Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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A tale of two names

I have always had two names – two first names, two last names. Many people call me by the name my mother gave me, the one she had decided as a teenager to give to her future daughter. This is the name I share with a soulful melody in Indian classical music. The other name was important for many years; it was the name by which my schoolteachers and college friends addressed me. This name originally belonged to my father’s sister, the one who died young. The name my mother refused to accept, fearful of any misfortune that might come my way by making this choice. Torn between the wishes of wife and mother, my dad did what he thought was reasonable. He made both names official. And saddled his only daughter with dual identities. Although not born under the Gemini sun sign, I felt like that there were two parts of me; complementary, not congruent.

When it was time for me to get married, several years after my paternal grandmother passed away, there came a time to decide. I could choose to rearrange my names and take the same last name as my new husband. I was undecided. Dad stepped in again. I needed a passport to travel abroad to join my husband. With the brand new marriage certificate in hand, he officially changed my name again. My shiny passport had my picture but belonged to a stranger. The two first names switched places but stayed. I now had a new last name.

My new name marked my entry into a foreign country. Here I was a wife. As if that wasn’t strange enough, I was once again a student but now my graduate school classmates called me by the same name that I was called at home. With time, I grew into my name and life grew like a tightly wrapped shell around this central kernel of my identity. I published scientific papers, acquired a green card and later wrote freelance articles for local magazines. As far as my name went, my personal and professional identities finally merged. I was no longer the split twin. Years later, I checked the spelling on the document that the social worker showed me in the hours after DQ’s birth to ensure that the name I picked for DQ was spelt correctly. It was no surprise to see that our new family of three was united in one way; we bore the same last name.

The story so far is a standard one. A life defined by a name, a name conferred by someone other than me. I didn’t get to pick the name but I could decide what the person who bore the name did. Like many women before me, some who kept their maiden name, the ones who agonized about their decision to take on their husband’s name either at the time of the wedding or after the birth of their children, I lived within the confines of social mores, not over-thinking the consequences of my name in a future I could not foresee.

It has been several years since DQ’s dad and I divorced. I have continued to use the name that was on my first passport, the name that I had identified with in adulthood, the name that I have the legal right to hold on to, irrespective of my marital status. I kept the name for the same reason I had taken it in the first place, it was just easier to do so. As a single parent and the primary one, it marked DQ and me as a unit. As a career woman, it maintained the continuity of my professional credentials. Now that I am remarried, is my name an asset or a liability? Is it a possession that belongs to my ex or a reminder of another time, permanently etched to my identity?

Like GPS coordinates, my two last names pointed to my location on the planet for equal number of years. A name after all is a label; as personal as “sweetheart” that my husband calls me and as distant as “hey you” that a stranger in a crowd may utter to address me. But a name is more than a label. It is an inheritance from your parents that is uniquely your own. It is the primary way in which you respond to the world and the lens through which the world sees you. It defines you, shapes you and grounds you. It is the one right you take for granted, from the time you start interacting with society.

Over 25 years ago, author Anna Quindlen wrote about holding on to her maiden name after marriage “…. it so happens that when it came to changing my name, there was no consideration, rational or otherwise. It was mine. It belonged to me. I don’t even share a checking account with my husband. Damned if I was going to be hidden beneath the umbrella of his identity.” Although she felt left out when she had children who bore the same last name as her husband, she declared, “I made my choice. I haven’t changed my mind. I’ve just changed my life.”

A fellow blogger wrote recently about deciding to take on her husband’s name after having two children. “It will draw me, on paper, into the fold of our little foursome. We will be our unit. I don’t know why it matters to me that the world sees that. But for some reason, it does. I want the world to know we’re a little family of four. That means playing by the world’s rules. That means all having the same name.”

It is not so simple for me. Any change I make will affect the family. If I take on my husband’s name, DQ gets left out. If I go back to my maiden name, it adds more names to the family mix. Perhaps, I should stick with just one first name, like Madonna, but I am no celebrity. The hardest part of this dilemma is that it is one that only I can solve. The name by which I am known is mine alone and any decision that I need to take is a personal one. My father is not around to point me in any particular direction and HH has wisely left the decision to me. DQ does not have an opinion and Princess is unaware of my predicament.

The city I grew up in changed names a few years ago, the Anglicized Bombay was discarded in favor of the original Indian “Mumbai”. The city remained unconcerned – the population density, poverty, chaos and overall entropy continued to increase. Shouldn’t the new name have symbolized some change? An improved version, a makeover, a different avatar perhaps? Change happens as it inevitably does. The Bombay of my childhood and the Mumbai of today are different. The change had nothing to do with it’s name. The city evolved in response to external factors. It had grown, decayed, resurrected and renewed itself in many ways, undocumented by name boards, unsung by media. Mumbai remains a whirring, buzzing megapolis, filled with indomitable energy. It is a testament to the irrepressible DNA of the city that survives, unfazed by natural disasters and manmade terrors.

