Published in: Catamaran: A Journal of South Asian Writing, vol. 9, 2008 (an excerpt from Arbitrary Passions, a memoir-in-progress)
Four days before my departure for Sri Lanka, it is seven a.m. and I am standing in an airport in San Francisco. I was in Connecticut two weeks before, visiting my parents, have been in the Bay Area for a week, and am now supposed to be getting on a plane to Vancouver, to be on a panel about South Asian Literature at AWP, the associated writing programs conference. But I have forgotten that Vancouver is in Canada. I have forgotten that Canada is a separate country. I have forgotten to pack my passport and green card, the alien registration card that will allow me back into the United States, certifying that I am a permanent resident, with certain, limited, rights. The ticket lady says, Maybe if you had a fax of them?
I call my boyfriend at home, waking him up. Kevin is dubious, but groggily agrees to get out of bed, copy and fax the documents to me. I wait at the ticket counter until they arrive, trying to read a novel, failing. When I have them in hand, the lady has gone, but another lady says that she will let me on the plane with the faxes. But I am suspicious, anxious. What happens if I get on the plane, but they will not let me enter Canada? Or if they let me into Canada, but do not let me return to the U.S.?
The days when you could wander across the border with only your driver’s license (which, half the time, they didn’t bother to check) are gone. Growing up in America, you believe that you can go anywhere, that you’re welcome everywhere. My South Asian friends have never had such assumptions; they have always known that leaving one’s home is fraught with tension, with the potential for trouble. Wherever you go, they may hold you, they may turn you away. Now, after 9/11, Americans are learning this lesson too. Now, even Canada requires proper, legal, documents. And though I have lived in this country for as long as I can remember, I am not an American. If I leave, they may not let me come home.
Where do you go when home will not have you?
I ask a manager to call Canadian Immigration, just to check. It takes a long time, and when he comes back, he tells me that the woman he talked to was quite rude. She said, No, absolutely not, do not let her get on that plane. Faxed documents can be forged. I thank him for checking, and ask him to please send me home instead. He assigns someone to do it, a man who cannot seem to understand that I want to go home now, today, not tomorrow, as originally planned. I am crying at a ticket counter in San Francisco. I want to go home.
Benedict Anderson suggests that nations are imagined communities. Defined not by physical boundaries (such as oceans or mountains), nor by shared language or religion or family. Nations are too large for those traits that traditionally bound a village — instead, they are accidents of history, tied together by ephemeral agreements in our hearts and minds. A resident of Vermont may have more in common with their Canadian neighbor than with a local from Los Angeles — yet both Vermonter and Angelene will claim that they are American, and that commitment to their nation binds them together with a shared history, present, and future.
If there is nothing inherent that makes us Americans (or British, or Sri Lankan), nothing in our body and blood, then is our nationality only an accident of birth? Yet over time we commit to that national identity, we take it into ourselves and say yes, this land is my land. Even as a small child, I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance, could sing The Star Spangled Banner with heartfelt enthusiasm and tears in my eyes. Yes, I am American.
But I was born in Sri Lanka.
Three days before my departure for Sri Lanka, at our home in Chicago, my boyfriend goes online to check that my flights are confirmed, and discovers that there is no record of my connecting flight, from Heathrow to Sri Lanka. According to the internet, it doesn’t exist. I panic. We call Sri Lankan Airlines in Colombo, wait on hold, until finally they tell us that yes, my flight was cancelled. But it is no problem — they have put me on a different flight out of Heathrow, seven hours later, three hours longer. My twenty-four hours of travel time have just expanded to thirty-four, but it is no problem. No, they hadn’t planned on informing me in advance. I am angry and bewildered; I can’t imagine an American airline behaving this way. What’s wrong with Sri Lanka? Can’t they manage a simple flight from one continent to another?
Two days before my departure for Sri Lanka, I’m on the phone to Colombo again, trying to get the Galle Face Hotel to confirm a requested change of arrival day. I’m meeting an Australian friend, Karina, in Colombo — she will be joining me for the first half of the trip. She is more than just a friend, though I’m trying not to think about that right now; it’s too complicated, and I’m not even sure what I want from her. Maybe I’ll know when I see her. I haven’t seen her in four years.
I’ve arranged all the details of our stay, including getting confused by time zones and failing to provide a hotel for her first night. She will now be arriving eighteen hours before me. I’m having visions of Karina in the Colombo airport — a loud, confusing place. She will be beset by beggars as soon as she steps outside, if they even let her outside. There will be no hotel driver waiting for her; she will have to find a driver herself, negotiate the fare for the hour-long ride from the airport to Colombo. And when she arrives at the hotel, they will say that they have no record of her. They will not let her in. She’ll be forced to wander the streets of Colombo for eighteen hours, lugging her heavy bags — she is the sort of traveler who packs everything she might possibly need. But she will not be prepared for this contingency.
