My name is Kamala Iyer.
INTERVIEWED BY Nikhil Jammalamadaka x 8


DEPARTED FROM
Mumbai, India

ARRIVED IN
New York City, New York

YEAR
1990

AGE
29

NOW LIVES IN
Jamaica, Queens, New York

COLLECTED BY

What exactly made you immigrate to the United States?

I immigrated to the U.S. in 1990 in order to pursue higher education. When I earned my BPharm degree from IIT BHU, women in India didn’t really have many attractive job opportunities. Most of the opportunities available in India were industrial-based and male-dominated. Even when I did my internship in college, I did not get much respect from my colleagues at work. As an alternative, I explored teaching, but that wasn’t satisfying either. So, following the advice of my seniors, I decided to come here to pursue my master’s degree at the Long Island University (LIU) pharmacy school in Brooklyn.

When you arrived at that time, who exactly met you and what did you do on that first day?

When I landed at JFK airport in New York City, I was met by a family friend who later became my husband. Since I arrived around noon, we stopped for lunch at the Ganesha Temple canteen in Flushing. It’s much bigger today, but at the time, it was a small, student-run facility. Interestingly, many of the Indian doctors from the neighborhood hospitals would frequent that canteen. I would watch them visit the temple to offer prayers to Ganesha and then go downstairs to eat. After lunch, we went home, and I slept for the rest of the day because of the jet lag.

What was the first place you visited in New York?

After a couple of days, my first stop was at Jackson Heights for grocery shopping. I was amazed by what I saw – there are so many small Indian restaurants and shops. The store owners would be standing outside and literally trying to drag you inside like they do in India. You could hear so many Indian languages and dialects – in some ways, I felt at home. This was also when I learned the tricks of shopping in the U.S., such as looking for specials and cutting coupons! Overall, the experience was great.

How did you get around the city?

The studio apartment I lived in was a 6-minute walk to the F line of the NYC subway. The subway used to connect me everywhere. The same train would get me to LIU, albeit with train change, and to Jackson Heights! It was also much more economical, as if you're working in the city, like in Manhattan, parking and bridge tolls can get expensive – especially when compared to the subway tickets. So, most people around me, even those who owned a car, used to take the subway. In fact, I met many people who just didn’t want to have a car, given headaches like insurance and maintenance costs. So, in my initial days, I travelled primarily by subway and bus.

That said, it all took some getting used to. Even walking felt unnatural, given that people drive on the left-hand side. When I used to cross the street, I used to look in the opposite direction, and almost got hit by a car. It being New York, the driver started cussing at me, just like they show in the movies, but it was a really embarrassing experience. Eventually, I got used to it, but it did take some time.

Another thing that was very different, albeit in a good way, was the traffic. I was amazed to see the wide highways and disciplined drivers staying in their lanes. The streets were clean and everyone followed the traffic rules. This was very different from what I had experienced before – both in India and in Africa.

Any interesting experiences on the subway?

The New York subway has always had a bad reputation, especially during the times when there are not very many people around, such as in the evenings or late at night. It is not uncommon for the subway cars to be dirty and smelly. There is also a lot of crime – especially in some neighborhoods. Even the stations can be stressful. I had evening classes that would end at 10pm. So, I would often be at the LIU station waiting to take the train late at night. The trains would also be relatively empty – so you didn’t even have the safety of crowds. My friends advised me that if somebody demanded my money, I should just give them what I have. It just isn’t worth the risk. In fact, I actually got mugged once. But you know, the gentleman was very proper. I showed him my wallet and said this is all I have. I needed a way to get back home. So he gave me the exact change for the subway ticket and took the rest of the money. In hindsight, it wasn't that scary – but still a crazy memory. But after that, I had a close friend who offered to accompany me on the subway on those late-night rides until I got more comfortable.

What was it like in LIU?