A name change generally signifies a life change. In my case, my life changed while my name stayed the same. I am not the same young woman who left behind her maiden name when she left her father’s home. I am no longer the sad, bitter person who struggled with building a life after divorce. I am not the single mom mourning the death of her parents. I am the resilient woman who survived and took a chance at building a new family. I am the optimist who can see the long term unity of this family with a mosaic of names. I am more than a combination of words. My personal identity is more than just my name. Like Bombay, my evolution will continue, unseen and unannounced.

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Embracing change

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“Change is one thing. Acceptance is another.” – Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things.

Once upon a time, I was happy to define myself within the context of my relationship to others – a daughter, a sister, a wife. I knew my place in the world. I did things as well – for a long time I was a student, then a research assistant and later employed as a scientist. Doing things filled my hours, kept me engaged and intellectually stimulated. I learnt new skills – to drive, to sing, to write, to teach. Learning brought me joy, opened avenues of freedom, of expression. I had experiences that shaped me – becoming a mother, starting my own business. These adventures added depth and meaning to my life. I experienced loss – of my first marriage, of both my parents. I fell. I pulled myself up again. I acquired things – a home, a car, gadgets. Life was easy.

Somewhere along the way, I felt complete. Content. Stable.

Stability is good. Addictive too. As I stood poised in that bubble like a tiny ballerina in a snow globe, I knew that any movement could tip me over, drop me over the edge of my comfort zone. So I did what a rational person would do in a similar situation – I look a leap. Away from the familiar into another country; to build a life with a new husband and family. I left behind the symbols of the independence that I had cultivated in order to pursue a fuller life. I am a trailing spouse now. Trying to establish an identity within a new context. Believe me, its no fun.

I chose change. Change is a strange beast – quiet and insidious at times, quick and cutting at others. Change doesn’t take on a starring role but is a quiet catalyst causing upheaval without much ado.

rock faceThe effects of change can be subtle, like the carved facades on rocks, hewn by invisible hands over centuries. And then there are changes brought about by cataclysmic events, sudden and momentous in occurrence and consequence. No matter the cause, change is inevitable, whether it crawls or crashes over you.

I stood on a soft sandy beach in Phuket, watching the sun dip lower in the purple sky. Clouds casually painted by a divine hand stood witness. Surfers rose on the swelling wave and fell unceremoniously a few seconds later. Sandcastles melted away with the tide, washing away a hard day’s work. A tiny island interrupted the infinite line of the horizon, a persistent blip, small but firm. Trees grew upwards and outwards from chiseled rock faces, against all odds. How many years did wind, water and air dance along these shores to get this done so perfectly?

I marveled at the unchanging but ever moving waves crashing against my feet knowing how this island paradise had borne the brunt of a tsunami a few years ago. Many tourists died. So did the island people who depend on tourism for their livelihood. Buildings collapsed. Entire stretches of beach disappeared. How quickly things had transformed with nature’s fury? The beauty of the coastline that lay before me was not the same a decade ago.

Human life imitates nature so closely. Change happens, whether we choose it or not. Where I am today is the culmination of a series of decisions, some initiated by me, others where I followed. When I lead, I am more willing to put up with the ups and downs of the transition, patient and tolerant as I wait for things to settle down as they invariably do. But when I follow, I am irritable and moody, alternatively passive and pushy. In a word, unhappy.

I watched the purple clouds engulf the sun in the soft twilight. A crab scurried away hurriedly as the water receded. Nature is not immune to change, she is just in tune with it. Her wisdom encompasses the daily ebb and flow. She accepts change in whatever form it shows up, gentle erosion, fiery explosion or instant inundation.

I walked in ankle deep water. A stray dog kept me company. It’s not the change that matters, it’s my response to it determines the tenor of my day. Change is inevitable. I am a product of all that has changed in my life. Having come thus far, I will ride each wave. With grace, just like Mother Nature.


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Listless and loving it

“Purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

I am not sure where I read this or even when, but as far as I can remember, I have been a busybody, always doing things. It has been a long quest, trying to find life’s purpose and to pursue it, there was always a list.

As a child, it was simple and unwritten, but followed dutifully.

  •  School
  •  Play
  •  Homework
  •  Read books (for pleasure)

As an adult in graduate school it was still fairly simple; nothing written but unwavering, all the same.

  •  Schoolwork
  •  Housework
  •  Read books (for pleasure)

As a working mother, written lists made an appearance.

  •  Drop and pickup kid from daycare
  •  Work
  •  Drive kid to activities, birthday parties, play-dates
  •  Doctor’s appointments
  •  Shopping – kids clothes, diapers, food, birthday party gifts
  •  Housework – cooking, cleaning, laundry
  •  Read book to fall asleep

As a single mom working from home, my list included

  •   Meet clients, work, send invoices
  •   Pay taxes
  •   Get car serviced
  •   Pay phone, utilities, maintenance bills
  •   Drop teenager to mall, birthday parties, movies
  •   Take Dad for doctor’s appointments
  •   Join girlfriends for lunch for birthdays, women’s day, movies
  •   Order takeout
  •   Read books

As a newly remarried woman in a new country, with a husband and two kids now, I have no list. My day begins when I send the family out to office and school respectively. I read the newspaper as I sip my morning cup of tea. The day stretches before me like pristine sand on a beach, waiting for footsteps to mark it. I have many hours in which I can do pretty much anything I like. I can lounge in front of the TV all day, hang out in air-conditioned shopping malls on Orchard Road, join a group of housewives for an impromptu lunch or just chill. How wonderful to have so much unstructured time on my hands! But I am stuck.

