Yesterday, Sunday morning, Elise and I took everyone out for dosas at Saravana Bhavan in Mylapore. I don’t drive very often in India, which is probably a good thing. As we entered Mylapore, a bus stopped in front of us. “What should I do?” I asked Elise. She has been out and about in the city much more than I have, and I turn to her when I get to the point where I just don’t know what to do in the city.
“Just go around,” she said.
I pulled out from behind the bus, only to see another bus coming straight at me from the other direction. I ducked back just in time to avoid a head-on collision, and the bus in front of me, soon after disgorging its passengers into the general melee of the city, moved on.
I then pulled around and exclaimed, “Ah!” at the sight before me.
“What is it?” Elise asked.
“There are just so many people.”
Understatement of the year.
I remember a year and a half ago, returning to the U.S. after spending the previous six months in India. My mom picked me up at the airport in West Palm Beach, and drove me to her house in Jupiter on Alternate A-1-A. The stretch of the highway between Donald Ross Rd. and Indiantown Rd. is four lanes, two in each direction, with a twenty-foot wide median between them. There are no trees alongside the highway and there are never more than a few cars on the stretch of highway, rocketing down its length at a startling 55 mph (we never drive faster than 40 kph in Chennai).
I remember gasping for air, a heretofore unknown sense of agoraphobia gripping me. There was just so much…..space.
Last night, family move night, we watched Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a great movie. At the end of the movie, Mr. Fox—voiced by George Clooney—the Fox clan—along with the other wild animals—find themselves having to live the rest of their days in the sewer, but discover a secret passageway that leads them up to a supermarket which they can sneak into at night (“Early closing on Sundays!” Mr. Fox exclaims) and eat as much food as they want.
“A supermarket,” Sam breathed, somewhat awed, as Mr. Fox revealed his find to his kin.
On a whim, I asked Sam if he had ever seen a store like that before.
He shook his head, no.
It has been a year and a half since we’ve been in the United States. We’re set to go back at the end of the month, and I think—up until this point—I’ve underestimated how big a change it is going to be for the kids and how much of the United States they actually remember. Clementine is 3 ½. How much could she possible remember from a four week trip taken almost half her life ago?
I’ve read stories from colleagues about their respective returns to the States after being posted abroad and recall well our initial days in the U.S. after returning from Brazil, but—for the kids, at any rate—this cultural adjustment will be drastic. The contrasts between the two places could not be starker. India is familiar. The U.S. is foreign. And even as an adult looking in, I wonder if even I know that place anymore, a country where the conversations are more divisive than ever, partially because it is the lead up to an election year and partially because it seems every year the political dialogue becomes more polarized. A world where Donald Trump is a serious presidential candidate just can’t be real.
We are excited to go back to the States, but also terrified. For every yearning I have for a Chipotle burrito and Fat Tire, I think about a mass shooting taking place. It’s not will there be another one; that is a certainty. The question becomes: Where? When?
I told the kids I was going to buy them two pounds of turkey at Publix when we get back, but they don’t know what a Publix is. What else will be new? Do they know what turkey is? Peaches?
The first time we went the supermarket after coming back to the States from Brazil, Peter, then three, pointed a pineapple and squealed, “Abacaxi!” (the Portuguese word for ‘pineapple’) That memory makes me excited to see how they adjust to all the changes about to come down the pike and also reminds me to be gentle with them as they enter a strange, new world, America.