We watch them through a screen across the planet, my husband holding a beer in his hand while trying to keep our toddler quiet, and me in my maternity dress, struggling to get our newborn to latch. On the computer, I see the faces of other guests, some familiar, some not, in a tightly packed grid. Technology and the pandemic have been great equalisers in this sense at least. We are all as far or close as each other.
“The terms of my existence here expose the gaps in language—I’m too brown to be an expat and too rich to be an immigrant”
I recognise my aunt—the bride’s mother—among the little heads. I can see my mother, too, the camera cutting off the side of her face. For a moment, I imagine that we all live together, upstairs and downstairs, our heads poking out of little windows. And then I am awash with a longing, and this picture in my mind turns into a wish. As we toast and cheer for the happy couple, the feeling is undeniable: I want to go home.
My aunt lives in India and my cousin in Manhattan, not far from my parents and my childhood home. I’ve been in Dubai for the past five years. There are many more of us, all scattered, all depending on the possibility of easy international travel to bring us together again and again. The past year has revealed the fragility of this plan.
My husband tells me this is my home, but my life in Dubai is tenuous. My right to remain here is conditional and there is no possibility of citizenship. His own family moved here from India in the 1960s, before the United Arab Emirates was an established nation, to start a business selling wood in this endless expanse of desert. He has never lived anywhere else. How do I understand myself in this place? And, as is the case for many, the terms of my existence here expose the gaps in language—I’m too brown to be an expat and too rich to be an immigrant. My husband smiles. Skin trumps privilege, he says. Immigrant it is.
I spent most of my life trying to leave home. After university, I applied to master’s programmes in Britain, exhilarated by the idea of moving to a new continent. I discovered for the first time the thrill of being an outsider looking in, of witnessing without responsibility, of dipping in and out as I pleased. If I made too much of a mess, it was easy to extricate myself. My studies in South Asian art took me next to Mumbai, where I lived for almost seven years. In retrospect, living in India was like an extended holiday. I never put down roots, never thought in terms of forever. Even though I looked like everyone else, and wanted to find a way in, I never managed a mastery of the place.
When I eventually returned to New York, my parents were palpably relieved to have me back—there was an unspoken understanding that I would remain close and constant for the rest of my life. I didn’t expect to fall in love with a man who lived 14 hours away by plane. Five years and two children later, the separation from my parents feels sharper than before, and I am surprised to find I crave something enduring. Getting married should have given Dubai a sense of permanence, but the feeling still eludes me.
When did being an outsider stop feeling good? Living away from what is familiar has always been interesting, but suddenly interesting isn’t enough. I want meaning, the kind that seems to come from deep, sprawling roots.
“When my grandmother gave birth to five daughters, did she imagine that all of them would leave her?”
I blame the kids for exposing my lack. Having children has made me homesick—I’m ill-adept at creating the kind of home for them that my parents made for me. My father in his beautiful three-piece Italian suits, reading the newspaper before work. My mother cooking elaborate meals in her perfectly stocked kitchen. They were real grown-ups, able and responsible, while I am just playing a role. I wish we lived close to them and could be swept up in the day-to-day of those well-worn routines.
We spent the summer of 2019 with my parents, in the house I grew up in, to escape Dubai’s oppressive heat. It was moving to see my son crawling on those familiar wooden floors, and rummaging through drawers that still contained my old belongings. But there was a tension in me, deep inside my body, that I couldn’t relieve for those three months. It was the feeling of waiting for the sand to run out, or of knowing, instinctually, that the alarm is about to jolt you out of your dream.
Back in Dubai, we live in the same area as my husband’s parents and siblings. Every day, he sees his father at the office. On Fridays, the family gathers for lunch. The children relish this time with their grandparents and aunts and uncles, and when I’m feeling resentful, I can’t help but compare. There is a leisure to the abundance of these afternoons. If this Friday is too busy, there is always the next. And something is happening, a continuous chain of transmission, from one generation to the next, unfolding slowly over months and years. I cannot have that with my family, not with time ticking so loudly in my ear.
I know there is a romance in missing home that would vanish if I were actually living there. In all likelihood I would find the America of 2020 bewilderingly different from the place I remember. But the pandemic has added a terror to the separation, a feeling of permanence. When my mother tells me she’s tested positive for coronavirus, I look out the window. It is dark where I sit, but behind her head the sun rises brilliantly over the Hudson River. The distance in our realities closes around me. A memory trickles in, blurry, almost black and white. I’m five years old and my mother clutches the phone, sobbing into the receiver as she hears her father is dead. She doesn’t go back to India for the last rites. She won’t make it in time. I wonder at how much I have taken for granted. Would I have agreed to leave her if I could have imagined the world as it is now?
My mother recovered from the infection, and I have no doubt that we will eventually begin to forget these difficult months, but I can’t ignore the fact that my parents are ageing. And though I haven’t asked her, my mother may very well be thinking the same thing. Her own mother is currently in India, living alone with dementia. When my grandmother gave birth to five daughters, did she imagine that all of them would leave her? The time that we are apart feels more and more like a loss. There is so much I still want to learn from my family, and so much I want them to impart to my children, a kind of dialogue too wide and deep for even the fastest bandwidth to carry.
This story was originally published on British Vogue