This past Saturday, my mother and I sat in a packed room in Fremont’s Family Resource Center, gazing at walls covered with traditional Afghan paintings, crafts, and photographs from Afghanistan’s past. Folks had come all the way from San Francisco for the first screening of Little Kabul Stories, an oral history project that documents and celebrates the experiences of the Afghan-American community in the Bay Area. Fremont, my hometown, is often called “Little Kabul,” and if you get off at our BART station, located in our small Centerville district, you can see why. The Bay is literally home to the highest concentration of Afghan people in the world outside of Afghanistan itself. (For that matter, Fremont could also be called Little Delhi or Little Lahore, as the sight of desi women power-walking on sidewalks and strolling through grocery stores in salwar kameez’s and tennis shoes is so commonplace that I have stopped noticing. Our Whole Foods even has its own dosa station, complete with mango lassis. Needless to say, I visit often.) As we sat balancing tea and jalebis in our laps (for what would any sort of South Asian or Middle Eastern event be without tea and sweets?), the organizers began to play excerpts of interviews with members of the Bay Area’s own Afghan-American community. There was the 93-year-old man who recalled living through the Russian invasion of Afghanistan when he was a boy and the grief that he felt when he discovered that war meant he would no longer be able to attend school. The woman who, when war came again years later, had only one day in which to tell her parents that she was fleeing Afghanistan and who traveled on foot for over eight days and nights, crossing mountain after mountain with her two-year-old son, until she reached the Pakistani border and broke down into tears, not knowing whether she would ever see home again. The now sixty-something Afghan poet who came to the States as a student and who spent his nights working menial jobs with fellow immigrants, often too exhausted to keep his eyes open in the classroom during the day. My mother and I choked up at several of the stories, recognizing our own family’s history of migration in them as well. Each story carried in it a common thread – the search for homeland. What is home?, every one seemed to ask. Where is it? How do we find it? And how do we let it go?
I imagine that for some of you, traveling to India this summer is a manifestation of that search. A way of connecting to something familiar and yet unknown. It is a way of grounding yourself in the stories of your fellow human beings or of your own people. I know that it was for me. I think that stories are the reason I moved home this past year. I missed them. I felt their lack in my life. A certain emptiness where family and community and culture were concerned, to the extent that I would become teary-eyed on the rare occasion that I passed someone speaking Urdu or Hindi or Bangla on the streets of Philadelphia, or overjoyed when I spoke with a cab driver who also knew what it was like to call some other place home, whether that place was Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, or Pakistan. I grew up on stories. On oral tradition. They are my sustenance and my lifeblood. The memories my father would share with me as I went to bed each night about his childhood in rural India, the stories my mother tells about her first anxiety-ridden years in this country, the folktales I learned from Indian comic books growing up (Amar Chitra Katha, anyone?). They are my connection to something that I feel is missing in my life, that somehow got left behind. They fill that perpetual incompleteness and yearning for some other place that we children of diaspora (and those of us with vagabond lives) know well.
These days, my life in Fremont is about sitting with my mother over cups of chai and listening to her tell me stories about the grandparents I barely knew. It’s about the pride I feel on Election Day, when I see immigrants of my and my parents’ generations filtering in and out of our community center, sporting stickers that read “I Voted” in Vietnamese, Hindi, and Korean. It’s about going to the Fremont Starbucks across from the community college (for some reason the preferred hangout for the elders of my community) and overhearing older desi folks in conversation. They share memories from their childhoods in Lahore and rave about their long-gone mothers’ mouthwatering recipes. A grandfather warns the young woman he is with about love: “Ishq main tho log pagal ho jathe hain!” These are my people, and as much as I fight against them because of our patriarchal culture, sometimes-overzealous religiosity, and the outdated cultural attitudes that seem to have migrated to this country along with us, my love for them is immense.
We’ve all been told that traveling to a new place and immersing oneself in its community and culture can be a beautiful and exciting way to discover oneself. But I’ve learned this year that self-discovery doesn’t have to mean putting thousands of miles between you and home. Sometimes it is about putting down roots in the very soil that you come from, one that is still fertile with centuries of history and struggle and that has a way of telling you who you are and who you have been all along.