My name is Rajendra Ghai.
INTERVIEWED BY Alex Terpstra x 4

"You can't go any further South. So we went to Mobile, Alabama, which is right on the Gulf Shores, you go any further, you go into water."

Vadodara, India

Buffalo, New York





What do you remember from your first few days in the United States when you arrived?

When I came, I came to the city of Buffalo, New York. It was cold. I didn't, I didn't have the necessary warm clothes. But somehow, I was managing. And they went along, and they bought me some clothes, overcoat, that kind of stuff. And I got a feeling of, you know, why did I ever come here? Is this the right decision that I did make? But, you know, it was like, yes, I'm here. Now, let's make the best of it. That, that's what I decided to do.

So, I think you talked a little bit about who met you when you arrived first?

Yes. Who pick me up was my brother-in-law, her younger brother, who had been, who had been here in this country, for I think about three years already, because he was doing his doctoral studies in North Carolina. And he's, he was a computer geek, I would call it. At that time, in the 70s. You know, he is trying to establish computer talking to computer and those kinds of things, that kind of language he was talking about.

So, I think that's a good way to lead into the next question. So, what made you immigrate to the US?

I thought that I'd go along and enhance my career, pick up things in my particular field of biochemistry, something that I could not do there. And that was one of the reasons that I came here. And if you ask me, yes, I did, I did pick up on certain, I would say certain techniques.

Plus, I entered a new field of, of looking at hormones in, in during pregnancy and how to detect pregnancy, and could we make some sort of vaccine to prevent pregnancy and those kinds of things. So I thought it was, it was, it was a good field to be in. And then I, I got to working with somebody who had, who had been in this field for quite some time, he was an Indian. I was underpaid. But at the same time, there was an American by the name of Jack Lipis, the man who invented the loop. So it was when I developed the test system where we could detect pregnancy within eight days of conception. I was, I was hailed as a great guy. “Hey, he’s done it and he produced an antibody that picks up the pregnancy hormone in no time at all.” So I was really happy. But I was overworked and underpaid.

Yeah. Um, so I think you talked a little bit about how it was cold when you first arrived. Yeah, any other first impressions?

it was bitterly cold. You know, like, in the lab, there was something like eight, eight postdocs or so. And one of them was very kind enough to say, “Look, if you're going to stay in this town, the city of Buffalo, you come with me and we will go along and buy you some warm clothes, you need them. There is no two ways about it.” So we did do that. And, you know, as time went by I, I learned more about wearing thermals and those kinds of things.

Alright, um, so what did you do on your first day, I know you got picked up from the airport and then?

And then we went into a motel and by the time I got into Buffalo, it was about 10pm at night, and that was pretty late. I was, I was lucky to have him pick me up otherwise, I wouldn't know what to do.

Okay, so what about the next day after you woke up?

After, after I woke up then I went to the lab to let my supervisor know that I had come. And he made me sign some papers so that I could get paid if I wanted some money in advance and those kinds of things. And I was put on the payroll. And I was told where my desk was and what I'll be working on and those kinds of things.

So you immediately went into work then the next day?

Not exactly.

Not like, yeah, you just got acquainted with your job.

Yes acquainted with, with the lab, with the timings and his, my boss's philosophy was, yes, you come here at 8:30 in the morning, you work until five 5, 5:30. Then you go back home, eat dinner, and then come back to work until nine o'clock, or 9:30. Whatever it takes. So, some of us felt like, you know, it was like, we're being hired as cheap labor. But, you know, if the field was exciting, and it made you come there, and you think you're making strides in what you were trying to do, then yes, it was worth it. So that's where we started.

Alright, so did you face any challenges or barriers in your first days in the US?

The only thing was, I guess, I somehow felt that, that it was like, when I compared to what we were being paid to, or the Americans were being paid, I felt sort of as cheap labor. Whether it was just a frame of mind, or that's what everybody else from India was getting paid, and there was not just me, there was 1, 2, 3 of us, who were there, and everybody was being paid different amounts. So, I took it in stride, and I said, you know, as long as I'm learning something, it's fine. If I contribute something, in terms of getting some publications from here, I'd be happy. So that's what was happening.

And, you know, come four years, another person from the department was moving to the South. And he said, “Would you like to come with me? We're going South.” You can't go any further South, we went to Mobile, Alabama, which is right on the Gulf Shores, you go any further, you go into water. But in the meantime, what had happened? She [my wife] had gotten a position, and I think she'll tell you what, what she did, so on and so forth. But to me, that was you know, that guy said, instead of giving you x, y, z amount, like this guy is giving you, I will increase your salary up to $14,000 a year, and that was now you're looking at ‘78, ‘79. So it wasn't bad, and it was cheaper to live there. So I decided I was going to go and then when I told my Indian boss that I'm going to leave, he was very upset. He says, “I treated you like a son. I will help you out and I got you here and now you're deserting me, and you're going there.” So I said, “You know, I can take, take X amount, and I can't go any further than that. I have two kids now, and a wife and yes, it's true, and it's much cheaper living there, the weather is much better. So I think I'll make a move.”

And this guy told me that, “Don't worry, if you agree to come there. I'll put you on the payroll from today onwards. You may come to work two months from now, but at least that two months of salary will help you move from here to there.” In those days, it was cheaper to move, it was not all that expensive. So, I just decided yes, I'm going to go move. And once I got there to Alabama, you should have seen the difference between the way I was treated here to how I was treated there, there I was treated like, “Hey, if you have any questions in biochemistry go to this guy, he'll answer you.” And there were lots of people who came around said, “Oh, why are you working for this guy?” Why don't you come and there's sort of a competition to have me come into the lab and start doing work. But I still stuck with the guy who had asked me to come there. And I stayed there about, about three years, until, until she, she was there also. And then she also got a position. But she was in a different department, pharmacology.

And about three years later, that guy who was her boss, or chairman of the department, he moved here to Ciba-Geigy. And he met me at a conference in, in New Orleans. And so I told him, you know, what I do, and all that kind of stuff, although he knew me from there. So, and I said, “You know, the way to go today, in this competitive scene that we have all that stuff that we do, you have to go and automate your systems.” For each system that you may have, if you automate, it will require less manpower. And at the same time, it'll be you know, the, the manual stuff that we do, that will get eliminated, your results will be more you know, from experiment to experiment, they'll be almost identical, and, you know, nobody will question your results. So he invited me to come here, and he said, “Fly out and arrange for the tickets, I arranged for you to stay.” And all of that, and I came here, there was a limousine waiting for me, picked me up, brought me here at the hotel. And then he came, he took me out for dinner. The next day, he told me this, this is the entire Department of Biology and deal with these guys. Tell them what you do, how you do it and what they should be doing [laughs]. I went about it.

So now, this is the last question that I have for you. Um, what advice would you give to other newly arrived immigrants in the United States?

Ummm, there is, there is a lot of new technology around here. I'm not sure that what we have back in India now is compatible with it. I'm sure that it is, because even in India we made tremendous advances.

Come, learn more, hands on, do what you can. The facilities here, I still think, I still think that the facilities here are much better than what they would be in India. And if you have an opportunity, do come. Whether you want to stay after you learn all those things and implement them back at home, it's your choice. If you have an opportunity and you want to stick around here, by all means do that. But then don't regret your decision. Keep moving forward that’s it, you will be happy.