I knew I was an alien since I was five years old. The government gave me a little green card that said so, it said RESIDENT ALIEN. I looked at it curiously whenever my parents brought it out. I needed it to go back into the atmosphere, I guess so they wouldn’t scramble jets and shoot me down. I was a little green man.
In truth I was a little brown boy, but what did I know? I only knew what I saw. I saw that card. I saw that I was different from everyone else. I was an alien.
I grew up in Upper Arlington, Ohio. A relatively progressive but deeply segregated town. I didn’t know it at the time, but black people and Jews couldn’t buy property there until 1970s. I was part of the first wave of Asian migrants that started moving there in the 1980s, and I mean literally the first. In 1986 it was basically just me.
I can really understand when people say “I don’t see race.” I never saw race unless I looked in a mirror, and as a child I was just too short for most of those. Besides family, I can’t remember meeting anyone of color until middle school. My high school was 99% white.
The weird thing about being such a minority is that I ceased to be a minority. Minority is a category and I was just one kid. Sri Lankan? Indian? Who cared? I was just Jit. Even the entire category of ‘Asian’ was just me and the twins (Janet and Joyce) for years. It was far more relevant that our names started with the letter J. That at least affected where we stood in line.
In every way I was a resident alien. I was obviously alien, but it wasn’t interesting because I’d been a resident so long. I only really felt it on the first day of school, when they took attendance. The new teacher would look up helplessly, blinded by my name. That was me. “Here!” I would say. I was the alien and I was here, and we could ignore how weird I was for another year. I was the resident alien.
Where Are You Really From?
You forget you’re an alien unless you have to reenter Earth again. That happened for me when I left my small town and went to the big city, Montreal, Canada. When I got to university people asked me “where are you from?” and “Ohio” somehow wasn’t the right answer. Even if they were polite, I could see question still unanswered behind their smile. This was confusing for me. For the first time in my life I had to really think about it. Where am I from?
I had been a resident alien for years and suddenly I was just alien. Here I was in a more diverse city, feeling like a minority for the first time. The correct answer, of course, was that I was from Sri Lanka, a place I had left when I was four years old. That’s where I was really from. But that answer just left me with more questions. E.T. home phone?
In those days, Sri Lanka was as far as the moon. Apollo 11 took about three days to get to lunar orbit, and it could take as long to get to Katunayake Airport. We had one flight that was (if I remember correctly) Columbus ⇢ Chicago ⇢ LA ⇢ Taipei ⇢ Colombo. Amma did it with three kids and two cassette tapes. Even astronauts aren’t trained for that.
When I finished university I did what every racist tells you to do. I “went back where you came from!” I returned to sender. I rentered Earth, not as an alien, but as a regular human being. What I discovered, however, was that you can come back, but you can never return. Time only goes in one direction, and identity doesn’t take returns.
If anything, I’m even more alien here, where I ‘came from’. I look like everyone else… until I open my mouth. I am from here… but this is not where I grew up. In many ways I was born in an airport. I’m a foreign body wherever I go.
How do you reenter a place you don’t remember leaving? How are you ‘from’ a place your parents left? I was a child when all these decisions were made, and no one ever expected me to immigrate back. It still confuses taxi drivers here when I explain why I talk funny. “You did what?”
People struggle, save, and grovel to get across the passport apartheid line and I just said ‘fuck it’ and went back. I had all the paperwork of power and then I filled out even more paperwork to live on the other side. It’s nearly 20 years later now and I’m quite Sri Lankan. I’ve lived more here than there. But I’m still from nowhere.
In America I looked like an alien but talked like a resident. In Sri Lanka I look like a resident and talk like an alien. All I did was go from Resident Alien to Alien Resident. I can change the order of words but never my fundamental alienation. That is my only nation, really. The Alien Nation.
You can go up and down in the atmosphere, you can reenter Earth a dozen times, but you can never reenter the same stream twice. You can let a little Green Card expire, but you can’t bring back a little brown boy. I was born in an airport, raised in segregation, educated in the city, and now I’m back where I’m from. But none of this is who I am. I was and will be, forever a little green man.