The difference between leaving India and leaving America was for the first I counted all my lasts and for the second I counted all the firsts.
I boarded a plane to India the August after my high school graduation. I was 17 years old and so ready to start living my life. High school was over and I hadn’t made it into college — or one specific college — but for me, staying at home wasn’t an option. My parents would have been fine with it, but I wouldn’t have been.
I left my home with dry eyes.
What was there to cry about? I was launching into the world, and my family wasn’t going anywhere. When I came back they would still be there, they were the constant that wasn’t about to change just because I left it. After all, I was the middle child, we had gotten used to the process of sending the kids off with the first two and we still had two to send off.
I was ready. I was ready for my world of firsts. The first time I traveled internationally alone. The first time I would teach in a school. The first time I would be away from my family for more than three weeks. The first time I would show up in a country with next to nothing of its language or culture.
It was terrifying, and exciting and exactly what I thought I needed to pop my bubble. I was completely unprepared for just how popped my bubble would be by the end of my trip.
I remember writing about how this would be easier than I would’ve liked because I was still going to be with a family. I wouldn’t be truly independent. Something I still believed I needed at the time.
Fast-forward eight months and we arrive at my flight out of India crying tears that had nothing to do with the rom-com I had just put on. (It wasn’t that beautiful when the guys' mom blessed their engagement).
All the love had reminded me of the moment I realized that I loved being in India. Not the love that I had been convincing myself and all my phone buddies that I had. But a true affection for the country and for the family I was staying with. A fondness for the school I was working at and for the life I was living.
A life that was the antithesis of what I thought I wanted when leaving home. I had become completely dependent — I wasn’t even earning money from my job at the school, yay tourist visas — and had somehow filled the role of the most childish in a house with an 11-year-old.
The moment my brain decided I was happy in India, I cursed myself out for about 20 minutes. Breaking the promise I had made to myself to only think in Punjabi the profanities went ricocheting through my brain in English — I did add a few of my favorites from Punjabi — asking me over and over why I had decided now that I was okay with my life here.
As the questions flew, I bounced up and began pacing circles around the massive cube that I just now realized was my house. The house that had kept me from the Indian elements as I transformed from a girl who could say a solid 20 words in Hindi to someone who could get around with my not entirely trash Punjabi. The house that had seen me cry more than I had ever cried in my entire life.
My feet flew over the creamy tiles that had just begun to warm up after the winter. And my family continued their life around me. They had become quite comfortable with my not-quite-normal antics and we were happy to just be near enough to call.
There I paced; in my house, with my family, living our lives, and enjoying the tug and pull that came with dependency — the tug-of-war that had been my bane for the last 7 months. The thing that had sent me up to my bedroom crying because I was tired of being the child, because I was once again the outsider, because I was overwhelmed by the effort it took to follow a conversation, let alone participate in it. And now, of all times, one month before I planned to go, I had decided to love it. I could finally accept it for what it was. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
So I cursed myself out. That’s what you do right? When your emotions betray you? I was supposed to start counting down the days and dreaming of pizza and burgers. But now there was something that kept me from making the paper chain and celebrating each time a day slipped through my hands.
And that is how I knew it was getting time to leave, that’s what Nanny McPhee said right? “When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go”
In some cruel twist of fate, I ended up a character Nanny McPhee where Punjab was my nanny and I was a naughty child — or maybe just a clueless one.
That was my first last in India. The last time I would fall asleep on a damp pillow because India had turned me into an emotional wreck. But this time the tears were for the country I hadn’t yet left instead of the one I had left behind.
In the end, I left India earlier than I should have. The love for my family and for Punjab that came supposedly just over a month before I was going to leave but only two weeks passed before I boarded a flight back home. In those two weeks, I started teaching my own class, made a bigger fool of myself, read some books, and began setting up my job for the summer. One that would earn me enough money to send me to college the next year.
In those two weeks, my grandpa went from a healthy man with a heart murmur to a stable victim of a stroke, to dead. Two days after he died I had a flight back to attend the funeral.
His death was the only thing important enough to send me home early, but it also made my journey back that much harder. As death always does, it tears the veil that the living like to put between themselves and the end and reminds us that all the people we take for granted are a stumble away from the end.
I was happy leaving the US because I was convinced my family was consistent. But death is the one variable that has the power to cancel the constant and leaving India, that was all that was on my mind.