When I was pursuing my master’s degree at LIU, most of the classes were during the evening time. Most of my classmates were like me – they had undergraduate degrees and prior work experience, and were pursuing pharmacy as higher education because of its opportunities. But a few of them were from other countries, making for a really an interesting combination of different languages and different accents. It was so nice to see that so many different people from different countries, and therefore with different accents, actually understand each other and move forward without any problems.

What was the biggest difference you felt between the two education systems, given that you did your bachelor’s degree in India and even taught there before coming to the U.S.?

The way we study in India and the way we study here is very different. In the U.S., the academic program is extremely targeted and rigorous, in that they make you a master in whatever you want to do. For instance, if you want to become a registered pharmacist, you need to take a long list of courses that cover every facet of the job. Our curriculum in India was more broad-based. It also takes a lot more work in the U.S. than we did back in India – especially if you want to become a pharmacist in just two years. This effectively means that you cannot just keep going to parties and having fun. In fact, I used to study almost eight hours a day in order to get through the tough three-part exam. You had to have in-depth knowledge about the medications, their interactions, their names, how they work in the body, and much more. It was particularly challenging given my undergraduate degree had an industrial focus. My clinical knowledge was zero – so I had to study that much harder to catch up.

Moreover, in this country becoming a registered pharmacist takes much more than just getting a degree in pharmacy. I had to volunteer at a pharmacy in Manhattan to gain the necessary practical experience. For instance, it forced me to get fluent in the names of all the drugs – especially the brand names that were completely different from what I learned in India. So, my days were packed. I would work on my assignments during the day, then go to work at the Manhattan pharmacy for 4 hours in the afternoon, then go to college in the evening, and finally get back home late at night. That was a tough routine for a couple of years. But it was very fulfilling and I learned a lot.

By the way, that did not mean that I couldn’t ever take a break. I remember going to places like the Statue of Liberty and Washington, D.C. I just couldn’t spend every day watching TV, or go to coffee shops or sit outside watching the snow. I had to go to work, school, study, and take care of all the household chores like groceries and laundry. And since I was on my own, everything fell onto me – it was a lot more work than I ever did as a student back in India. But as long as you work hard and stay committed to the goal that brought you here, there are no limits to what you can achieve in this country.

Any other fond memories from those initial days?

The best part that I remember from those initial days was the snowfall. I came just before Christmas, and while it was extremely cold, there was no snow. But then a month later, I opened the curtains in my apartment, and amidst the sunshine I saw everything was white – I had never seen anything so pure and beautiful. It was early in the morning and no one had driven a car so there was a pristine layer of snow everywhere. That day is permanently etched in my memory. For the whole season there was snowfall, I made it a point to step out onto the fire escape, right near the main window. I would stand with my mouth open trying to catch the snowflakes! I really felt like a child at that time – it was great.

Even today, I love it when it snows. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as often anymore. Back in the day, the kids would be disappointed if they didn’t get the 3-4 feet of snow they needed to play properly. I would love to build snowmen – it was a classic American tradition. In fact, I can’t quite relate when I hear people complain about having to shovel the snow. In contrast, I would enjoy it because I would play while I shoveled. And even today, if people would offer to help clean my sidewalk, I decline it because I still enjoy doing it. I also hear people talk about the dangers of driving in the snow. In my opinion, the NYC snowplows do an amazing job of clearing the snow almost immediately. So I have never had much trouble driving in the snow in this neighborhood. All in all, that is why the snowfall has been one of my favorite experiences.

Looking back on your first days, what advice would you give other new immigrants in the U.S.?

Back then and even now, I strongly believe that this country offers unlimited opportunities if you know what you want to do, are willing to work hard, and stay committed to your goals. It doesn’t matter if you want to become a pharmacist, a doctor, an engineer, or anything else. It won’t always be easy and there will be moments when you will feel like dropping everything and going back. You will hit low points when you regret leaving your old life and moving here. In those moments, just remember your goals and your dreams. I have seen many other countries where problems like political upheaval and bureaucracy will prevent you from success, irrespective of how talented you are. However, in this country, if you work hard and believe in yourself, you will definitely succeed.


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