Of Big and Small Worlds

A decade ago, I imagined myself — and particularly my place in the world — quite differently. I was studying in NYC, and saw myself as leading a big life. For the first time, it felt like the world was my oyster. I was away from my family, and in my mind, that world…. their world… of obligations and necessity, seemed small.

In a sense, my feelings were justified. My life in NYC was big. The city that never sleeps has a way of reaffirming its centrality; one can’t help but feel significant in its presence. Some years later, when I moved to Stanford, California for my Ph.D., my world continued to expand. The more my mind stretched, the larger the landscape of my life appeared to become. Once again, the world that I had grown up in, the life that my parents had built, appeared small.

On visits home, the transition from big to small worlds would create all sorts of tensions and fissures. A restlessness, even haughtiness, would overcome me. The life that my parents had built…a life that could only have been created by making their own world small, appeared lesser than my own. I couldn’t understand how they had accepted, much less chosen, that fate.

But a few years ago, I started to feel a shift in my thinking. Research brought me back to NYC, and this time around, “the City” as the locals call it, held less magic. I was older, and less able to romanticize the hardships associated with life there. The city, or rather the idea of it, seemed to pervade every aspect of life. People had very little time for each other, and the fact that they lived there was the implicit and explicit explanation for everything. There was a certain narcissism in the way that people talked about them selves — as New Yorkers — as if the city was in them, and not the other way around. It used to impress me…the fact that confidence and bravado could develop despite the reality of one’s shoebox apartment existence. The things that excited me about NYC, now just perplexed me. Somehow, I couldn’t ignore the smallness of my NYC life this time around.

Even the NYC subway, which used to feel like the great equalizer of race and class, a space that everyone shared, felt hollow. I noticed the way that everyone behaved in that space: as if they didn’t see each other, and it made me wonder if that wasn’t one of the ways that race and class were literally overlooked: by not looking. I found the crowds suffocating and the noise unbearable; and the characteristically blunt attitude that some New Yorkers carried around as a badge, now just sounded like a poor excuse for bad behavior. Something had shifted in my perception: I started to feel the smallness within the bigness of NYC, and the bigness within the seemingly small world that my parents had built.

When I visit home now, I see the space that exists in my parents seemingly small world, and the ways in which my big life is made possible by the expansiveness of the love that exists within the four walls of our home. And despite the fact that I continue to live in a big world, the small world that I call home is the one corner of this earth that I can claim as my own. There is bigness in smallness.