TORCH: My American Playground
I was born in England, but my earliest memory is of America. My mother had taken me to a playground at the crest of a low grassy hill. The sun was shining and I was hanging from a purple, spiral-shaped climbing frame, happy, carefree and safe.
We returned to England a few months later. I was three. We were the only people of color in a mostly working-class village in 1970s Lancashire. It was cold and it rained a lot. The locals, taught to blame migrants for the declining economy, called us “Pakis,” a misdirected geographical term, an insult, and a label, reminding us we were outsiders, that we did not belong.
It was a word I heard every day, from four-year-olds at school, from skinheads on the corner, and from young mothers pushing prams on the street. British flags were posted through our letterbox, rocks thrown at our windows. I often dreamed of my playground and wondered what might have happened had we stayed on in the US. When I spoke with Indian American relatives, their experience of racism tended to be limited to that understated, middle-class mockery that eats away at one’s self-esteem; none reported the violent execration that I experienced.
On my first day at high school an older boy asked me if I was a Paki. I said no.
“What about your parents; where are they from?” the boy continued, his hands behind his back.
“They are from India,” I said softly, and he produced a handful of soil, which he covered me with.
It was true: all my extended family were in India. We visited every other year, those interminable Air India flights that felt like going to the moon. The intervals between trips were long for a child and I remember being greeted by uncles and aunties at the airport and wondering who they were even though they seemed to know me so well, looked at me with a warmth and affection I wasn’t used to.
Over the following weeks I would become closer to them, more attached, though there was a measure of alienation that never fully subsided. I had grown up in an English-speaking household and could barely understand what they were saying when they spoke in any one of the three or four Indian languages they all knew fluently. I remember once an elderly relative, mostly blind, said something I did not catch and my cousin cheekily told her to speak in English.
“Then tell him to get an English grandmother,” she countered.
By the time we returned to England, I would always undergo a culture shock, one intensified by the realization that I could never communicate my experiences in India to anyone.
As I entered my teens the racism continued, albeit in a somewhat changed form. I was at a party once when a group of youths who had seen me on the street surrounded the house saying, “Get that fucking darkie out here now.” I remember one of my friends telling me to go outside and talk to them while another handed me a knife with which to defend myself. I refused, and the boys broke in, punched a few people, including a girl, and left. I was told to apologize to the girl.
Not long afterwards, at a different party, a birthday, the host’s uncle, a man with giant forearms, told me I was a “black bastard.”
“If I got to know you, I might like you,” he said, “but for now you can fuck off. If you want to make something of it get over here.”
A friend told him not to be racist, one the only times I can remember someone defending me, and I lit a cigarette and was screamed at by the host’s mother for smoking in the house, even though several others were smoking, too. I left alone, found a call box, and phoned for a taxi.
I spent most of my twenties abroad, trying to find a country I wanted to live in. For years, I wondered if I could end up in India, erasing the trauma of migration by reversing the process. I experimented with other places too, London, a remote beach on the coast of Suffolk, Berlin, Kathmandu, Hong Kong, finding temporary homes, new and exciting ways to be an outsider.
When I was thirty I returned to the northwest of England, living in Manchester for six years, an hour away from my parents. Most of my memories of Manchester involve rain. On an average day the sky was literally fifty shades of grey. Summers could last for no longer than a week. Every day, from 11 a.m., the pubs were full of men watching daytime television. At night the air smelt of beer and cigarettes and people swore and sometimes fought in the streets. The following morning there would be broken glass and pools of vomit on the pavements. Sometimes I see wreaths of flowers, marking the spot where someone had been stabbed or shot. In many ways, it was similar to the Lancashire I grew up in; people were friendly, unpretentious, warm, and aggressive. I heard racial abuse, from time to time. But the difference was that where I lived, in Whalley Range, my neighbors were from Kerala, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Poland, and I rarely felt unsafe.
I remember an old woman who lived a few doors away from me. Her husband was dying of cancer, and I would occasionally run errands for her, but she shocked me once by referring to “the little Paki girl who lived down the road”, seeming to have no idea I might object to the word. On another occasion, I was woken by shouting at 4 a.m. and opened the curtains to see a white couple who lived opposite me chasing one another in the street. The husband was shouting that she was a “n— loving bitch,” and she was saying, “Well look at you; you think you’re so black and hard.” I watched for a while, wondering if I should call the police, particularly when she began hiding in my garden while he searched for her, but eventually they seemed to reach a détente and I returned to bed. In the morning, I was standing in my driveway, telling the Nigerian woman who lived downstairs about it, when the couple approached us and apologized for the disturbance. ‘And I’m sorry for the racist language,” said the husband. “I’m a dickhead.”
