By Nabil Mehta | Though I enjoyed, as every proud Canadian must, the silent cold of winter during my childhood in Toronto, it was the summer afternoons that I secretly liked best. Maybe it was the nest of cardinals outside my bedroom, singing a song that to this day puts me back in the same bed. Or maybe it was the sun pouring through the second-floor skylight and lighting up every carpet dust particle just so, or the afternoons playing catch with my brother in the cul-de-sac, disrupted occasionally to assure my mother that I hadn’t broken my arm in the last 15 minutes.
This day, though, was different. The mid-August sun had nothing to illuminate but some carpet under-pad and a few boxes left in the hallway. The bed in which I’d been serenaded had been removed, and the cardinals’ chirps bounced around bare walls. We were moving, I had been told a few months ago, to a place called Connecticut, in the United States.
Isn’t that in Pittsburgh? I had asked.
My father brought my brother and me into the guest bedroom, stepping over the rolled carpet. The sun had just started to set below the pine trees. My father placed one arm around each of us as he looked out over the trees. The difference between a house and a home, he told us, is the memories you make in it and the people you share it with. A butterfly fluttered into the window screen and flew away. This is my home, I thought. Everything I can remember happened here.
We turned and left and boarded a plane to live in a house my father had rented the month before in a place I hadn’t even seen in pictures.
I refused to describe our new residence as a house, deciding that “white box-like shelter” was more appropriate. Gone were the cardinals, the skylight, and the cul-de-sac. In their place were a steeply sloping driveway, ugly wall-to-wall broadloom, and dinner eaten off paper plates on top of empty boxes, in an empty kitchen in an empty house in an empty neighborhood. The first night, we slept next to each other on the floor of the living room under blankets my mother had brought in a suitcase. The house was pitch black and completely silent save for the hum of an air conditioner. The rest of my family slept quietly, but I was restless in this unfamiliar place: I rose to get a glass of water, tiptoeing gingerly across the floor, groping for walls and light switches, lost.
The darkness continued for longer than I imagined it would. In September 2000 I started fourth grade in a school that everyone else had been attending since kindergarten. I intentionally spelled words colour and neighbour and disregarded my teacher’s big red slashes through the letter u. Students stopped me in the hallway outside of Ms. Singer’s classroom and asked where I was going—just to point out that I said washroom instead of bathroom. I was Canadian, I told them. That’s what we say.
I reluctantly stood as we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day before fifth grade Social Studies. I wanted my old home back, my grandmother’s food, the woods and the ravine behind the house, my friends. Plus the people here weren’t as nice, I thought. And the candy tasted worse.
We returned to Canada every summer and almost every Christmas, where my grandparents had moved into our old house and were in the process of renovating it. They tore down the stone fireplace that had served as the backdrop of countless photographs, and replaced the countertops I used to sit on as a child. I felt like a foreigner in my own home. Still, back at school I proudly wore Toronto Maple Leafs hats and T-shirts. Upon graduating eighth grade, each student decorated a small plaque that would be hung in the hallway alongside those from years past. Mine was a depiction of the Canadian flag, with the Hockey Canada logo replacing the red maple leaf in the center. I wanted to make sure people knew. And that I didn’t forget.
But slowly, things changed. I found it difficult to live in my past as much as I wanted to. By the time I was finishing high school, I had begun to feel at home among Connecticut’s unlit winding roads. My Canadian childhood came up only in passing, prompted perhaps by a missed reference. “I can’t believe you’ve never heard of that show!” a friend would say. “They must not have had it in Canada.”
On a sunny June morning after my first year at Penn, I find myself in a packed New Haven courthouse. I sit with my father on a wooden bench darkened with age, my blue Oxford bunching up at my waist. In front of me is an English family from Greenwich with two young children. To my left, a Hispanic man with his wife, taking pictures of every moment. To my right, my father beams with pride. A door opens in the front of the room, and an old man dressed in black walks through it slowly to his bench. He stands, spreads his arms out, and smiles.
“Today you will become United States citizens.”
People clap. I’m unsettled. My brother had come up from New York a few months earlier for a similar ceremony with my parents. The small American flags they were given are still planted in a flowerpot in our kitchen. I’m the last one in my family to officially split my nationality two ways. My father repositions himself on the other side of the room, a prime spot for pictures, leaving me alone in the corner of the courthouse. I listen to the judge, with his wrinkles and black gown, his arms crossed, speak about the importance of voting, the new rights we now will be given …
I think of my father. I look out at the rows of people who are ready for what I’m still hesitant about. It seems as though they are beckoning me to join them, promising that my apprehensions will vanish as theirs already have. I will join you, I think, and I close my eyes against the bright courtroom lights.
In the blackness of my eyelids I am carried across ten years to the doorstep of a small Indian clothing shop in Ottawa. My small hand rests on a black wire screen door, ready to enter on cue. For that ninth year of my life, I was an actor, pulled into an unlikely leading role in a low-budget but successful film written by a relative. For this scene, I’ve put on a white sailor suit: an old Halloween costume complete with black trim, black shoes, and a white hat fitted snugly on my matted hair. I clutch the handle of a child-size briefcase, and wait. Through the wire mesh of the door I can see my father, observing the spectacle from just off-camera. The other actors go over lines while leaning on a glass case displaying fake earrings and necklaces. In this moment, though, I am outside, alone.
My character, Omi, has been searching for someone to cure his sick mother back in India, with a desperation amplified by his unease in this new country. In the midst of a heated exchange with the man Omi has found, the actor playing his cousin is meant to yell at me, “Your mother is dead! She died last night. We were going to tell you.” But Omi refuses to believe that his search has been in vain, so he runs.
Take nine, someone says, clapping the slate in front of the camera. I enter and deliver the emotional lines wrong, again, my gap-toothed, camera-shy grin all too obvious through the words. Not enough emotion, not believable, you’re angry, remember, you’re sad and upset. Discouraged, I glance past the director kneeling in front of me. It will get dark soon, threatening to delay the filming until tomorrow. My father looks at me with his hands in his pockets, and smiles. It’s okay, try again. I readjust the sailor’s cap atop my head, nod, and walk back outside to repeat the scene.
After I finally get it right, and filming is finished, I walk past the shop with my father and brother, stepping gingerly over stones in the dark. It is in front of these shop windows that Omi realizes that his search for his mother’s salvation has actually, all along, been a search for a new kind of belonging. Accepting his new family and home in Ottawa doesn’t have to mean betraying his Indian heritage or the memory of his mother.
My father and brother and I walk to our car. I’m tired yet satisfied, having finally mastered those difficult lines, and my insecurities. I feel the surge of excitement and invulnerability that only children feel. Anyone could do what I just did, I could show you, come on!
I will join you. I open my eyes and stand with the crowd in the New Haven courthouse. I raise my right hand and read the Oath of Naturalization: I hereby declare, on oath—a camera flashes in the corner of my eye—that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.
I catch my father’s eye as my name is called. He grins and nods. I try not to smile, but as the judge hands me my certificate of citizenship one slips out. Outside, a truck rumbles past the courthouse, passing through this fleeting moment, as I am, but moving along on its journey to somewhere unknowable and far away.
Nabil Mehta is a senior bioengineering major from Stamford, Connecticut.