वसुधैवकुटुम्बकं (The whole WORLD is a family)
From Time immemorial human beings, as well as other organisms, have migrated from one place to another for survival, Progress and procreation. Considering the mammoth amount of never ending migration which is at its zenith now, my migration from India to United States in 1975 is like a sand grain in beach.
In contrast, personally I felt like a huge tree has been uprooted from its Motherland and placed in an unknown environment, where it had to root itself and adjust to the surrounding as well as nourish and grow. My parents were the role model for me, as they migrated from south India to north India at tender ages of 15 and 22. They had to learn everything from scratch. They even spoke two different languages and were immersed in a third language, Hindi. My mother spoke Tamil and father Telugu. Only common language was English and Hindi which they learnt when the moved to north India by necessity. Not only they were young with secondary school education, the contrast between south and north India is quite something. Only those who lived there or visited both areas can understand the depth of the diversity.
What did you do to immigrate to United States of America?
In one single word just got married. It wasn’t so simple as it sounds. Here is a glimpse of my Pre- American life.
I was born in Jamshedpur, Bihar, India on second of January 1942. I finished Higher Secondary from Company (TISCO) operated public school in Jamshedpur and Intermediate Science from Ranchi Women’s College, Ranch Bihar. I graduated from Patna Medical College with an MBBS degree in 1964, then I was only 22 years old.
I was no where near setting up my own practice or moving out of the safety of my parents’s roof. Yes there was a greater pressure to get married than practicing on my own. Being the oldest of eight kids with four younger sisters of marriageable age, I have to be married first in order to clear the road for my younger siblings. Despite this unspoken rule of getting married first I was resistant to the idea of marriage itself. Hence my younger sister got married first followed by my younger brother in 1972 and 1974.
By then I was already 32 years old and a spinster and virgin, which is common in In that time and society. Girls who even have boyfriends are considered loose girls, so being the good girl I never ventured in that path.
I had a great desire to come to United States then and there itself. In order to fulfill my wishes I did take ECFMG exam and cleared it in '66 and in '68 because it was valid only for three years. Afterwards similar entrance exams were not offered in India. To be frank, as mentioned before I had no desire to get married. However, my parents will not let me go out of the country or even the city I grew up in, without the certificate of marriage. I wont blame them and I was relieved within myself as I didn’t have to face the outside world alone.
To the credit of my father, he did set up a clinic for me called Padma Clinic for initiating practice and he was really proud that his first daughter became a doctor which I have heard him say even when I was a four / five years 0ld, my daughter will become a doctor which I fulfilled. In order to support my practice, and support my father financially, I joined the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College, which opened just two years prior to my graduation from Patna medical college. The principal of the MGM medical college knew me well from Patna, he offered me a position as a demonstrator in Human Anatomy teaching first year and second year medical students. I gladly accepted the position because it did not take me away from my home, which was a relief and a joy. I loved both Teaching and Anatomy which was like icing on the cake. My parents were pouring over horoscopes to find a right match for me and my siblings.
By the age of 28 my biological clock was ticking, I thought its time to give clearance for marriage and so I did. Some local possible alliances came, fortunately they didn’t work out. Luckily end of 1974 an alliance from my future husband’s family came, horoscopes matched, by the way my would be husband was in America, having immigrated to USA in 1968, he was also supposedly an expert in reading horoscopes and having perused my horoscopes gave clearance to his parents from USA. Then a quick girl-boy meeting was arranged in Bombay. That was followed by a grand Hindu Tamilian style marriage on 31st January 1975.
What was the process of getting your visa?
Even though in those days getting visa for spouse with green card was not difficult. Despite that in the first interview the visa was denied based on a minor document error. However we corrected the error and within 10days permanent entry visa was in my hand.
How was your flight to America?
First flight in my life was very short one from Jamshedpur to ॐ Calcutta to obtain Indian passport with my husband, however the second and more important long flight to United States of America was alone and anticipated with lot of anxiety because it was transatlantic and traveling. My parents were there to see me off at Bombay airport. My husband had arranged my flight by Sabina airlines. Lord behold the flight was cancelled at last minute and airlines worked with AirIndia which was next day and they bussed all the passengers to Taj Mahal Hotel for overnight. Though it was a luxurious hotel compared to where I have stayed in past, I didn’t enjoy it as I was sad for leaving the country and going to an unknown land on the other side of the world. Finally next day morning boarded the AirIndia flight. I could not even say appropriately good buy to my parents as at the last minute I was unable to find the passport and as usual my mom was upset and me too. Any how I finally found it and boarded the plane. Ultimately it dawned on me that I am leaving the known to go to completely unknown. Without even my knowledge tears were pouring for long and finally fell asleep.I don’t even recall any thing about change of flight in Heathrow airport in London.
What is your recollection of your first day after reaching America, was America, how you pictured it?
My would be father-in-law had described me gloriously about the traffic pattern in USA. Upon arrival in JFK, after clearance at customs - there was nothing to clear as I had only 8 dollars, equivalent of then 64 rupees. Thank goodness I didn’t have to take bus or taxi, I wouldn’t even know how to do that. My eldest sister in law who was living in NY, Garden city apartments then, came to receive me at the airport. She has never seen me however my husband had given her a photo of mine to recognize me. I didn’t have her photo.
