Day 187: where I live every day

We—the kids, La Bonavita, his friend, Evan, and me—were at the Santa Monica beach. I was stretched out under a beach umbrella gazing at the waves crashing onto the shore under the blue, cloudless sky.

“Sometimes, it’s so surreal to me that I actually live here,” I murmured.

Evan looked up from his phone, questioningly. “Growing up in London,” I continued, “I could never have imagined living somewhere like this. It would have seemed unreal,” I added.

“Well, LA is kind of unreal,” he observed.

I’m not sure we had the same thing in mind.

I wasn’t thinking of Hollywood or the common perception that L.A. is somehow inherently ersatz (an observation usually made by people who don’t know the city well, but who nonetheless offer it up as an insight of some profundity and worldliness). I wasn’t even thinking of the distinctively sleek feel of the pocket of Santa Monica where I live, where the air hums with the soft purr of Priuses and dry bars and Birds whirring by.

All that is unreal in one way; but so too was the thisness that I had meant to evoke: the thisness of being supine on the sand hearing the waves crash and the cries of “mango mango mangooooo” ring out, the hot sun tempered by the breeze, the scent of sunscreen on warm skin, the saturated colors of beach umbrellas vivid against the sky.

It felt to me in that moment almost on the order of a category error that these sense experiences should be available to me where I live everyday.

I have memories of beaches like this from childhood holidays abroad; they were the very essence of what it meant to be “on holiday,” for normal life to be temporarily suspended. These particular sense experiences are also the stuff of fantasy; it’s what the yoga teacher tells you to imagine—“feel the weight of your body in the warm sand …”—when she guides you in a meditation.

Why is lying on the beach our shorthand for deep relaxation? Is it that lying on the beach is really so relaxing or is it that, in a version of Elaine Scarry’s argument about how filmy objects are easier to imagine, there is something about the feel of sand and surf and ocean breeze that is more easily conjured than, say, sitting quietly in a garden? Or is it that, in our collective imagination, the beach codes for carefreeness, for ease?

I remember, when we lived in Chicago, there was a book I would read to the elder when he was a toddler. It was called Skip Through The Seasons. Every page was about a different month. The picture for August was of people on a beach like the Santa Monica beach. I would linger on that page when we read the book during the Chicago winter. I would imagine the feel of the hot sand under my feet and the sun on my skin, and I would long to be in that picture, where my body, surely, would slowly unfurl from the curled up position it reflexively assumed in the cold. It seemed miraculous, during those winters, to imagine that there might be a place and season in which humans ventured outdoors with next to nothing on.

I carried around that picture in my mind like a talisman.

But now, here I was, in the picture; I could be in the picture every day, if I wanted.

I didn’t say any of this.

Instead I said, “where I grew up is just … really different from,” I gestured around, “… all of this,” I concluded.

“How was it different?” the younger asked.

She was sitting a couple of feet away from me shoveling sand into a bucket.

“Well … you’ve been to England, what do you think?” I replied. “How is England different from here?”

She thought for a moment, and I wondered what she would say. Something about the weather, I guessed, or maybe about people’s accents.

“Well,” she said, finally, “I guess one big difference is that the stores in England are a lot worse. Like, they don’t have “Aahsor “Rite-Aid.”

Evan started laughing.

“That is true … that they don’t have those things there,” I said, smiling. “That is very true.”




Day 99: but where are you from originally?

A couple of weeks ago He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved sent me the following cartoon: 

where are you from

It made me laugh and laugh because, as he well knows, this is a conversational situation that I (like some of you, I’m sure) have been in numerous times. The cartoon also reminded me that I had written this short essay a couple of years ago, which I wrote really just as a way of seeing if I could find a way to weave this odd series of experiences into a coherent narrative. Coherent or not, when I dug it out this afternoon I thought, oh, this is totally a blog post! I just didn’t know it at the time because I, uh, didn’t have a blog. I’ve edited it a bit and identified the main protagonists by their initials. Apologies to those of you (and that may be, ahem, all of you) who have already heard this story several times ….


After the English bloke and his children left the playground and I was sure they were out of earshot, I whipped around and addressed my mother in an accusatory tone.

“You can’t ask someone “where are you from originally!” I exclaimed.

“But I’m part of that community,” Mum protested.

“But he doesn’t see that!” I insisted. “He just sees a white Englishwoman insinuating that a brown-skinned man can’t be ‘originally’ from England.”

