of orange and lilac garments filled the streets, the clean white of the men’s traditional frock peeked through like marshmallows atop a sea of M&Ms, and street vendors passed around fresh sugarcane juice. I looked at my aunt, the kajal on her waterline as black as wet coal, and asked her how it could be that she was here in Chicago. “Haven’t you heard, my dear?” she said. “Chicago is half India now!”
That was the dream I had two weeks following my return from India, after having lived there for two years.
I spent the moonlit nights in India tracing the “I love America” I had scribbled onto the wall beside my bed my first week there out of a child’s pencil I had sharpened with a razor. My bitterness toward being there at the time was as sharp as that razor. But like most tantrums at seven, it dissolved as quickly as sugar in hot chai.
I was eleven when the 9/11 attacks occurred. I had been back in Chicago for two years at this point and, as a fifth grader, it’s baffling to hear someone call you a terrorist when you still refuse to brush your teeth without your Winnie the Pooh toothbrush. I fought my identity until I was a freshman in high school, telling some people that I was half Mexican so I could blend in with the majority at my school and hopefully impede the bullying.
Fifteen years later, I find myself prowling the fibers of my life for my roots. The bullying has all but ceased, but whispers ebb and flow with the times; the Charlie Hebdo shooting only exasperated the heat that had just started to cool against anyone of the Islamic faith.
But at twenty-four my identity no longer ebbs and flows with the times. Even though I am American-born, I still feel too Indian, too different, too minor to be American but I don’t fight the difference. Americans don’t understand my love for spicy food and Indians don’t understand my fascination with pumpkin spice.
My family and I have ways in which we keep our culture alive and in a segregated but nonetheless diverse city like Chicago, it isn’t that hard to do. We cook Indian food and Indian-inspired dishes; my mom and I listen to Indian music on Sunday mornings and drink chai and, even though my sister and I don’t participate in Ramadan, we are almost always home to break fast with my mom, who does it every year. And of course, there is Devon. People can say what they like about Chicago’s high homicide rates but they can’t say that there isn’t a niche for almost everyone. They can’t say that Chicago doesn’t try with Little Italy, Chinatown, Greektown, Ukrainian Village, Devon, etc. Even if the sugarcane juice there isn’t the best, I can still have it if I want. Maybe my dream auntie was right; maybe this can be my half India.
I have often stubbornly declared that my soul will always belong to the sands of India while my body lingers here. All I know is that I can lie my Indian head down on my American bed and sleep well knowing that even outside of my dreams exists a place where my soul meets my body.