My name is Kalyani Abhinandan.
INTERVIEWED BY Nikhil Jammalamadaka x 9

Basel, Switzerland

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



Doylestown, Pennsylvania


Why did you decide to immigrate to the United States?

We were living in Europe before the U.S. I did my PhD in Switzerland, after which we moved to the U.K., and then moved back to Switzerland. I loved my time in Switzerland, especially my PhD days. I made some wonderful friends and they became like family to me. We traveled all across Europe, which was an amazing experience. However, after a while, I realized that I needed something more – opportunities for personal growth and exploration, closeness to my Indian roots and most importantly, the ability to communicate easily with others around me. It was proving difficult for me to integrate with the local Swiss community, as everything was in the local language. Although I knew German, one of the principal languages spoken in Switzerland, the local dialect sounded quite different from the German I had learned. So, I was quite eager for a change. My two options were either India or the U.S., as in both places we have lots of relatives and friends and language was not going to be an issue. Therefore, when my husband found a job in the U.S., I was thrilled. My desire to move to the U.S. strengthened further as I discovered more relatives and long-lost friends from school and college. So I just felt that, in addition to not facing a language barrier, I would have a much more vibrant social life and cultural life as well.

Do you remember when and where you first landed?

It was late in the evening, sometime in February of 2020, when we arrived in Philadelphia. My cousin and his wife had very kindly offered to come and pick us up from the airport. It felt like a homecoming from the moment I stepped into the U.S., as there was family to greet me and they drove us to the furnished apartment where we were going to stay for one month. The drive to the house was also really nice, because suddenly everything was in English, and I could therefore understand everything that was written everywhere. And somehow it felt like the movies that I watched when I was younger, which were picturized on the typical American lifestyle. Since all of that was just like flashing in front of my eyes, it felt like a nice dream that had come true.

And do you remember what you did on your first day?

When I arrived at the furnished accommodation in the evening, my cousin took me to the local Wegmans to buy groceries, which was a new experience for me coming from Europe. The product variety amazed me, with multiple varieties and choices for almost everything. What excited me the most was the wide selection of produce, including some Indian vegetable varieties that I rarely found back in Switzerland. Moreover, I was fascinated by the convenience of finding packed chapatis and naan at Wegmans. The accessibility to everything was a thrill, and although I could not cook that night, I was eager to start the next day. The following morning, as I walked around, I realized I could easily communicate with everyone in English, which was a refreshing change from struggling to express myself in a foreign language back in Switzerland. Overall, the abundance and convenience of shopping in the United States made me feel excited and liberated.

What were your first impressions?

To be honest, this was not really my first impression. I had been to the U.S. with my parents and brother in 1993 at the age of 11, when my father, a physics professor, got a one-year sabbatical position at the University of Florida. I therefore knew what the U.S. would be like. However, this time, my perspective was different. I was thrilled about the possibilities that opened up for me here, as I had often felt held back in my previous location due to language barriers and limited opportunities. I remember noticing how refreshing and new the neighborhood felt. Unfortunately, we had arrived just before the COVID-19 lockdowns, and the increasing cases had already started closing things down. It did feel strange to see so few people outside in the apartment community and even on the roads. I felt torn between my eagerness to settle in and the anxiety of navigating life amidst the COVID-19 fiasco. Therefore, my initial impression was a strange mix of anticipation and concern, as I embarked on this new chapter of my life in a foreign land.

How did your initial days contrast with your time growing up in India?

Living in India, one is always struck by the vibrant crowd and constant activity. Everywhere you go, there are people bustling about and something exciting is happening. Whether you are visiting someone's house, going to a store, or just sitting outside your home, you see people you know and engage in conversations all the time. However, when I moved to the U.S., I noticed a stark contrast. It was eerily quiet in our community, especially during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even now, there's a notable absence of people outside. When you do run into people, meaningful interactions are rare. Community events are also infrequent, making it challenging to socialize. Another major difference I've experienced is the lack of reliable public transportation. In India and Europe, I was accustomed to using public transportation to get around, but in the U.S., I felt dependent on my spouse for even basic tasks like grocery shopping or running errands. This is even more pronounced for immigrants without a driver’s license, as they become entirely reliant on their spouses. Additionally, within my community, there are no bus stops, forcing me to rely on a car to go anywhere. In fact, I have fond memories of meeting fascinating individuals while traveling by bus or train in India. In contrast, such opportunities for connection are non-existent in my current surroundings. These two differences – the relatively sparse population and limited public transportation – greatly limit the social fabric and daily life experiences.

