This piece was originally published on June 30, 2022 in Catapult.
Near the end of the fall semester of my freshman year, as my eyes watered and my back began to ache from hours spent hunched over a small desk in the university library, I decided to take a break from studying for finals one December afternoon and walk across the bridge over Rock Creek. I didn’t have a particular destination in mind, only the knowledge that I was likely to lose my mind altogether if I didn’t stretch my legs and seek out a change of scenery.
Just after the bridge, as the gray cement and lifeless asphalt of the West End gave way to Georgetown’s pleasant, brick-lined sidewalks, I came across a small bookstore, tucked between a yuppie-looking wine bar and a boarded-up café. A small bell chimed as I stepped inside and walked up to the fiction section, the narrow stairs creaking precariously under my feet. I ran my hand along the spines as I scanned the shelves, waiting for a title to catch my eye, before finally coming to rest on a small, cream-colored paperback: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I had heard of Lahiri before, and remembered seeing one of her short story collections on a shelf back at home, but I’d never actually read any of her books—although I knew of her reputation for being able to capture the immigrant experience, and in particular that uniquely diasporic feeling of interminable suspension between competing conceptions of “home,” with elegant simplicity. Intrigued, I took The Namesake off the shelf and thumbed through a few pages before bringing it back to the cashier downstairs. When I got back to campus I immediately headed to the library, found a comfortable armchair near a window, and began to read.
Near the beginning of the book, the Ganguli family—Indian immigrants from Calcutta—moves from the campus of an unnamed university to the suburbs of Cambridge, Massachusetts, seeking out homes on “ordinary roads where plastic wading pools and baseball bats are left out on the lawns,” and where “all of the houses are owned by Americans.” Ultimately, they settle on an unassuming house located at 67 Pemberton Road, surrounded by neighbors with names like Johnson and Merton and Hill. “This,” Lahiri writes, “is the small patch of America to which they lay claim.”
Like the Gangulis, my parents too came to America from India in pursuit of higher education. They completed their doctorates at the University of Minnesota, and they still lived in graduate-student housing on the university’s St. Paul campus when I was born in the fall of 2000. About a month after my birth, they moved to a quiet suburb about twenty minutes east of downtown St. Paul. After a brief stint here in a rented town house, my parents began, like the Gangulis, to seek out their own small patch of America to which they could lay claim. This turned out to be the two-story house with white vinyl siding and black shingles on the roof, located at the far end of a sleepy cul-de-sac, where I would spend the first fourteen and a half years of my life.
In just about every sense, my early childhood was more or less typical of an idyllic upbringing in the archetypal American suburb, with weekends spent learning to ride a bike in our cul-de-sac during the summer and sledding on our neighbor’s hill during the winter. Based on these trappings alone, it is not difficult to imagine that my name just as easily could have been Smith instead of Somayajula—that my skin, instead of tanning from brown to golden brown in the summers, could just as easily have burned from a pale peach to a painful red like that of the other children with whom I spent afternoons playing in the sun.
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But, of course, this was not the case. From the outside, our house looked more or less like any other house on our street. Inside, however, it was filled with art and decor that my parents had brought from India. Every day around dinnertime, the aromas of lasagna and beef stroganoff that wafted through our neighbor’s open window caught and mingled in the space between our homes with the heady scent of haldi and garam masala that trickled out from our own kitchen.
On Sundays, while my neighbors packed into their minivans and drove off to church, I climbed into the back seat of my mother’s Subaru and drove to the home of yet another Indian family. When we arrived, we would be ushered into the living room or basement for a sort of roving Hindu Sunday school that we called Shlokalaya, during which the children of my town’s small but tight-knit Indian community—maybe ten or fifteen families in all—would gather to learn about our Hindu faith and culture.
Although we met in a different family’s home each week, the format of these afternoons was always the same. For an hour or so the students, who ranged in age from kindergarten to sixth grade, sat cross-legged on the floor. An aunty would patiently read out line after line of Sanskrit prayers, and we dutifully repeated the unfamiliar words back to her in halting unison. This was always my least favorite part of Shlokalaya—sitting with my back straight and legs crossed for more than a few minutes quickly grew uncomfortable even for my young body, and the heavily scented incense that invariably filled the room with its fragrant haze had an annoying tendency of aggravating my asthma. Besides, the lines that I spent an hour each Sunday memorizing and reciting meant nothing to me, beautiful though they were—I didn’t understand a word of Sanskrit.
