“You’d better get used to that smell”, Manmeet said as he opened the door to our little truck. I stepped outside into the Punjab countryside for the first time and took a deep breath of the country air and its signature flavor: cow shit. I grinned and turned to him. “That’s the best smell in the world,” I said.
The last time I remember having that experience was climbing out of a minivan as my parents dropped me off for my first year of college. Despite being the birthplace of the HAL 9000, the University of Illinois is buried in miles and miles of corn fields. That day the wind was blowing up from the south and my dad and I shared a moment of mutual understanding. It felt like home already.
While I myself grew up in the sterile confines of the Chicago suburbs, my dad spent all of his early years on a dairy farm in Mantua, Ohio. My sisters and I spent many summers back on that same farm, climbing over mountains of hay bales and feeling the giant sandpaper cow tongues lick feed from our hands. The first vehicle I ever drove was a tractor. The second was a motorcycle that I used to tear up bean fields for every hour of sunlight I was given. The farm had its own gasoline tank and so I could roll up, fill the tank, grab a sandwich and head back out. Somehow those bits of farm life, mysterious and magical adventures, put a little bit of silage in my blood forever.
My family moved into a new house in a new town when I was in fourth grade. I remember having the bizarre experience of recognizing every kid from my old school in the body of someone at the new. As one big guy held my arms back and two others took turns punching me, I was thinking, “wait, I know you!” The guy holding my arms was identical to a friend of mine back home, and only a month before I had been sitting on the twin of the guy who was now punching me. They dressed and talked a little differently, but I quickly became convinced that the world was, in fact, a stage play put on for me by a limited assortment of actors who changed faces whenever I changed sets.
My experience in the Punjab countryside was the same. The women wore silken scarves and the men had turbans the brilliant yellow of mustard flowers or the deep green of the wheat fields. They had darker skin and spoke in a language I was only beginning to understand, but despite all of that I knew them for who they were: the same actors I’d met years ago around the farm in Mantua, Ohio. I could see it in the way everyone waved at me from their ox-drawn carts. Replacing the tractors with carts wasn’t enough to disguise their familiar smiles. They were just as quick to offer me a ride, take a moment to pause from hard physical labor to laugh at me, or teach me how to eat sugar cane.
As a kid I watched my dad explain his physics research to a room full of curious older farmers. They reclined and relaxed around the room, but listened intently to everything he said. Now I was welcomed into people’s homes to tell them about America and my equipment and experiences in exactly the same way. Even the houses felt familiar to me somehow. They were built of brick and cement instead of wood, and there were often cows living in courtyards, but the general relaxed bustle of the place and the extended family that filled them made me feel right at home.
Our few commonalities are so often more powerful than the many things that make us different. I dated a Chinese woman for more than four years who, like me, was the child of nerds. Despite her having grown up in Beijing, this fact made us far more culturally compatible that I was with most American women. I never felt any experience of culture shock in those Indian fields of papaya and farmers until Americans joined us, one of whom was from LA. The shock of experiencing such a radically different view on people, cultural sensitivity and life itself was incredibly intense and proved, once again, that home is not a place– it’s a way of being.