I didn’t know when I was going to come back, some of the people I lived with were old, or unhealthy. They may not make it to my next visit the way my brilliant, healthy, constant grandpa hadn’t. His death reminded me it didn’t take much to turn someone you love into someone you loved.
So as I walked down the front stairs passed from arm to arm by the women who had surrounded me in India and from arms to the proper slight bow and goodbye to the men, the tears began to roll down my cheeks. Silent as they always seemed to be.
One for Bebe ji who made the best roti there was in all of Punjab (everyone said so) and who was always there to make sure everyone was okay. Another for Massi who I spent long evenings with washing the dishes that never seemed to end and with whom my relationship was based mostly on facial expressions and gestures.
Even though I could communicate in Punjabi now, back when we couldn’t I had fallen into a habit of silent expression and imitation and learning the language didn’t change that, we already had our own language.
Another for Sukhi Pabi who was also a teacher at the school and with whom I loved to practice my Punjabi. She would correct me and laugh with me through our broken communications. And one last one for Veere to whom I wasn’t supposed to give a hug but who had been the only laughing face when Guru and Nancy were feeling down and who was so good at taking hellish days and turning them into a big joke that I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have been able to make it this far without him.
I left in the car with the two other ladies of the house. One who played the role of the man, and the other an apprentice to her mother’s job.
I quieted down in the car and sat through the 5 hour trip to Delhi. Everyone slept a bit, laughed a bit, ate a bit, and listened to our favorite songs a bit — another last, the last time I would listen to Punjabi radio for a while.
I jumped out of the car, put on the half-way crushing weight of the bag I had packed to bursting and that stood at two-thirds my height and boarded a flight as delayed as the tears that started burning my cheeks again even though I had said my last goodbyes hours ago.
No one knew when I boarded, or when I touched down 10 hours later in Italy. I didn’t text a soul. It’s probably bad. But I do that a lot. I don’t communicate well.
We learned this back in senior year when my parents sat me down in our living room to discuss my atrocious communication habits. I leaned hard into our Craigslist couch and stared sideways at the still unfamiliar walls — yet another move had brought us to this apartment just a few months before — I didn’t want to look at either of them.
I wish I could have said I took the reproval of my phone habits like a champ and began to make changes to my behavior. But, nah, I cried then too. For some reason, the idea that at 16 years old I was frustrating my parents broke me down to tears, but what kept them coming was that I didn’t know how I was going to communicate better.
I’d been trying for the last two years to no avail.
I tried for another year and I’m still here.
But even if no one knew, I was safe. Safe in a crowd of people going to Italy. The safest you can be.
As it turned out, I was certainly as safe as I could be, but my passport was not. Both were my own responsibility, but one was much smaller and entirely detachable.
The latter ended up sitting, I assume, under my seat in an empty plane. And the prior on the verge of tears… again. Between bouts of confidence — it’ll all be fine. What are they gonna do? Deport me to America? — self-hatred — you dumb-ass, you didn’t think to just check the damn seat — and straight panic — I’m going to miss my grandpa’s funeral… Two weeks ago I made India my home, two days ago I learned I was leaving it, and now I was going to miss the only thing that was important enough to me to pull me away just as my heart filled with love.
This was a first — my first time leaving my passport on a plane. But my final day had been full of all sorts of ultimate irresponsibilities. The last time I would forget my money when we went to the market, the last time I would almost forget my real shoes, the last time I would almost ditch my phone in my room instead of bringing it with me.
The first time I lost something in India, I was told I was spoiled.
The whole house was full of people. There had to have been at least 200 of them sitting here and there meeting with Nancy and Bebe and crying with them. It was the one year anniversary of Nancy Bhua’s father’s death and there was a memorial to go with it.
There were mats that replaced our floors on both stories and the chai cups that lay waiting to be kicked over were swept up, washed, and reused as quickly as the six women in the kitchen could possibly manage. Bhog — a type of song-like, hour-long Sikh prayer — had just ended along with the wails that filled the house with a gut-wrenching reminder of the grief that still gripped this place.
In the midst of the occasion, I was still an attraction. What was a white person doing here? And someone asked me to take a selfie with them with the one condition that I took it on my phone. But I couldn’t find my phone. That essential device wasn’t ringing when anyone called it, and Find my Android on google — the only thing that had kept any of my phones in my pockets as long as I had them — couldn’t locate it either.
I was not concerned. I hold this — perhaps naive — unshakable faith that I will always find these things, after all, I’ve found them countless times before. The rest of the house, on the other hand, was convinced someone had stolen my phone.
