The transitions of my senses from South Asia back to the U.S. are varied but memorable. They span smells, sounds, perceptions and sights transition through waves during the 20 hour plane ride (give or take a few at the Duabi airport….)
I quickly shed my oranges and yellows, blues and purples so intrinsically connected to the vividness of the Bangladeshi countryside – that bright palette that melted into the technicolor green fields, the purple hyacinths, the orange of the papayas and even the deep red of the tea from roadside stands. I altered myself, from being swathed in the bright happy dyes of a thousand vegetable fibers, back to the sophisticated blacks and tans and rose hues of life in Baltimore. The bright magenta of my garment the day before leaving Dhaka faded into something more subtle, muted, understated. The garments smooth my re-entry into the society in which I generally exist, where I have a name, a title, a desk, and ID card.
There is a certain smell…a combination of frying spices, pungent bodies, petrol exhaust, and the faint scent of incense that combines to form the distinctive South Asian musk. This greets you at the airport, wafts out of bags as clothing bought or laundered there is unfolded, and becomes as much a part of you as the fine red dust that integrates into your shoes and under your fingernails. Stepping into the sterile gateway at JFK, it stays with you for a short while as your fellow passengers walk in step towards the baggage claim, then dissipates slowly as each person breaks off from the group and acculturates again.
After being covered from throat to toes with several layers of clothing for the month, I am relieved that I am not returning in the height of the summer, where appropriate attire is a tank top and barely-there shorts with flip flops and a cavernous beach bag. After a month of extreme modesty, I do believe that on returning in the summer, I would have uttered an expletive and let loose a shocked gasp, and most likely run up to one of these half-naked girls and flung my scarf around her shoulders to relieve my own embarrassment. Again, I am glad that I did not re-enter this world in July…
Every time I return from South Asia, the first change, the one most piercing and altering, is the sudden absence of the crush of humanity. Acclimating to culture does not require that culture to be unfamiliar or strange. It is just the ocean of difference between the proud and essential independence of life here, and the assumed interconnectedness of existence there that requires a restructuring of daily life and attitude each time I land on those shores. In South Asia, I require days to adjust to people helping with my bags, questioning what I had for dinner and where and bringing out more food regardless of the hour, expecting to see the woman in the public bathroom with her green sari drawn modestly over her head handing me rationed toilet paper, the experience of buying a pashmina in a small store where they instruct me to sit on dingy benches while bringing out fragrant tea with ginger and unfolding dozens of options for my inspection. I become used to inquiries about my health, my studies, my work, my plans, my marital status, how long I will be staying, and when I will return. When I returned to India in my early 20s, after being away for a decade, these inquiries at first seemed invasive. Why does it matter what I ate for dinner! I told you I’m not married! How many cups of tea am I going to have to drink today! I then realized how much concern and care is behind these small inquiries and seemingly little actions. At our next dinner, something will appear that I mentioned in passing that I had liked. When I leave, my host will produce several gifts for both me and my parents. I learn that there is never a question about getting help from anyone with anything – this is assumed and done often without even having to ask. The warmth and curious concern about my life is just a manifestation of the care of a family for one of its own. And there it is. That strong interdependence lasts through other seemingly fragile parts of daily life. Daily power outages, intensely competitive schools, domestic flights that leave when they want to, nearly nonexistent traffic laws, corruption, a booming IT sector, pollution, some of the best food in the world.
Coming back to Baltimore, I remember to appreciate my independent space and the agency that this life provides for me to take it in any direction that I choose. But as if to pull strands of that existence into my life here, I will occasionally wear that saffron yellow scarf or burn incense to recreate that South Asian musk…until I return next time.