Youth: Return to Roots
As soon as I stepped into the airport terminal in Chennai, a familiar sensation hit me. The combination of humidity and pollution in the air had signaled the start of our annual summer vacation. Every year, since I can remember, our family—my sister, my parents, and I—would load our luggage in the car and head to the Atlanta airport for our long journey to India.
[Left] The author (left) and her twin sister in Trichy, Tamil Nadu.
This year, however, felt different. So much had changed since my last trip three years ago. Before the Covid pandemic, I would happily accompany my parents to visit relatives in India. But now I had no desire to go, perhaps because I thought I already knew who I was as an American. Whatever the reason, my parents ignored my whining—and I found myself in India. Granted, it was only for three and a half weeks this year, as opposed to the usual two months.
Possibly the first thing that drew my attention in India were the signs. Everywhere I looked there were eye-catching advertisements for everything, from restaurants and hotels to English classes. Even though a number of these billboards were in English, the vast majority were in Tamil. Every sign we passed was an opportunity for me to practice my Tamil reading, a skill that I had picked up in weekly Friday night classes over the past six years. I felt a sense of pride whenever I could read and comprehend a sign. Despite my initial embarrassment, every time I was able to have a basic conversation in Tamil with a local, my confidence increased.
And then there was my family. Even though I hadn’t seen my relatives in three years, and had scarcely spoken with them over the phone, I felt as close to them as ever. I shared laughter and meals with them, barely feeling different or like an outsider. During all the time that I spent at home in America, I had a constant feeling of disconnect from these relatives. But after entering India, I fit in there better than I could have imagined. I owe this connection to my parents, for bringing me to India regularly and letting me become comfortable with my family.
The temples were another thing I had never appreciated when visiting India in past years. The sheer detail in these buildings could rival even Europe’s finest basilicas. These 2,000-year-old buildings, intricately carved by hand, had never sparked my interest previously. The people I found in these temples were waiting for more than five hours to get a mere glance at the deities inside. The devotion and belief these people held in their religion was enough to make me reevaluate the time and energy I devote to learning about mine.
[Left] Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam.
The difference in customs was something that caught my attention this summer. While Americans exchange surface-level politeness, it rarely goes deeper than that. Indians, however, are brutally honest. There are no pleasantries. While to an outsider it may seem rude, there is genuine caring there. It’s hard to find that in the West. Even though words of advice do not come out sugarcoated in India, they are meaningfully honest and come from a place of love.
Frankly, at a younger age, I did not see the point of going to India every year. Today, I am glad that I got the chance to visit and learn more about myself. Even though India and America seem worlds apart, I feel I have received the best of both worlds. I am also thinking more about the future. If I don’t learn my language and culture and stay connected with my family, what will happen to my kids and grandkids? Will they grow up knowing almost nothing about their identity save for the few Indian “trends” that pop up on social media every few months?
At home in the U.S., between academics, extracurricular activities, and socializing, it often feels as if there is no time for talking to family in India or attending cultural classes. Arguably, these things can be far more rewarding, even if it’s a challenge to fit them into the schedule. Despite my initial frustration, I am grateful to my parents for enrolling me in Balavihar and Tamil classes. I appreciate them more now. Some people aren’t lucky enough to be able to go to their home country because of financial reasons, safety issues, or other barriers. But if you are able to make the trip to revisit your roots, it’s worthwhile. It certainly was for me.
Vikashini Venkatasamy is a sophomore at Wheeler High School in Marietta, GA.
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