My name is Poonam Gulati Salhotra.
INTERVIEWED BY Kamala Gururaja x 13


DEPARTED FROM
New Delhi, India

ARRIVED IN
Norristown, Pennsylvania

YEAR
1972

AGE
11

NOW LIVES IN
Houston, Texas

What is your name?
My name is Poonam Gulati Salhotra.

What year did you arrive in the United States?
1972.

And how old were you then?
11.

What city and country were you living in before you came to the United States?
I was in New Delhi, India.

And which city and state did you spend your first day in the US in?
My first day was in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

And where do you live now?
I live in Houston, Texas. Well, Bellaire, Texas.

What brought you to the United States?
My parents were migrating to the United States. You know, I think my dad had a good job in India, but he just wanted to try abroad. So we came because my parents came.

What mode of transportation did you take and how was your trip?
Well, we flew. My parents had actually come before us. So by us, I mean, myself and my younger brother, who [is] six years younger than me. So we flew together without any parent. And I don't remember the airline, maybe Air India. And we flew from Delhi to New York, to JFK. And then my mom and my uncle came to JFK to pick us up, even though they were from Pennsylvania, they actually drove to New York. The journey was hard, I would say. I'd never been on a plane before. And I felt a little plane sickness, air sickness. And I had my brother who was five years old, I had to kind of watch out for him. I mean, the stewardesses were very nice; we were in their care. But it was really long. I mean, the journey was comfortable, but I was just not feeling so well. It was very overwhelming.

What were your first impressions of the country?
Well, we came in March, and that was in Pennsylvania, it was still a little cool. And so that was something different, because Delhi was not that cold. And school was very easy because I think we were a little ahead than the school here. So that part was easy. But having to speak English all the time, that was not something that we did. [In India] I went to an English medium school, so all my subjects were in English, but you know, communication with friends and family and parents all in our native language. So having to just sit at school and constantly converse in English was just took some getting used to, and then outside of school, and making friends with people who don't look like you. But, you know, they were very nice people. I guess it was, you know, so for a little while, we were actually staying with my aunt. And I remember when summer came, they had a big pool, it was an apartment complex. And it was very surprising for my brother and I to see women in bathing suits, you know, back in that time in India, nobody did that. So it just like was very odd. Just kind of seeing Americans all around us was very different. It was a very different lifestyle here. And, yeah, so I was, I was quite, I would say, I don't know if shock is the right word, but definitely surprised.

Um, what do you think your favorite part of being in America was?
At that time? Well, I learned how to ride a bike. That was fun. I think you know, going into those large department stores was very interesting because India at that time, India now has malls and stuff, but at that time, you know, shops were very small, so it was very interesting for me to kind of navigate those and then just riding escalators and things like that.

What do you think was the hardest part for you [about] adjusting to your new life?
I think the hardest part is probably in school because the academics were fine but socially it was very different. People were already talking about boyfriends and girlfriends and that was something that was a big taboo at least in those times. Topics of conversation were very different among the American kids than what I was used to, so I would say it was hard feeling like you don’t fit in socially. So academically, [it was] fine, but socially it seemed a little bit of a challenge.

If you could give advice to a young immigrant coming from India to America today what do you think you would tell them?
Well I think the situation will be very different than mine was, just because of the internet; they are used to seeing everything, they know about other countries and lifestyles a lot more than I did. But I think my advice would be, there's a lot of good things in the American culture and there's a lot of good things in the Indian culture so I think trying to find a happy conglomeration of both of them would be challenging, you know, because you want to fit in with your American friends and then you go home and it's a little bit more of an Indian atmosphere, so I know it's challenging, it was challenging for us and I know it was challenging for my kids. But I saw some Indian kids who just completely shut off the Indian side and I think that's a loss because it's a rich culture with a lot to offer. So I think you just have to learn how to navigate your life in the United States as an Indian American but always keep in mind that you don't want to let go of your Indian roots as you adopt the American life.