At the time, I regarded Shlokalaya as a fairly boring way to spend the last precious hours of my weekend—although the mouthwatering array of snacks that was provided after each session certainly made it more bearable. Still, though I never would have admitted it at the time, I derived an undeniable comfort from the sense of community that I felt during those afternoons, gathered in one place with the only people I knew who looked like me.
I realize now that it was during these afternoons spent in incense-filled living rooms, plates of samosa and mithai balanced precariously in my lap, that I forged the first links binding me to my roots—roots from which I would have likely otherwise felt entirely alienated. To my parents, and to the parents of the other Indian children with whom I attended Shlokalaya, these afternoons must have served as a sort of insurance policy, a way of holding on to a cultural heritage that otherwise threatened to fade away into distant memory amid suburbia’s haze.
For decades, the suburbs have been equated in the American psyche with whiteness. Their very mention conjures up images of a white middle-class couple lounging on the patio of a picturesque clapboard home, smiling as their two children and golden retriever play in the yard. This association was only strengthened by the fact that Levittown, New York—often referred to as “America’s first suburb”—was originally restricted to white home buyers. This pattern was replicated across the country as exclusionary zoning policies boxed racial minorities out of America’s rapidly expanding suburbs—and, by extension, out of the American Dream of middle-class prosperity that they represent. In other words, the suburbs are equated with whiteness because they were designed to be.
In recent years, this pervasive association has provided the right wing with a new battleground in the culture war, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s attempts to court white support by playing into racialized narratives of suburbia under siege from rising crime and social unrest. For Trump and his fellow travelers on the nativist right—the voices of white resentment and paranoia—the suburbs mean one thing and one thing only: the promise and security of white America.
Like the rest of America, however, the suburbs are diversifying, driven in large part by immigrant families like my own. Between 2000 and 2013, the share of the total immigrant population living in the suburbs of America’s largest metropolitan areas rose from 56 to 61 percent, and during that same period, some 76 percent of the growth in America’s foreign-born population was concentrated in the suburbs.
This phenomenon has spawned a slew of explanations that have, for the most part, focused on the socioeconomic factors drawing immigrants to the suburbs. As one analysis in The Atlantic put it, “they’re drawn there for the same reasons the rest of us are—affordability, jobs, and schools.” These reasons are certainly salient, and for many—if not most—immigrants who seek out the suburbs, they are likely the deciding factors. But in my experience of suburban life, however, this lifestyle can take on another significance altogether for immigrant groups such as South Asians, whose history in this country for the most part extends back only a few decades to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. For these communities, suburban life enables us to engage with the culture of the mother country from the privacy of our own homes, without disturbing the facade of assimilation that many immigrants work so hard to build.
With its single-family zoning, car-centric lifestyle, and cultural association with an “American Dream” rooted in upward mobility and private-property ownership, the suburbs lend themselves naturally to an intensely atomized, quasi-misanthropic lifestyle, suitable perhaps for building cordial relationships with neighbors but certainly not for fostering any meaningful sense of community. This atomization is only exacerbated by suburbia’s strict demarcation between the public and the private, which also allows its inhabitants to project an external image of their lives that may not necessarily line up with the reality inside the home.
This dual existence can in fact serve a vital (if somewhat unexpected) purpose for immigrant families like mine, who face a constant pressure to assimilate into American culture while still holding on to their own. This pressure is especially strong for so-called model minorities such as Asian Americans, who are held up by many Americans as token examples of “good immigrants”—hardworking, law-abiding, and high-achieving—in contrast to the supposed rebelliousness, indolence, and inherent criminality of other racialized communities.
As part of this myth, communities like my own are sold the false promise that so long as we work hard, keep our heads down, and avoid stirring the pot, we too can achieve whiteness by proxy—enjoying all the privileges and protections of whiteness, despite the dark skin and foreign accents that would otherwise betray our status as perpetual outsiders. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, the suburbs represent the culmination of this proximity to whiteness. And for recent immigrants, who are told that the only way to be accepted as “true” Americans is to assimilate into American culture, suburban life can offer an enticing way to walk the fine line between cultural assimilation and preservation.
For my family, the exception to this rule came a few times a year, on the festival days when we invited the other Indian families from my suburb to join us in celebrating. On these occasions, we chose to ignore the imposed separation between public and private, allowing the culture that filled the inside of our home to spill over to the outside. When our guests arrived ready to spend the evening, they lined the cul-de-sac with their Honda Civics and Toyota Camrys, streaming up our driveway in their ornate silk saris and kurtas as they balanced trays heaped with food and thermoses full of chai. Our poor white neighbors, we used to joke—they must be so confused at all these brown people in strange clothes filling up their street.