In a city with people of near every ethnicity and ideology, there will also be racists. This is a function of diversity. But even a racist isn’t a racist all the time—there is diversity within each human, too, but we need a particular environment for this to manifest, for it to breathe. The monoculture of my childhood didn’t permit this, but Manchester did, and the presence of so many people of color there meant that the racism could never overwhelm me. It wasn’t a glamorous or beautiful city—in fact, I would be hard-pressed to say that I liked it—but I felt very much at home in Manchester. But I knew I wouldn’t stay. I wanted more.
It was while living in Manchester that I visited the US for the first time in twenty years, spending a week in New York and falling in love with the city as only the truly rootless can. Unlike Manchester, New York was glamorous and exciting, and stimulating, and though I disagreed with so many of the city’s values—capitalism, hedonism, individualism—I quickly became addicted to its energy, its seductive power. I returned often after this, spending longer periods of time there even after I moved to Hong Kong in 2009, and then, in 2012, to Berlin, where I live today.
In 2014, I was awarded a fellowship for writers with a meditation practice, which led to me exploring the west coast for several months, traveling from meditation centre to meditation centre. I fell in love with California this time, which appealed to the free-spirited, joyous, gregarious side of my nature, but in 2016 I returned once more to New York, becoming writer-in-residence at the Zen Centre of New York City. After spending many wonderful weeks there, I decided to rent a car and drove up the east coast, passing through Boston, a city I had little memory of, and making a spontaneous visit to Harvard University. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and I bought an ice cream and sat in a deckchair in Harvard yard, watching tourists rubbing the toe of the “statue of three lies.” I thought of how my parents would be excited to know where I was, and emailed them some photographs. By the time I finished my ice cream my mother had replied, asking me whether I remembered living there when I was three.
“In Belmont,” she wrote, “not far from Boston. Nice place. You went to playschool there.”
This came as a shock: for some reason, I had always believed we lived in Philadelphia. Returning to the car, I entered “Belmont” into the GPS. It was only forty minutes away, though it was rush hour and I had been warned about the Boston traffic. But at that moment, nothing could have stopped me.
Belmont turned out to be a quiet, green suburb, very calm after the sweat and fury of the drive, full of white wooden houses with verandas and neatly manicured lawns, a literal New England, evocative of that parallel life I had often wondered about, the one in which I had never heard the word “Paki.”
I reached the end of town and drove back, passing a public library and a dental practice, wondering if I had ever been there. And then I saw it, away to my left, on the far side of a four-lane highway: a swimming pool filled with clear blue water, and behind it a grassy slope, and at the top of this, a playground.
I left the car by the roadside and ran up the slope, in tears now, reaching the picnic tables and swings and, as bright and vivid as in my dreams, my purple-shaped climbing frame, exactly as I remembered it. I stood there for several minutes, trying to take it in from every angle. I noticed a woman walking a poodle nearby and asked her if she knew how long the playground had been there.
“Since I was a child,” she said (she looked about my age). “Probably longer.”
I was grateful—she didn’t seem at all phased by this dark stranger with tears in his eyes—but when she walked away I felt was disappointed. I wished she had stayed to talk, had this feeling that we ought to have been friends, that she was a neighbor from another lifetime and that if I knocked randomly on doors I would eventually meet myself, could go upstairs to my bed and finally get some rest.
But the truth was I knew no one there, had only a rental car to return to, and it was getting late; I was expected for dinner at my next retreat. And so I took several pictures, emailing them to my elder sister, before driving away.
While still on the road, a couple of hours later, I received an email from my sister and pulled over to read it:
“This is what I remember,” she wrote:
We used to live in the downstairs part of a wooden house and would spend a lot of time watching Sesame Street. Mum took you to the local library (not sure if it’s the same one you saw) where you did painting and crafts and I went to school not far away. I was only seven, but I took the bus on my own. I remember being very short compared to the rest of my class who were far better at Maths than me. I learnt that pizza should only be eaten using your hands, never with a knife and fork, and I learnt that gay does not necessarily mean happy. I don’t remember learning anything else.
