Sunday, July 26, 2009

India Calling 2 - Priscilla the Pretzel Lady

Although it seems illogical, many Indians activate their plan to move back to India after they get their green card or citizenship. It seems contradictory — the American government finally gives them permission to stay forever and then they pack up to leave. This certainly was true for me, thanks in part to Priscilla the pretzel lady.

Snow was falling as I climbed up the steps of the Brooklyn College auditorium, plump, happy flakes that danced over the red brick buildings and settle down my purple overcoat like fairy dust. I was early, or so I thought as I pushed open the door. The long lines of people inside testified otherwise. They were from all over the world — 54 nationalities, I would later learn, ranging from Haiti to Hungary, Tajikistan to Tasmania. In all, 1600 immigrants — waiters, nurses, bankers, cab drivers,divorcees, single mothers and transvestites —gathered together for the same purpose: to become naturalized citizens of the United States of America.

At 11:30 am that day, I became citizen of US of A. I was not happy. I was not sad. I felt blank!!

At the corner of 66th Street and Columbus Avenue, a stone’s throw away from Lincoln Center, is a tiny stand named Priscilla’s Pretzels, manned by an old woman who looks to be of Eastern European descent, perhaps Polish. I had always assumed her name was Priscilla, although the stand could have been named after her mother or daughter.

I passed Priscilla’s Pretzels several times a day — on my way to the subway, after dropping off and picking up my daughter at her pre-school, on my way to pediatric appointments, and when we walked together as a family to Lincoln Center during the summer for outdoor concerts.

“Hi Priscilla!” I would say as I passed her and she would wave back. I hadn’t made a single purchase from her stand because I disliked pretzels, but I didn’t think she held that against me. On that cold February afternoon, a few hours after I became a U.S. citizen, I passed Priscilla again as I walked back home. It was still snowing. Wisps of smoke came out of her stand as she wrapped a warm pretzel and handed it to a customer. On impulse, I stopped. It was a momentous day in my life. I felt exuberant, yet strangely weary. I was embarking on a new chapter and wanted to share the news with someone. Priscilla, I felt, would understand. She, too, was an immigrant and had probably undertaken a similar journey.

We shared a longing for America alloyed by a deep aversion to the INS. Or so I believed as I stood before her,holding out some bills.

“I became a citizen today, Priscilla,” I said. “Congratulations!” she said, slathering some mustard on my pretzel. She waved away my money.

“It’s on me,” she said. Her accent was hard to decipher.

“Thanks,” I replied. “No more dealings with the INS.”

“That’s right,” agreed Priscilla.

“No more waiting for green card and visa extensions.”

“Absolutely,” said Priscilla. “Now it’s time to go back home.”

I laughed. “Sure,” I drawled. “Work hard to become a citizen, and then turn right back and go home.”

“That’s right,” said Priscilla. “Family is family.”

“Is your family back home?” I asked. I still couldn’t tell where she was from. Priscilla nodded. “Every single one of them. I’ve been in this country 22 years but not a day goes by when I don’t think about them.”

“I know,” I said, nodding. I knew.

“Thanks a lot,” I said, holding up my pretzel. “Bye, Priscilla.”

“My name isn’t Priscilla,” she said. “Priscilla is my daughter.”

“Sorry,” I apologized.

It was only when I reached home that I realized I still didn’t know her name. So Priscilla she would remain, at least in my mind. Now it’s time to go back home. Priscilla’s words haunted me. It wasn’t the first time I had heard them or even thought them myself. Every time the going got tough with the INS, I would question my desire to stay in America.

“What am I doing here?” I would think. “Is this worth it?”

But there had always been the next step, the next challenge. Mount Holyoke College, graduate school, applying for a work permit, getting a job, getting a green card and finally, after 15 years, becoming a U.S. citizen. I had been so busy getting to the next step, I hadn’t bothered to check where they were leading me.

I had finally “made it” as an American citizen — what next? How now to make meaning out of my life? Staying the course was easy; inertia, easier. Dreams were prettier when they remained just that— blowsy, diaphanous and distant. The minutiae of living cut into the examination of a life. Until something or someone broke the cycle ... as Priscilla had done for me.

My first ten years in America had been glorious. Single, then married but still independent, I enjoyed them thoroughly. Life was exciting, and trips back home were boring necessities that I undertook reluctantly, mostly to assuage parents and close family. After every vacation, I raced back to America, eager to embrace its fast pace and pulsating rhythms, to see friends, to go to restaurants and catch up on the movies, sit-coms and magazines that I was addicted to. When the plane touched down at JFK International Airport, I would pump my fist and utter a silent whoop of delight. Yes! I was home.

It was after I had a child that I first entertained the previously heretical possibility that, perhaps, America wasn’t home for me. I was tired, sleep deprived and encumbered, and the “land of the free” no longer seemed so to me. I was saddled with a toddler and missed parents, relatives and other potential babysitters. I missed the respite that came from dropping off a child with a trusted aunt for a few hours. India’s social fabric seemed more conducive to raising a family. There, I could call a neighbor, any neighbor, at a moment’s notice and ask her to watch my child while I ran out for some milk.