Eventually, Galle Face Hotel answers their phone, and confirms the changed reservation — they will pick Karina up at the airport, and have a room waiting. It will all be fine, and I was worrying for no good reason. I felt responsible, though, because I am the native; I was born in that country; it is my job to take care of her.
The day before my departure for Sri Lanka, Kevin and I buy a condo. We make an offer, and it is accepted. We have been looking for months. Our previous condo sold a week ago, and we’re waiting for inspection reports on both buildings. There will be meetings with the mortgage broker, the inspector, the lawyer. Kevin is a mathematician, an introvert, and this is normally my job, talking to people. I feel guilty leaving him to it; this is a terrible time to leave him. If I had been choosing a boyfriend for desired traits, I might have chosen one who was more extroverted, happier talking to strangers. But I didn’t have an arranged marriage; I just met a boy, fell in love, moved in together, bought property. Kevin has his flaws, but so do I. Every day we choose to spend together, I love him a little more.
I wonder if my parents’ arranged marriage works the same way. It’s clear they love each other deeply. Most proponents of love marriages will argue that their romance is based on something real — the soul recognizing its mate. But if true love can come with an entirely random person, chosen for you by your family for a set of desired traits, romantic love must be just as arbitrary a connection as the ties to your country of birth. I didn’t fall in love with Kevin because our love was fated. I met Kevin because we were in college together and he knew my roommate — a random, arbitrary connection that developed, with time and attention and a deep desire of the heart, into an abiding passion.
The day of my departure for Sri Lanka, I check my documents compulsively, over and over. Plane tickets, passport, green card. Green card, plane tickets, passport. There are not so many documents to keep track of, but when I think I might have forgotten one, I can’t breathe. By the time I actually leave, I have Kevin doing it too, checking my documents, over and over.
We arrive at the airport two hours before my flight, check in my bags. Everything goes smoothly. We sit down in the arrivals area; I am not ready to leave him. I lie down on a hard wooden bench, grateful that at least it is not a row of plastic bucket seats. I rest my head in Kevin’s lap, hold his hand, clinging to the reassurance of skin against skin.
He strokes my hair, tells me You’ll have fun in Sri Lanka. You’ll see elephants and monkeys; you love elephants. You’ll get to see Karina again. Karina is our ex-girlfriend; we were romantically involved, the three of us, for three years, a long time ago. Both of us miss her, and I’m looking forward to seeing her again — but I’m also apprehensive. It’s been so long.
Kevin says, You said it was important to go, for your books. I do think it is important for this book I am writing, for the others I plan to write. I want to write a novel about Kamala, a woman who was a Tamil Tiger, a member of the LTTE. I want to understand more of what it means to be Tamil, an ethnicity I share, but don’t understand. I don’t speak the language, and I don’t understand why Tamils and Sinhalese have been killing each other for the past twenty years. I find it hard even to believe — that there is a place in the world where someone might want to kill me, because I am born of Sri Lankan parents and thereby tied to that battle, whether I choose to engage with it or not. How is it that people can have such deep ties to an ethnicity or a nation that they will kill for it, die for it? What is there in that imagined community that inspires such dangerous passion?
I want to write long sections of the book set in Sri Lanka; I need to know how the air feels, how the flowers smell, how, exactly, the food tastes. What is Kamala homesick for, when she leaves for the United States? What does she run back to? It is the particulars that lead to love. I feel guilty that I do not remember these things more clearly. I want to claim Sri Lanka as my country; I need to know it better, need to fall in love. I know it’s important to go, I say to Kevin. But in my head I am saying, There are so many things that can go wrong. Papers that can be lost, officials who may become angry. I don’t speak the language, and there are people in that country who would kill me for nothing. Or, not nothing, but for something that I can’t name, can’t find within myself. I wish you were coming with me. I’m afraid.
"Don’t worry — you can pass," she said, her voice low, her hand reassuring on my arm.
A few months before my trip to Sri Lanka, I was in Philadelphia. I’d just finished reading from my new book at SALA, the South Asian Literature Association. A pretty dark-skinned woman walked up to me; her nose was pierced, and she looked much like many of the women I had seen the last time I was in Sri Lanka, nine years before. Of course, she could have been South Indian instead. I couldn’t tell the difference between Sri Lankan and Indian on sight. We started talking about my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. She hadn’t been back since she was a little girl; she was Tamil too. Her family had emigrated to India during the troubles. As a teenager she’d wanted desperately to get her nose pierced, but her father would only allow it if she promised him she would never go back to Sri Lanka. With her nose pierced, she could never pass for Sinhalese.
My own father had worried about my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka, had told me over and over again to stay with the white tourist groups, with the hotel guides, to never go anywhere by myself. Not even temples, not even in the daytime. The cease-fire between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government had lasted for two years now, but the memories of two decades of civil unrest, the ‘troubles,’ lived vividly in the minds of expatriates like my father.
