Our exit from Houston in late 2018 was swift and messy. An official from Singapore Airlines took one look at our bulging bags and said they seemed overweight. The scale confirmed his hunch. We flung out everything that we deemed expendable in those moments. Heavy, light, useful, useless, important or …maybe not. We were ruthless in getting rid of kitchen items, clothes, food, and even mementos that had been carefully selected to make the journey with us.
Once we were on the plane, seat belts fastened, and after catching our breath, the accumulated stress of the move—exacerbated by our unexpected, hectic luggage trimming—began to sink in. “It’s okay,” my husband said, rubbing my shoulders. “They were just things.”
Until that moment, I hadn’t been able to sit in stillness and contemplate the enormity of what we were about to leave behind. In the air, I looked out as the distance between the ground and us stretched farther and farther. Roads shrank, buildings resembled miniature toys, and trees evaporated. The city glimmered across the curtain of my teary eyes, a blurry constellation of lights in the distance. Houston was already lost to us. We were headed to begin our new chapter in France.
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Four years earlier, in 2014, I had set foot in the United States of America for the first time. The thirty-hour journey from Mumbai had been the longest of my life. By the time I landed at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on a late afternoon, I was spent. Then I felt a small burst of energy when I saw my husband, who had arrived a month before me, waiting at the terminal with flowers. “Welcome,” he said, giddy at the prospect of what lay ahead: his new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Rice University, my foray into freelance writing, and, most of all, the beginning of our married life in a country that was neither his nor mine. He came from France, I from India.
The commute from the airport to the neighborhood where we were staying, Upper Kirby, was disenchanting. Concrete stretched before us and cars zoomed at unimaginable speeds across the snakelike, six-lane freeways, with no human in sight who wasn’t behind a wheel. Houston looked like nothing I had previously seen or known. But soon the sun appeared, dipping gently into a bayou, with the city skyline gleaming in the distance.
“This is it. This is America,” I thought.
Until I arrived in Texas, I had thought of America as the source of season’s greetings cards that arrived every December; a place where shiny, happy people stood smiling in their shiny, happy homes. Some Decembers in Mumbai, these very people, distant relatives who lived in the U.S., appeared with chocolates, cookies, shampoos, body sprays—currency that would elevate our positions, just for a little bit, in social orders among friends—in giant duty-free bags. Over time, I came to associate that clean, discernible smell of the bags with America. Pop culture, especially television shows like Small Wonder and Friends, had taught me that America was a place with fluffy beds that sank when people crawled in, even with their shoes on. From books like The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby, I learned about the American Dream, or the myth of the dream. As a young adult, I’d always regarded America as a site of consumerism, capitalism, individualism, and homesickness. America was a place I wanted to keep away from, and I had foolishly assumed it was all more or less the same. I had also been foolish inconfusing a continent for a country.
In Houston, we rented two rooms in the house of a lovely Texan couple who also lived there. Two days after my arrival, on Thanksgiving Day, the home swelled with their friends and pets. Throughout much of the daylong party, I slept on and off, struck by the exhaustion of jet lag for the first time. Every time I ventured out of our room, a dog barked, or a cat purred, and well-meaning people tried to make conversation. A woman asked if I knew a guru her sister followed “somewhere in the north of India” (I did not), another inquired if I was a yoga expert (I was not), a man wondered how I knew English (I was too tired to expound on colonialism).
The evening was puzzling. Why was the television on during a party? Why were the men watching football? No matter. The exciting spread of food ejected me out of my lassitude and world-weariness. So this is the famed turkey, I thought, as I sunk my teeth in its flesh. Was it worth the hype? I’m not sure. Other more enjoyable discoveries followed: mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots with chives, beans, ham, and cranberry sauce. But the taste that lingers in my mind even today is that of the pecan pie sagging under the most inconceivably generous serving of whipped cream. My first Texas culinary experience was delectable.