On these evenings, we made no secret of the fact that we were here, unapologetically foreign, taking up as much space as we wanted amid the white oasis of our suburban neighborhood. Our gatherings were boisterous and often spilled out into the yard, lasting late into the night until the last Camry was cleared out from the driveway and the last guest had been chided into taking home just one extra plate of food. We took a certain unspoken pride in the knowledge that we were adding insult to injury for our next-door neighbors—ardent Trump supporters who, in the weeks before the 2016 election, had plastered their front yard with massive, hand-painted MAGA signs and who already had to deal with being sandwiched between two Indian families.
Growing up, I took pride in my family’s ability to exist simultaneously as Indians and as Americans. It seemed to me that we were able to prove our worth as upstanding citizens of this country while still holding on to our cultural heritage, maintaining a grasp on our culture within the privacy of our home while still projecting an external image of conformity. It wasn’t until I was older that I became aware of the painful illusions underlying this pride.
Every year at the beginning of the summer, our Shlokalaya group held what we called our Annual Day, when we rented out the shelter building of a local park and celebrated the completion of another successful year through a lively afternoon of performances, songs, and games. The summer after my freshman year of college, whichever uncle had been tasked with booking the park for Annual Day had apparently left things to the last minute, and the only available park was in a part of town that none of us were particularly familiar with—a neighborhood where the houses were older, the pickup trucks in the driveways bigger, and the American flags on the porches more abundant.
An hour or so into the program, a group of uncles, including my father, abruptly got up and left the room all at once before returning stony-faced a few minutes later. No one else in the room seemed to have paid much attention to the disturbance, captivated as they were by the children’s charming rendition of whatever myth they happened to be retelling. It was only after asking around in hushed tones that I pieced together what had happened—apparently, some white men in the parking lot had had their suspicions raised by our group of Indian families in traditional dress descending upon this suburban park and had called the police.
Fortunately for us, my father and the other uncles had been able to clear things up, explaining to the officers that we had in fact paid to rent the shelter and were entitled to make full use of it. Still, the knowledge that my father had worked his charm on the cops did little to soothe my nerves. Memories of the mass shooting just months before at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, still loomed large, and once I found out what had caused the commotion, it suddenly became all but impossible to ignore the fact that we were crowded inside a one-room building with a single exit. Nothing happened, but that didn’t stop me from being on edge for the rest of the afternoon. The damage had already been done—the pride and satisfaction of being able to express my culture in a majority-white community had fallen away, and my illusions of safety and acceptance had been shattered in a community space where, by any reasonable standard, I had every right to be.
For months, our group had met every Sunday without incident, celebrating our culture in the safety of our living rooms and basements without eliciting so much as a sideways glance. For all our jokes about intimidating the neighbors with a flood of Indians onto their street, our boisterous gatherings and late-night celebrations never caused any problems. It was only when we crossed the unseen line demarcating the boundary between public and private, moving our expressions of cultural pride out from the privacy of our own homes, that we became a threat in need of surveillance. Suddenly, we were no longer Americans gathering to celebrate in a park on a sunny summer afternoon. Now, we were suspicious outsiders, invading the oasis of suburbia with our unwanted presence.
All my life, I had prided myself on my community’s ability to toe the line between assimilation and preservation, our success in being accepted as “real” Americans without losing some part of ourselves in the process. As I sat in the park shelter that afternoon, that mirage dissolved. For the first time in my life, I saw the suburban delusion for what it was: a smokescreen of cultural agency that, when push came to shove, could be undone at the drop of a MAGA hat by anyone who deemed the dark-skinned foreigners in their neighborhood to be “suspicious.”
If this country promises immigrants the American Dream, then the suburbs promise a specific variation on that dream. At the same time as it offers all the external trappings of suburban life—and, by extension, the benefits of proximity to whiteness—the suburban dream also offers us a space, tucked away behind a white picket fence, to hold on to the cultural differences that, for better or for worse, set us apart. Chimeric though it may be, it is this particular version of the American Dream that so many of us pursue when we move into vinyl-sided houses with two-car garages at the far end of sleepy cul-de-sacs. These are the small patches of America to which we lay claim, and we do so—giving so much of ourselves in the process—in the misguided hope that maybe, if we follow the rules and play our cards right, America will one day in turn lay claim to us.
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