What made you immigrate to the United States?
In India, I had worked in satellite and radio telecommunications for over thirteen years. My first five years were with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), which, by the way, recently made history with the Chandrayaan–3 mission. I then went on to work for the Centre for Development of Telematics (CDOT) for another eight years. Both were premier government institutions in India. However, in both places, I found that the work became a little monotonous after a few years. During that time I had made several visits to the U.S. and was really impressed with the work being done by the companies there – the technology was cutting–edge and the organizations were very professional. I decided to explore opportunities with them and soon had offers from several companies in the U.S. and Singapore. In the end, I had to choose between two U.S. companies. One was Lucent Technologies, a newly–formed offshoot of AT&T. The other was STM Wireless, which was a small company in California, but was much more focused on satellite communications. Finally, I decided to join STM Wireless.
Who met you when you arrived, and what did you do on that first day?
I traveled to the U.S. with my wife and two young sons to Los Angeles. Since I did not have any relatives or close friends in the area, I had my company arrange our local travel and accommodation. They organized a car to pick me up and to take us to a nearby hotel where we would stay for two weeks. It was all going to be very smooth, but unfortunately, things did not go as planned.
Our flight to Los Angeles was delayed by almost three hours. When we walked out of the airport, we did not see anyone there to pick us up. It was the weekend and we did not have cellphones back then. We found the local transportation options somewhat confusing. We were also in a real pickle because we did not have a lot of U.S. money with us. So we used the few U.S. dollars we had to pay for a shuttle to take all of us to the hotel!
But once we arrived at the hotel, everything was fine. My employer had our reservation, so we were able to check into our room. We had some food with us from our journey and managed to supplement it from a local store. Interestingly, our hotel was right next to a freeway. My kids had never seen anything like that before. They were amazed at the number and variety of cars and the speed at which they were traveling! So they spent a lot of time that weekend, day and night, just watching the cars on the freeway. That was a real blessing given how badly we were all jet–lagging!
The following Monday, one of my colleagues picked me up from the hotel and brought me to the workplace. I learned that there actually was a cabdriver who waited for a couple of hours at the airport, but then left, thinking that I was not going to show up. Given how ubiquitous cellphones and Uber–type services are today, one might find it hard to imagine such a scenario. It all worked out in the end, but it was definitely a memorable introduction to the U.S.
How was the experience of settling down in the first few months – both positive and negative?
We started out in the town of Irvine, in Orange County, just below the Los Angeles County. My kids really enjoyed the new way of life. However, for me and my wife, it was a cultural shock. We were already in our 30s. We had been working for a long time in India and our social life had been immersed in everything Indian when it came to food, clothing, family, friends, movies, and festivals. All these things disappeared from our life overnight! At that time, we had to drive over an hour to go to any Indian grocery shop and the only local Hindu temple was in Malibu 90 minutes away!
It was a very different way of life for all of us. Finding a place to stay and leasing the apartment was a totally different, but much easier experience from anything we had done in India. My kids had to quickly settle into a new schooling system. They were required to take some preparatory classes over the summer, including English lessons to make sure there were well positioned for the start of the school. The lack of public transportation was challenging – in India, now Bharat, we were used to taking the bus, auto, or taxi to go everywhere. Whereas in the U.S., we were entirely dependent on the one car that we had. Even driving took some getting used to – I had an international driving license but had not driven cars much in India. Food was another one of the biggest changes – we were all used to eating fresh food every day, and being able to get whatever we needed, whenever we needed, at the numerous local stores that were located minutes away from home. That just wasn’t possible anymore. So, it was a definitely a massive change.
That said, we got used to it over time and soon we no longer felt as homesick as we used to feel. Our regular visits to the local Indian grocery stores definitely helped. I remember on one of our first visits to the store, we bought the audio cassette of the 1996 Bollywood film Raja Hindustani. We listened to it in our car on our way home – I still remember how happy it made all of us, my kids included. It had been weeks since we listened to Indian music or radio, or watched Indian TV shows, and that one cassette tape felt like water for someone wandering for days in a desert!
Looking back on your initial days, what advice would you give to other newly arrived immigrants in the United States?
Things have changed a lot over the years. So much of what we experienced and what we learnt may no longer be relevant for new immigrants. Most new immigrants today are lot more familiar with the American way of life. They have already experienced similar things in India. That said, there are some similarities in the initial experience. Many Indians still immigrate to this country on a temporary visa for the first time, for work or for studies. They are still highly talented and ambitious individuals – be it academically or professionally. And they still face some initial challenges settling down, whether it is assimilating themselves into the work culture, helping their kids fit into the school system, or even getting a loan for a new car or home. For those that find this process too overwhelming, my only advice is that they just need to keep pushing through those initial obstacles. They are not insurmountable and can be handled with the support of the American system, friends, and colleagues.
Once you get through those obstacles and get assimilated into this country, you are provided with an incredible breadth of opportunities for you and your family. You will grow professionally, expand socially, and be able to pursue your passions. Those possibilities are only limited by your own ambitions and your willingness to work hard to realize them.
I strongly believe that Indian immigrants have the best of both worlds. We come from a country with a world–class education system that hones our talents such that they are being sought out the world over. Our family background and even our culture instills an exemplary work ethic and terrific values. And we are in a country that offers incredible opportunities to anyone that is willing to work hard. The onus is on each of us to make the most out of this incredible combination.