“Ma’am, are you sure you want to take those with you?”
My aunt nodded vigorously, clutching four bath towels with one arm and the leathery Cherokee with the other as he supported her plump form. He watched the remaining ten of us clamber to the water’s edge with varying degrees of grace, given that two of our party wore silk sarees, three carried towels, one lugged camera equipment, and yet another held his cigarettes and lighter at the ready. Most of us couldn’t swim a lick.
We were going white water rafting.
Three minutes after launch, our towels were sodden, and the cameras and cigarettes, jettisoned. My panic-stricken aunt insisted on maneuvering to a narrow side ridge and then scrambled out, whereupon the hapless raft, now freed of substantial weight, shot down the river corridor. Simultaneously, she and her husband stretched their arms out to one another, Bollywood movie style, shrieking each other’s names while the flummoxed Cherokee shouted, “Just stay there, Ma’am! Just stay right there!”
Many years I later, I watched National Lampoon’s Vacation. When they made that movie, they chose the wrong family.
* * *
The entire trip was the brainchild of Chandra Uncle, ever the hatcher of bold plans.
Chandra Uncle's family and mine felt a powerful bond from having immigrated contemporaneously, and also as distant relatives for whom geographic distance from the motherland had obliterated true familial distance. Of course, it’s possible my parents had never considered the relationship distant — after all, Chandra Uncle’s wife was the sister of my father’s brother’s wife. Without fully comprehending the exact relationship, I’d nevertheless absorbed the fact that we were all close, and his children were my “cousins” as far as I needed to be concerned.
That particular year, our two families were hosting mutual relatives from India — what an opportunity, Chandra Uncle said, for all of us to experience America!
He rented the largest motorhome he could find — I won’t say “RV” because it was nothing like the tricked-out luxury behemoths of today — which had a capacity of eight. (There were eleven of us.) We handed our cash to the owner, and, with nary a contract to be signed or a lesson on motorhome mechanics to be imparted, we stepped aboard our vacation-on-wheels, pungent with co-mingled odors of rug shampoo and stale smoke, ready to hurtle down the highway, separated from the outside world only by four walls of (we were soon to learn) questionable structural integrity.
As unprepared as we were for day-to-day motorhoming, we did have a plan: drive south from Ohio to Tennessee’s Ruby Falls and the World’s Fair; camp, play, and take in various and sundry sights along the way; and then terminate our trip in Gatlinburg before the return journey.
I don’t know how the eight adults adapted themselves to the cramped quarters, but we three kids, ages 10-12, discovered and appropriated a small nook with a table, ostensibly to play SlapJack, but actually, to lay plans to steal and destroy our uncle’s disgusting cigarettes and also to subject everyone to that singular torture, “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
Within twenty minutes, before we could administer the aforementioned torments, eleven heads rose in unison when sounds began to emerge from the engine compartment — bang, bang . . . sputter-bang-bang. That was the first time.
It was not the last time.
* * *
Nasty public showers (ten), injuries (four) and vehicle breakdowns (five) aside, this trip is a shining memory of my childhood. Every aspect was an adventure — from sleeping sardine-like in narrow bunks to buying miniscule boxes of detergent to eating breakfast cereal out of paper cups. At the World’s Fair, I proudly ascended the New Technology stage when a boxy robot asked for volunteers, though I think I accidentally broke its skinny metal arm when it asked for a high-five. At one of the fair’s country booths, a kimono-clad lady painted my name on a tiny piece of rice, which I promptly lost — probably because I suspected she didn’t really know the translation of “Dheepa” into Japanese.
It was indeed an experience of America, an up-close-and-personal foray through a part of this vast and variegated country we had not yet seen. Against a traditional backdrop of mellow Southern accents, Appalachian terrain, and seriously starchy food (we struggled valiantly for vegetarian cuisine and subsisted mostly on variations of potatoes which we sprinkled surreptitiously with chili powder brought from home), we also witnessed America’s overlap of cultures — evidenced not only by our own immigrant presence, but also by the tourists at the World’s Fair and Ruby Falls and Gatlinburg, all following multilingual tour guides, taking in the sites, and shopping for kitsch.
Looking back, it is also a memory of myself at my most innocent and idealistic. During that motorhome journey, I lived my actual understanding of America: the place to which a person brought her heritage and placed it in the open-armed embrace of an open-minded country, a country that joyously welcomed all. I experienced a natural extension of all of those beliefs, and I drank in the cedars, poplars and amber waves of grain, felt welcomed by everyone we encountered, and never once registered a bemused, confused, or hostile glance, though I’m sure we earned more than one.
At that time, even with my brown skin and Indian heritage, I felt 100 percent American. In school, I’d read about and identified with the brave Pilgrims and the courageous Columbus. During the winter concert, I’d proudly belted out cloying verses of nationalistic songs proclaiming that every one of us, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin, belonged in the United States of America.
