This is the story of my first day.*
INTERVIEWED BY Nikhil Jammalamadaka x 8


DEPARTED FROM
Chennai, India

ARRIVED IN
New York City, New York

YEAR
1986

AGE
24

BACKGROUND

The interviewee has requested that their story not be shared on social media.


What made you immigrate to the United States?

Most people in the 1970s came here for higher studies and many returned to India once they completed their studies. That pattern started changing in the 1980s when computing went through a dramatic shift, which created a lot of opportunities for professional software engineers and programmers. I was one of those people who migrated to the U.S. for such career opportunities.

I finished college in Bengaluru and started working in Chennai so I could stay close to my family. A few years later, as this software–oriented immigration wave took off in the U.S., I was presented an opportunity to work in New York City. The prospect of going to a faraway place to try something new was very appealing, and I seized this opportunity. I moved to New York to work for a clearing house which was responsible for processing the data for many of the smaller private banks there. My work was focused on helping them adopt distributed computing – an emerging technology that had several interesting applications for the client and for the banking industry in general.

Who met you when you arrived and what did you do that first day?

I had a colleague who had arrived a couple of weeks earlier than me. He received me at the John F. Kennedy International Airport and we went to his apartment by taxi. I stayed with him for about a week before I found another apartment. I was single at that time, so it was quite easy – I eventually shared an apartment with a couple of friends. While I did not have any immediate family in the area, I did have a cousin who lived in Westchester County. She had immigrated about 10 years earlier and I had lost touch with her. I reconnected with her as well – it was nice meeting her after a such a long while.

What were some memorable experiences you had as you were settling down in the first few months – both positive and negative?

Settling in was quite smooth. The company paid for a very large furnished apartment in Flushing, which I shared with two other colleagues. We also had a fully–equipped kitchen, but we were all very bad cooks – so we really avoided it. We dined out a lot, especially given the range of cuisines that were available in the neighborhood (although not a lot of Indian restaurants). And when all else failed, we always had dollar pizzas!

It was also very easy to get around, given the variety of public transportation options. We would take the bus from Flushing to Long Island, where my work was located. We would go to Manhattan quite often – both to meet our banking clients and for fun. We could easily take the subway since the station was very close to home.

New York City was a happening place, just as it is even today. To be in the city was really enthralling for us because of the variety of activities that were always going on. The cold weather was new to me, especially since I was coming from Chennai. A couple of months later, it was the Christmas season and the city took on a totally different look. The New York Mets also won the World Series that year. As I reflect on it, that year was a particularly great time to be in New York.

How did you connect with the Indian community?

Indian hangouts were not as commonplace as they are today. One spot we frequented was the Ganesha Temple in Flushing, which was just a 5–minute walk down the street from us. Every Saturday, we would go there to eat at a small hole–in–the–wall restaurant outside the temple. It used to operate in a small shed (about the size of a toolshed). We would buy a small meal or snack, and just eat on the sidewalk while strolling around, like you do from a food truck.

The other popular hangout for us was Jackson Heights. Today, Jackson Heights feels like your typical ethnic enclave in NYC, such as Chinatown, Little Italy, or even Little Brazil. However, back then, Jackson Heights only had two grocery stores, two electronic shops, and perhaps a couple of restaurants. In fact, the biggest reason why it drew Indians from all over the U.S. was because it was the only place where one could find electronics designed for 240V. The typical devices from Sears wouldn’t work in India because they were designed for 110V. VCRs, music players and even camcorders were very popular things to take back to India as gifts.

As you look back to these initial days of yours, what advice would you give to new immigrants arriving in the U.S. today?

The current generation of immigrants coming to the U.S. have a very different context from what we had. We did not know a lot about the U.S. before we arrived here, and so we had to figure out a lot of things on the fly. Today’s immigrants already know what it is like either because they have been here before or have seen it on the Internet. Today’s online resources are so rich and comprehensive that you can learn a lot about the new place that you plan to move to, without ever having to go anywhere or talk to anyone. So they should definitely take advantage of those resources.

That said, given the conveniences that we have now, we can pretty much replicate an Indian way of life while living in the U.S. Back then, that was not possible. While that is a blessing in many ways, it is also something to be conscious of, as you try and assimilate into this country. Put differently, I would really encourage people to immerse themselves in the local culture and to take the time to learn about the American way of life, while preserving their cultural roots. Ideally, try and create your own unique lifestyle that combines the best of both worlds.



* The contributor of this story has asked that their name be withheld.

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