Five minutes later we found it wrapped in my notebook sitting beside Bebe’s bed in the living room. I laughed it off, it had turned out as I said.
My Bhua was not amused and she looked at me with a fire that I never knew losing something could possibly ignite in someone. She told me in her ferocious Punjabi accent that I was spoiled and that I didn’t have any regard for the things I had, then she told me to promise her I would never lose my phone again.
This was the first time I was irresponsible with my things (in India) but it was also the first time I stood up for myself. Quick as ever, I laughed. I don’t know really why and it seems a little belittling now, or maybe as if it proves her point that I have no regard for things — which is kind of true — but at the time it came naturally along with the reply that I don’t make promises I can’t possibly keep. I must have said it with some conviction because Bhua backed down and said, just try to be more careful next time. I smiled and assured her I would.
That first and the subsequent lasts made me realize two things; I was really really bad at keeping track of my things — I had always thought it there was only one really — and I was pretty good in a pinch. When someone attacked me, or as I later learned someone else, I could come up with a response with enough conviction but not enough fury to calm the other person’s worry down.
In some ways, the second was a pleasant surprise, I could hold my own if I really needed to. But it was tainted by the realization that I never could if I didn’t need to. If I didn’t feel threatened enough I could think about an argument forever and never get it out of my mouth. Unhelpful when someone wrongly confronted me without a raised voice.
I heard my name crackle over the loudspeaker in Italy “Would guest Elianna DeSota please make her way to gate A23 for boarding.”
Crap. I was that asshole. The one keeping the entire plane in a gate. I started running after the signs that still said gates A1–63 this way. I felt like I had already been following them for miles but the options never seemed to narrow.
I was quite a sight. Stocky 5'2" teen running through the Italian airport with a bag larger than her entire upper torso and a face as red as only white faces without the sun can possibly be. I got to the gate, they snagged up my passport and boarding pass and between questions about why I had been so late, they checked me in and called down to the plane to make sure they didn’t close the door. Good thing they did — they had been sealing the door when I showed up to the boarding desk.
I ran-walked down the long pathway to the plane and into the arms of 10 southern men and women asking what happened and if I was all right. I smiled, it wasn’t quite the sound of home, but it was the first time I had heard more than one or two American accents in a while and it was funny how comforting it was.
The effect may have been enhanced because up until 10 minutes before I was sitting in the airport police station standing with three policemen pretty convinced I was going to have to take a later connection to Detroit. I was almost certain I was going to miss the funeral. And cussing myself out yet again for leaving my passport on another plane.
(Mental self-flagellation is becoming a habit and I’m beginning to think I need to break this one. Which of my two most detrimental habits do I attack first? The self-loathing or the losing things?)
I had made it to the second of three flights and I almost cried again from relief. (I swear, India did something to my tear ducts, I was known as pretty much emotionless before I went there.)
After the passport mess in Italy, Atlanta and my final domestic flight to Detroit were uneventful. I met some cool people, forgot where I put my credit card, lost my bagging claim ticket but was ultimately able to walk out of the Detroit airport with all my pieces.
As I walked out of the airport and spotted my family I smiled in anticipation of the hugs and the ride back to where we were staying. The first thing I did was tell an elaborate adventure story about my journey through the Italian airport and my barely located passport. For the first time, I was able to just lay my head back and laugh with my (biological) family about how much of a fool I was.
It was relaxing and something I wouldn’t have been able to do before which was nice to know, here I was, me, but changed.
Heading into India, I valued myself by how good I was at things. For context, I’m 17, I was not and am not great at pretty much anything yet, valuing myself on what I could do was a terrible idea.
That’s why I broke down a month into my time in India. Because of the crushing realization that I wasn’t what anyone would consider good at being a teacher, and by Indian standards I was awful. I was more than awful, I was 100% incompetent.
The school wasn’t completely finished and there was still ree barb sticking out of the top, but we already had around 20 students and four teachers. The oldest student was 7 and the youngest was two.
I had been working mainly with the four-year-olds and was quickly learning that me, alone, in a classroom wasn’t an effective way to get things done. At. All. Kids liked me too much and I didn’t hold enough authority to get them to do the work they had to do.
As soon as I walked into a classroom, kids legitimately began jumping off the walls. They just enjoyed the idea of getting away with things without getting slapped. About a month in, I got stuck in a room with 18 kid under the age of 6 and told to teach them English parts of the body. The moment the other teacher walked out of the room the whole damn classroom erupted in chaos. Every single kid began running around the room and completely ignoring me.