Admittedly, one incident did mar my otherwise enchanting trip. Chandra Uncle was incapable of passing a sign proclaiming “World’s Largest Waterslide” without stopping the motorhome. The other adults, much wiser after our first water endeavor, firmly passed on the opportunity, but we kids grasped the proffered foam mats and mounted several hundred stairs. What I didn’t know was that the World’s Largest Waterslide was comprised entirely of concrete, so both of my forearms, reflexively trying to slow my breakneck progress, clamped down and ultimately lost most of their skin. I landed a bloody mess and carried the burns for the rest of the trip, but, more than the pain, I remember my shock — my searing disappointment in what had seemed so welcoming.
During the years following the trip, realities began to counterbalance my understanding in pace with my maturity. Columbus may have been courageous, but I also learned the effects of his behavior and actions on the natives he encountered. I learned that the descendants of English escapees of religious oppression later burned women at the stake, fearful of their communion with the natural world. I slowly grasped the consequences of a country’s enslaving an entire race, of its extirpating its indigenous peoples.
The same textbooks that fed me this information had a darker side. They referred to my country of origin as ignorant and backward and claimed it would be a miracle if it could ever feed itself. They ignored centuries of colonial rape that had decimated the wealth of one of the richest nations of the ancient world and disregarded its thousands of years of culture, civilization, and philosophy, as well as its colossal contributions to world consciousness by way of yoga and meditation.
My classmates, influenced by equally inaccurate portrayals in the media of the time, asked whether I ate eyeball soup or sacrificed humans or worshipped rats. Some asked me to identify my tribe, though that sort of ignorance hurt less. I’d like to say I quickly and consistently refuted all the erroneous statements and bizarre questions, but eventually, their sheer accumulation made me turn away, shame bubbling. Over time, I became too tired and embarrassed to battle.
It was my most difficult lesson growing up: even if I embraced the people around me as my American brothers and sisters, not all of them would see me in the same light. Rather, they might see only the brown and braided one, whose family members wore dots on their heads, who hailed from a pitiful, primitive place. I began to comprehend racial slurs and to realize they were directed at me. I cringed as kids pretended to pull out the pins of hand grenades, throw them at me, and then shield themselves from the purported explosions. My parents revealed they’d been refused service in restaurants, that they’d received anonymous letters threatening our family and admonishing us to return to wherever the hell we came from.
In college, I studied the instability of recorded history and the ways victors, colonizers, and oppressors harnessed language to tell their stories and characterize their victims. In fact, the precarious connection between history and truth became the subject of my senior thesis, the culmination of the sadness of the ten years following my motorhome journey.
Throughout those years I wondered why many cousins and friends in larger cities, even those just five or six years younger than me, did not seem to face or feel the same torments. Perhaps there were larger numbers of minorities in their towns and schools. Perhaps, within a few short years, popular culture gradually absorbed and displayed sufficient bits of Indian culture to ward off potential assailants — Bollywood dance contests, henna tattoos, brown faces in movies and TV shows, “Jai Ho” piping through shopping center music systems.
* * *
I think of my child self, the girl who had the chance to feel and experience her ideals first-hand while roving America in a motorhome. She visits my consciousness from time to time, especially as the country becomes more complicated, its politics more dysfunctional, its race relations simultaneously more nuanced and more incendiary, and as conversations proliferate about who belongs here and who needs to be forcibly removed.
She is the one who reminds me of my awe of the social experiment that is America, an experiment stunning in its scope and its appeal to human nature at its most inclusive and accepting. She recalls my admiration of the forefathers’ decision to set standards so altitudinous that achieving them could only be a journey — a Herculean, and perhaps even impossible, one.
And she reminds me of my sheer gratitude for having grown up here, for having received such opportunities and experiences, for having met people so openhearted, so desirous to learn and understand, and so cognizant of the hybrid vigor and blended beauty of this visionary place. I am thankful, too, for the perspective my life here provides vis-a-vis my own cultural heritage, for the space it grants me to examine and choose the principles and standards that fit my life and my family, and for this fertile, fecund, in-between space I occupy.
My love is no longer innocent, like a child’s. Rather, I love this country like a spouse whose failings I must forgive, over and over, whose many kindnesses and virtues I must remember and cherish over our long haul together. And I love it like a parent who honors good intentions and efforts, who believes in potential and promise, and who excuses missteps and disappointments — every time.
"(Motor)Home" first published in Dear America: Reflections on Race
Notes: This essay about a wild childhood road trip begins with eleven bewildered Indians launched on a white water raft in Tennessee. Then it follows my journey on a motorhome of questionable structural integrity as the realities of immigrant life slowly counterbalance my treasured American ideals.