What do you remember from your first days in the U.S.?
So I do remember, obviously, the drive from JFK to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It's, I don't know, probably an hour and a half, a couple of hours. So I do remember being fascinated, driving on the wide boulevards. It was—I don't remember the day of the week, but it was in the evening, and there was some traffic, and then we crossed a bridge. I don't know which bridge, but we crossed a bridge, and my aunt showed us the Statue of Liberty. So in that sense, it was like the quintessential immigrant story. Not quite Ellis Island though. And then, we arrived, my uncle lived in a town called Warminster in Pennsylvania, and some of our cousins were there. We have four cousins and a couple of them were there, a couple of them were away at school. I don't remember much else. I don't really remember what we might have had for dinner that day, that particular day, but just a sense of excitement, and a sense of nervousness because everything was very new. Everything seemed very clean. Like I said, I came from a city in Hyderabad. So very clean, very quiet. And it was May. We arrived on May 1, I think, and it was spring, so everything was very green, very lush. You know, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, even today, is a really beautiful county. So that's kind of what I remember from that first day.
What if I asked you what stood out from the first maybe few days? Is there a particular memory, or even if you could talk about it in terms of a smell or a site or—so for instance with me, the lights never went out. That really stood out to me. It was something as basic as that, like, the lights were on all the time everywhere.
For me it was a little bit opposite because, like I said, they lived in the town of Warminster, it's a small, sleepy, suburban town. And it was dark. It was dark, there were no streetlights, there was no what in India we called footpaths, right, so there was no sidewalk. There were huge lawns. And in the evening, it became dark. And that to me was very jarring because there was—there were no sounds, it was very quiet and very dark. So that first evening, I would say, that that was probably the thing that stood out the most. During the days and, as a 16-year-old, there's a little bit of a different take on what you go away with. But I think the biggest thing that fascinated me was like, okay, everything is clean. Everything is, like I said, quiet, it's orderly. I do remember everything being just really orderly. Everybody stays in their own lane when they're driving. There's all these cars, but there's no honking, there’s none of that. So for me, it was a lot of quiet, dark, green, and clean. I think that's kind of what—just thinking, remembering, that's what's sticking out.
Could you take yourself back to those moments, and do you think you remember how that made you feel the difference? The quietness and the orderliness?
I think there was a sense of excitement in learning everything new. So, day one or day two, my aunt put us in the car and took us to go get our social security card. I didn't know what a social security card is, right? So things like that, it was just, you know—I assume it's because of the age, it was just like everything was a new experience. So everything was just there to be felt, it was there to be learned. And it was a little exciting. My uncle and aunt had a pool in the backyard. And so it was like May, and it's hot, and I wanted to go swim, but then the water is cold. But there was also a sense of extreme loneliness. I do have a big family, so we’re four siblings. So it wasn't like I didn't have anybody my own age, but we were all in our own worlds, and I missed my friends. And I was an unwilling immigrant, as I always say, because I had to come with my parents. I wasn't really looking forward to moving to America because I was in 11th grade. So I had one more year, I was kind of like all the teenage ideas of what my last year of high school would have been in India. So I do remember a sense of loneliness.
So set this up for me. Who did you arrive with? Your parents and siblings?
Four siblings, and your parents. And who met you, your aunt and uncle and your cousins?
No, my cousins were not at the airport, a couple of them lived in the house, in my uncle's house. So we met, we met those cousins.
Okay. So then why did you—why did your family immigrate to the U.S.?
Very unclear, I think it's a constellation of things. My uncle was my dad's twin. He had been in the United States since 1960, so he'd been there for very long, he had been asking my dad to move. And my mom's entire family was in the United States, so my mom was motivated to move. And, my dad was hesitant, but then, he had four children, and we had extended family in India, things had, family businesses had changed and things like that. So it just seemed like a combination of reasons, but it was also one of those things that—so when we came, we were green card holders, and so I guess to get a green card, it takes many years. And so they had done an application, and then it just came through. So then it was like, decided, fine, let's just move.
Was this, for you, was it a sudden process?
Yeah, for us, we didn't know that my parents were contemplating this move, right? So for me, as a kid, it was probably sudden enough. I mean, we knew six months prior to the actual move. And then there was some discussion around, okay, maybe you can come and then you can go back and finish out your final year. But, later in life, my father had told me that he was never going to what he called break up the family. So for him, it was like, we're all staying or we're all going, and so that's kind of how it came up.
I think I do want to ask you about high school, but then let's stick with the first impressions. So other than you talked about quiet and orderly and green, is there any other first impression of Bucks County, anything that you remember standing out to you? Anything that surprised you, even?
