“So here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here
Never enough for both.”
— Ijeoma Umebinyuo
When people ask me where I’m from, I usually have to think before I answer. Before answering, my brain does a little calculation:
Without being too conscious of it, this is a habit I’ve developed over the course of my life, and in retrospect, it serves two functions:
1. Save time if possible
2. Co-identify as “one” with the asker if possible
In maintaining three identities at any given point, I’ve coined a word for people like myself: “trimigrants”.
I’ve rarely run into people who share this label, but when I do, I notice there’s something we share in common that’s often hard for anyone else to relate to: We’ve reinvented our identity. Multiple times over.
I read a book recently called The Courage To Be Disliked, which introduced me to the following mantra:
It’s better to be disliked for who you are, than it is to be liked for who you're not.
Trying to live by this mantra has slowly given me the strength to live my life as the person I am, and to start sharing parts of it to world — unabashedly.
So for my inaugural blog post and the next couple after that, I'm going to share a slice of my personal story in three parts. The story of my journey from India to New Zealand to America.
(Don't worry — future posts will be a lot shorter, less about me, and more information-dense!)
So, let's start at the beginning.
An outdoor kid
I was born in Mumbai, India. My family moved around a lot. We lived in many parts of India , and even spent a year in Kampala, Uganda , before “settling down” in a place called Hubli in the South of India (of course, only to move again in three years).
My parents worked in the hospitality industry and earned a modest living. During our time in India, their pay was probably no more than $800/mo. But at that time, in a small Indian town , $800/mo could get you pretty far.
We had a nanny who lived with us at home and did almost every chore that needed to be done. My dad had a car and house gifted to us by his employer. Our house had a backyard in which a group of 10 kids in my neighborhood could play a fairly non-bastardized version of cricket.
So, for the first eight years of my life, my priorities were simple:
1. Cricket / biking with my neighborhood friends
Anyone who knows me would probably be shocked to hear this, but: I was someone who lived completely in the outdoors (!!). I wanted nothing more than to be in the heat of the summer and the rain of the monsoon.
Because we had a backyard, my home was a refuge to all the neighborhood kids. We gathered around right after school, and played until it was dark, or until we “lost” the cricket ball by hitting it out of the house into someone else’s backyard.
The most exciting days were the days when the Indian cricket team faced off against Pakistan. We would gather around on our terrace to watch the game so that we could be closer to the antennae and adjust it as needed. I lived to see this:
Had I never been exposed to a computer at this age, I probably would have grown up to be a standard Indian kid who, after finishing school, would have chosen a path that either entailed engineering or medicine. (When I say "engineering", I don't mean the life-long calling for software kind. I mean the "being forced to get a degree" kind.)
But that’s not what that happened.
Because in 1999, my parents brought home our first computer. From 6,000 miles away. A computer they bought for $5 at a thrift store in Melbourne, Australia during a holiday visit.
Let's take a step back: When I was just five, my parents had decided that there might be something more to our family’s future than our life in India. With relatives that lived in Australia and the United States, the possibility of moving out of India was always in our periphery.
The corrupt, bribery-based acceptance criteria of most Indian universities made them consider the advantages of government-supported higher education in Australia and New Zealand.
In 1995, my dad applied to visas for New Zealand and Australia based on the points-based acceptance system, and was rejected twice.
The reason was simple: my mom went to a University that wasn’t officially recognized by their records, so they couldn’t give her the points that she needed to meet the benchmark. These points alone cost us the visa.
So in 1999, we made the decision to visit our relatives in Australia, mostly just to taste the foreign air that we would never get to breathe fully. When we first landed in Australia, I remember the feeling of that air: new, fresh, exciting.
"We'll take it"
We spent our first month in Australia doing exactly what you think an Indian family on their first visit to a foreign destination would: we went to all the tourist attractions.
At one point, someone took us to a thrift store, since most of the actual stores for us were legitimately out of budget. I remember being enchanted by the idea of a thrift store: why would anyone choose to give away fairly functional things for so cheap?
At one of these stores, my dad ran into what looked like was an old computer. And by old, I mean old even by the standards of that day.
