Until I moved to India, I’d never viewed being Jewish as something unusual. I grew up in an upper middle class Boston suburb, where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were public school holidays for the entire district. The cafeterias in middle school and high school served matzoh all week long every Passover. We grew up thinking that Hanukkah was just as big of a deal as Christmas.
After college, in New York City, my husband and I synagogue-hopped with friends during the High Holy Days and ate kosher Chinese with his Orthodox cousins in Queens. We were as easily, transparently Jewish as we were young and ambitious and naive about the world. We took our religion, and the community that came with it, for granted. We didn’t know any better. We had never been “other.” I couldn’t even imagine what that felt like…until “other” became the very essence of my relationship with the world around me.
In India, we were seen as different the minute we stepped off the airplane. Hyderabad hadn’t yet experienced the influx of Westerners so many other Indian cities had. Seventy percent Muslim, the city had wanted to secede and become part of Pakistan (look on a map and you’ll see why such a wish was impossible). We were not only white; we were Jewish in a predominantly Muslim city. I saw women in burkas and felt even more like an outsider than I had just being an American in India.
But no one we met knew what “Jewish” was. As white people, we were automatically categorized as Christian. My driver, Venkat, with limited education and English skills but endless enthusiasm for learning about Western culture, simply could not wrap his head around the fact that Jay and I went to temple to observe our faith. The only temples he knew were Hindu; the only white people he knew went to church.
During the holidays, strangers would stop us on the street and shout “Happy Merry Christmas, Sir and Ma’am!” We received dozens of Christmas cards and gifts from friends and colleagues. It was clear our new community wanted to celebrate with us, but most attempts we made to explain “Jewish” and “Hanukkah” were met with confusion. We were Western, therefore we must celebrate Christmas. End of story. In the end, we stopped trying to swim upstream and graciously accepted our Merry Christmas wishes and bouquets of daisies dyed red and green.
It wasn’t until we traveled to Kerala and visited the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi that I realized how deep and intrinsic Judaism was to my identity—and how much I’d missed feeling connected to my faith. Located in “Jew Town,” the orthodox Paradesi synagogue is one of only a handful of functioning synagogues in all of India and one of the only ones with a minyan. No rabbi is present, but their services are led by community elders.
Setting foot in that synagogue, in the middle of India, I felt home in a way I still can’t quite describe. Even though we were still so firmly and obviously in India, a sense of home washed over me like warm, calming rain. I looked at the Hebrew letters with eyes that had grown accustomed to Sanskrit and Hindi and felt connected again to a part of me I’d been ignoring since we left the United States. Being Jewish wasn’t just about what I believed, but an intrinsic part of who I was.
It was truly amazing how this religion I’d often neglected, had taken for granted or passed over in favor of working and playing and being young in New York, had suddenly grounded me in faith and familiarity right in the middle of a country I’d been struggling for months to find my place in. India, so foreign and beautiful and confusing, was also—at least for that moment, in that tiny, ancient white synagogue in Kerala’s Jew Town—a place that felt like home.
I was sitting on the couch in my tiny apartment, trying to decide between takeout Thai and takeout sushi for dinner, when my husband walked in with a strange, glazed look in his eyes and announced we were moving to India.
India, the country.
We were newlyweds. I was finishing my graduate degree and dreamily planning a future that involved a writing career, a couple of kids, and a brownstone in Brooklyn, not necessarily in that order. My life was defined by the categories I fit into: a writer, a newlywed, a city girl. Being a housewife in a foreign country ten thousand miles from home was not supposed to be one of them.
Still, I’d promised to love and trust and follow my husband to the ends of the earth. I got my diploma, quit my job, and stepped onto an airplane with my eyes wide shut, naive and ill-prepared for the journey I was about to take.
Everything I did in my new role as an expat housewife was wrong. My attempts to fit into my new culture were awkward and half-hearted. I spent too much money on groceries ($20 dollars for an expired jar of Ragu pasta sauce), let the laundry pile up, stared sullenly into space at my husband’s work dinners instead of being the charming, sunny corporate wife I thought I’d be. Without my job and my city to define me, I became nobody, a parasitic hanger-on in a very foreign world. The new categories I’d imagined for myself—housewife, jet-setter—turned out to not fit so well. And without those labels to define me, I lost myself.
Except “lost” isn’t the right word. India taught me a lesson about identity that was equal parts painful, profound, and life-changing: I hadn’t really known myself at all. I was so busy painting a picture of who I thought I was supposed to be, a set of perfect labels to live up to, that I never learned to look in the mirror and see who that person actually was.
When I set myself free from all those labels—even the ones I loved, like writer and daughter and wife—I began to understand the bigger picture. I learned to blur the lines between those black-and-white boxes I’d spent much of my life believing I needed to fit into.
With so much debate about “leaning in,” and the insurmountable tasks of finding balance and having it all that have become part of today’s conversation, I look back on the lessons I learned in India, and I am grateful. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to choose one of the different worlds you actually float between.
Fitting snugly into the “housewife” box or the “expat” box didn’t happen for me. And, later on, the “mother” box and the “writer” box didn’t turn out to be perfect fits either, though I’d spent my whole life dreaming they would be. Those roles are largely defined by what we make of them, not what the fine print reads on the official descriptions. Sense of self comes from the choices we make and the things we do. When I stopped fighting against all the things I wasn’t, and the things India wasn’t, and learned to celebrate the things we were, I became whole again.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to choose between being a writer and a housewife, or to give up loving New York City in order to love Hyderabad, too. A little bit mango, a little Big Apple, a little bit “write”” and a little bit “maker of awesome turkey lasagna”: the real me was a collection of the pieces I’d chosen to be.
As a part-time working mom, I struggle to justify my choices and balance my priorities, but the essential first step is to know and remain true to myself. I still consider myself a part-time housewife, even though I never did learn to roast a chicken or iron my husband’s shirts. I have a career—not identical to the one I’d have if I dedicated all my resources to working, but one that makes me feel successful and fulfilled. I am a mother—not the same one I’d be if I dedicated all my resources to parenting, but still a mother I’m proud to have become.
Getting on that plane to India and becoming an accidental housewife changed my life forever, and in more ways than one. I learned lessons about expectations, and sacrifice, and perspective. But losing myself in India, and then finding myself again, was the best part of my journey. My path toward self-discovery remains fluid and perpetual, but my choices aren’t black or white anymore. Now when I look in the mirror, I can see the small parts as they come together to make up my whole.