Thinking in and out of the immigrant box

posted on July 21, 2014

By Saumiya Balasubramaniam Globe and Mail | Link to Article

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

By Saumiya Balasubramaniam Globe and Mail | Link to Article

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

‘I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” The wisdom of that old quotation dawned upon me again when I met a homeless man who volunteered to help me clear boxes for a move.

In the quiet of the long hallways of our new home and new-found life, I found a moment of contemplation and reflected on how sometimes in life we must be careful what we wish for, as we may actually get it. When we do, we either don’t get enough of it or we begin to doubt if what we wished for is really what makes us happy.

A well-deliberated decision to emigrate to a promising land, leaving behind the warmth and comfort of our own country, had initially landed my family in a box – literally. Our 400-square-foot rented space was just slightly bigger than our patio back home. We filled most of that space with boxes of our own.

After our excitement fizzled and the days began to grow shorter, our lives inside the box began to grow cold and mostly dark, like the season outside. With our modest savings being gnawed away, and jobs not kicking in as we had expected, we were a man, a woman and a three-year-old all clearly displaced out of our frame.

Our daughter had lost the warmth of the tropical sun, her kin and the room full of toys she used to call her own. Now, eating, playing, sleeping and cooking all happened in a single linear space, and heading outdoors was no longer a single step out in flip-flops, but an elaborate process involving layers of clothing. Grandma had become a distant voice. The smells of cooking lingered all day, and our clutter assumed vertical proportions.

But each of us found our own means to escape the claustrophobia. The child resorted to imagination – the most powerful medium for maximum use of minimal resources. She pretend and played like never before, spinning bales of narratives from a single yarn of fantasy. She and I spent hours studying the shape of every flake of snow, our noses pressed flat against the cold glass of the sole tiny window.

The Mister, for most parts, kept his cool, but he lost it sometimes when job-rejection letters arrived with no plausible explanation. “At least we are together,” he would cheer. Or mock. Sometimes I could not tell his moods apart. I spent so much time brooding that, for a while, I missed seeing the stars, those tiny nuggets of wisdom you can perceive only when it is dark enough.

Barely a year later, we have a spacious home and a big car. When job offers eventually began to rain down, they poured. But now it seems as if we spend more time guzzling gas outdoors than inside with one another.

Somehow we still feel boxed in. We have left the box of our first apartment and moved into the box of consumerism.

I fondly recollect Sunday afternoons in our initial landing space: three monkeys cooped up in a studio room with nowhere to go and not much money to spend. We would vie for the single spot on the bed where the warmth of the midday sun reached, pretend-playing to see, hear and speak no evil.

In those days, I would walk with only as many groceries as I could carry. Now, I fill my car with all sorts of things – many of which get forgotten in the trunk for a while, like some small life values forgotten at the back of my mind.

Now, the only walking we do is to the parking lot. We eat more drive-through junk and have many pounds to lose – the problem of plenty.

Lately in our household, credit and utility bills soar along with tempers. Our mental space has widened along with the physical room: My husband and daughter find endless distractions in the many channels the new cable package offers.

Worn out recently by electronic amusement, the little one suggested recently that we ride a train to a library.

“We can drive now,” I reminded her.

“When we lived in the old house – the tiny one – when we rode the bus you sat right next to me and read so many books,” she recollected.

I also miss what she misses, including the elderly lady who regularly sat beside us in the bus, not minding my daughter’s continual chatter and happy to share her know-how from raising her many children. Within the confines of a car, the most human interaction you can get is a honk or the impatient shrug of a fellow driver fidgeting at the wheel. Even long minutes waiting for public transit seem easier to endure.

I offered the homeless man who helped us a pair of used, but useful shoes and a spare jacket just his size, but he politely refused. As much as I was curious, I never found out about his situation, or the story behind his limping left leg. He seemed contented simply with the opportunity to lend a hand and spare his time.

My point is not to advocate taking the bus over the car, or to lower our standards of living, but to try to be happy and rooted in ourselves – whatever situation, or box, we are in. In the end it is all good. We are together – scattered pieces of a puzzle – but all inside the same big box.

Saumiya Balasubramaniam lives in Toronto.

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