"Girls," Mrs Danilewitz called to her daughters, "Girls, I want you to meet this extraordinary lady!"
My mother stood unsuspecting in the foyer, hardly taller than the two children who gazed at her now. I'd been studying for a biology test with their older brother, Justin.
"Did you know," Mrs D went on, "that this lady arrived in this country with no more than US$6 in her pocket? And look what she's made of herself today!" She clasped my mother's hand. "Nimmu, what an inspiration!"
Halfway down the drive, my mother reached up and wrenched my ear. "Why did you tell her that? Six dollars?"
Because it's what I knew. Or thought I knew. On long car rides, against the drone of NPR, my parents told me stories of their pasts, and of pasts that reached farther back than their own, of stingy uncles and Kerala riverboats and letters written from sanitariums.
They told me so many stories, so many times, that the facts of their lives became the facts of mine: mine to pick at my convenience, mine to trample with invention.
My American life is held aloft by Mario's American life, by the lives and labour of workers who process poultry for my aunt's fiery curries and pick strawberries for my summer salads; by domestic workers who watch our children, who keep our neighbourhoods beautiful and our property values high. My immigrant family's comfort is built, in part, on the hard work of other immigrants.
From somewhere in this field of fact and fiction, I'd plucked the story of my mum and dad, newly married, arriving at Kennedy Airport with only US$12 in cash between them.
"We had US$16," my mum said. "That's what the Indian government let us take out." In 1965, US$16 was worth about US$120 (S$170) now - not a huge sum, but more than paupers' crumbs. Also, my dad had a friend with a car waiting at the airport. And a furnished apartment. And a job as a medical intern at an Albany hospital.
Now my parents live in the Berkeley hills with a view of the San Francisco Bay. They have a timeshare in Lake Tahoe. My mum ran a paediatrics practice, my dad a urology practice. They raised three children. Hard work, economy, wise investment, humility: the values of the great immigrant equation.
In the wake of the election of Mr Donald Trump, as I read about an increase in abuse against immigrants and the appointment of Mr Stephen Bannon, formerly of the anti-immigrant Breitbart News, as a senior adviser, I've been thinking a lot about my family's immigrant story.
There's something luxuriant in my mishandling of the facts. It speaks to the security of knowing that yes, my parents came to this country with very little, but the details don't matter, not when they've come so far.
Indian immigrants have done well for themselves, but their success doesn't spring from some inherent well of virtue. Nor should it be used as a cudgel against other immigrant groups. We didn't succeed because we're better, we succeeded because we had a path.
THE MISSING GARDENER
"They took my gardener!" My neighbour waved me down one morning a few months ago. "My gardener hasn't shown up for three weeks," she panted. "He was so dependable! They've probably sent him away, you know? Picked him up? But what can you do?" She gazed at my sidewalk planter, ripe now with succulents. "But who's your little man? The one who does your yard?"
Our little man? My neighbour was talking about Mario, the man who created our garden after I had installed a collection of expensive plants and, through assiduous research and care, killed them.
Mario planted a new melange. He also painted our rooms, laid carpet, built a storage shed and fixed most everything we found ourselves breaking. But he hadn't been to our home in over two years. He'd got a job at a warehouse - better work than the day-labour circuit.
Mario told me that it took him two tries to cross the border. The first time, he was caught and forced to turn back. The second time, he was kidnapped by smugglers and held in a hotel room for ransom until someone could pay his way out.
Then he managed to secure a ride through the border. He travelled in the boot, folded like an ironing board against two other people, one of whom, Mario once told us with a laugh loosened by time, had recently stepped on dog poo.
The last time Mario worked for us, he painted our breakfast room. I'd chosen a colour called limesicle for the walls, minced onion for the trim. An ominous combination.
I asked Mario how his daughters were - one was in high school back in Mexico, the other in college. He hadn't seen them for 10 years.
My parents went through similar droughts of contact with their families. In the days before Skype or FaceTime, when people interfaced by faded blue aerogramme, they went for years seeing nobody they loved, except for each other and their children.
As of 1960, five years before my parents arrived, there were only about 12,000 Indian immigrants in the US. Lifelong friendships formed in grocery stores. "My dad looked through the entire phone book and called every person with an Indian name," a friend once told me.
Recently, I asked my dad about his first years here. He was part of the first wave of foreign medical graduates recruited to serve America's growing hospital network. Between 1965 and 1974, a total of 75,000 foreign physicians would migrate to the United States.
"So, um, did you face any discrimination when you started your training? In the hospital?"
He shrugged. "Well," he said, "there was the system."
"The system in the hospital. The hours we worked, the jobs they gave us."
"It discriminated against foreign medical graduates. Is that what you mean?"
I'd imagined gangs of tall white surgeons, cool and cruel in their green scrubs, elbowing past my short, brown dad. "So there was nothing... personal?"
"Personal? We didn't have time for personal." Foreign medical graduates spent gruelling hours doing the scut work of hospitals. But they had this: the legal right to live and work in the United States.
When people talk about Indians in the US, they talk about success. How, they muse, has a relatively new immigrant group managed to find its way to the final rounds of spelling bees, to the Ivy League, to Silicon Valley, where 16 per cent of start-ups are co-founded by Indians?
From this vantage point, the impulse among Indian immigrants and their children, when faced with the plight of the undocumented, underpaid and downtrodden, is to shake our heads and sigh. Poor them, lucky us. The well-intentioned call this empathy.
Here's the problem with empathy: It lets us feel good about ourselves. Empathy allows me to shut out a founding truth of success.
My American life is held aloft by Mario's American life, by the lives and labour of workers who process poultry for my aunt's fiery curries and pick strawberries for my summer salads; by domestic workers who watch our children, who keep our neighbourhoods beautiful and our property values high.
My immigrant family's comfort is built, in part, on the hard work of other immigrants.
Not all Indians are documented tech workers and doctors. Not all Mexicans are undocumented labourers. This isn't about Indians and Mexicans, but about the documented and undocumented, and the gulf of privilege that lies between them. This privilege builds on itself, from visa application to employment to finance to home ownership to education to the next generation.
Once, during his first year of training, my dad fainted from exhaustion. When he came to, he still had a job, he still had a visa.
Eventually he moved on to a residency, a fellowship, his own practice. The journey was backbreaking, but he could take each step knowing that the earth beneath him would not fall away.
The last time I saw Mario, he was walking down busy Shattuck Avenue. I pulled over and asked if he needed a ride. "No, thank you," he called back and waved and went on walking, each step an act of faith.
- Shanthi Sekaran teaches creative writing at California College of the Arts and is the author of the forthcoming novel, Lucky Boy.