Anjali Enjeti | Longreads | January 2017 | 10 minutes (2,425 words)
I am sitting in the middle seat of the third row of a minivan. A heap of purses crowd my feet. Elbows and knees jab my sides. We are gridlocked on I-285 during Atlanta evening rush hour in a crawl-pause rhythm, our progress as tedious as arranging the frames of a stop motion animation film. The nose of our van points southeast to Savannah, the historic coastal town Union Army General Sherman spared during the Civil War. When raindrops the size of nickels smack our windshield, the hazard lights on surrounding vehicles blink on like garlands of bulbs on a Christmas tree.
“Hey,” my friend in the second row calls, craning her neck to make eye contact. “Do you want chai?”
I lean forward. The seatbelt catches my breastbone. “You want to make a stop already? We’ll never get there at this rate.”
“No, no,” says the driver, my neighbor from up the street. “We brought a thermos. And cups.”
I am incredulous, not only because my friends thought to pack chai on a four-hour road trip, but because, judging by the way the rest of my friends continue their chatter, I am the only person who finds it odd.
It’s no wonder. Among our seven passengers, six have immigrated to the U.S. from South Asia. They sip chai from morning to night. Percolating pots of fresh ginger, full fat milk and cardamom serve as background music in their homes.
I am the only one of us born and raised in the States, the only one who considers bagged tea to be actual tea, the one who stubbornly refuses to wear saris to celebrate South Asian holidays, the clueless audience for conversations rattled off in Hindi, a language I don’t understand.
I am the interpreter of academic monograms like S.A.T. and A.P., the friend who suggests they not worry so much about their kids’ grades or test scores, the beloved Aunty who sticks up for their children whenever a parental rule interferes with their enjoyment of authentically American childhoods.
Steam from the chai forms a layer of film on my face. I inhale its aroma, hopeful it will ease the dull ache in my gut, the sinking feeling my friends probably can’t decipher because they grew up in countries where their brown skin and names did not summarily mark them as outsiders. Not even these ladies, my closest friends, know that I harbor a deep-seated fear of small American cities and towns.
Like the one we’re headed to. Read more…