This part is about fitting in – into a non-home environment and its processes. Migrants everywhere go through some form of this experience. They try to resist some aspects of it, holding on to the ‘home’ part. But they also try to adapt to the ‘non’-home geographies of their migrant lives. The popular saying, “You can the tiger out of the jungle, but not the jungle out of the tiger!” has great geographical truth.

Our migrant protagonist was no exception. You could take him out of Bengaluru, but not take Bengaluru out of him.

Home vs non-home

I have already set up a dichotomy (division into two parts): home and non-home. Home, as I have written in essays before, is fundamentally about relationships with people, objects, events, etc. Objects become stand-ins (reminders) for those relationships. When a migrant relocates, they try to recollect, and even re-enact, the home that they have left behind. The objects (in our protagonist’s case, this included the oil lamp from his mother’s domestic shrine in Bengaluru) are used to remind the migrant of the sentiments attached to their home.

The re-enactment, for example, could include the celebration of festivals from ‘back’ home: deepaavali, pongal, holi, etc. are celebrated in many parts of the Indian diaspora. Re-enactments are very common among migrant communities everywhere – within India, and abroad.

Acculturation

Our hero’s main challenge, reaching the distant shores of the USA in 1982, was to adapt to the culture he was entering. This included:

  • Learning some new language – a ‘banian’, as pronounced, in the USA meant a foot ailment, not the inner garment that many men wear in India; the confused look on the face of the shop assistant when he went asked where he could find banians was a right treat! ‘Vest’ or ‘under-shirt’, he learned, was the correct term here.
  • Learning different meanings of old words he knew back home – ‘homely’ in India means ‘home-like’ and this is a very desirable quality. But in the USA, ‘homely’ meant plain, unattractive, blah! Fortunately, a well-meaning childhood friend had told our chap about this and much embarrassment was avoided when he thanked his hosts after a lovely dinner. Imagine telling the hosts that the whole experience was plain, unattractive, and blah. He said ‘homey’ and that caused a pleasant feeling all around.
  • Learning body language differences – his first meeting with his academic advisor resulted in hilarious exchange that led to his advisor’s advice: “Three things for you to remember for your success in America: moving head up and down is “yes”, moving it sideways is “no”, and speak slooowly, you have two whole years to complete your Masters degree!”
  • Learning to walk in foot-deep snow and on ice – that ‘centre of gravity’ of the body had to be managed carefully. He learned this after a couple of encounters of his rear end with the snowy/icy covering underfoot!

Many such learnings and re-learnings had to happen over the years. This helped to improve communications with the ‘non-home’ (also called the ‘host’) culture. This helped in his studies as well as in his social interactions. His circle, initially largely centred on fellow-Indians, widened to include more non-Indians.

Over time, our friend became involved in different activities in his surroundings. A halloween party (dressed as a ‘ghost’), an American style wedding, a birthday party … these were events he was invited to. This increased his sense of ‘belonging’ in his non-home environment.

Assimilation

Our friend was assigned tasks as part of his graduate studies. For example, he was asked to teach different laboratory components for a course. His Director involved him in budget discussions between his Department and the University’s budget office – an unusual role for a graduate student to have. This helped him learn how budgets work in the USA.

Location of the Geography Department, Kent State University, Kent, OH, USA

In his PhD years, he taught whole courses for undergraduate (BA/BSc) students. He also was elected to the President of his department’s Graduate Student Association. He was recognized with a few university honors for being an ‘outstanding’ graduate student, was awarded a few scholarships, etc. During these years, he also recruited undergraduate students to join his department and take the courses offered there.

Subsequently, he got jobs as a teacher in different universities, during one of which he was also an elected member of the University Senate (a participatory body where teachers would help to shape university policy).

Thus, over the years, he increasingly became part of the educational structure of the USA. And hence the term structural assimilation applies here. Assimilation comes to us from the Latin ‘to make similar to’ (dictionary.com).

Return

Not all migrations end with a one-way movement. Many eventually lead to return migration – the migrant returns to their place of origin. This is a very interesting geographical phenomenon both at the personal and larger scales. It brings many geographical challenges in its own way. We’ll explore this in our next, and final, episode of ‘Migration Stories’.

Things to do:

  1. Do you know anyone who has migrated to where you live? If so, have conversations (plural) with them to understand what their journey has been like.
    1. What barriers did they face to migrating?
    2. What challenges did they face in acclimating (getting used to the environment), acculturating (getting used to the culture by adopting and adapting), and assimilating (becoming increasingly integrated into the culture they migrated into)? Remember, your migrant may not have experienced all of these. Also remember that a migrant have hilarious stories they can tell you about the process. It’s not all trauma; there is room for a lot of humor in all this.
  2. If you, yourself, are a migrant, reflect on the above points and write up your experiences.
  3. In either case, share your learning in the form of a brief essay, no more than 300 words with us at geo@tigs.in and we will post your essay on our site. Remember to give us your name, class, school, and location.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition.

Featured image: McGilvrey Hall, Kent State University, Kent, OH, USA. Home to the Geography Department. [Image courtesy: Kent State University]

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