By Julia Gaspar-Bates
Brandon Vaidyanathan has spent most of his life as a global nomad. Born into an Indian family in Qatar, he spent most of his childhood moving between Oman, Dubai and India.
“My parents left India in the late ’70s when the job market was very tough and the Arabian Gulf market was opening up,” said Vaidyanathan. “One of the challenges growing up was my dad would either get transferred or change jobs so we’d often have to leave the country for a few months. We would go back to India while the visas were sorted out, then return to a new city or new neighborhood. I was constantly reinventing myself each time — making new friends, adjusting to a new environment. I never really felt at home anywhere. Most of my friends in the Gulf were similarly growing up in what sociologists call ‘permanent impermanence.’ As a foreigner in the Gulf, you’ll never be at home, no matter how many generations your family has been there. There is no stability.”
Despite being immersed in an Indian subculture in the Middle East, Vaidyanathan also felt alienated around the other expats. His family hails from Tamil Nadu, and there were few people in their community from that region. “Because of the diversity, you don’t really have the sense of being Indian. I felt like an outsider with the other kids because they were from Bombay, Goa, Delhi and other parts of India where people would speak the same language, hang out together. My family was a bit of an outcast because they weren’t part of the subcultural group. I was constantly trying to figure out how to fit in.”
In 11th grade, Vaidyanathan decided he wanted to have more freedom than life in the Gulf, with its strict rules, permitted, so he moved to Bangalore, India. To his disappointment, though, reality did not live up to his fantasy of a more carefree life, especially because his parents enrolled him in a strict Christian school. “It was miserable, and I hated it. I spent most of that year skipping school.”
He rejoined his family in Dubai the following year to continue high school. He also started dating a young woman who became his girlfriend. Because she was a Christian Indian from Goa, their families would never have approved of their dating, so they had a clandestine relationship. During a difficult time in this relationship, he attended a Christian retreat with her and other friends, and that unexpectedly transformed his life. “My family were very devout Brahmins [the highest caste], but I was not at all religious. So, I go to this retreat, but it was a space where I began to question myself. I prayed for some sign of whether there was anything more to life.”
Following the retreat, Vaidyanathan’s life completely changed. He stopped rebelling and successfully completed his exams. Both his relationship with his girlfriend and his homelife improved. “There used to be a lot of fighting with my dad and resentment towards my mom, who was mentally ill. I started to care about and respect my parents for the first time. I formed more genuine friendships at the retreat, which differed from the superficial friendships I had previously had. I started to question the possibility of God. I could relate to the Christian claim of God’s unconditional love. For the first time in my life, I experienced a sense of belonging. A few months later, I became a Christian.”
After studying for a year in the Gulf, Vaidyanathan relocated to Canada to continue university. He transferred to a small town in Nova Scotia, where he attended a liberal arts college. During his time in Canada, he also met his future wife, an American who was studying opera. Eventually, they moved to the U.S., where he started a doctorate program in sociology at the University of Notre Dame.
Given his international upbringing, Vaidyanathan didn’t experience major culture shock when he came to North America. But he did find that “people had more superficial warmth. Everyone smiled and said hello on the street, but there was little interest in genuine friendship. There was a certain coldness of heart, a formality in social life. It was as though people could only be themselves when they were drunk.”
Vaidyanathan became a naturalized citizen in 2015, but he doesn’t feel a particular allegiance to any nationality. “America is a project, unlike India. It’s not a civilization, but something where a group of people came together to create it. It’s like joining a firm — you have a sense of belonging to create the project.”
After completing his doctorate, Vaidyanathan moved to Houston, where he worked at Rice University. In 2017, he was offered a position at Catholic University of America and relocated to Hyattsville with his family. Vaidyanathan finds the quality of life in Hyattsville to be its most appealing feature. “I love the walkability. It’s a neighborhood where you can visit friends easily. We walk to school, church, [and] our friends’ places. I like the diversity of the community, and there are lots of interesting people here.” After a lifetime of wandering, Vaidyanathan thinks he can finally put down roots right here.
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