Other firsts weren’t nearly as delightful. Houston was far too quiet, for one thing. There were hardly any pedestrians, and, to me, the city often smelled like meat on a frying pan. I reeled from isolation and loneliness. This was the first time I was trying to test the choppy waters of freelance journalism. But how could I report and write about a place I did not understand? Eventually, frustration became my muse. I wrote about my annoyances. I didn’t know to drive, and being carless in Houston felt like an aberration. I was often condemned to being the only woman or human walking without a dog, walking not for exercise, but walking because it was the only way to get from point A to point B.
Then there was the baffling haze of inertia I couldn’t shake off. Such a dreadful, ugly city, I endlessly complained to my husband. “You married a Frenchman and he brought you to Houston!” he often said, the only one laughing at the joke. I spent most of my time exasperated by my husband, and the city I was in because of him. We decided to leave in a year. Two at the most. Before then, I would live with no expectations.
We moved into our apartment in January 2015, in the same Upper Kirby neighborhood we had grown used to. Within a week, our home was broken into. The next day, a man named Cesar was at our door to fix it. “I’m sorry, lot of damage done,” he commiserated. “Houston can be dangerous.” In the next few hours, Cesar spoke very little, but when he did, he spoke wistfully about his home in Mexico, which he had left a decade before. “But it’s all right. I now have everything: a house and a family,” he said, showing me a picture of his little son on his phone. “My son is my life. I want to give him the best.”
The burglary shook me more than I thought it would, and I grew suspicious of the city. At the supermarket, I wondered why people said “Stay safe” in the same breath as “Have a great day.” When I learned about the stand-your-ground law, I spent weeks in terror during walks in our neighborhood. Later, while I was researching a story on guns, a man I interviewed blithely told me he slept with his gun in his bedside drawer. How could he not, he argued, saying that Houston was not a safe place and the gun had to be within reach.
Bizarre though it all seemed, this was now my home. To survive here, I had to segue from resentment to curiosity. Why are vehicles allowed to run at 85 miles per hour on some freeways? Why does a city this big not have reliable public transport? Why are air conditioners so cold in offices that people are given heaters to keep at their feet during the peak of summer? Why are there frozen margarita drive-throughs?
For at least two years, Houston remained inscrutable. But then the city began to unravel itself to me. I immersed myself in it—one tree, one street, one pork rib, one museum, one tamale, one park at a time. Before long, the vast and expansive territory of Houston demystified before my eyes like its vast and expansive skies.
You begin to truly feel at home somewhere when you start to fill your life with rituals. Saturday nights were not complete without fish tacos (award-winning, no less) and frozen margaritas at Berryhill Baja Grill. We never tired of the sight of the old pushcart on Westheimer Road that Walter Berryhill roamed with many decades ago, selling his famous tamales. On a television screen in this small restaurant, surrounded by familiar strangers, we watched games we didn’t care for. It also became a meeting point with friends we later made. Across our road was Avalon Diner, which we visited on Sundays to feast on crunchy jalapeño burgers or huevos rancheros, accompanied always by hash browns. Some Sundays, we were at Himalaya for biryani, or at Mamak for Malaysian massaman chicken.
I had my personal rituals, too. One of them involved looking at the sky for a long moment each time I stepped out of the apartment. Rain-bearing clouds always seemed to lurk, ready to darken the city before a tropical storm or before a hurricane made landfall. I stayed up late and woke up early to watch full moons, red moons, and eclipses. One evening, the sky was painted a shade of purple I had never seen before. It was the color of the memory of a bruise.
That city’s smoldering and humid weather always reminded me of home. Every so often I woke up to birdsong and a light mugginess in the air, yearning for Mumbai summer mornings. One day, I looked out and found myself admiring an oak tree and blue flowers, instead of longing for the familiar gulmohar outside my house in India.
It’s tempting to think that when you see concrete everywhere, it means the city is strong. Houston is barely above sea level, though, and the sidewalks are often wobbly and ineffectual. In our four years in Houston, we witnessed over and over how poorly conceived this great city is. Did it make sense to build more and more on already impervious surfaces?
