My name is Amit Shah.

"The part that I remember is that when I would say that I'm from India, oftentimes people… they mistake me for Native American. So I had to say, I'm not that Indian, I'm from East India."

Kolkata, India

New York City, New York



Boston, Massachusetts



So, the first question that I want to start this conversation with what do you remember from your first few days in the United States when you arrived? Can you share what it felt like? What were your first impressions?

Yes, I had an older sister Swapna who picked me up from–it wasn't JFK at that time I think it was still Idlewild in New York. And my first impression was that her accent had changed, because she was four years older than me, and she had come out here before me. And then it was the, the speed of the highways, that was the I was, you know, a young person. And I had, I used to ride a motorcycle in India, and the speed of the highways was one. But what I remember most is, in my first few days, there were things that was so different. For instance, our mailbox, what we used to call a post box in India was a red pillar, post box, whereas in the U.S., it's a box. It's a boxy square, blue container. And I could not find one, and I actually had to ask one of the store owners where the mailbox was, and it was right in front of the store. And he kind of looked at me.

And then there were all the language, which was British English to American English. That was striking in some ways. But other than that, that I was very comfortable in New York, and I remember people saying, “Are you, are you not nervous?” And I said, “Well, I grew up in Calcutta, and it's a chaotic city.” And out here I can, I knew English, and I could read signs. And so the subway actually came quite easily to me in New York. But choices were striking, you know, choices and consumer places, like grocery stores. Hm, I was, even though I, my father had been out here many times before me, and I heard many stories, but I wasn't prepared for you know, all the different types of breads, and this was the 1970’s so it wasn't like America was that diversified at that time. But still, you know, everything from ice cream to bread, they had so many choices. My sister took me clothes shopping. It was, I don't know, it was, I forget the name. It was a, you know, not a high class store, a chain store. And I realized that the clothes that I had, you know, were distinctly South Asian, even the fit on the cut [laughs]. Yeah, those were my first impressions.

My sister had a few friends who were from India, and I saw them quite regularly. But my, my community really was from the university. You know, once I gotten to, which is after the first three months, I got into graduate school, and I had to do summer courses. Because I needed to get some credits, undergraduate credits. And they allowed me to go to grad school, as long as I finish this undergraduate credit. So, I, I found, you know, people at the university some were assistant professors, they were postdocs. I don't remember anyone in my year who was from India. Although, some of my friends came shortly after over the next couple of years. So, I didn't really have an Indian community to begin with, you know, and there was also a part of me that didn't want to be ghettoized. And, and so, I, I tried to not just hang out with the, with the few Indians that I knew, you know, and later on in life, I would have done it differently. But at that time, that's the way it was.

And as you reflect on that time, is there anything that particularly strikes you or makes you smile or laugh or cry when you think about it, those early experiences in the US?

Yes. When, you know, it was a time there was there were very few South Asian immigrants. I mean, they, they had just opened up like four years before that the US in the late 60s. And so, Indians outside of the university, even in New York, weren't that many. I remember, there was a street and in the East Village, that was there were many restaurants on this. I see East 6th Street. And they were Bangladeshis before Bangladesh, of course, they were from East Pakistan. And they had bought up the entire block. I mean, there was just dilapidated buildings, and they pool their money and they started these restaurants, and they bought together and very cheap food. And I remember that being a place that we would go to often. The part that I remember is that when I would say that I'm from India, oftentimes people, not oftentimes, but people who would get they would ask me, they mistake me for Native American. So I had to say, I'm not that Indian, I'm from East India. There was very little, I felt, at that time, there was very little knowledge of things Indian. I mean, people were welcoming for sure. I didn't face any overt discrimination.

Yeah, two things. One was my sister had in-laws in Texas, in Austin, Texas. And within the first couple of months, we made a trip down there. And I remember being absolutely flabbergasted because I couldn't understand what people was saying, because their Texas accents were so strong, that I just had trouble deciphering that. And I realized, well, like how, how different parts of the country was, you know. The other part was, I missed, because it was pre-social media, pre-telephones, all of that. I missed my friends in India a lot. And I wrote them long letters about exactly what I was thinking, feeling, seeing. I wish I had those letters. I have a few that my parents saved, but not to my, to my friends. And I think that that would have been very different now, because I probably would be texting them and talking to them on Zoom. Yeah.

I was very open to the new life that I felt was being offered to me. And, and I, you know, I, I made a lot of friends quickly. And yeah, I started working part time after I got into to graduate school. And those were to pay for my board and lodging. And that was very different from most students that I knew at that time. And certainly immigrant students, because I had a job in the Bronx in a special school. It was a residential school for the handicap, visually and physical handicaps and they had residential houses for the students. And I was a house master in one of those, those buildings. And the only thing I had to do was to make sure that these kids went to bed in time and that they got up showered and I could get them to breakfast at a particular time. And for that they gave me room and board. And then I, you know, I did that part time and came to school.