When I was a child, we went back to Sri Lanka every few years to spend idyllic summers there. Lounging under fans with my aunts, sipping cold passionfruit cordials or hot sweet milk tea. Running, sun-speckled, underneath the vines in my grandmother’s vineyard. Wandering the streets of Colombo, the paths of smaller villages, watching village women draw water from the well and carry it home, balanced easily on their heads. I had tried to balance books on my head, but never made it more than a few steps before they came tumbling down again.
Back in 1983, I was twelve, and was going back by myself, to spend a summer with my grandparents. A few days before I was to get on a plane, my father received a telegram from Sri Lanka. Don’t send her; there’s trouble coming. He cancelled my flight. At the beginning of July, there came word of major riots in Colombo, the capitol. Of thousands of Tamils, dead. Killed by their Sinhalese neighbors.
Trouble had been coming for a long time, had erupted in violent incidents. But that month marked the start of almost two decades of civil unrest, when many Tamils, those who could afford to, abandoned their homes, their friends, their country. They flew to India, Canada, England, Australia, America — wherever someone might be willing to speak for them, to take them in. My aunts started arriving, one after another. My mother was the oldest of nine children; it wasn’t long before each and every one of them had come to America or Canada. To the hope of safety for themselves and their families.
My uncle went back to Sri Lanka to marry in 1995; not everyone had left, and there was a beautiful woman waiting for him there. We travelled there for the wedding, cautiously. I was twenty-four then, but obedient to my father’s warnings, I stayed with the family, only venturing out once to visit a museum, with a hotel guide. Soldiers patrolled the beach in front of our gracious hotel, carrying long black rifles. When we travelled in the hill country, climbing to World’s End, visiting the elephant orphanage, riding a rickety train over high hills to tea plantations, the younger generation, those raised in America, could forget that we visited a country under siege. My father couldn’t forget. He knew that he could not return to the north, knew that his mother’s home was a fire-bombed shell, the vineyards destroyed. Knew the streets he’d bicycled as a boy were no longer safe to walk.
In 2002, after extended peace talks in Oslo, mediated by the tireless Norwegians, a cease-fire was negotiated between Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, and President Kumaratunga. The cease-fire had held, unlike others before it, and so in 2005, I planned to go back to Sri Lanka. To research, to remember. I had written and published Bodies in Motion, a book of linked stories that started in 1939 Colombo, and came forward to America in the present day. Had written that book based on facts gleaned from dusty library texts, books that had sat unopened for decades, faded memories, photographs. I had tried to get things right, as right as I could. I worried that it wasn’t right enough.
Now that the cease-fire had held for a few years, I’d persuaded my father that it would be safe enough for me to go back. To be honest, I thought his concerns overstated and overwrought. I was a permanent resident in America; I had lived there for thirty-one of my thirty-three years. My parents were Sri Lankan Tamils, true, members of the minority group. But I couldn’t speak Tamil, couldn’t tell a Tamil from a Sinhalese on the street. My Tamilness was a thin, patchy layer of identity, composed of scraps — a few words of the language, a few spicy dishes that reminded me of home. I’d insisted to my parents all through my teenage years that I was an American, first and foremost.
But here was this stranger’s hand on my arm, her eyes intent, telling me that I could pass.
What did she mean? Was it my light skin that would protect me? Some features of my face — a curve of cheek, a pointed nose — that wouldn’t reveal me as Tamil? I couldn’t tell the difference myself, though either of my parents could often tell with a glance at a face, by hearing a few words spoken, not only whether someone was Tamil or Sinhalese, but which city or village they were from. I was blind and deaf to such nuances; raised in America, I could tell a Southern accent from a Boston one, but that wouldn’t be much use to me in Sri Lanka. Did it matter? I was just going to be there for a few weeks, as a tourist.
I protested, explained that I couldn’t even speak Tamil or Sinhalese. I was an American, I wanted to say.
She just insisted, You’ll be fine; you can pass. Just keep your mouth shut, and smile.
I fail to sleep on either flight. I have been in transit for thirty-four hours, and I am numb with exhaustion. The plane circles down to Colombo airport, lands. I pick up my backpack, get off the plane, collect my bags, am processed through customs and immigration. When they see my Sri Lankan passport, the officials try to speak to me in Sinhalese, but I shake my head, say, English? They gracefully switch languages. Everything is orderly, calm, far more so than I remember. Where are the hordes of importunate beggars, the frenzied taxi drivers I dimly remember? Perhaps that wasn’t Sri Lanka at all.
When I step out into the arrivals lounge, see the crowd of people waiting, I feel a sudden stab of an emotion that I cannot identify. It might be fear, or grief, or joy. And then I see my name, misspelled, on a sign held up by a dark-skinned man in white shirt and pants. And that emotion slips away before I can identify it, succeeded by relief. I have a place here. For the moment, I know where I’m supposed to go.