In my head, I was made a fool and proven to be completely irrelevant because I wasn’t good at controlling the kids in front of me. And I continued to think this for the next three months. I was a terrible teacher, it was proven by the fact that I couldn’t work with a classroom.
Ironically, I finally realized I was valuable when once again I was alone in a classroom trying to teach three-year-olds fruit names.
Once again, It wasn’t working.
Only one kid at a time cared what I was saying. That one kid would learn their fruits then go off to join the increasingly frenzied group of children who had taken to running around the room and rearranging the furniture.
I wanted to scream my head off.
But one of the kids got to it first. The scream demanded silence from every other kid in the room, and my head jerked up from the mango figure I was pointing to.
My eyes took in the sight of a little boy clenching another kids cheek in his teeth. I hardly registered what was happening until I had already separated the two kids and sent the little girl to the Auntie who helped with injured kids and cooked their meals.
I was responsible for the kid who now had bite marks on her face and had to get a tetanus shot. I was responsible for the kid who had bitten her in the first place.
After that day, I ensured I wasn’t alone in a classroom for longer than 10 minutes. I was terrified of the same thing happening again.
Because of that day, I discovered that I was valuable. But I wasn’t valuable as an Indian teacher.
I wasn’t valuable as the disciplinarian who kept kids in their seats. I wasn’t valuable as an authority who scared kids into learning their lessons.
The fact that I couldn’t get over the cultural differences between discipline in my country and discipline in India made me a terrible Indian teacher. That alone — ignoring my broken Punjabi and complete lack of experience — made me useless.
I wasn’t a completely awful friend though. Which was funny. I came to be a teacher and found that I was much better at forming relationships with the kids and encouraging them to learn instead of teaching them.
I would squat down in the courtyard before class and make a game of learning to recognize the alphabet. I would make songs and dance with the kids to help remember how to say their “one, two, threes” and I would give them hand fives when they drew a particularly straight line.
I couldn’t make kids sit still in seats, but I could get them to do their work and I could use other resources — think blocks or ABC sing-alongs on the TV — to keep them from ripping each other's faces off.
In my school, I fell short of standards. I could never get a class to sit still and silent — an important skill. I couldn’t convince the kids to respect me as a mam or to stop happing my arm to get my attention — I was too much of their friend for them to feel the pressure to add the compulsory ji to the end of my name.
The etiquette Indian teachers tried to teach was something I could never convince the kids in my class to do.
But I was a good friend, and kids were so excited to make me proud that they doubled their efforts to write straight lines and to learn their alphabets. Not because suddenly the alphabet was so fun, but because they wanted a hand five or to make me smile.
They weren’t well mannered in my classroom but they were also clambering to learn. The kids that the other teachers hated the most tended to work best with me. They weren’t scared of being disciplined when they got it wrong, and they tested themselves to see how much they could recite every time I walked in the room.
At the same time, not every kid liked this method. The smartest kids in the class tended to become more average, and although they learned, they didn’t learn faster than they had before.
The way I taught wasn’t a one size fits all, it was a one-size-fits-some. A one-size fits the ones who weren’t already getting positive feedback from their teachers.
It wasn’t better necessarily, it was different.
Of all the things I learned in India, that was the most important. Different isn’t nearly as threatening anymore. I don’t feel the need to be more organized because that is how other people act, but only because it’s a pain to always be looking for my phone.
Different isn’t something that has to jump down your throat and tell you how wrong you are. Instead, it can add dimension to what you have, and some times it is even something that you can merely live alongside.
This lesson sunk in about two weeks before I left and it came along with the realization that I loved where I was. I am a complete fool by Punjabi standards. I make no sense, I do weird things that Punjabi’s wouldn’t do, I don’t teach the way Punjabi’s would teach, and I speak in ways Punjabi’s would never speak. In a word, I’m different.
It took me seven months to figure that out and accept that I always would be and that that wasn’t wrong. And it took me just as long to figure out that people in India also weren’t wrong for the way they lived their lives.
For something to be wrong, there has to be a difference between it and what’s right, but just because there is a difference between two ways of being doesn’t make one wrong.
A lot of crazy went down in India and from learning to love the place and the people to losing things I should have kept a hold on, every day brought something to smile about and something to reassess.
All I can hope for now is that all the lasts I counted before boarding my plane to Michigan were only lasts for now.