llustration by Taylor Yingshi

OPINION: Grounded in the Waves

by Kamna Shastri

Throughout my life I’ve looked for stories that mirror my experience as the child of immigrants and as a South Asian American. The narratives I found featured the young adult who wants to distance themselves from their heritage to blend in with their white, American peers. I never connected with those stories as a child.  

My childhood, embedded in nostalgia as it might be, is rooted in the cadence of the Tamil language, the music of A.R. Rahman, Friday night Bollywood movies rented from the only Indian store in town. I think fondly of community gatherings in living rooms filled with families dressed in the sarees and salwars that rarely saw the light of day except on such special occasions. 

I’ve been told the language I use to talk about my Indian American experience is sticky-sweet with nostalgia. But those words and descriptions are real to me. My memories of being an American child are synonymous with being Indian.

A culture clash narrative didn’t play out for me until I hit high school, becoming more pronounced as I graduated college and now as I navigate adulthood in a climate riddled with identity politics of race, class, privilege, and belonging. I observe the Indian-ness of my identity fading more each day and my childhood increasingly evading my grasp. Growing distant from my childhood feels like losing my identity.

I will never be “Indian” in the de facto way my parents and people who have immigrated from India are. They embody a lived cultural identity no matter how far away they are in time and space from their homeland, whereas I have constantly had to prove my identity, feeling more like an imposter with each passing year.  

I do not have a literal lived life on Indian soil as a reference point for my cultural identity. I do not know what it is like to live on ancestral land or even close to it, though I’ve always wondered what it is like to live in areas imbued with generational memory and legacy.

What I do have is a lived memory from childhood visits. My experience of India is summed up by the daily rhythms of familial love, tucked in the signature froth of madras filter coffee and in the sands of Chennai’s Marina Beach.

My lived memories are as intimate as those of someone who might have grown up on Indian soil. My most fond memory is the ritual of massaging my grandmother’s feet on her veranda while watching the July evening rains drench Chennai briefly, lightning flashing purple across the night sky. The scent of jasmine garlands my grandmother made sure to store in the fridge so I could pin them in my hair every morning is embedded in my blood. I have an unusual fondness for sticky humidity and red earth because it reminds me of India, the physical place I associate with unconditional love.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I would have traded my American identity to become fully “Indian” (whatever that means) in a heartbeat. I wanted desperately to claim my heritage not just in name but in lived experience.

This is, however, impossible. The patterns and politics of immigration, assimilation, and the cultural shifting that happens from first, to second, and third generations cannot replicate the same cultural bonds held by the first generation to leave their homeland.

As I have been reminded in therapy, my experience — like many who live in a cross-cultural reality — is both Indian AND American. I cannot choose one over the other. 

By my late 20s, I assumed I would have figured out this balance. I couldn’t be more wrong. Living with multiple, often conflicting values and identities is a constant dance of losing and regaining balance. Every year I go through the same identity crises — I feel distanced from my family’s cultural values as my daily life becomes more enmeshed with America’s current reality. 

I’ve looked to the politics of critical race theory, and a new mint of literature on pan-Asian American studies to try to find something to hold on to. While these subjects are teeming with knowledge and perspectives, I end up facing more boxes to check. Which race am I? How much privilege do I have? How do other people view me and what boxes are they stuffing me into? Sometimes it is as though I am begging for legitimacy, waiting for someone else to claim me as fully theirs.

Finding Solace in Oceans Crossed

The messiness of belonging has been especially challenging in the last year. As important and overdue conversations about race, injustice, and equity in America engage our collective consciousness, I’ve looked to ecology for solace when I can’t make sense of my place in this country anymore. The interconnected principles of ecology, specifically water, are grounding forces in the midst of socially constructed categories. 

Last December, I joined a small cohort of BIPOC women, led by Seattle Civic Poet Jourdan Imani Keith. Our topic of inquiry was the connections between our southern resident orca relatives — native yet endangered to Coast Salish waters — and the experience of BIPOC women. Keith asked us to consider our shared legacies of being “endangered.” Just as orcas, and other sea life, are hurt by toxins dumped into the Puget Sound, so too are the bodies of women hurt by social toxins, literally and figuratively. The female body accumulates toxins as it is targeted by and becomes an object to hold the ideological pollution of colonization and patriarchy.

Throughout our workshops with Keith we explored these topics, our identities, and personal relationships to migration and oppression.

One of our writing prompts was to reflect on “bodies of water.” These are the words that revealed themselves to me. They  gave me a new framework for my sense of identity and belonging:

Today I am a confluence of oceans

Pacific and Indian sprawling and enmeshed

I bridge distant shores, histories —

A fluid tapestry.

