by Priya Chhaya
A room once full of books, electronics, posters, and photographs now bare. Each item packed away into cardboard boxes that all look the same. Boxes, filled with nearly everything you own in two cars.
Two words that mean so much more than just the act of packing up your belongings and transporting them into a new living situation. Here in the United States the traditional path is that kids leave home after college (or even earlier, after high school) either because a parent wants the kids to learn responsibility, and other times because the kid wants some independence. To feel more like an adult.
For Indian American children moving out, while more commonplace than years past, is connected to jobs and opportunities that are in areas not close to where they grew up. And having said that, for many female Indian American’s moving out is an even tougher decision—and much of that has to do with the belief that the daughter stays in her father’s house until marriage.
It’s hard to tell how many girls today are bound by that belief, in my case the rationalization for staying at home had a lot to do with saving up rather than any restrictions by my parents, but as I took that leap from home to apartment a few weeks ago I found myself wondering: How much of my “Indianness” is based on where I lived? I know for some Indian American kids that tug of war can be strong and combative, while for others remains a gentle pull. And as a friend recently reminded me, where you stand depends on how much of the ritual, the traditions, you actually understand.
In my case, after five years post-graduate school, I wanted to try to live a version of the American dream. I wanted to take care of myself, to be independent, to make a space my own. So as I put my books, clothes and posters in boxes, as I bought furniture, and cooking supplies, and took an inventory of clothes to take, and what to give to the Salvation Army, I also began to pack up my life lessons from my parents: doing aarthi before going on a long trip, actually making roti and daal on my own, calling India to talk to my grandmother—instead of waiting for my turn when my parents called. Habits and ways of life that I wanted to take with me without the prompting and encouragement of my mom.
As for things I’ll leave behind? I think dependency is one of them. Living at home was never terrible—but I think it unconsciously limited me from taking risks and being spontaneous—staying in the city to meet up with friends for example. Sometimes being comfortable means that there isn’t room to grow, room to stretch, room to become what you want to be.
While it has only been two weeks, I’m not entirely sure what I’ve taken and what I’ve left behind, but I know that it has been a definite learning experience. Not to mention moments when you miss the two people who have given you all the encouragement and support in the world.
For those intrepid Indian Americans thinking of moving out here are a few things to add to the “To Do” list: Check to make sure you are within an auspicious month. Then if you are Hindu like me, be armed with statues of Ganesh (I now have at least three in my bedroom) to bless the house. My roommate who is from Chennai boiled some milk (a ceremony known as pal kachal, which is symbolic of the first domestic act in the house/literally a house warming), while my mother (we are from Gujarat) did a short prayer and left a booklet of prayers in the house so it would be there before I actually spent the night. Finally, when setting up your furniture bring a compass to make sure your bed is facing in the right direction—North/South is best.
Remember, while moving out is for all a way of “cutting the chord” that tethers you to where you grew up, not everything has to stay behind. That culture, that history, those lessons are parts of your identity that you can take with you into the future.
Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.