My decision to come to the U.S. was not part of any big strategic plan. I’d already lived abroad due to my father’s job, so that was not a big appeal for me—actually, it felt nice and comfortable to live in my own culture in India, especially once I went to Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh and lived on my own while still being close to family. I was just following each next step: graduate, get a job. In my second year of college, my friends started studying for the GMAT, GRE, and TOEFL (the qualifying exams to study outside of the U.S.). I thought they were nuts, but in third year others started studying, too, so I figured I may as well study and see what happens. I ended up with the highest marks on the GRE and TOEFL that anyone at PEC had ever gotten. It’s funny because until then, my family thought graduate school was unnecessary and only for out-of-touch scientists. But then my father started hearing about his friends’ kids who had studied and settled in America, and we started thinking that was a good idea. Life in India was not looking good at the time: there were protests, violence, issues with terrorism. Most people were thinking of going out of the country; going to America was the thing, so I ended up following. I’d already done internships and taken an interest in robotics, so I found schools in those programs. I got into a few, and I picked the University of Maryland because it had a more reasonable price, a good robotics program, and I knew people who had recently moved to the D.C. area.
I took a KLM flight to BWI airport in Baltimore on August 21st, 1991. My whole family came to see me off: parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, as I was the first to ever go to America. I had a friend from college who was going to George Washington University in D.C., so we flew together. We ended up getting upgraded from economy to business class, and we spent the entire time writing post cards to everyone we knew, as KLM said they would mail them for free (they didn’t deliver until like a year later). My cousin picked us up, and we stayed with her family for a couple days.
The first thing I noticed when I came out was that the U.S. has a different smell—more sanitized, like a hospital (now, when we go back to India, we say India has its own smell). I was awestruck by everything, but also very jet lagged. My cousin’s grandmother had to force me to wake up at 5:30 one evening, yelling “You have to break this habit!”
When I went to the UMD campus to look for apartments and sign up for classes, I was amazed at how different everything was. All the buildings were huge and historical. There were Coke vending machines everywhere (I’d only ever seen them in the embassy building in India). They even had a stamp vending machine!
The school system here was completely different. I had to learn how to select classes, how the grade system worked, how the credit hours worked. Even knowing English, everything still felt like it was in a foreign language since it was a new type of English, and the professors didn’t explain things as much as I was used to. I also needed a job, but it soon became clear that the robotics program was underfunded and didn’t have any assistantship opportunities. I ended up taking an assistant job in the admissions office.
Living alone was a unique experience. I’d never been alone and fully responsible for cooking. In my last few days at home, my mother taught me basics like curry, and we split up the cooking responsibilities so I could learn. Cleaning was also interesting—there was one time we put regular dish soap in the dishwasher because we didn’t know there was a difference, and the whole apartment filled with bubbles. I had to adjust to everything: academics, food, lifestyle, the new time zone, how expensive it was to call home, furnishing an apartment, finding Indian groceries, converting U.S. dollars to rupees. Buying a $1 Coke felt awkward; the first thing that would come to my mind was that I would never spend 26 rupees on this.
It was nice that my apartment was all Indians, so we all had that familiar background and were going through these changes together. It felt like the first few weeks at the PEC dorm when everyone met each other for the first time. There was a good pizza place nearby, and a salad bar. I never knew salad could be a full meal until then. We learned slowly how to order these things—I remember one time they asked me what dressing I wanted, and I didn’t know what dressing was, so I tried to be smart and ask, “What do you have?” But the lady just said, “All of them.” She then seemed to see that I was confused and starting listing “Ranch…” and I immediately said, “Yes that’s what I want.”
The school also did an orientation trip for all the international students into D.C. They showed us how to use the metro, all the monuments (you could go to the top of the Washington Monument back then, and get much closer to the White House), Union Station, all that. Some of us decided to stay back after the professors left, but we got nervous about how to get home. I ended up taking the lead—I had no clue what I was doing, but we managed to get everyone onto the Red Line to Silver Spring, then took a bus back.
It was an exciting time, very new. I was surprised by how friendly Americans were. Maybe it was just the campus environment, but everyone I met was extremely accommodating, very helpful, and I never felt like an outsider or unwelcome. It was like “wow”—sometimes I felt more welcome here than at home. I don’t know if it’s still like that anymore. People have a lot more opinions on immigrants and people from outside now. I don’t know if the campus environment is also different, but now we’re exposed to a more suspicious attitude. The general dialogue has become people thinking immigrants are taking away what is rightfully theirs.
Looking back over thirty years later feels really good, actually. It helps bring back a lot of memories that had gone away, some very nice memories about the first few days. It also tells you how much you’ve changed over the last thirty years. Back then everyone was optimistic, positive, fresh and new, but now we’ve lived here long enough so we’re more critical about everything. Obviously, this would’ve been a turning point in anyone’s life, but it was a bigger change than anything I could’ve imagined. Sometimes I look back and think about how 1991 was also the year that India changed and became more open, and it’s been moving forward ever since. Coming here put me on a different trajectory; the education, people, and opportunities all would’ve been different. But it feels like a fulfilling experience. I’m glad I came.