My Passport Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story

Oct 11, 2020 | At home

Annotated with colourful visa stamps from thirty-odd countries, the panels formed a travel-themed triptych, a working map of the places I have been in the 30 years since my first flight away from India, my first home.

The names of my deceased parents appear in each version. Stamps of some countries appear on multiple pages; others, just once. Who are the people and what are the places that left more than just an impression on me? What is my legacy from these travels?

My passports provide a clue. They don’t tell the full story.

One sunny winter morning, I stepped into a 7-Eleven store in downtown Baltimore to ask for directions to the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. I had marvelled at the sparsely populated compartments on the commuter train I had boarded from my home in a suburb of Washington, DC, so different from the crowded trains back in Mumbai.

Unaware of how strange I must have looked in my beige cotton salwar kameez and prominent red bindi on my forehead, I noticed how everything was different in the United States – the people, their accent and even the side of the road they drove on.

On that first day at university, I could not have known that “home” would be physically located in three countries over the next three decades. That my three subsequent passports would be renewed in three consulates. That work would lead to satisfaction and growth, but also demand sacrifice and adjustments. That life would be a process of constant negotiation with what was possible.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” wrote Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

As a wide-eyed, fearless student in the US, I had brought with me a strong academic foundation from my early education in India along with a resolve to work hard. In five years, I acquired a PhD and learnt to communicate clearly and concisely.

At my first workplace in California, as part of a diverse, dynamic and driven workforce, I thrived in matrix structures that were focused on productivity, not hierarchy, and delivered within tight timelines.

I came to appreciate my boss, a former construction worker who had earned a college education late in life, and colleagues who managed to squeeze in time for a game of tennis after a long day at the office.

From every place I have lived, I have benefited. In every place I have lived, I have hoped to belong. More than just being a regular taxpayer, a good employee or considerate neighbour, I have tried to add value.

Returning to India in the new millennium, I found a vast difference in the ethos of my countrymen and women. I looked like everyone else, but did not feel like I belonged. My global outlook was at odds with their cultural mindset. Over time, I came to admire their ability to get work done despite traffic woes, electricity shortages and family demands. I learnt to be flexible, focused and creative, the cornerstones of “jugaad” – the ability to solve a problem in an innovative way, using limited resources.

When I arrived in Singapore, I brought not just the degree and job titles listed on my resume, but also the parts of me that had been shaped by all the people I had met and worked with. Not all of it was visible. Not much could be documented.

On job applications, there was no place to indicate my ability to function independently but cooperatively in multicultural teams, a skill I acquired in my American worklife. There was no checkbox to highlight my ease with ambiguity, an inherent cultural trait that had resurfaced during my stint in India.

In the last three decades, I have spent 20 years of my adult life in countries where I have been labelled as a foreigner, and a decade in India where I was labelled “foreign-returned”.

At one of my earliest job interviews as a freshly minted PhD at a pharmaceutical start-up in the US, I was politely shown the door in the first few minutes for lacking an authorised work visa. I cried on the way home, feeling inadequate, angry and unsure about the future.

Shortly after that unhappy day, I was asked to join a high-profile collaborative project which then led to a job at a top multinational company in California.

Years later, when I left the highly coveted job to return to India, a thoughtful colleague wrote “America’s loss is India’s gain” in my farewell card.

At a recent colloquium organised by the Singapore Management University, guest speaker and well-known travel writer Pico Iyer said: “It’s impossible to have globalism without the local component. And it’s dangerous to have localism without global vision.” Iyer finds “great liberation” in not belonging to any one tribe, preferring instead to be known for his passions than for his passport. I agree.

My passport indicates my nationality. The visa stamps document my travels. But with each new place that I call home, it is becoming increasingly difficult to respond with a one-word answer to the deceptively simple question: “Where are you from?”

From every place I have lived, I have benefited. In every place I have lived, I have hoped to belong. More than just being a regular taxpayer, a good employee or considerate neighbour, I have tried to add value.

Whether that meant conducting science experiments for underprivileged middle-school kids in California, lobbying for and setting up a childcare centre in Hyderabad or volunteering at a soup kitchen in Singapore, I have tried to be a passionate contributor, not just a passive consumer.

A few weeks ago, a little girl approached me at a bus stop. “Can you please lend me 60 cents for the bus? I forgot my EZ-link card.”

As I handed over the money, I noticed the name of her primary school on her uniform.

“Did you walk all this way? It’s so far away.”

As she looked away shyly and boarded the next bus, my memory zoomed back to the times I had been at the receiving end of simple acts of kindness.

The patient stranger who had given me directions on that first day in Baltimore and the generous one who had paid for my dinner one night when I had forgotten my wallet.

While there is give and take in every situation, each interaction is more than a mere transaction. I owe a debt of gratitude not just to committed teachers and considerate bosses, but also to strangers who had reached out beyond their comfort zone. Their kindness left a mark on me along with the daily banter with my classmates, colleagues and friends.

It has been my good fortune to learn the truth of the Sanskrit phrase “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam” – the world is one family, on a global canvas.

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