My name is Rathna S.
INTERVIEWED BY Kamala Gururaja x 24

"The wealth of information I could get from a library was amazing. The librarians were very helpful. So I think that was my first thing, the learning experience in so many areas, fending for myself, going and discovering new things, some things that we were not exposed to [in India]."

Chennai, India

New York City, New York



Bellaire, Texas

What year did you arrive in the United States?
I came in 1973.

And how were you then?
I was 25.

Which city and country were you living in before you came to the US?
I was living in Chennai, in India.

And which city and state did you spend your first day in the US in?
The first few days I spent in Long Island, New York, in my brother-in-law's house (my husband’s brother).
At the request of my mother-in-law, I stayed there for a few days before flying to the Bay Area. My husband was, at that time, living in Oakland, California.

And which city and state do you live in now?
Bellaire, Texas.

What brought you to the United States?
Well, I got married and my husband was here, so I just followed. Most of all, I wanted to further my education, so that was my main reason for coming here. And my husband was here, so that worked out.

What mode of transportation did you take and how was your trip?
I flew in by Air India from Chennai. Back then, the main point of entry was New York. The flight was fine except for being very long as it had many stops--in Middle East, Germany, and London. Although it was tedious, I got to see the people of different cultures in the airports.

What were your first impressions of the country?
I was quite overcome by the crowds at the terminal and the long lines at the entry point. That was more tiring than the flight itself. My brother-in-law and his wife picked me up from the airport and drove to Long Island where they lived. I was just amazed by the freeways and the speed of the cars whizzing by. I thought, my goodness, how do you know that they won't cut in front of you, how do you know they're not going to hit your car? Everything is very fast in New York, so that was my first impression. And then of course I appreciated the beauty of the place, the trees, the greenery, and how organized it was. The cars were going in nice straight lines, they didn't invade each other's lanes. So although I was initially apprehensive, I soon calmed down.

What did you do on your first day?
It was kind of awkward for me because I had never met my brother-in-law and my sister-in-law; I didn't know any of them. They had a little girl who was about three or four and she had not seen many women get off the airplane in a sari. So she said, “Why does Auntie look so funny?” They had a beautiful but small two bedroom house; a starter home in New York. The little girl had to give up her room for me and she was not happy with me. But after a few days, we got to know each other and it was fine. Since my sister-in-law did not drive, we pretty much stayed home. I did go for long walks and got to appreciate the beauty of the place.

What were some learning experiences you had in your first few years in the US?
That's a good question. There were so many new experiences in many different aspects--personal, social and cultural, and of course, in the medical field. First of all, although I was quite fluent in the English language, understanding the American accent was difficult at first. I watched a lot of TV the first few months after my arrival so I could get the hang of it. As I grew up in a very sheltered home in Chennai where I was chaperoned by somebody, this new freedom of fending for myself was both scary and exciting. The first year of my residency was doubly challenging as I took the Greyhound Bus from Ypsilanti to Detroit everyday. Soon I learnt to drive and that made life easier. The residency program was very different; new procedures had to be learnt. Since I had a lot of clinical experience in India, I did not find the program difficult. Even dressing differently, although seemingly inconsequential, was awkward initially. Learning the social norms took a little time. However, I found it to be exciting and not overwhelming. Finding vegetarian food was difficult. I ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. Would not touch it now!

What was your favorite part about being in America?
The learning experiences! I started going to the library almost immediately. It was so fascinating to me; we didn't have these public libraries in India. I went to British Council and the American Council libraries in Chennai, but they were not like this. The wealth of information I could get from a library was amazing. The librarians were very helpful. So I think that was my first thing, the learning experience in so many areas, fending for myself, going and discovering new things, some things that we were not exposed to [in India]. For the most part, hard work pays off here. The much cleaner streets, the ease of travel, the ease of accessing information and not having to deal with unmanageable crowds are all significant. I don't think I could drive in India. These are just a few [things I enjoyed].

Is there anything you expected about America or had some idea from what you had heard in India?
I think yes because I had read, and I had watched American movies, Hollywood movies. I had also gone to the American Council and borrowed books and met with some Americans there. So I had a decent idea of what to expect, I think. In Houston, there were not too many Indians in the early 70s . You were treated differently when you walked around in a sari, a long braid and sandals even in cold weather. Texas was quite conservative then. I did not realize when I first came here what a difference skin color, accent, etc., made. At the same time I recognized the respect they had for education and hard work.

Knowing what you know, now, what advice would you give to an immigrant coming from India today?
Fortunately, the young immigrants of today are quite savvy and much more aware now due to the internet, TV, friends, etc. I would say be open, welcome new challenges, mingle, and don't be afraid to follow your dreams; this is a country where hard work is rewarded.

Overall, are you happy that you came to America?
Yes, for the most part, yes. I do miss India; I still feel very Indian to this day after even over 50 years of being here. There is a spiritual connection that's never going to break. But I like the opportunities here. I like the fact that I can drive without bumping into anybody. So yes, to answer your question, yes.