The phone conversation starts the same way many of them do: I faintly remember a story my mom once told me and ask her to tell it again. She’s always been our family’s keeper of stories.
Mom takes me back to 1989. She’s standing in a fluorescent-lit room, well dressed, surrounded by other families at the hospital mixer. She introduces herself to another woman: “Hi, my name is Aruna.” She says she just moved to Bismarck, North Dakota, from St. Louis. She mentions her children — Sonali, Shivani, and Sanjay — and her husband, Vinod.
Halfway through the conversation, the woman asks: “Can I call you Anna?” The question throws Mom off balance. She’s mortified. She wants to get along in her new home, but she politely declines. “No, my name is Aruna.”
As Mom tells her story, she remembers some friends in St. Louis who never felt welcome or comfortable in their new community, fellow immigrants who missed the comfort of India. They stayed in their homes, feeling judged and intimidated. She talks about trying to pull them out into the community, coaching them on how to make a new life in America.
But in Bismarck, where you could once count the number of Indian-American families on one hand, even she wasn’t sure whether she would ever be comfortable. “Sometimes you feel like you don’t matter,” she says. She mentions my dad’s friends who sometimes call him “Vinny.” If people ask about Vinny, though, she responds, “Oh, you mean Vinod?”
“I want to make sure they know,” she says.
She recalls my grandmother’s horror at the way my sister Sonali embraced the nickname “Nali.” “Sonali means ‘golden,’” my grandmother would say. “Nali means ‘sewer.’”
“I hated the nicknames,” Mom says. “All the history and culture and love and affection behind the names. Such disrespect, in a way. I thought we gave them good names and they should be remembered for those names.”
I decide at this point not to remind her of my own middle school nickname, “Sponge,” which started with a hockey teammate mishearing “Sanjay.” But the look on her face when she heard it — pride and happiness at seeing her son embraced by his friends, mixed with the anxiety of raising her children on uncertain ground — sticks in my mind.
As we talk, I think about my mom winning a write-in campaign for the Bismarck School Board and picture the colorful saris she wore to the marathon public meetings she ran.
Sharing one story reminds Mom of others. She describes a community prayer service at the Bismarck Civic Center one week after September 11. It was initially intended to be a Christian event, but she and my dad — who had recently become American citizens — and others in the community organized an effort to expand the list of speakers. On the day of the service, they walked into the arena with Muslim, Unitarian, Lakota Sioux, and Baha’i friends. The mayor escorted their group inside and said he was glad to have my parents there to represent the “international community.”
“Sure, we were scared,” she says. But when her turn to speak came, Mom invited friends, neighbors, and strangers to stand and hold hands. Before she started, she said, “This is a prayer for peace from India, around 1,000 years before Christ.” She sang the prayer, “Shanti Paath,” in Sanskrit and then translated it.
What made her put herself out there, especially in a place like Bismarck? She was creating a space for herself — and for us. “We are a part of this community,” she says toward the end of our call. “The more we talk about what’s at stake as a nation of immigrants, the better we accept each other, the less hate and discrimination we’ll have.”Sanjay Seth is a graduate student in public administration and urban planning at Harvard University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.