The first time I realized I was drawn to the open ocean — no end in sight — was in the ninth grade. On a cliff near the Highlands Institute across the bay from San Francisco, I stood looking out at the Pacific Ocean. The sky was overcast, clouds dark blue-gray and heavy like the underbelly of a blue whale. Sunset burned through a thin band of clear sky at the horizon casting a glow on the far reach of choppy water, waves stormy and asynchronous.

I felt an electric energy, a strange sense of feeling bigger than myself yet insignificant. It was also scary — because part of me wanted to jump into the waves, disappearing into the terrifying wonder below.

Now, I understand why open ocean calls to me. Ocean water connects me to my past and my present, the two countries that have birthed me and given me cultural context.

In Chennai, trips to the beach were a regular evening pastime and a morning ritual. On one trip in 2008, my grandmother and I walked the forty-five minutes from her apartment to Marina Beach, setting out just after the sky turned the pale blue of morning and green parrots began their chatter from leaning coconut palms.

Four years earlier, a tsunami killed thousands of people and laid waste to beloved waterfront memories at this beach and across the Indian coastline. Stepping on to the golden sands that day, there was no hint of the disaster. Seagulls circled overhead and the eastern sun hung low above the water, an orange orb shrouded in gray marine fog. My grandmother and I sat together on the shore until the sun became too strong and we took a rickshaw home.

Navigating the Distance 

The last time I saw my grandmother was in October 2019 before COVID-19 ravaged the world and suspended all future plans. We sat at this same beach at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. This time, the sky and water were dark and black except for a moon swung high up and the stray bobbing light of a fishing boat out at sea.

These moments by the water were always marked by laughter and the cool, salty spray of crashing waves.

Now they are like dreams, especially as COVID-19 has shaken India, and every day I worry for everyone I know. The pandemic has led me to an acute awareness that how we experience a sense of place is never a given, it can shift and change at any time, taking our own grounding and identity with it. 

I wonder when I will see that beloved expanse of Indian ocean again … and with whom … and if that place will feel the same once the people who gave it meaning for me are no longer here.

Every year, my yearning for a sense of true belonging and for the comfort of intergenerational family becomes more entrenched in my bones. It is here even as I type this, a sense of unease, cage-like, wrapping around my forearms, my wrists, and my knuckles.

On those nights when I feel the ache of growing increasingly distant from my origin, I close my eyes and trace every corner of my grandmother’s apartment; the painted walls, sparse furniture, even the exact position of each ceiling fan, the scent of freshly boiled buffalo milk, thick and frothy poured into a wide lipped steel cup brimming with sweet coffee.

A Confluence of Oceans 

If I were to sail a boat from the shores of Marina Beach, I would sail into the Indian Ocean then eventually into the Pacific and finally to the Coast Salish waters — with no demarcation of when one becomes the other until reaching the narrow strait that will eventually lead into our rounded Puget Sound.

We make borders of places, of lands and policies and states and oceans. But waters cycle through the sky, the mountains, freshwater streams, and lowlands, emptying into rivers and deltas, into a vast body of water wrapping around the world. Water inherently defies the concept of a border, and it is the very force that nourishes life.

It is in deep, blue, never-ending water that I find a new way to belong.

The ocean keeps me connected to the world and asks me to look beyond labels of “Indian” and “American.” I may have crises of identity, struggle to find belonging to ancestral land — but I remember that water is always ancestral, always linked. Salt runs everywhere.

Just as there is no marked separation between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, there isn’t really a separation between my India and my America. It is what the ocean symbolizes that feels truer to my identity than either of these two land masses. The ocean is a space of navigation; it is beautiful, but its unknowns are terrifying. The ocean is full of sorrows and shipwrecks, the injustice done to human and sea life, and also routes of connection, stories of migration and life.

I believe there is merit in moving away from pledging allegiance to state-based borders to a more ecological belonging. Thinking about how we belong to the earth asks us to think of identity as something in constant motion. Much like the currents of wind, water, and weather that might start on one pole of the world but ripple about the same axis.

It matters less what culture I belong to and more that I belong to the earth, to the ocean, to the land that has nourished me with air and memories. I may not have an ancestral claim to the Pacific Northwest, but this region’s ecosystems have given me breath, water, food, shelter. My life as an Indian American who grew up and still lives in Seattle weighs as much as the formational memories I attribute to visits to grandmother India. After all, the Puget Sound of my present, second-generation life, and the Chennai coastline symbolic of my place of origin are both touched by the same body of water.

Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at www.kamnashastri.wordpress.com. Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.

📸 Featured Image: llustration by Taylor Yingshi.

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