“Does it work?,” he asked.
“We don’t know — it’s been dropped off today,” the blonde lady at the reception told us.
“What does it cost?”
Moments after consulting with her colleague, she came back to us with a price: $5. Her reasoning: they had no clue if this thing actually worked, and it took up space. They could get rid of it immediately at that price.
“We’ll take it.”
I don’t have too many memories of going up, but the feeling of bringing home a computer for the first time is something I'll never forget. I'd seen them on TV and in magazines, but I had literally never used one.
The unboxing experience, loading up the Windows 3.1 boot image, the thrill that this thing actually worked.
In the first few days of bringing it to our relatives' house, I remember opening every out-of-the-box Windows program you can imagine, and spending hours just… clicking. I had no clue how things worked. I didn’t even know that I could buy “computer games” for this thing just yet. But I felt like things could be done with it.
Can you imagine a family carrying this thing home to India from Australia, box by box, through multiple customs’ declarations? That’s how committed we were to owning this, and that's what we did.
And being the price-conscious Indian family that we were, we knew we got a bargain. Even better, this thing would be the talk of the town once we’d brought it home: it was “imported” from Australia.
Over the next few months, my friends and I would gather around — 2 sharing a chair, 3–4 behind them, and would get to work. Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Paint, Screensavers. Click. Click. Click. Hours of endless curiosity and discovery. Months later, we were eventually able to trade this computer in for a heavily discounted version of Windows 98.
The new computer lead to hours of gaming: Prince of Persia, Road Rash, Aladdin, Minesweeper, Jurassic Park, and later, Grand Theft Auto.
During this phase, our time spent playing cricket probably cut down to less than half.
Staring at that command prompt for MS-DOS, I used to think: “Is this how games are made?”. Learning a basic command, and then later, actual BASIC, was my introduction to programming.
My grandfather, an incredible reader, had bought home a copy of “The Road Ahead” by Bill Gates, which I skimmed through to learn about the man behind the curtain — erm, the windows.
After learning about Bill Gates' "salary" from my parents, my plans to become a doctor were instantly dropped. I had figured out that this thing was my life’s calling.
The road ahead
In early 2001, my dad, feeling new-found hope and optimism about the immigration situation, decided to apply for a New Zealand permanent residency once again. After all, with a computer at home, he'd no longer have to manually call embassies and mail-in the paperwork, waiting months to hear back for a response.
A few months later, we received a letter saying our application had been accepted this time to our utter shock.
In the years that had gone by after our first application, the New Zealand embassy had decided to officially recognize my mom’s qualifications, granting her the points that she needed for our visa.
Crazy how clerical errors can change people's lives, right?
So with just that, we had our Indian passports stamped with a New Zealand residency. Never once having visited the country, and not knowing what lies ahead.
My dad made a solo visit to New Zealand to look for opportunities in Auckland. Auckland is the biggest city in the country, and by far the most popular immigrant hub. Unable to find a full-time job, he worked part-time at a hotel while he considered the prospects of moving to the country.
While he was in New Zealand, I was in two minds. On the one hand, I could not imagine leaving my friends and school to move anywhere, let alone to a country that’s foreign. On the other, I felt a sense of immense excitement and opportunity if we _had_ to move.
When he came back to India months later, he gave us the verdict: we wouldn’t be moving any more. While a terrific country, he pointed out that the move to New Zealand would be riddled with difficulty:
1. His qualifications — a Masters in Hospitality — held no value in the job market there
2. His work experience as a Principal at a Hotel Management Institute would not help him find a job in education due to (1), and likely meant a career change
Without any certainty, he couldn’t risk moving the family to a country where he was unsure of the possibilities of work, especially with the little savings that we had.
So with that, we decided to stay camped in India, and I tried to forget the feeling of that clean, fresh, foreign air.
This lasted just a few months, because some time later, he had a sudden change of heart.
I'll talk about this, and about my experiences in New Zealand, in a future post :)
In the meantime, if you’d like to see posts such as this one, subscribe to my newsletter!