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey thundered in. While Houston’s foundation was put to the test, I had a tectonic shift in perspective: like many Houstonians, I thought about living in this city in pre-Harvey and post-Harvey terms. I found myself feeling sympathy and love for Houston. Strangers helped strangers. In their outpouring of grief, Houstonians lifted each other up in the way that only humanity struck by despair can.
Just as Houston was recovering, the Astros became world champions (a victory that now hangs as a question mark), providing a brief interlude for the grieving city, as though to say: “It’s all right to celebrate, y’all.” I participated in the festivities, watching the winning parade go by, even though I was indifferent about baseball.
This city—built on marshy, shaky land—holds the promise of resilience and survival amid flux and change. Temporary inhabitants like us flashed in and out of the city, painting a fleeting urgency to all our friendships. We, too, were in transit, learning to compress the bigness of this city into small, incremental details and peripatetic encounters. And with every fight for justice and solidarity, every march of resistance, every run to the airport to oppose the immigration ban on Muslim countries, the city’s indomitable spirit grew on me.
A friend once told me that there comes a definitive point in the life of every Houston transplant when they finally admit, first to themselves and then to others, that this strange, loopy city is not so bad after all. My own moment of reckoning happened when Houston revealed its version of the Bean in 2018 and Chicago unleashed its meanness upon us, and I found myself proclaiming how much better our Bean was than theirs. Truth be told, I was indifferent to the sculpture itself, but I felt protective of Houston in that moment. And when people debated whether Houston or Austin was the better Texas city, I always stanned for Houston, citing its diversity, warm people, and food.
I surprised myself by defending Houston. Everyone had told me it would take at least three years to appreciate the place. Now, I found myself underlining exactly this to newcomers. How could I not? It was in Houston that I got to taste haleem made by a Pakistani friend. It was in Houston that I discovered chicken stroganoff thanks to a Brazilian friend; that I bonded with an Ethiopian acquaintance over injera and marveled at how her food was similar to mine; that a Salvadoran friend and I found common things to feel nostalgic about our respective home countries—corn, sugarcane, tamarind, rubber slippers. In Houston I traveled the world and found myself returning home.
Houston is a tapestry stretching from one end of the globe to another. Houston is the homeless man from Little Rock, Arkansas, who sits at the intersection of Montrose Boulevard and Allen Parkway with his nose buried in a book. Houston is also the person who stops at the traffic light to give him books. Houston is the Indian woman who works tirelessly at beauty salons on hourly wages. Houston is the transgender activist who fled persecution in Mexico and now gives refuge to other trans people in fear of deportation. Houston is the Iranian lesbian who shuttled from country to country for years before settling in this Texan city where she felt safe at last. Houston is a palimpsest of the tens of thousands of people from all over the world revealing layer after layer of what makes them who they are. Houston is not a majority, nor a minority; it is what the United States is primed to be and will be one day.
Many big cities in the United States are eulogized in cinema, literature, and pop culture, which makes it somewhat easy for newcomers to embrace these places, as well as the landscapes that make them recognizable. It is not hard to plunge headfirst in love with New York or San Francisco, Chicago or Seattle, Los Angeles or Boston, whose familiar spaces are a bedrock on which you build your relationship to them, even before you ever become acquainted with them yourself. Houston hasn’t ever been depicted in the same light, nor has it been widely explored in art apart from the stray film here, the stray book there. Westheimer Road doesn’t have the same cultural resonance as, say, Sunset Boulevard or Madison Avenue.
It’s easy to be dazzled by old cities, which carry the monumental weight of their kaleidoscopic pasts. But what of the younger, coming-of-age ones? How to love them as they’re only inching toward their prime, when their best years lie ahead of them?
Houston doesn’t come with similar markers of association. You are forced to discover it for yourself, to write your own love story with this city and eventually scream it from the rooftop wherever you are. To move to Houston from any other place in the world is to discard any hope of finding comfort in the familiar. To like it is to accept that trying to make sense of it is both futile and vertiginous. To love it is to do so despite everything that is Houston.