I think what surprised me, it's all contextual, it's relative to what you experience in India in a big city even if it was that many years ago. I don't know how it is now, but one of the things that I think was very surprising is just what I called how friendly everybody was. Mind you, because this is suburbia, almost rural Pennsylvania, it's very different than what somebody might have experienced landing in New York City, which is not friendly. But what I remember is like, you go to the store, and it's, “Hi, hello, how are you?” And if there's an elderly woman, “Honey, what can I get you?” or things like that. So in my teenage, innocent, inexperienced world, I probably did construe that as friendliness, so to me, that was relatively surprising. Coming from where if you're out and you're in the shop, or whatever, you're getting your business done, and you're out of the way. I would say the other thing that was probably—I don't know if I remember it that way, but just this whole notion of personal space, right? If you're standing in a line, you're not, you know, smack dab next to somebody. And I mean, a funny thing that did happen to me was like, day two or day three, my sister and I go to get McDonald's or something. And we place our order—we don't know what to order at first, so we're kind of trying to make sense of what the menu is saying. We know what French fries are, but the rest of it, we don't know. So we placed the order, and the cashier says, “For here or to go,” and I don't understand. and I say—I kind of pause and she goes “For here or to go,” And I said, “Yes.” And she goes, “You want it for here or to go?” And I’m like, “Oh, we want to take it out.” “Okay, you want it to go.” So, you know, little things like that was always happening because you didn't understand the accent. So I would say sometimes—I mean, you're really probing here, but—sometimes I would probably say I felt a little foolish because I didn't understand what seemed to be very basic. So it's kind of like, while people were friendly, there was some impatience, there was some judgment happening. But in those first days, because you're asking first days, in that first week or two, I probably didn't take it as that. I didn't have enough of the experiences to make me cynical. So in those first days, I think I probably thought people were very friendly.
And your initial reaction, you've talked about loneliness. And you've talked about a little bit of, I guess, tempered excitement. Was there, was there any other emotion that that you can think of that was going through your mind?
Any other emotion—it’s a little bit of homesickness. And it's strange to say that because your entire family is with you, but it was, you know, we did have a lot of extended family, I had a lot of friends, and all of that. So maybe a little bit of that. And I think, while I say I was probably excited and everything was a learning experience, there was a sense of inadequacy or incompetence because you're suddenly in a completely unfamiliar place that you don't know how to navigate. Yeah, you speak English, but you don't understand the accent. Yeah, you've seen American movies, but you don't necessarily understand the cultural context. So if my cousins are watching TV, and they're watching, I don't even remember what they were watching in those days, maybe—no, they were not watching Brady Bunch, but they're watching, like, Diff'rent Strokes or something—you don't understand the jokes. And so you're constantly feeling like I'm here, I know I am smart. I know that I can learn this, and I'm excited to learn, but I don't get it. I don't know what this joke means. If there's a joke made about, you know, if the Cosby Show is on and he makes some joke—I have no idea, and Cosby was a really bad example, but he was big in those days.
I think you've talked a little bit about this, but maybe you can expand on this, like what were some of the biggest cultural differences and or cultural similarities you noticed between the U.S. and India in those first days?
Cultural differences, I think that's like, pretty—so in the 1980s, America was not as globally educated. Madonna had not happened. The bindi was not understood and was not a fashion statement. And New Jersey had the so-called Dotbusters. So cultural differences were definitely rooted in simply not understanding. Like when I went to school, “Oh, you're from India? Do you guys live in mud huts?” “Oh, do you have elephants walking on your streets?” In today's world, when my kids hear this, they're like, “What does that even mean? How can you even think that? They must have been joking.” No, they were not joking. Those kids just did not have that exposure, right? So that would definitely be a cultural—I don't know if that's a cultural difference, but it's a difference where you kind of felt like, “I'm different.” I came from a high school where I wore uniforms. I didn't know how to dress in regular street clothes, right? I was 16, I'd never really dabbled with makeup. American kids in those days were—we have hairspray and big hair and blue eyeliner and blue eyeshadow and whatnot. So there were definitely differences like that, or when I went to school, I was used to standing up when the teacher called on you. I was used to saying, “Yes sir,” or “Yes miss,” or whatever. So a lot of cultural differences like that. When—so I had a job at a grocery store—when an elderly person came through the line, it was always like a lot of the typical South Asian respect that you show an elderly person, which I didn't notice my peers doing, right? “Can I carry that out for you?” or any of that. Not because it was my job, but just because that's what I was trained to do. And this—I don't know if this is a cultural difference, or just, you know, I don't know what it would be, but—I worked in the grocery store where you have your till, so your cash register. For me, it was like, if I wanted to get like, a piece of chocolate from the aisle or whatever, I would put my own money in there because I had purchased that item. And it was like a source of pride for that cash register, to reconcile down to the very penny. And so when you walk into the accounting office, you turn in your cash register, and then the accountant counts and whatever happens. It was like, “Oh, you're down to the penny.” And it was just amazing to me that I was the only register that would be able to reconcile. They usually expected $5 - $10 losses. So that was very interesting to me. Now, I'm not gonna say people were dishonest, but there were mistakes that were happening, right, whether you're giving back extra change, or whatever. So that, again, I don't want to say it's a cultural difference, but it was a difference that I remember.
