Harish Patel is the deputy director of New America Chicago, a think tank that prioritizes new ideas, new voices, and new technology as a tool to reimagine old, complicated problems. As Harish regularly plays the role of asking the questions and gathering the information for New America Chicago, it was a pleasure to switch roles, with him requesting that he share his story, his ideas, and his voice.
With a history of working in politics, Harish shared with me that much of the way he engages professionally with people is through small talk. This surprises me as both the communication prior to our interview and the energy that Harish presented when we first got on our call were warm, welcoming, and thoughtful. I was having preconceived notions that small talk inherently meant cold and was curious for Harish to share his experience of having to operate with politicians on a more superficial level in his day-to-day life. His observations were acute, taking note of our society’s paradoxical desire for and punishment for authentic behavior. If you are a person who has a public-facing persona, you can be criticized for not being authentic and criticized for being too real. Harish uses the term “fake genuineness” to describe the behavior and it makes total sense to me: we think we want to fully see other human beings for who they are—but most of us are too afraid to accept what we see.
Harish was born in Gujarat, India, and immigrated to Chicago when he was 14 years old. He remembers the exact date that his family moved: “I remember it very well because it obviously completely shifted my life and my family’s life, but also because we moved to Chicago and winter came. I had never seen snow and I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this hurts.’” I ask Harish to describe what it was like to grow up in India. He first notes the similarities of being a child growing up anywhere in the world: all of us sharing the universal experience of play and early education. The core difference that he reflects on is that of community versus individuality. Although Harish grew up in a large city in India, the mindset was one of a small town in which everyone knows their neighbor and is a part of the collective whole. His youth was very different from most American children who grow up in relationship with their nuclear family but not necessarily any community outside of that small container. In further discussing the juxtaposition between a community-oriented lifestyle and an individual-oriented lifestyle, Harish states,
“It’s privilege. You’re allowed to just live by yourself. It’s abnormal to be able to live by yourself. To have a house just for yourself that’s empty most of the time because your work is crazy . . . And I do think the loneliness people are feeling is part of that. I mean you can see the sadness in people’s lives.”
Our conversation continues on to explore Harish’s relationship with his mother. He was never given the choice as to whether or not he wanted to move from India to the United States and he was excited to discuss the many ways that his relationship with his mom has changed and shifted over the years. Harish begins,
“Let me describe a little bit about just who this person is because she and I have a lot of traits [in common]. As I'm getting older, I just see so much of her in me. It’s kind of crazy because you think you're so different from the people that made you.”
Harish’s father passed away when he was 13 years old and his mother made the decision to move Harish and his sister to the U.S. soon after. As Harish reflects on this time in his life, he remembers thinking that his mom was emotionally crazy for deciding to move her children across the world—leaving behind their community and the lives that they had created so soon after losing the patriarch of their family unit. Fast-forward a few years, Harish is in college and has cut off most contact with his mother and his sister. At the time he felt angry that his reality was his mother’s fault and it took him years to realize that she didn’t really have a choice in the matter. He notes,
“I didn't realize the hardship that it is to have two kids move to a different country that is not yours. Where you don’t speak English very well and you have to depend on everyone for everything, which my mom has quite a hard time with (and I do too). Seeing that part of me in her, made me understand how hard it must be to be so proud to be an independent women and then feeling like, ‘Oh I have to ask [for help] with everything.’”
Toward the end of college Harish began to feel like something was missing in his life. Although he had a strong circle of friends and loved his studies, he couldn’t help but notice the absence. “Something was bothering me. Something [didn’t] feel right [and] it was that I didn’t have a relationship with the people that raised me [and] in many ways my culture.”
After Harish graduated from college, he started his first job with a nonprofit organization that worked with low-income kids on the South Side of Chicago. A few months into the job, he had an experience connecting to and relating with some of the kids that made him think about his family and highlighted the amount of time it had been since he had seen his mom. This moment inspired him to take a long break from the Unites States, go back to India, and rewrite his history with his mom together. He says,
“[The work that I was doing] made me realize that there [was] no way out of this. There’s no way out for me to not rebuild my relationship with my mother because it comes up enough in my work [and in] my relationships and friendships.”
As our conversation comes to an end, I ask Harish what he has to offer to someone looking to reclaim their connection to their culture, their roots, and their identity. He speaks,
“It took me a long time to believe in my ability to be able to heal and renew inside [in a way] that allows me to then really be able to renew and rejuvenate the world outside. [I always go back to this quote that says] 'a lot of people who try to be great, skip good'… [I have found that] a lot of great people—when they don’t have a good foundation—end up doing bad things that might be great. But they are doing bad-great things. And there is something different about people who know who they are, where they’re from, and why they exist in the world. And so, if you want to do something great—try to just be good first.”