We’ve talked about differences between the U.S. and India. Was there anything that felt familiar?

Well, given that I've been moving around so much, my mind is a bit confused about how my life was at different places. But I would say, it's probably the ability to communicate freely and accessibility to Indian cultural festivals, temples, food, and more. I have actually been amazed by the amount of access to these things. Even restaurant chains which are very famous in India have locations in this area. In fact, I often tend to go there when I feel like I want to have something that reminds me of home. Even when I go to the Indian stores, so many things are available that remind me of my childhood, such as Parle-G biscuits and Fatafat candy (though I don't know if they still sell them in India). But you still get it here. So, in many ways, you could say that I have the best of both worlds.

How did you feel after the first few months in the U.S.? Did you manage to settle in comfortably?

Moving to a new country can be both exciting and challenging, but my experience in the U.S. was surprisingly comfortable and easy. Despite the initial move and finding a new place to live, everything seemed to fall into place smoothly, especially with the summer holidays approaching. I do miss the bustling city life I grew up with in India, especially since the area I live in is somewhat secluded. Nevertheless, having my family around and knowing I could rely on them made the transition easier. One other aspect of the U.S. that truly stood out for me was the public library system, which I had been eagerly anticipating. Unlike in Europe or India, the U.S. has an extensive collection of books available through public libraries. Spending hours immersed in a world of literature was a gift for me, and the option of curbside pickup during the COVID-19 pandemic was greatly appreciated. With the library's resources, I was even able to rediscover my passion for art – something that has brought me immense joy over the last couple of years. So, despite the challenges, settling here has been an enriching experience and I truly feel a sense of comfort and familiarity in my new surroundings.

Did you face any other cultural or race barriers in your first few years?

I don't remember anything explicitly difficult about race or culture. My biggest challenge was childcare and schooling, especially given COVID-19. Given that we had just moved to a new place as a family, I was taking care of my son who was about 5 at the time. Because of the pandemic restrictions, he had to start virtual school. And he was just not used to looking at the screen, as I had hardly given him any screen time when he was young. So, I decided to homeschool him for a year, but I didn't know where to go for guidance. I remember in Switzerland there was a free community service where you could go for free if you had some questions about how to deal with any such issues. They would help give you tips, but I couldn't find anything like that here in the U.S. Even in India, I could have easily found a friend or “auntie” who would have useful suggestions. But here I couldn't even talk to people, let alone get guidance, especially because everything was shut down due to COVID-19. So, that was the only challenge I faced. But nothing pertaining to culture or race.

Looking back now, did your life in the U.S. match the hopes you had in those initial days?

Yes, definitely! I was expecting many new opportunities for personal growth which I have definitely found. I have the vibrant social life I was hoping for. I love how clean and organized it is everywhere I go. I have been able to actively pursue my interest in arts and crafts. In particular, I have really enjoyed attending several workshops and honing my talent. Most of all, I really value the ease with which I can access all these opportunities. So I would say that in essence, I'm very happy that I moved here.

Were you able to get close to family and friends as you had hoped, especially after the pandemic?

Yes indeed! I always joke that in the two years of lockdown, I met more people in the U.S. than I had met in the last 10 years in Europe. I think that says it all. I have had many friends introduce me to their friends. And my cousins would invite us home for Diwali, other social events, or even just simple dinner get-togethers, where we would connect with their network. And the best part is that all these new acquaintances live close by, given the large Indian community in this area. So it has been very easy and natural to keep meeting new people. Like I said, culturally and socially, I felt very alive here.

What advice would you give to other newly arrived immigrants in the United States?

I would say reach out to your neighbors. Try to befriend them because people here are very friendly. I was kind of shy, you know. I had just come and personally didn't know how to say hello. I didn't really know how things culturally operate here, but as time passed I realized that everybody is just very friendly and they are very happy to help you in whatever way they can. I think that's one thing that I wish somebody had told me when I just moved here. I have been amazed by how resourceful people are in this country on numerous occasions. Either they will help you, or they'll know somebody who can help you. For instance, at the library, I was asking the librarian about books on Ayurveda. As it turned out, she was an Ayurvedic practitioner herself. She maintained a practice website of her own, for which she gave me the link, along with links to a few other websites. And I got that unexpected help simply because I was willing to reach out and ask for it. So if you take the initiative to open up and connect with people, people will want to connect with you, help you and support you. That will make your transition into this country a lot less intimidating and overwhelming.