News & Politics

First Person: Undesigning a Life

When I was young, I knew what I’d be and where I’d live. How could not getting those things be good?

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

“If you get what your heart desires, it is good. If you don’t, it is better.”

I posted a note about this philosophy on my blog and got a lot of comments. What a losing attitude, most said.

I grew up with the belief that I could design my life, and I rebelled against letting go. I wanted to be on the debate team, so I practiced until I was accepted. I wanted to act in school plays, so I pursued the director until he gave me a shot. How could not getting what I wanted be good for me?

Although I’d grown up in Bahrain, a tiny island in the Middle East, I loved India, where I was born. I went there to study engineering in college and wanted to stay forever.

It was Dad’s dream that I go to graduate school in the United States. My father had blessed me with abundance but, keenly aware of his humble beginnings, instilled in me the importance of a good education.

While some traditional Indian fathers focus on the man their girls will marry—a rich doctor with a richer father—mine wanted me to have a “real” education, a “real” job. Other parents chided him: “Look at the money you are spending on her—and now sending her to America. She is a daughter—she will go away to another house. She is not your son.”

My father laughed it off. He insisted I go to America. I wanted to stay in India.

The day in 1990 when we landed in America, the Gulf War was starting to affect Bahrain. We were in a cramped hotel room in Lynchburg, Virginia. My father’s hands trembled as he spoke on the phone. He worried about friends and coworkers—what would happen to them? He had to go back.

After Dad left, I moved onto campus at Lynchburg College, where I had enrolled for a master’s in industrial management. I missed him and my mom terribly. I wanted to leave this unfamiliar country where I knew no one. I stayed in my room watching TV, crying myself to sleep.

Then, slowly, I started talking to people. Classmates invited me over for Thanksgiving—a holiday I had never heard of—bachelorette parties, weddings. I learned about kimchee from a Korean roommate, about the Shinto religion from a Japanese friend, about Starbucks from an American teacher. I began to fall in love with the United States. There was a willingness to try anything: I read about a lawyer who became a radio producer, a policeman who went to business school, a Wall Street hotshot who became a chef.

I’d always done what I was supposed to do. Had I stayed in India, I would have had a good life—worked as an engineer, made a decent salary. I didn’t know then how many opportunities life would afford me if I let it.

Two decades after coming here, I have the blessing to travel back to India whenever I like. My adopted American home has allowed me to let go of an engineering career I disliked and become what I really longed to be—a food writer.

In Lynchburg, I met the love of my life. We live in Washington and have two boys with independent spirits; a circle of caring, international friends who expose us to new cultures and ways of thinking; and, more than anything, a sea of yet-undesired desires.