I missed the septuagenarian grandfathers who patrolled my neighborhood and reported back all naughtiness and babysitter negligence. I had hated their interfering as a child; now, as a mother, I viewed them as allies. I missed the whole village of people who had raised me, who would help me raise my child. I wouldn’t dream of dumping my child with a friend, however close, at a moment’s notice.

All my friends led hectic, tightly packed lives. While they were perfectly willing to watch Ranjini, their schedules wouldn’t allow it unless we made arrangements days in advance. Work and family were distinctly different. There were work colleagues whom we never saw on weekends, and family or friends whom we rarely saw during the week. Our days and nights, too, were similarly divided: there was family night; date night, when my husband and I went out, leaving Ranjini home with the nanny; and couples night, to which children were not invited.

All this compartmentalization increased the odds of enjoyment but didn’t allow for lapses of efficiency. It was fun to dine with another couple at a fancy restaurant unfettered by tugging children. Yet, at the same time, the amount of planning that went into searching for, procuring and paying a babysitter made me question the necessity of such elaborate arrangements.

In India, the kids would have simply tagged along. They would have created a ruckus and, after a point, we would have paid the waiter a few bucks to entertain them at another table. It wasn’t very efficient, but it wasn’t a production, either. Part of the complication was that India was several time zones and several thousand miles away. I couldn’t just jet over to see family or attend a wedding over a long weekend.

For the first time in my life, I began missing my large, close-knit family.When Ranjini uttered her first word, there was no one to share the delight with me save my husband. When her arm swelled after a fall, I couldn’t S.O.S my grandmother right away for an herbal poultice recipe.

Most immigrants I knew didn’t want to return to their home countries. I knew several Indians who considered it infra dig to even acknowledge that they were from India. While they missed certain things, they had grown roots in America, ties both legal and emotional. In our building lived a Peruvian couple who spoke Spanish to their young son, ate ceviche every day, but had no desire to live in Peru — ever. Ranjini played with a little girl whose French father considered America the best country on earth. He liked to visit Paris, yes, but after twenty years in the States, he said, there was no way he could live or work in France.

Ram, too, was one of those people who loved living in America. He worked in asset management and enjoyed being on Wall Street. He liked being surrounded by brilliant, driven people and the fast paced exchange of ideas. He could move millions of dollars with a computer click or a phone call. He could e-mail a broker or research analyst with a question and have financial information on just about anything within a few minutes. Perhaps as a result of watching economic reform inch along at a snail’s pace in India, Ram was a big believer in the capitalist model of getting things done and moving on without endlessly looking back. Regret wasn’t a part of his psyche, and Wall Street and its here-and-now culture suited him perfectly. No wonder he was loath to question it.

“Priscilla thinks we should go back home,” I told Ram one evening as we sat on the steps of Columbus Circle having an ice cream together. Ranjini was watching a juggler, entranced by the sight of the colored dominoes that he threw up in the air.

“Who is Priscilla?” he asked.

“The pretzel woman at the corner of our street.”

Ram raised his eyebrows. “And she’s the authority on when we should go back home?” he asked. “You just became a citizen.”

“Two separate things,” I said. “Two separate things. Becoming a citizen is like taking life insurance: It is a cushion.”

“So now you want to go back?” Ram asked. “Why? I thought you liked it here.”

“I do,” I replied. “I love New York. But I also think we should explore the possibility of living in India.”

“After all these years? What will we do in India? I can’t work there. My job is too specialized,” Ram said.

“All I am saying is that family is family, and our parents aren’t getting any younger, and if our kids need to have contact with their grandparents, now is the time. I cant live the life where my mother can not understand what my daughter speaks!!”

Ram shook his head. “I don’t understand you,” he said. “Is this some kind of a feminist reaction to what you’ve just done? I thought you wanted to become an American citizen.”

“I did want to become a citizen,” I replied. “I do. I wanted to make sure that our kids were born here so that they won’t have to wait in line outside the American consulate like we did. I wanted to get my citizenship so I never have to deal with the INS again.”

“And so you won’t,” Ram said, chewing his gum “Aren’t you overreacting?”

“India is a great place to raise young children,” I maintained. “Life there is more relaxed, not as stressful. I could get much more household help for far less money. Our families would babysit. Things are slower. The whole system is set up to accommodate young children.”

“So you think,” Ram said. “So you think. You haven’t lived in India for years.”

“But do I want to live in this country forever? I am not sure.”

“Well, you’d better get used to it,” Ram said.

“Because I am not packing my bags and moving.”

[to be continued]


  1. Nice but misses a lot of details about Indians in US and their mindsets about raising kids here.
    One or Two cases might be exceptions.
    If you are talking about exception then it is very good.