Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Worst Piece of Advice I Ever Got

The worst piece of advice I ever got was "Bloom where you're planted."

To be fair, I don't quite remembering being told to adopt this attitude. I'd like to ascribe it to one of my high school teachers, but that's not quite right. Instead, I think it was just a generally-accepted adage, a function of American "Can-Do!" thinking. Like "There's a college for everyone."

There really isn't.

The problem with these sort of "ignore-the-circumstances, make-the-most-of-it" platitudes is that they really only work if you're also willing to embrace assimilation. There probably is a college for every white American in every high school in this country. But if you're an Indian-American who wants a small liberal arts college with a South Asian Students Association and enough acceptance that a few boys will think you're cuter in your jeans and salwar top than the girl with the sweater set and pearls, good luck. I promise you that college doesn't exist. Or at least it didn't between the years 1995 and 1999.

I grew up on Staten Island and I hated it. I mean, really hated it. I hadn't lived in any other city, but by the time I was 16, I wanted out. In all my travels since leaving Staten Island, I am yet to come across another town so ripe with verbal aggression. Maybe Brooklyn comes close, but even they have some hippies and artists that provide refuge and escape. There's no place to hide form the verbal assaults on Staten Island other than one's own home.

So I went to Maine for college, where I was confronted by the preference for sweater sets -- a fetish I still find baffling. The virtues of my alma mater aside, it was probably a bad choice, evidenced by the fact that I left almost every weekend to party with my brother and his friends at Brown.

I spend most of my twenties moving around, living in Boston, Manhattan, Brooklyn. I even contemplated an ex-pat life in Europe, or the lifestyle of prodigal NRIs in Bangalore (that's Non-Resident Indian, the latest culture to invade India).

Recently, I had a meeting with the senior staff of a popular personal finance magazine that publishes one of those "Best Places to Live in America" lists. I told them their subtitle needs to be "If You're White." Because Carmel, Indiana and McKinney, Texas suck if you're looking for an Indian grocery store or need a Sikh priest for your grandfather's funeral.

Fortunately, my story seems to end happily. After 35 years, I finally found a place that "fits" me and my lifestyle. Washington, DC has all the things I like -- trees, parks, public transportation, a lively arts and culture scene (usually free, in fact), internationally-minded people (even if they've never lived abroad), and liberals that aren't hippies or hipsters. It's smaller than New York, with houses and yards populating the side streets, but doesn't have the claustrophobic suburban feel of Staten Island or New Jersey. Unlike Boston, people are friendly. And I'm usually not someone's "Indian friend" since they usually know a few more, making "Indian" a vague qualifier.

So my advice to friends who still feel like they don't fit -- it may not be you. You may not be "manifesting" your misery, despite what Oprah and The Secret say.

Take the time to discover what it is you like in a place (I reluctantly admit that I've been spoiled by the beautiful, expansive parks of Staten Island, and I can't imagine not living within walking distance of one ever again).

Then move. And if you're still unhappy, take stock again of your needs and desires and move again. Maybe it's just a matter of moving to a new neighborhood, or maybe you really do need to go abroad. But don't try to grow an orchid in a desert. It won't work no matter how much optimism you have. Look for the soil that nourishes your own soul and then plant yourself there.

1 comment:

Lauren Vasil said...

I love this post. You're so right, keep moving til you find your spot on this earth. Moving to California was, for me, validation of this. I'm so happy that you are finding yourself and your way in DC. I always thought it would be a good place for you to live.