When I arrived in Cheema, Punjab, for a second, I felt like I was in a dream. I had never been to a town like Cheema. Actually, I don’t think ‘town’ is the right word – it was exactly what I imagined as a village. It is one of the most rural environments I’ve been to, and when I call home (and often speak English for the first time that day), my mom tells me that this is the majority of Punjab. Not the fancy houses in the capital Chandigarh, or even the big malls in Amritsar but the long stretches of land and rice plants in villages like Cheema. It made me see how different two cities in the same state can be. Before traveling across Punjab, I had a very limited view of the state. In one city, a Starbucks has opened, and I feel like I’m back in the states. Then in Cheema, you eat Indian gol gappe (hard to describe, see picture) standing on the side of the road (they were absolutely delicious, by the way, there’s nothing like gol gappe from a cart in an Indian village).
At the de-addiction center, since there’s no A/C in the hot 100-degree summer, I’ve never perspired so much in my life, and the one thought that popped into my head was, I really really hope there’s a washing machine here (which there wasn’t unfortunately). Despite the heat and a large amount of sweat, Cheema was an amazing experience. The people were incredibly welcoming, and despite all the mosquito bites, I still had a wonderful time.
A place called home
The center itself does very little publicity and completely receives patients based on word of mouth. Every case report I looked at was “referred by previous patient”, “referred by cousin whose son was treated here.” And the center is always at full capacity! It was amazing to see the shift in culture and how close the community was.
I became incredibly close with one staff member at the center, and she told me how she planned to move to Canada, specifically to Surrey in Vancouver, after a year. Some of my relatives live in Surrey! I thought that was such a crazy coincidence, although in talking to her, it really wasn’t that crazy. Without ever having been to Canada, my friend – like many Punjabis – knows that Surrey is a kind of “mini-Punjab.” It made me realize how meaningful these connections are when people like my friend or aunt and uncle move halfway across the world. They had never traveled to Canada, didn’t know what to expect, and hoped to find their way when they arrived. Even if you aren’t related, just knowing that there are members of your own community in a place makes moving that much easier. Seeing how different Canada and America are from Cheema, I can’t wait to talk to her once she moves!
Being a native Punjab speaker
I noticed the difference in how Punjabi was spoken there compared to other parts of Punjab. I noticed I had a much harder time understanding Punjabi, and by the end, I identified two reasons for it. There were some words I had never heard before that just weren’t part of my Punjabi vocabulary, and also the speed and accent of the people were so different. We’ve gone to the same place since I was a kid, so hearing how differently it can be spoken was amazing. It definitely made me realize that although I may identify as a Punjabi speaker since I’ve spoken it since I was little, it is not the same as being surrounded by a language for your entire life. It’s made me question the spectrum of a native, fluent speaker. Does someone have to grow up in a certain environment to be considered a native speaker? I definitely feel like a native speaker, but living in a Punjabi village made me realize how important an immersive environment is.
A web of connections
It was also incredible being in the social atmosphere of Cheema. Cheema was surprisingly refreshing in contrast to how social media has taken over our lives in the U.S. Walking through the village with my friend, and she knew everyone. She would stop to talk to many people on the street—a walking social web. The whole time I was in the village, no one’s first reaction was ever that I was not from India; the surprising part was when they asked where I was from, and I would say America. I often only said where I was from if I was asked, and there was always the question, “Oh, why? Are you here with family?”. I would explain my whole story a few times a day, and people were welcoming and curious to know my story.
This thread of families going generations back in one town or city was something I saw throughout all of Punjab. I returned to Amritsar to stay with my grandparents, and we decided to go to the Golden Temple museum. We called the information line we found on Google, and I gave my phone to my grandpa so he could talk to them. He talks to them for a few minutes when the person on the line says, “Is this Darshan Singh?” (which is my grandpa’s name), and my grandpa, surprised, says, “Yes, who is this?” It turns out it was someone he had worked with before, I don’t exactly remember, but they knew each other from way back. Seeing how deep my roots are in this city was quite amazing for me because I haven’t lived in a city for more than 5-6 years in the United States. Since my parents immigrated, finding your footing and settling somewhere takes time. Especially being the oldest child, I’ve moved the most, including across the country. Then by the time, we found our place, I went off to college. So it was really amazing to go places with my grandparents and meet friends they’ve had for decades.
A story that needs to be told
I don’t know why I didn’t realize this before, but my grandparents love talking about their past and telling me stories. I went to the Partition museum with my grandpa, which tells the story of the Indo-Pakistan partition in 1947. My grandpa traveled from Pakistan to Punjab in 1947, and he really wanted to take me and tell his story. He told me about traveling on top of the trains filled with people, staying in refugee camps, and meeting up with his family at the Golden Temple. He said that hearing his story is incredibly important, especially since we’re in different countries, because it’s one of the only ways we can appreciate what our family has been through.
Being able to experience Punjab in a way that I haven’t before has helped me understand Punjabi in a different light. It’s weird, and I sometimes feel like I’m seeing what my parents went through before they came to the United States. I think part of a community in a way I haven’t before. That’s not to say I don’t feel American because I absolutely do. But without Indian in front of it, “American” doesn’t feel complete.