My mother came to America wearing all the gold she had to her name.
She was twenty-six when she arrived. It was 1986, a year after she had married my father and three years after relatives in India had started slipping subtle questions about why she wasn’t yet married into available snippets of conversation.
My mother was, as she likes to pointedly remind me, all of 100 lbs. She had straight dark hair she kept in a long braid, or “plait”, as she says, her English still peppered with words and phrases long left over from the British occupation. She flew into Boston’s Logan Airport with two suitcases full of saris and a carry-on bag packed solely with black halva, a sweet Kerala specialty made of coconut milk and palm sugar.
Those saris have been carted across coasts and flyover states; they are now stored in the upper reaches of my mother’s closet, silk and gold thread sleeping in neat stacks. She has to stand on a chair to reach them, but out they come for every baptism, wedding, and funeral. For my mother, no Western dress is ever deemed worthy to celebrate life or sanctify death.
The halva was intended for a cousin in upstate New York. Given my mother’s fondness for Indian sweets, not all of it arrived.
The flight itself was unexceptional save for the fact that my mother wore every single piece of gold jewelry she possessed. She tried unsuccessfully to cover most of it with a shawl, and the elderly British gentleman seated next to her looked askance at the young woman with an executive’s yearly salary draped around her neck and arms. She struck up a conversation with him to clear up any misconception that she might a raja’s daughter.
In my parents’ South Indian community, dowries come in three parts: land, money, and gold. My mother left her land and put her money in the bank, but she could not part with her gold. Afraid of losing it if her checked-in bags were lost, and reluctant to declare everything she possessed to customs officers, she found herself wearing six solid gold necklaces on a trans-Atlantic British Airways flight. Her wrists were laden down with golden bangles, some thick like love and others thin enough to snap. She had on all the rings she could fit on her fingers, a respectable number of earrings in her ears, and everything else stowed away in her pockets.
Gold has a powerful hold over Indian women. In Kerala, it speaks of wealth in a place where riches used to come from rubber embedded in the heart of trees and tea plantations scattered over misty hillsides. No wedding is ever complete without it. My mother’s gold served as a dowry — it was value she could bring to a new land and union — but also as an anchor. In the clasp of her opal chain she could feel the caress of her mother’s fingers. Karats gleamed with stories of her Kerala, her time as a navy brat, her adolescent fistfights with her younger brother, her family’s hope for her future. A kind of compensation for the love she was leaving behind. Richness in riches.
She arrived in America for the first time just before Easter. Snow was still on the ground, and the bite of cold New England air was a sharp, stinging reminder that she was not in the tropics anymore. My mother remembers the whiteness of snow, the way it seemed bright and fresh and novel in a way it never has again. I ask her if she was scared when she arrived and she laughs, looks away and looks back, tries to remember the young bride she had been. No, she finally decides. She was too excited to be scared.
When my mother looks back at moving across an ocean to live with a man she hardly knew to begin a life in a country she was completely unfamiliar with, she has no memory of fear. She remembers the chill in the air, but she does not remember the uncertainty that would surely have threatened to drown me.
I consider myself a modern American girl-turning-woman, but I’m still scared of spiders, taxes, and Tinder. I could never move to a completely different country at someone else’s behest with nothing but gold and yards of cloth to serve as a tangible reminder of who I was. How did she? When I ask, my mother can’t give me an answer — she doesn’t see her decision the same way I do. She doesn’t see it as an unthinkable act of bravery.
“You know,” she tells me, “most of us — most of the wives I know who came when I did — weren’t scared. Americans always ask us if we were, but weren’t, not really.” The chance to come to America was a ticket to a different life, a chance to curl unflinching fingers around something as tenuous and intangible as happiness.
But she didn’t realize that building a future here — providing her children with all the opportunities America has to offer — would ensure that they would, in some ways, always be foreign to her. I can’t imagine it’s ever easy to raise or understand a child. Just when you think that they’ve mastered the concept of indoor plumbing, they start having ideas that go against everything you stand for. In high school I remember a teacher telling us that we should listen to our parents and be patient with them. “They’ve been through everything you’re going through,” she told us emphatically.
But they haven’t. My mother certainly hasn’t. She has never wanted to buy a hair straightener so she could imitate the glossy, pin-straight hair of the unfriendly white girls in her middle school class. She has never understood the pull of tank tops, shorts, and makeup. She has never yearned for the kind of showy, gold-star, palpable parental love that American society tells children they are owed. She finds the concept of dating dangerous and highly suspect. When my mother and I fight, we do so across a divide that is not just generational but cultural.
So no, we are not the same, and there are some aspects of girlhood that will never resonate with us both. I have never been pressured to get married at the age of twenty-one. I have never had to move across the world wearing all the gold I own in the hope that what lay before me would somehow be better than what I was leaving behind.
It drives me mad, her inability to shift her views to the present tense, into a less discordant key, but of course my mother ties her values to what she has always known. She came to a country where, in her eyes, money and sex overruled all sense of goodness and decency. Why wouldn’t she rely on what she knew was tried and true to create a better future for her children?
And do I break her heart when the future I want to chart for myself is so different from the one she has given everything for me to have?
Therein lies the question so many second-generation children struggle with. We are the product of promise, a hope for something better than what our parents left behind. We carry the weight of that promise on our shoulders through late nights spent studying and lectures about gratitude and the stories our parents tell about what they gave up and what they have gained — for us. Of course we feel the pressure to achieve; of course we try to live up to it. Everything we make of ourselves is built upon the backs of people who have sacrificed more than we can ever fully understand. We will always carry that with us.
My mother didn’t come as the miners did, to dig up gold from the earth.
She came to put down roots. She came for the children she would have. She came for the fertile earth and sanctioned irreverence and heady taste of freedom.
She already had her gold.