I was being unfair, and I knew it even as I was irritated. My white, Scottish Mum is, in some ways more than me, her biracial daughter, “part of that community.” [1] When she married my Bengali father in 1971 she immediately found herself raising his two (later three) teenage nephews, who came to London after their father, a Bengali civil servant in the wrong place at the wrong time—West Pakistan in 1971—was placed under house arrest.

But none of this was on my mind as I berated my 79-year-old mother at the beachside playground in Santa Monica two years ago.

“And,” I added, my voice rising, “I can’t believe you would ask him that when you know that that’s precisely the question I hated strangers asking me when I was little!”

Mum’s face softened. “I know,” she said.

Twenty minutes earlier my two children had shyly joined in with two boys and a girl, who were purposefully building an enormous sandcastle under one of the climbing frames. Their accents were English. They were visiting from London, the elder boy explained.

“We might move here!” the younger boy piped up.

“I’m from London too!” I offered. “But we live here now.”

Soon the English children’s Dad showed up. He was perhaps in his mid 30s, wearing running clothes, and slightly breathless from jogging on the beach. We chatted away about the differences between London and L.A., about school districts and property values.

And then Mum asked, “and where are you from originally?”

I cringed inwardly as I saw the stranger’s jaw harden ever so slightly as he affirmed, again, “Umm, London, originally. Yep. London born and bred.”

“London born and bred.” It was a phrase I had used a lot myself as a child when strangers on the bus, in the shops, or at the hairdresser’s would query me, not unkindly, but persistently, about where I was from originally. As a child I genuinely misunderstood the question and remember struggling to answer it to the questioner’s satisfaction. “Tufnell Park?” I’d answer doubtfully. “It’s near Holloway?”

Now I proclaimed loftily to my mother, “you can only ask where someone’s from originally if their accent suggests they weren’t raised where they live now.”

A few weeks later I met a new postdoctoral fellow at my institution’s center for eighteenth-century studies. This new postdoc, I’ll call her Z, was a young art historian who studied representations of India in eighteenth-century British art and architecture. Her coloring suggested a South Asian heritage but her accent was difficult to place.

Now I was the one inhibited by my own imperiously decreed diktat, thou shalt not ask ‘where are you from originally’? (Hoisted on one’s own petard &c.)

Eventually, I asked Z, in the most tentative tones, where her accent was from?

Bangladesh, she replied.

Should I mention, I wondered anxiously, that I had family in Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, where most of my Dad’s family ended up living? Best not to, I decided. I had been to Dhaka once, when I was 11. But I wasn’t remotely from there. It didn’t mean that Z and I had anything in common. And in fact mentioning my Bangladeshi family connection would only serve to hoist me on yet another of my own petards; because yet another pet peeve of mine (I know, I know, I’m so easily irritated) as an Englishwoman living in the U.S., is the whole, “oh where in the UK are you from? My second cousin X lives in, let’s see, where is it? Coventry?” And then the person looks at me expectantly.)

So I decided to go with saying nothing and simply nodding and smiling. Z and I grew to be friendly acquaintances. When I started writing a new essay that touched on representations of India, not my area of expertise, I asked her for help. She responded immediately with enthusiasm and suggestions. I was excited both about this new area of research, and my new friend.

A few weeks later I saw Z at a lecture at the Huntington library. Before I had a chance to approach her she bounded over to me, palpably excited.

She blurted out, “You are the cousin of—” and then she said the name of my first cousin and his wife, I’ll call them T and N, both of whom I’ve known all of my life.

She paused, and, deeply confused, I wondered how on earth she knew this. I had seen N only the week before when she’d been over from Delhi visiting L.A.

“N is my cousin!” Z announced, breathlessly.

It took us a while to put all the pieces together. T is my first cousin, the eldest brother of those no-longer-teenage boys who’d been a part of my life since I was born. N, T’s wife, is Z’s mother’s first cousin. N, unbeknownst to me, had also visited Z while in L.A., it never striking her that we might know each other.

Long before we figured out this strange chain of circumstances, Z and I were firm on one point; we were family. And being, in addition, both dix-huitièmistes, we relished, perhaps more than most, the Fieldingesque plot in which we found ourselves caught up.

If eighteenth-century fiction has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as too many coincidences. So when a new boy who was “from London,” my son informed me, “just like you, Mom!” joined his third grade class, it did not seem so surprising to me that he turned out to be the younger son of the man from the beach. We were, after all, part of the same community.


[1] That’s right: not only is the duck-rabbit half fowl, half leporidae, but also half Indian, half Scottish.