The first morning I woke up in America, I could smell bacon frying. I was nearly 12 years old. I had spent the night sleeping in the living room of a family friend. His wife was cooking us breakfast in the adjoining kitchen when I opened my eyes. It was a week of many firsts for me. I had flown on a plane for the first time. I had traveled anywhere outside India for the first time. Even now, 33 years later, that is the smell of America to me. If I get too complacent about my sense of belonging here - my ability to speak, dress, look, think like an American - I only need to smell bacon frying and I am a newly-arrived immigrant again. I had never had bacon before that morning. I smelled it, heard it sizzling and crackling, before I tasted it. It was a complex animal smell, making my mouth water and my stomach churn in revulsion at the same time.
A few years ago, when my middle son asked me of my first memories of arriving in this country, I told him about the bacon smell. "Were you happy, Mama?" he asked me, then perhaps nine years old. He was learning about immigration in his school and the homework assignment was to interview an immigrant. An easy assignment for him since his home was filled with them. No, I wasn't happy, I told him. Suddenly he was on alert.
Immigration was a joyful tale he had been taught in school. Immigrants are to be celebrated. I was sad, I told him softly, because I had to leave behind all my friends and relatives. This was the early 1980s. Before we had cheap cell phones, the Internet, and social media. This was in the last century - the era of aerogrammes and trunk calls in India. For those in economically straitened circumstances, the imagination was the best possible mobile device for conjuring up the home left behind. I missed our little one-bedroom home in Calcutta. I missed my school, my neighborhood. I missed the cows that slept on the sidewalk outside our main door, the stray dogs that barked all night, the harsh sound of the crows. The silence of the American streets made me homesick. At first, each season brought unfamiliar sensations. When I walked to the bus stop or to the laundromat with my mother, everyone seemed to be inside their house doing things I did not quite understand. And a little part of me felt humiliated - even though I did not know how to give a name and shape to that shame - that my parents had to leave the country of my birth for economic reasons. I cried into my pillow and in locked bathrooms. I missed being able to speak in my mother tongue everywhere I went.
A friend of my father gave me my first American book. It was called The Stranger and was written by a man whose name I read in my mind as Kamooose but was told by the friend - a childless man who mercifully did not give me reading-grade appropriate books - that I was pronouncing it incorrectly. I did not like the book but read diligently because it made me sad to read about a man whose mother had died and who went to jail. There was no happy ending. It matched my own un-nameable mood. It was in English - though upon later inspection I found it was not written in English at first - and I wanted to make sure my English was very good because I had overheard my parents worrying if my language skills were up to snuff for American schools. My shimmering linguistic world of Bengali now shrunk to the confines of our little attic apartment furnished largely with things others had discarded. I missed the food we ate everyday even though before we left I did not think that food was anything special.
Noticing that my little interviewer was getting visibly unsettled by these thoughts, I quickly focused on giving him a more upbeat ending. Yes, immigration can be a good news story. I switched to the third person. "Mama made many friends here. She learned to speak like everyone else. She got used to the food. She went to school and got jobs. And now she has you and your brother and your sister and your father and she is not lonely anymore. We can all learn to adapt when we move to a new place. And even if we are sad at first, we can eventually be happy. Just like you can be happy if you have to leave this place one day."
"Whaaaat? I have to immigrate one day?" Clearly my happy ending made my interviewer even more unhappy. "Maybe you will have to go find a job in another country," I replied. "Like where?" asked a scared boy who had been taught that the American immigrant story is heroic and Ellis Island is a cherished landmark, but who had never been taught that one day he too might have to go learn a new language, eat new food, become a foreigner somewhere. America is the last and final destination. City on a Hill. Promised Land. It is where everyone wants to come. And when they come here, they find happiness, equality of opportunity, and freedom. This is how the school textbooks are written.
In the more progressive school districts of America, immigration is enthusiastically included in the curriculum as part of national history. This year, as the Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric is more thunderous than I have ever encountered in my 33 years in the United States, liberal politicians and school districts are countering with equally adamant celebration of immigrants. But one aspect of this celebration always gives me pause. Why do we only celebrate immigration as an arrival? What about emigrants and departures? Should we stop at teaching our children to welcome strangers among us? Or, do we also teach them that one day they too might be strangers in a strange land - pushed around the globe by forces of economics, politics, or nature?
Researchers tell us that temporary migrants outnumber permanent migrants worldwide. That is, people do not simply move from one country to another and stay put. Most migrants are seasonal and keep shuttling between two or more places. But where I live in the U.S., we focus mostly on permanent migration, that too in one direction. This, of course, has to do with the historical reality of this country as well as with its foundational myth. Yet, populations have been on the move - in large numbers or small groups, voluntarily or involuntarily (the difference is remarkably difficult to parse as human rights lawyers will tell us) - since the beginning of human history. Perhaps my children will wake up one morning in a city half way across the world to an unfamiliar smell emanating from a kitchen. They might wake up with great joy for having reached a cherished destination. Or they might wake up with a lump in their throat for they have left behind a familiar world. I want them to know that they - like their ancestors before them - will find success and failure, love and disappointment, and eventually go on to welcome other strangers in their new home.
We have truly arrived only when we are willing to consider departure.
(Sharmila Sen is Executive Editor-at-Large at Harvard University Press. Prior to a career in publishing, she was a faculty member in Harvard University's English department. She lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her architect husband and three children.)
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