I was told that my sister-in-law looked like me. And so it was. She didn’t have a car, hence we took a train from JFK to Garden city station and from there a taxi to her apartment. I was impressed by the apartment itself, which was small quaint and clean with all amenities. To note that my husband couldn’t come to receive me as he was working in Richmond VA, and I came to USA on 9th April 1975, a Wednesday. I had to wait for my husband till the weekend for him to drive up to NY. My sister in law worked in double day publishers, but she took off 3 days for me which was very nice of her. In that apartment she, her husband / my brother in law, and my niece 7 years old were living together. Don’t remember how next three days went waiting for my husband to come.
He came on Saturday. He had a burgundy colored four door sedan. I am proud of him that he drove from Richmond to New York for me. We drove back on Sunday. Yeah I forgot to say some thing about our stay in New York together. We stayed only one overnight in, my sister-in-law‘s house she had only one bedroom and one kitchen. She was so magnanimous that she gave the bedroom to both of us because we came to our house first time after our marriage, and she had decorated the bed for us as if it was the first night, it was the first night in the United States with my husband. She and her husband that is my brother-in-law slept in the kitchen along with her daughter. I still can’t believe it that she gave her bedroom to us which is usually unheard off in United States.
What was the hardest thing about being a new immigrant?
I did not find anything hard as an immigrant in the United States. Matter of fact, I really enjoyed the freedom that women had here, and I was going to use it to my advantage. I will not do anything that will be against my conscience, I was always proud of my rich culture and values from India. I made up my mind to combine the best of the two worlds and that I got opportunity to live in. I adjusted to the life here quite easily, my husband was supportive financially, till I got my footing in the medical line as I wanted to. Initially I had to take entrance exam for getting into the system. Once that was done everything else fell into place automatically. It didn’t seem like a struggle to adjust and become an American citizen in due course of time.
Where did you first live after reached America?
Following three days of stay with my in-laws, I drove with my husband to Richmond, Virginia, which became my permanent second home after Jamshedpur, where I was born and raised. Jamshedpur India was my first home and Richmond, VA is second home. I am 82 years old and I still live in Richmond, Virginia.
Tell me a little bit about the early days here did you work or go to school? How did you spend your time who were your first friends or others who offered you support?
Good question. After coming here first few days I spent time to locate where and how to give ECFMG exam and sat in the exam in July, 1975, cleared it in first attempt and immediately I was looking for residency program around. I was not going to move away from my husband‘s hometown, so I looked for residency in Virginia Commonwealth University, was offered residency psychiatry. By the way, I applied for pathology and pediatrics and did get the offer however, for personal reasons, I declined them. I believe psychiatric residency will give me more time to know the local culture and history to help me raise my own kids. In '75 while waiting for the exam results I did look into other opportunities use my education when Virginia Commonwealth University offered me a teaching position in the anatomy class for pre-and paramedical students. I am grateful to two friends, one from my original medical school from India, who gave me directions and recommended books to read for preparing for ECFMG exam and another Tamilian Doctor from Vellore medical college who introduced me to psychiatry.
How frequently did you communicate with your family back home? How did you stay in touch?
In early days very infrequently through postal mail that took 15-20 days to arrive, Old telephone system was extremely costly so rarely used, only in emergency.
What was the hardest thing about coming to this country?
Nothing.. I wanted to come. Getting married was the only way to come and secondly only way you can leave the family of origin was by marriage. In earlier days after my medical school in 60s it was easy to come as there was need for doctors in USA, however later in 70s it became harder for Indian doctors to obtain visa because Indian govt. did not want any brain drain.
What was the best thing about coming here?
The freedom as a woman, you can go outside home alone and did not require male escort. My husband didn’t expect me to sit home and raise family which was a plus point because many Indian men in India and even in USA expect their wives to stay home and raise kids and be at their beck and call. In that respect my husband was quite progressive.
Did you think that you were coming to America permanently or for a short time initially you thought, if it was for a short time how did you feel when you realized America would be your permanent home?
I knew I am coming here permanently. For that matter I had a permanent job in India before coming here, which I resigned and came. I have no regrets.
What advice would you give someone arriving in the United States today as a new immigrant?
Find your way. Make friends, whatever race or religion they belong to. If you are curious to get to know them, they will reciprocate. Before leaving Jamshedpur I met my colleagues in MGMMedical College where I was a lecturer in Human Anatomy, one senior member of the staff reminded me of age old Sanskrit verse. वसुधैव कुटुम्बकं। Meaning The Whole WORLD is a family. I still have those verses ringing in my ears..
Do you have any other reflection to share?
I have lived in this country for almost 6 decades, and raised three children and seven grandchildren. Have witnessed all kinds of turmoil, both man made and natural disasters, including poorly managed Covid pandemic, that USA has gone through in the last half a century.
In my experience there is no place like America and no state like Virginia and no city like Richmond to live and raise your family. I consider myself very fortunate and lucky to be an American citizen. Thank you, America.