I baked a lot of cakes and Mum went to a photography class. Ask her to show you the pictures she took in that park where we used to spend hours rolling down a grassy hill. I have a similar memory of a really happy time.
We used to like eating Crazy Cow for breakfast (cereal which turned the milk pink) and making popcorn. None of us liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—we thought they were odd.
I don’t remember anyone ever making a racist comment whilst walking to and from school, unlike in England were racist comments were so much a part of daily life that I hardly noticed them, though I still remember the days when no one made a racist comment to me all day.
Still, you were quite angry to have left England. You used to talk a lot about going back home to the house with the green garage door and had impressive tantrums. I don’t think you were happy to have been moved at that age and you wanted to go back.
On June 23, a week after my visit to Belmont, the British people voted to leave the European Union. I was at a writing residency in Vermont, following the results on Twitter. Of course I was dismayed by the result, but not surprised. I had grown up in Brexit country, knew that much of Britain consisted of similar villages and towns, where the vast majority of people weren’t excited by globalization and had little desire to experience other cultures, that many wanted the world to stop changing, wanted to return to an England they knew only through the drunken dyslexia of nostalgia, an imperial past that, in all probability, had treated their forebears as callously as it had mine.
The day after the vote the director of the residency informed me an old resident had arrived and, hearing I was from Lancashire, wanted to meet me, having grown up there himself. That morning, for the first time since arriving, I locked my studio, determined not to the answer the door to anyone. At lunchtime, I sat near the exit and ate hurriedly, but nonetheless, while I was attempting to leave, the director tapped my shoulder an introduced me to a man of about my age, bearded and in a plaid shirt, grinning broadly.
“So you’re from Blackpool?”
“Somewhere near there,” I told him, grinning back. “I hated it mercilessly.”
“Oh, so did I,” he said, in a shimmering trans-Atlantic accent, and I leaned forward to hug him, in part to atone for the dark thoughts I’d had about him all morning, in part to banish any remaining fear from my mind.
We sat together and spoke about Brexit, how “our part of the country” had voted overwhelmingly in its favor. I could tell that, for him, a US citizen now, the trauma was more remote, and I envied him this.
For the remainder of that week I found many of the residents struggled to understand what I was going through. They could see the shock in my eyes, which only increased every day, but found it hard to relate. Meanwhile, I read the news, reports from my friends on social media that confirmed that racist incidents were on the rise, even in London, with people of color afraid to go out on the street. While I was laying low in rural Vermont, it seemed that England was returning to the war zone of my childhood.
Towards the end of my stay, one of the residents showed me two books she had rescued from the garbage, hardback histories of England from the 1970s. Delighted with her find, I made a performance piece which I eventually put on YouTube, drilling through the books and sawing them in half before burning them ceremonially in front of the community, falling to my knees and smashing the embers with a hammer in an entirely genuine fit of anguish and rage. When it was over several commented that, ‘This will be us in November,’ and now I knew they understood—Brexit had made the threat of Trump all the more real.
I had always believed that Donald Trump stood a strong chance of becoming president. Although I felt safer in the US, I knew that the majority of the country was more like Blackpool than Belmont. Sadder still, even Belmont was probably not like the Belmont I imagined it to be. My sister, after all, had moved to an English equivalent of it, an overwhelmingly white and middle-class suburb replete with large houses and grassy expanses, yet over many years I had come to realize the residents there were just as narrow-minded as those in Lancashire, only with more money.
When my residency was over, I drove to New Hampshire and stayed for a few days at a beautiful retreat center deep in the countryside where I meditated for hours each day and took long peaceful walks. In the evenings I sat on the porch and watched the sun set behind trees on the horizon. On my second day there, a middle-aged woman joined me and I ended up telling her the story of how I had visited Belmont.
“Belmont,” she said. “I used to live there too.”
“Yep, I was a psychiatric patient,” she said, and smiled.
McLean Hospital, I learned, was a well-known facility whose former inpatients included Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace. My new friend used to live in a house for women with trauma histories. She had been required to chart her mood three times a day, and to sign herself out on a whiteboard whenever she went for walks down the hill. She used to take naps on the grassy slope beneath my playground because her roommate would scream all night, preventing her from sleeping.
“We weren’t really allowed to discuss our pasts,” she said, “so it was a mystery why she was screaming, though that makes my time there sound more interesting than it was. Mostly we were bored out of minds, or suicidal, or both. But still, I’m here now.”
And so was I, watching the trees in silhouette in front of us, so quiet and still.