Those are great examples, thank you. Were there any cultural similarities that you thought that you noticed?
Before I get to the similarities, one big cultural difference that I just remembered is one of my cousins who was a year older than me—she had a boyfriend. Where I came from, there was no such thing as a boyfriend when you were 16 or 17, right? And not only did she have a boyfriend, but they could sit in the living room with their parents in the room, holding hands, and they could go up to her room and hang out on their own and things like that. So that was a huge cultural difference that I noticed. And also clothing, right? They were wearing shorts and tank tops and laying out in the sun. And I came from India, which meant like, you minimize the amount of time you're going to spend out in the sun. So it was like, “Wait, why are you in the sun?” And my cousins are South Asian! But tanning was a big thing, even for South Asians. So that was a cultural difference back then. Cultural similarities—I don't know that I noticed anything. As a first day impression. I don't think I noticed anything.
But high school—what were your first impressions? Did you come across any challenges? And were there any particular successes that you can remember from that first moment of high school?
So that one year of high school gets jotted down as my worst year ever in my life. It was not a very pleasant year. I mentioned this earlier, kids can be cruel, and kids did not have the exposure in those days. And along with that, I came from Hyderabad and from India, which was not globalized. And Hyderabad was considered a slower, smaller, town relative to Delhi or Bombay. So I definitely did not have as much exposure to Western culture either, right. And so all those differences, whether it came about in clothing—I mentioned makeup earlier—even knowledge of pop culture, right? Sure, I had heard there was a singer called Michael Jackson, and I knew there was a singer called Madonna. But beyond that, it's not that I knew their music so well—you may have known one or two albums or singles that you heard. So I think high school was definitely challenging. Kids were not very welcoming, and I was probably guarded as well, so it was probably on both ends.
I definitely had a—I would call it a superiority complex because I walk into high school, and high school’s easy for me. The English class, so I came from where I studied Shakespeare, and because of how in India we all study English like it's our first language. But I have studied Shakespeare, I can quote soliloquies, and all of that. And in the English class that I'm in, which is an English Honors class, they're basically doing abridged versions of Shakespearean plays. And so there was definitely a little bit of a mismatch in what those academics meant. So I had a little bit of a complex myself, but then I didn't know how to dress. And so there's like, yeah, I would wear a salwar with a T-shirt because I thought that was hip, right? So it was—I could not fit in, so I worked extra hard to not fit in. So there was a little bit of that. There was also a little bit of wanting to set myself apart from the few other Indian kids that were in the school because those Indian kids—and I'm embarrassed to say that that's how I felt back then, but in the interest of honesty—so those Indian kids were probably coming from small towns or smaller villages in India, and with not a very good grasp of English, and with, definitely like the traditional, oiled down, braided hair. So now I don't want to be in that group, and I'm not going to affiliate with those kids, and I cannot be part of the American group, so then I'm going to be just different. So I definitely didn't have any friends in that one year of high school. I had an attitude for sure. But beyond that, I didn't have much else.
And this is also in Bucks County.
It is in Bucks County. It was a different town, but in Bucks County.
So those sound like significant challenges. Were there any—and of course, the success was, well, the stereotype, the education. You were ahead—but were there any other challenges, even maybe outside of school that you can think of?
So it wasn't a challenge, per se, it was a learning experience, right? So I had a job through high school where I was a—I worked in a diner as a hostess, and a lot of it was saying, “Hi, hello, how many, table for five, table for two, I want smoking, non-smoking,” whatever. And it was a very interesting experience because, especially you guys are out East Coast so you know this, a lot of the diners, that's where you see—back in those days, they called it the melting pot, these days we call it the salad, I don't know, whatever metaphor you want to use—but it was just, you know, a bunch of immigrants working in that diner. And I mean, when we're thinking about the immigrant experience, the manager was this Hungarian guy, the diner was owned by a Greek guy. There was a coworker of mine, she and her husband were physicists, PhDs from what is now Ukraine, back then Soviet, so basically Jewish refugees. He's a busboy, and she's a hostess with me. There's other busboys who are from Guatemala, and they live in this apartment, about five to six to an apartment that Jimmy, the Greek owner, has set it up. So there's a lot of under-the-table type of things happening as well. So I'm sorry, I don't know what your question was, but I went into this memory.
