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August 12, 2015

The Long Ride Home

“Keep slight right to be in the rightmost lane while turning left.”

I instantly regretted hopping off the interstate to take the detour my GPS suggested.

“Turn right.”

Forty hours. I’ve been driving for over forty hours. Since leaving California, I had gotten to know every third rest area and restaurant that served Indian food along interstates 80 and 64.

I could hardly make sense of it, honestly, why I would stop to eat exclusively Indian food now. I had spent five years away in California. Four were for college, and when the other students rushed the head home during the vacations, I found ways to stick around. Back in Virginia with my controlling, manipulative parents was the last place I wanted to be.

I managed to go four years without a single trip back. Then, after getting my degree, I stuck around for another year to see if I could make it work. I wanted a job working for a startup in San Francisco. I’m young, so what better time? If pushed, I would have considered relocating north to Redmond.

Instead, I got a job doing IT for some education company in Richmond. Richmond, Virginia―over two and a half thousand miles from the one near San Francisco that I wanted to call home. I won’t be making apps or games. I’ll be designing custom software for schools to use. Or rather, I’ll be troubleshooting it. And I’ll be doing it less than ten minutes from my parents’ house.

Yet, I’m excited. Very excited.

It took me a while to come to terms with this change. At 18, I wanted nothing more than to have nothing to do with where I’m from. Growing up American in an Indian household isn’t easy. My parents forbade me from acting like the kids I grew up with. “We’re not like them,” they’d say. And it was true—they weren’t. But I was. I was a brown kid with a creamy black center.

Yeah, black. Unlike most other Indian families, my parents bought a house a few blocks outside of the so-called good district. So instead of going to school with the rich white and Asian kids, I studied alongside the spawn of working class families. The school was still mostly white, but there was a large black population, and I fit in best with them.

This was something no one in my family liked. Everything they had seen from American television, before and after the move, had taught them that nothing good would come from their son associating with the kid of friends he did.

That only made me spend more time with them. My grandparents on both sides were shocked at how dark I was becoming from all the time outside playing basketball. This bothered them even more than the lyrics they occasionally heard slip out through my headphones.

When I got the chance to get away, I took it. There was absolutely no way I’d be another awkward brown guy who grew up to spend his life in IT and at the temple. If that was what it meant to be Indian in America, I would gladly give up the first nationality for the latter.

Then I got a job offer back in Richmond, and despite a decade’s worth of time spent hating the place, I said yes.

“Take the ramp for I-64, then keep straight.”

There had to be construction or an accident, because that part of the interstate was usually never busy. I knew this for certain. There were several places tucked away in Virginia’s mountains that my parents considered sacred. A waterfall here. A temple there.

I used to consider this area the middle of nowhere, but compared to some parts of the country I driven through over the past two days, I would never feel that way again. Even if not many people lived nearby, but they were at least civilization adjacent. Being two hours away from both Richmond and Washington DC was a much better deal than northern Nevada or central Nebraska. Within the first twenty four hours of my trips, these places made me want to pull over and die. To drive for two thousand miles and only pass through the cities of Reno, Salt Lake, and Omaha is a cruel existence I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

But the drive left me with plenty of time to contemplate the life I had waiting for me back east.

In my five years away I had grown out of my angsty teenage years. Only one year out, I was already leaving behind the idealism of college. The cold reality was that a job was a job, and I was fortunate to come across something I didn’t hate that paid more than enough for me to live off. And as I thought about what was truly important to me, now that the time had come for me to make my own decisions, having some relationship with my family registered somewhere on the list.

Both of these things represented something I had undervalued growing up. Consistency. Stability. I may not have liked the life my parents had in mind for me, but I could choose something adjacent.

“You have reached your destination.”

I didn’t need the GPS to tell me that much. Five years had passed, and while my entire world had changed multiple times over, the house I left behind had remained entirely the same. Ganesha still hung to the side of the front door. A pile of shoes remained situated below. I easily recognized a pair of flip flops as my dad, unchanged but worn down, among the mix.

Still seated in the driver’s seat of the moving truck, I took my smartphone down from its holder and tapped the first number in my favorites list.

“Hey. Yeah, I’m home.”

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“The Long Ride Home” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.