”Do you know what we’re looking at?” she asked.
“Nope. It’s a private hunting park. Membership’s a million dollars. Senators and movie stars come to shoot animals imported from all over the world.”
“You mean like giraffes?”
I stared back at the trees, hoping for a glimpse of a giraffe, but could only see their green leaves, moving in the breeze. The woman and I spoke a little while longer before I went to bed. She was gone by the time I came down for breakfast the following morning.
Five months later, Donald Trump became President of the United States. I was in Berlin, stayed up all night watching the results on CNN. Like millions around the world, my life changed that day, becoming dominated by social media and news sites, morning’s headlines bringing fresh anxieties and shocks. I found myself writing article after article on politics until I found I couldn’t do it anymore, that I had nothing left to say, that current affairs had become this relentless action movie I could hardly bear to watch anymore. I felt spent and exhausted, wanted it all to stop while knowing this couldn’t happen. That nothing could go back to the normal because “normal” was an illusion we had been duped into believing in for years.
Almost a year later, Berlin became the site of a terrorist attack when a man drove a truck into a Christmas market a mile away from my home, killing twelve people. I could hear church bells ringing at an unusually late hour, mourning the dead, and I remember lying in bed for most of the night asking myself why anyone would do such a thing, shocked and traumatized, fearing for the inevitable reaction, the succor it would give the burgeoning far right in Europe.
Six months later, on May 22, 2017, a terrorist detonated a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, killing twenty-three adults and children. This time my reaction took me by surprise. I couldn’t stop crying, and when I tried to write about it, I found I had nothing to say: my grief was too overwhelming. This attack had a far more personal impact on me that the attack on Berlin, which was so close to my house, and I began to understand why the following morning, when I landed at Manchester Airport, for a trip I had planned in advance and refused to cancel.
As I took the tram into the city, I realized that I still didn’t much like Manchester, which was as grey, depressing, alcoholic, and vaguely threatened as ever, but it was my city and I loved it, just as I loved my family, in an unconditional way.
I walked from the station into the city center. Everything looked much the same. The pubs were open and full. Addicts were squatting in doorways, begging for cash. The only anomaly were the two high, shirtless men dancing in front of a makeshift placard with the words “Spirit of Manchester” written on it in large blue letters, holding out paper cups to the tourists and commuters. This made me laugh. Mancunians dislike pretension and high-sounding language, and over the last twenty-four hours the press had been full of rhetoric about “the spirit of Manchester.” These two were doing what Mancunians do best: they were “taking the piss,” cutting through the grandiosity and hysteria and bringing us all back to earth, to “business as usual,” the phrase Manchester’s mayor had used that morning.
And over the following week, everyone seemed to return to business as usual, which, for Manchester, meant copious and purposeful drinking. One afternoon I encountered four men in black shirts with gold lettering which read, “FUCK THE TERROR.” When I asked them what they were doing to demonstrate their defiance they replied, pints in hand, “Getting hammered.” I no longer drink alcohol and tend to find the drinking culture in the city center intimidating, but I could only smile. This was Manchester. This was home.
The following week I traveled to London and, by coincidence, arrived the morning after a second terror attack in which seven more people were killed. Once more, I was deeply saddened, felt sympathy and goodwill for the people of this city that I knew so well and had lived in for years. But it didn’t have the visceral effect on me that the Manchester bombing had, even though, as a city, I prefer London. In fact, I prefer Berlin to both of them, but Manchester, I had learned, was my true home, the sort of home a person cannot choose, just as we cannot choose our parents. The bombings taught me this.
It occurs to me now that over the last twelve months, I have barely thought about my playground once. In fact, I have given up thinking of it as my playground, just as I have given up looking for a home outside of the ones I already have. I know I will continue to travel, to live in other countries and places, perhaps New York, perhaps California, but I no longer want to waste time dreaming of the future, or of the past. For better or for worse, I am committed to the reality I have right now, committed to the present in front of me. I don’t know if I will ever visit Belmont again. Perhaps I will, in another forty years’ time, just to see how it has changed. I wonder if the playground will still be there. And if it is, I wonder if we will still recognize one another.
TORCH is a monthly series edited by Arielle Bernstein devoted to showcasing personal essays and interviews about immigrant and refugee experiences. You can visit the archives here. For more information on submitting head here.
Rumpus original logo art by Jyotsna Warikoo Designs. Photographs provided courtesy of author.