My name is Geetha Ghai.
INTERVIEWED BY Alex Terpstra x 4

"I was just scared. I was very scared, and excited. You know, it was a very interesting kind of emotions. I don't know how to explain. Fear, anxiety, excitement, everything tied together."

Vadodara, India

Buffalo, New York





So, what do you remember from your first few days in the US when you arrived?

Culture shock, in every way, in every way, emotionally, physically. Always because there was no family to support. There was no money. We came here we were given eight dollars as foreign exchange. That's all we were given. For whatever reason that was the limit that they had put. We were just lucky that my father had arranged for some money for us to get. So that was, economically we were scared because we came from really well-off families in India. So being poor was not in the equation. And so, we learned how to be poor.

So, who met you when you first arrived?

I arrived in Kennedy [JFK Airport]. It was in the evening, around six or seven. It was dark, because it was wintertime, my friend came to pick me up. She couldn't come to the airport for whatever reason. So they were announcing on the PA system, that to come to the front desk, and I couldn't understand what they were saying, because my name was being pronounced very oddly. Finally, I went to the front desk, and they said, “It's messages for you. We have been calling you for the past half hour, your friend cannot make it. So you have to take a bus and go to Grand Central Station.” And I was I felt like I was in the moon. Because I didn't know anything. And I didn't know where Grand Central Station was. It wasn't like today, there was no digital anything. So all we learned was from somebody telling us stories. And I came from a fairly aware family, I thought but I wasn't aware enough. So that's what happened. My friend was supposed to pick me up.

Alright, So what made you immigrate to the United States?

It was, he [husband] came so I followed him. That was one. The second thing was that I wanted to pursue my postdoctoral work. That's why I came. Because in those days, and even today, I don't think research is as valued in India as it is over here. And if we are in biological research, you have to be in a more advanced, research-oriented mentality. If I was in theoretical research, then that's a different thing, India can, I could have done anything I wanted in India. That's what profession is what made me move.

What were some of the things that first like surprised you when you first arrived?

The accent, I never thought that I couldn't understand English. It was like, complete, I just didn't understand the accent. And then when you looked up, and the airport and look, all the different types of things and the food, didn't understand anything. It was like, totally alien, and the enormity of everything, everything looked so huge. Coming from a country where things were much more manageable. This wasn't manageable. So I felt the magnanimity of everything. Huge. Absolutely.

So what did you do on your first day? And like, I know, like, if your first day was just traveling, then like, what do you do on like, the day after that?

The first day, yes, and the second day, early morning, I took the flight to Buffalo from New York. And the week before, they had, had about six or seven inches of snow. And he had called India to say that there is this much snow so I had said, “Then I'm not coming you stay there and I will stay in India.” But when we landed the snow had melt, thawed, everything had gone it has melted. So I was looking for the snow and I couldn't find it anywhere, which was cold. So he came home and I was just jet lagged, just I think. I was just scared. I was very scared, and excited. You know, it was a very interesting kind of emotions. I don't know how to explain. Fear, anxiety, excitement, everything tied together.

What were some of the biggest cultural differences and similarities you noticed between the United States and India when you first arrived?

It was it was nothing like India, it was very, everything was different. Even pots and pans were different. And in those days, universities didn't have a strong foreign students orientation. Because for whatever reason, it has evolved over years. There, you had to sort out where the foreign students office was, I didn't even know that there was an office of [inaudible]. So every pot had a handle. And we didn't use pots with handle in India, you used pots, but you had kind of a tong that you use to pull things up. So, I didn't know how to cook, I burned everything in the first few days. Then culturally, people will just talk, here it wasn't that easy. They will look at you. Then, there may be a smile, there may not be, you look different. When you, we were different. There weren't that many Indian origin people or South Asian people. And so culturally, very different.

Similarities, once you got to know the people. They were very warm and very kind, which was very similar to what it was in India. And one of the friends, is still have they live here in New Jersey. I knew I met her the first, first week within the first week. She has she was a postdoc in another lab. She was a postdoc, with actually my husband. She used to, she, she did everything. she would drive me everywhere. She would take me everywhere. So kindness exists. That was the beauty, that we found that every human being once you get to know they are kind, and they are nice, but you have to get to know them. That takes time.

Yeah. So, did you face any challenges or barriers in your first days in the US?

Yes, I honestly felt like I was going to the space. I didn't think I was on earth. It was going somewhere, which I had never known. Didn't hear. And I had to make two stops to come to the US–there were no direct flights. So I stopped in England. And then I stopped in Belgium. No, in Sebenza, is from where the chocolates are made.

I had to stop in those two places before the flight landed. And I'm a vegetarian. So nobody understood vegetarian food. So I was hungry all the way from India to here, they would bring me head of broccoli as a special meal. And I thought it was molded cauliflower because I had never seen broccoli in India in those days. I see green cauliflower. I couldn't eat it. I said “Oh God, this is a mold on it and they've given it to me.” So that's that is the type of barriers I faced, food. Food was a big barrier. Not knowing anybody who would till I got to know people, that was a barrier. But the beauty was, everything else was beautiful. You know, looking outside, everything looks so different. So that was a learning experience. So that's, that's where it was.

So, did you have any presumptions about American culture that were challenged during your first days in the US?

Presumptions, we always felt that Americans were extremely friendly people. That is the image that we had grown up with. But when you landed here, it was kind of shattered. Because I didn't, it wasn't like you knew anybody. So they can't just come and be friendly with you, and its a stranger, you know. So that was a little bit of take, I was taken aback a little bit, I thought they will all come and say hello, hello, hello. No, that didn't happen. And you realize with age and with living, that that is not going to happen anywhere in the world. But that was a big shocker.

So on to the last question for today, what advice would you give to other newly arrived immigrants in the US?

Be positive, think positively, work hard. Don't fall into traps, which kind of pushes negativity, because our brain is biased towards negativity, try to get over that bias and think positive. Because many of us who came here with nothing have made it, I own a home, which in itself is a huge thing to think about. We put two kids through college, paid from our, whatever salaries we were in, it's a big thing. So think positive and keep going. And don't let the negativity penetrate you. That's my biggest thing that I have always told my students I always tell everybody that.