At Age Nineteen (and other random thoughts)

When I was 19, I saw the Taj Mahal. I flew to India with my 14-year-old brother. I still am surprised sometimes my parents let us fly around the world by ourselves and trusted me to be his chaperone. Relatives in North India took care of us once we arrived and showed us around, so it was really only on the plane trip when we were by ourselves.

I had just returned from a semester abroad in London. I was home for a week, then flew to India for 3 weeks during our January interim. What fun I was having – I sure loved all of it.

Interestingly, my daughter, who is also 19, happens to be doing a similar sort of thing right now. She just saw the Taj Mahal, too. She was supposed to spend a semester abroad in York, England, next semester, but for some reasons beyond her control, that did not work out.

Back then, on my trip, I had grandiose plans of sharing the gospel and that some of my relatives would be convinced by my eloquent words, and convert. (This just cracks me up now to think about it.)  Of course, things did not turn out in any sort of way I imagined. I remember one conversation with my aunt. I must have told her I was a Christian, because I remember asking her if she believed in Jesus. Her response? She laughed. (I wasn’t expecting laughter.)

“I believe in the all the gods,” she said.

Of course, I thought. Jesus is just one of the many. From her perspective, it wasn’t an offensive question, but perhaps a naive one. To her, and to many Hindus, Jesus can be included in their list of gods they worship. (As long as you don’t say it’s “the only way”, it’s ok. Otherwise, it gets difficult.)

Apparently my daughter had some conversations with her relatives, too. She has her own stories to share.

Her one week visit to India visiting relatives just finished, and now she just arrived in Nepal for a 3 week medical missions trip with a group of students from her college. WiFi isn’t reliable, so messages may be sporadic, but she met her group at the airport, and they are all together now.  This was the most “uncertain” part of her whole trip; planning it so that her flight from Delhi arrived before the rest of her group arrived from the U.S., so that they could all go to their destination together. If she was too late, she’d be on her own. Thankfully, it all worked out.

It is amazing to me to think about how similar some of her circumstances are to mine at that age. She seems to be doing and thinking and planning some of the same things I did when I was her age. She has so many similarities to me in other ways, as well. (I should warn her about not repeating my mistakes, haha! Seriously, though….)

I have talked to my kids about how much I enjoyed international travel and study abroad, and I encouraged them to do so if they had the opportunity. Apparently she listened – but she must love it, too. She is much more focused and accomplished than I was. It sure is exciting to see how God is leading her.

I learned a word a few years ago called “fernweh”. It is a German word. Here is the definition: “Literally ‘farsickness’ or ‘longing for far-off places’, as contrasted with Heimweh ‎(homesickness, longing for home).”

I am somewhat familiar with this word as I used to feel that way. I enjoy traveling, but I am no longer “afflicted” with this condition. :) I do think this is what my daughter seems to have, though. She’s always got some sort of traveling somewhere on her agenda.

What I find interesting is that she is drawn to India. I suppose I must have felt some of that at her age, too; a curiosity about my relatives and the country where I was born and to understand some of that heritage. After my visit there at age 19, and my subsequent questions and doubts I had regarding my own faith, there were many times I wished to separate myself from my background – I was struggling with my identity.

I wanted to change my name, too, and that struggle lasted a very long time, and honestly, it’s still there. Even nowadays, I will think about it. At the very least, what I wished for was a nickname that was much easier for others and not so “obvious”; my name is an immediate stand-out anywhere I go. And… I DO NOT LIKE THAT. (The “all caps” speak for themselves). Why didn’t I just make one up for myself??

And would you believe my sister’s name is “Karen”? No Indian name was given to her. Even my brother, who was given an Indian name, grew up with an American nickname that my parents made up for him. He was “Dean” all of my life. And all of a sudden, when he was in his 20s, he told the rest of us that he no longer wanted to be called by his American nickname anymore. So after all of my life calling him by the name of “Dean” (as well as my parents), we all had to switch gears and remember to use his given Indian name. But… I guess this is what it is like to live as an immigrant family; one of the things you may have to deal with is your “different” name and come to terms with it yourself.

Did you know that Nikki Haley isn’t really “Nikki”? And Bobby Jindal isn’t really “Bobby”? I confess I envied the fact they had great nicknames. In fact, every Indian person I currently know grew up in India and came here as an adult (except one set of second-cousins that grew up here). I know one person who came here at age 10, but she is so much more Indian than me (she speaks the language, and thinks like an Indian more than American – it seems to me, anyway). I’ve read a few of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels: she grew up in the U.S. When I read her descriptions, which she does with such acute accuracy, I can see the images so clearly. She is spot-on with her observations about what it was like to grow up here, with Indian parents. Otherwise, though I know there are many of us out there, I did not know anyone else like me when I was growing up. And interestingly, still don’t.

Recently, I was talking to a new friend who has a daughter that is half-Chinese. Her daughter, who incidentally also is 19, is going through the same things I was at her age. Why do I look like this? Why don’t I look American? I think “American”. Why did God do this? Where do I belong? Indian people expect me to be Indian. American people expect me to be Indian. I’m not! In my friend’s case, her daughter was saying,  Chinese people expect me to be Chinese. I’m not…”

As my friend was sharing her daughter’s struggles and questions with me, I was nodding my head. In her case, other Chinese people can tell by the shape of eyes and eyebrows that she is only half-Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese. Once the Chinese students find out I’m not really Chinese, or that I didn’t grow up in China, they walk away. 

I know those same questions, that same struggle. I can’t explain how to emerge from it, only that if you are living in a place, and it’s obvious you weren’t born in that place, you have to wrestle with it. Maybe some people aren’t bothered with it. But some people are.

It’s an interesting age, nineteen. It’s the last official year of being a “teenager”. After 19, you emerge into a new way of counting… into decades, such as the 20s, the 30s, the 40s…. And life moves on very quickly.

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