Other challenges, but no, that's very significant. Was it pleasant working at the diner, or with all of these people?
There were pleasant and unpleasant moments. It was mainly—I look back on that experience fondly because it was an education, right? Because then you were also working with, like—the chef was this big, tall American guy who loved Westerns, and I had heard of Clint Eastwood. And so he and I bonded, and he would give me VCR tapes, and I would go and watch John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies. And there were waitresses who were just very, very open with their personal lives, and you know, what they did Saturday night, and who was dating whom, and who was doing whatever. So I think it was—the challenges were in dealing with the customers because people get irate when they're hungry, and they don't get the table, and “that person got the table before me.” And this is before the iPads that showed you the layout, so you had to remember the layout, and you had to remember which waitress got who because you can't piss off the waitress. So there was, you know, that kind of dynamic, but—it’s challenging but it was a learning experience. So, I wouldn't say any of those challenges were traumatic.
Did you have any presumptions about American culture that were challenged during those first days?
Oh, indeed, indeed, right. I mean, Americans don't—they have too many boyfriends, or marriage is not important to them, or there's always drugs and alcohol. And again, 80s, New York City—this was before Giuliani, so it was, New York City was a big, bad place to go to. Some of my older aunts were like, “Oh, no, no, no, you can't socialize with white people,” or, “The black people are just always, you know, bad people, and they're gonna mug you,” so there were all those stereotypes and those fears that were just, you know, really—and then I remember, the second summer we were here, my older sister and I, we would take the train, or we would drive to Trenton, park our car in Trenton, and take the train into the city, stand in line and get tickets to go watch a Broadway show for cheap. So, that was our challenge, to know that can't be it. How can everything about America be bad? And so, you know, because we were teens, we were able to do it. I don't know if older people—because some of my aunts who came, or my aunt who came here and my uncle—so not the people who were here many years, but people who had emigrated more recently, they were definitely more afraid of what this big, bad American culture was.
And what advice would you give to other newly arrived immigrants in the U.S.?
Open mind, right? Absolutely open mind, checking your preconceptions at the door, and create the new impressions because—and there's gonna be good and bad, right, and so none of it is easy, none of it is a smooth experience—but my challenge would be: no matter where you stayed, it wouldn't be a smooth experience, right, so just an open mind. And I think the country as a culture has a lot to give. I would say, for me, the idea of "you work hard, and you can make it," I think it's happening now in other countries, even in India. But that, to me, was very eye-opening and very empowering, that as a 16-year-old I could get a job, I could get a paycheck, and I could be respected for having that. And I was always very proud of having that financial independence. So, to me, that gave me a lot. And then the other thing that I do think is, as the young girl subjected to all kinds of teasing, groping, whatever it's called, the United States gave me a lot of freedom, physical and mental, but mostly physical freedom. So I would say to anybody who's coming to the United States, just keep an open mind because there's a lot to learn and there's a lot to fix.
That's beautiful, that's beautiful, thank you for that. I always end with the one question, which is, is there a question I should have asked you but didn't, or a particular memory, or any particular story, anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to share?
I don't know, I think food maybe, just exposure to a completely different cuisine. And I don't—actually, since you mentioned you came here in 2009, I have an idea of what your exposure is versus what it was in 1988. So that's why I don't think it's something that you may have thought of. But you know, just the food journey and being able to kind of train your palate to eat not-so-appetizing foods. That was probably, you know, a learning experience as well.
What was that initiation? What did you start with? For me it was like, the giant sizes of chocolate cake at the diners, like, how is this an acceptable portion? What was it for you?
I think, no, I didn't mind the chocolate cake. But I think it was steak. Steak at my aunt’s house, and not knowing how to eat steak, and not knowing how much to chew. And it was just like, “Okay, I don't know if I could do this,” but, you know.
So the food was a whole journey into assimilation for you.
It was definitely a journey. I think the journey started on the flight to JFK on TWA—it's no longer in business. And they served me raw mushrooms, and me just like, “Okay, I gotta eat it. I don't know what to do with it. Never had mushrooms ever before in my life, but I'm hungry, and I gotta eat it.” So I would say that's probably [where it] started.