Nonfiction from Vikram Ramakrishnan

Photo: Mylene2401

Directions for a Child Immigrating to the US in the 1980s

Watch Appa and Amma avert their eyes while telling Thatha and Paati that it will only be for a little while; play with your stuffed elephant while they argue; see Thatha shake his head and Paati tap her cane against the ground; pluck a wispy thread of cotton from a small tear in Ramu’s gray trunk; hold onto him when Amma picks you up, rubbing her cheek against yours; breathe in the velvety scent of baby powder, rose water, and jasmine; wave to Thatha and Paati as their limp wrists remind you of ostriches; look up into Amma’s puffed eyes; glance at Appa adjusting his metal eyeglass frames; ask for kulfi and watch them breathe in, sigh and begin to laugh; tell Amma to stop when she pinches your cheeks and knuckles her head; watch Appa run to a street vendor, the same one with the birdlike nose and pencil-thin mustache; rest your head on Amma’s chest while you listen to the sounds of heartbeats, rickshaw honks, and her humming; revel in the explosions of cardamom and pistachio; offer Ramu some kulfi but since he doesn’t answer, finish the rest and toss the stick on the floor; watch Appa pick it up and throw it away; ask Ramu why Appa and Amma are so silent at home; sit with them as they light sandalwood incense and burn camphor in front of the shrine; put your hands together in a namaste and drift asleep, Ramu in the crook of your arm.

Wince as Amma holds your nose shut and asks you to blow out into her hand; giggle and pull away; open your mouth wide as if you were to yawn; look out the window and see brown and green fields next to toy buildings; hear a stern voice from the speakers say something you don’t understand; ask Amma but she doesn’t respond because she’s gripping her armrests, squeezing her eyes shut; watch Appa poke Amma a few times before she hushes him and shoves his finger away; smile and bounce in your seat as Appa leans in to wink at you; stop after someone shoves your seat from behind; look back down at Ramu on your lap and the small round Band-Aid on his trunk; feel the plane descend closer to the toy buildings which get bigger and bigger and a body of water opens up below you; join in the cabin cheers as you land before Amma lets go of her seat.

Worry as Amma argues with a man in a dark blue uniform about your picture in a little blue booklet; flush with anger after he squeezes Ramu’s belly and trunk and the Band-Aid falls behind his desk; pull on Amma’s sari as Appa smoothes down your hair; catch Ramu after the man tosses him in the air and calls over the family behind you; make eye contact with a blue-frocked girl with two braids holding a doll with one braid; moan and complain about the luggage taking too long.

Eat thair sadam the first night, dab dosa into coconut chutney the second night, and on the third night, try a piece of bread and cheese and tomato sauce that blows your mind so you ask for a whole loaf before your get corrected that it’s called a ‘slice.’

Feel a pang as Appa puts his arm around Amma when you board a yellow school bus for the first time; misspell your last name when your teacher asks; ask Amma if you can shave your head because a kid with a buzz said your bowl cut makes you look like a mushroom; frown when Amma says we only do that after a father passes away; lose a friend you made in school after you visit his home for the first time and his mother asks you what you are; get called the sand n-word by him the next day; ask Amma what that means; never speak to the boy again but look for him years later on Facebook.

Ace your math and science classes; feel a thrill when you realize you can spell your last name; fail your cursive test because your f and b look the same; borrow a quarter so you can try pepperoni pizza in the cafeteria for a dollar twenty-five; shudder when Appa yells at you for getting a C in handwriting and a girl you like asks you why you smell like curry (and you ask her why you wouldn’t); purse your lips and be impressed the class clown has found a male body part that rhymes with your name; ask for a Nintendo NES for Christmas; tap a and b and the arrow keys to move Mario around two-dimensional blocks while Ramu watches on the sofa; move a few times to incrementally larger houses; get mostly 5s on your APs, except for that 4 in biology; decry that you never want to be a doctor.

Visit Thatha and Paati for the summer in India; stop speaking Tamil when people laugh at your attempts.

Return home where everyone comments on how dark you’ve gotten over the summer; kiss a white girl who smells like peaches and pears; listen to her dusky voice on the phone every night until two in the morning; kiss her again, this time on the neck; get shoved by her new boyfriend against the school courtyard wall; throw a punch in his direction and fail to put your hip into it; nurse your bruised face with an ice pack in the principal’s office waiting for the suspension; listen to Nirvana’s Nevermind as you write the white girl a letter to let her know you won’t speak to her again; roll your eyes when Appa comes home from work that evening and lectures you on how much he and Amma sacrificed to be in America.

Apply to colleges and get into all of them; watch Appa’s eyes light up with molten pride as he grips your shoulders tight; cross your legs and sit down on kitchen tiles as Amma swings a fistful of cloves in a circle around you, pausing at your stomach, your shoulders, and your forehead; put your hands together in a namaste as she wards off the evil eye; breathe in the scents of camphor and sandalwood incense.

Remember an old friend; find him in a taped-up cardboard box in the garage; take him out of the box and put him on your desk; run a hand over his trunk and say hey bud it’s been a while.


Vikram Ramakrishnan is a Tamil-American writer who was born in Bangalore, India and grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied physics, mathematics, and computer science. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Newfound, SAND Journal, and AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review. He currently lives in New York City.


  1. Marcy says:

    Thank you for letting me live your experience. What a beautifully written and powerful piece!

  2. Rebecca Ellis says:

    Vivid and personal. Gives me a world. Thank you. Hey, I liked your piece in About Place and hunted down more of your work. Good – keep it up.

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