If you could change something that you did when you first came, what do you think that would be, if anything?
Well, when you come as a child there's not a lot of things you can necessarily change, like where you live or what kind of house you have; that's all dependent on your parents. I think school eventually worked out okay; I found a group of friends that were more accepting and we eventually moved from Norristown to a place called Gowanda, New York, which is west of Buffalo, New York, and it was a small town, people were very nice, so I found a nice group of friends. I don't know that I would really change much, my parents were always there to help if there were any issues and the people in general were very accepting, very nice, so I wouldn't really change much.

As someone who came to the US as a kid, what differences and similarities do you think your experience has with that of an immigrant who came as an adult?
I think coming as a kid is pretty hard, especially at a younger age. Maybe when you're like 16, 17, I think it's better just because you know yourself better, but coming at the age that I did or younger; I think it’s very hard because kids understand less about people in other countries, other cultures. I think in the American culture, maybe even today, but definitely at that time, the kids were completely ignorant of the Indian culture. I don't even think they knew where it was, or what kind of language was spoken, and what people ate or wore. So there's a lot of ignorance. So I think that would be a little less if you're an adult, people are a little more aware. But also, I think kids tend to be a little bit more cruel of things that they don't understand or things that are different from them. And so basically, I came in middle school, and middle school is a difficult time for all kids. I think it's a hard time in your life, you know, your hormones are changing, and your body's changing, and there are a lot of questions that you have, so I think coming at that time is harder than coming as an adult.

As an adult, also, you have an identity, that you are an Indian. For people like my parents, for instance, they were Indian people who happened to be living in America, whereas I was still forming an identity. And it's very hard because like, I went to school, very American, house, Indian. So how do you make those two work with each other? So I think it's much harder as a kid and I feel for kids who come at that age. I think it's a little easier today, because I just think that kids are much more aware of what's going on. But it's definitely pretty different, because you're trying to fit in, and that part is hard, because you don't know what you should do, what you shouldn't do. Dating, for instance, was a big deal. Already, you know, it’s middle school, and I would sometimes have somebody say, you know, want to go see a movie or whatever. And it was such a shock to me, as a 12 year old, like, are you asking me to go out, so of course, I had sort of a handy answer ready, in our culture, we don't date, that was kind of my standard answer. It was not a big school, after a while everybody knows. But I think it's hard to sort of say, well, my friends are going out so why shouldn’t I go out, what's the big deal about going to see a movie? But then you go home, and it's like, the whole culture talk comes on, and you realize that this is who I truly am, so let me pick out things that are good in society here, whereas I should maintain the Indian culture. I don't know, I think kids probably still struggle with that. I mean, you're not a whole lot older than I was when I came. But I think that with time this has become easier, right? And like your mom was raised here; for my kids, I was raised here, so it’s a little different, because we've been through it already. So we are probably a little bit more accommodating or understanding about what you all are going through.

And overall, are you happy that your family came to America?
Yes, overall, I am happy that we came here. I think the Indian culture is rich, but there's also things amongst the Indian people that I don't like as much. I think that they're very nosy about being in your business all the time. Especially, I know, in India, all your neighbors sort of knew everything about you, and there’s gossiping. And I'm not saying that it doesn't happen here, but I think people are more independent in living and they kind of let you live the way you want to live. When I was about three years old, I got Bell’s palsy on the left side of my face, and it just never really went away. So in India, there's a lot of teasing, like, oh, no, you have a crooked mouth and all that. Whereas here, I have to say that the American people, even kids, I never had anybody tell me that here. So I thought that was excellent. I think there's a lot of opportunities here to do what you want and in India, there's a lot more expectations to do certain things. So I think life here is much more free and much more open, and that part I love. I definitely missed growing up in India with my cousins because my dad and one of his brothers came to this country but everybody else stayed in India and I missed seeing my grandparents very frequently so you know there was definitely a loss of not being in India. We did go and I married somebody whose family's in India so we continue to go, but it's not the same thing, you definitely miss out on some things over there. But overall, I think I like it better here. I think it's cleaner [here]; there's a lot more regulations about pollution and traffic and all sorts of things. And I don't like the caste system that India has and how people may treat the people who work for them, so those kinds of things I really like here. And I think now there's enough Indian people around that if you want to maintain your culture there is enough space to do it and there's temples and social events and other things so I think it's a pretty good mix here.


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