With no “must-do” lists to execute, I am lost; a lonely traveler without a map in a strange country. Well, not literally lost in Singapore, although it is still a fairly new country to me. I seem to have lost my inner compass. Having always prided myself for being a karma yogi, a period of inaction seems wasteful, criminal almost. Seems pretty rotten to whine about this wonderful time in my life where I can just “be”, without constantly having to “do”.

I think a part of my angst stems from the feeling that my life should have more meaning than checking off a daily timesheet, even if I score “excellent” on the routine tasks that fall in my wife/mother domain. I completely identified with the young Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady – “I will not die washing up a teacup.”

It’s a question of identity. Whether I have lost mine, which was predominantly defined by my working woman/mother persona. Does being a stay-at-home mom take away from my core identity, the one not defined by my career? Does the fact that I am not earning a salary or regular income make me feel “less than”? These are superficial manifestations of a deeper concern, the one about the purpose of my life. My head has always been the dominant part of my personality –thriving in logic and organization, seeking control, looking for purpose in the lists I made (and executed sincerely). But now I am letting my heart lead. This new life feels strange but soothing, calm and carefree. There is a peaceful pattern to my days. There is less stress, fewer expectations and total freedom to explore other avenues and therefore a feeling of not doing enough.

How do I turn this feeling around and make it work for me? I put this question out during my meditation. I laughed at the response that came from the universe – make a list. How simple and intuitive! My head has been hurting, from all the disuse, now that the heart is leading. So my compassionate heart, is pulling my head into the game once again. Go ahead, make a list, it sends out a challenge.  Here it is.

–       Read books

–       Write!


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Blending in

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HH brought some office colleagues over for lunch yesterday. Six people sat at my dining table enjoying the assorted items I had made – Chinese-style fried rice, sautéed baby potatoes, Indian chole served with middle eastern pita bread, a falafel-like starter with coriander-yoghurt sauce, mini idlis and banana nut muffins for dessert. Why not a purely Indian spread, colorful and spicy? The reason is that Singapore is amazing in the versatility of the people who live here. Whether it is the people who attended a writing class with me last week, or patients waiting at the doctors’ office, group of kids signing up for tennis coaching or just the people riding on the bus with you, they represent multiple countries and continents. My lunch guests included a tall, reclusive South African, a talkative Vietnamese Australian, a bubbly Singaporean Chinese lady, a bright-eyed, almost Indian looking gentleman from Egypt along with two garden variety Indians, including my husband. My challenge was to assemble a vegetarian meal that had adequate protein along with a balance of flavors that would appeal to an international audience.

Singapore is perhaps one of the few countries where the diversity of its population is not just visible but prominently highlighted. I take the bus everywhere and it helps me notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving. Every Friday I observe large groups of men wearing the traditional white caps on their heads as they walk to the neighborhood mosque for the afternoon prayer. The churches dot the skyline as do the colorful facades of the Hindu temples, located not just in Little India but all over the island. The Buddhist temples with red pillars and fluttering prayer flags, the perfume of joss sticks burning, provide stark contrast to the monotony of the high-rise buildings next door.  In the few months that I have been here, the large banner at the nearby park has conveyed wishes from the town council members to the residents for Deepavali, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

The obituary section in the newspaper is always interesting at first glance – large color pictures of the recently deceased, faces of loved ones of all ages and many races. The announcements at the underground stations carry instructions in various languages in addition to English. Official forms are available in Malay, Tamil and Chinese where you are asked to identify your race as a matter of routine.

I smile at the cashier at my local grocery store who may be a dark haired woman with a bindi or a young woman wearing a pretty hijab. The hawker center food courts offer Indonesian, Thai, Korean, Muslim Indian and Chinese food choices at budget prices. Saris and cheongsams, noodles and rotis, Siam coconut and Singha beer – everything defines the unique confluence that is Singapore. Not yet 50 years old, Singapore is a work in progress, a flowing fusion of cultures as it updates its national identity.

When a new immigrant group enters a reasonably homogeneous society, they have to make changes in order to blend in. My father told me the story of the Parsi community in Bombay who originally came to India as immigrant centuries ago.

When the Parsis came from Persia, they landed on the shores of the western state of Gujarat. The priestly leaders were brought before the local ruler, Jadi or Jadhav Rana, who presented them with a vessel “brimful” of milk to signify that the surrounding lands could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk to signify how the strangers would enrich the local community without displacing them. They would dissolve into life like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but not unsettling it.

What wonderful way to visualize the mixing of cultures which could add flavor to the existing mix? Living in Singapore serves a daily reminder of that sentiment. Not because it is written in the constitution but because it is on display everywhere; not just outside my home but also within where I join the laughter of the group that has been invited to lunch.