My name is Rohini Chaki.

Calcutta, India

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Jersey City, New Jersey



When you arrived to Pittsburgh, I'm sure... In the first like, what was your first impression of Pittsburgh, or the US or just anything that was in front of you that caught your attention? And anything you remember?

Yes, I can tell you that. So what I keep saying, we, because it was me and my then boyfriend. We were coming from, actually, Singapore. So I went from Kolkata, to Singapore, where he was, I think, he was attending a conference, but also his closest friends live there. So we stopped over in Singapore for a bit. And then we came to Pittsburgh. And I remember, there was nighttime. And I remember how fast—I think we must have taken a taxi. I think I remember how fast it was going. And everything felt really big. But also, I was used to seeing like, buildings on either side of the street in Calcutta. Like you could see things. Here, it was at nighttime, because it was the highway. I felt like I can't see anything. There's nothing on either side. Until I think I think we had to cross a bridge, maybe. And then you get into downtown. And then you see the large buildings. And that, you know, even pretty late at night, all the buildings have lights on. So I think that was my first experience. But my first impression, but to be very honest, I was not focused so much on the ride or anything I was just freaking out about, you know, I was going to move in with this person whom I had only, I mean, we used to interact online every day for a long time every day. But we would only meet when he came to visit India during summer. And that would only be for like, a few weeks. And that happened for a few years. But, so, I didn't really know this person even though like, I knew him enough to want to.

I was a journalist in India and like I did a massive career pivot to getting a PhD. So I was more freaked out about that. And I was going to go move into this apartment with him. And some—some of his university mates whom I had never met and I didn't know. So I was—I think that was on my mind.

I remember, and I'm just curious if you do, what was the first food that you tried, or something that you wanted to try? Or what was your first meal in the US?

My first meal in the US, I remember we must have arrived, I don't know, maybe around 11 at night, and there was no food at home. Well immediately my boyfriend went to Giant Eagle, which is like this large grocery, like a supermarket, but it's, it's, it was like a few blocks down from where we were living. And it was open at 11 at night. And that was very exciting for me, even though we were very tired. And then my boyfriend made like, we bought some chicken and some veggies like carrots and beans. And like a prepared herb mix, which is something like you find that in India now. But it was not like, common in 2009. So all of that was very exciting. And then he cooked, we went home and he made like, a chicken and vegetable bake for us. And then he said, well, next time it’s going to be your turn to cook. And I realized I had never cooked before. I had never really shopped before, like I would buy on occasion, like go to the grocery store or like the bazaar in India, just to buy fruits or like it was—it was just like a random thing. It wasn't like a regular thing I did. I never budgeted for a household. I never, I never did any of that. And I didn't know really how to cook. Like in India, you know, you have someone who comes and cooks for you. You pay someone to cook and then if you're in the kitchen, specialty items, like your baking or something. That's what I used to say, I could—I could feed someone cake, but I couldn't feed them dinner.

So it's fair to say that those are some of the challenges in the beginning that you faced?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, realizing that this is now my, I'm a grown up, like, you don't really realize it. Even though I was working and all of that I was still living with my parents. I wasn't paying rent. And whatever I was earning, I was just spending on rubbish, you know, occasional stuff with the house, but I wasn't expected to do—now suddenly, for the first time I was expected to run a house with with my boyfriend, but then, you know, still do all of these things that make a house a home. That, I was very freaked out about that.

And did you have any presumptions about American culture, anything before coming? I'm sure. Like when you knew that you were going to come to the US like, promptly. Just curiosity, like—you knew about the US or the place you arrive to? Or how was it then when you arrived? How, how were the presumptions changed?

So I didn't know anything about Pittsburgh, but I thought I knew everything about the U.S. I thought oh, I am so into this, I watch Frasier and Seinfeld and Friends and I know all there is to know about America and then oh, it was—it was so weird. When I—the first time I think I went to a Starbucks, or maybe it was McDonald's. I don't know. All I remember is people were talking to me. And I had no idea what they were saying. I'm like, this is so weird. I know, like, I know how Chandler and Joey speak, how am I not understanding these people? And it still took me a while to understand, and—and then there was this. Can I tell you this? Really like when you talk about first days there are certain things that really immediately come to my mind. One of them is like, that chicken and vegetable bake and then my boyfriend telling me, “Well next time you're gonna cook” I was like, “Oh, I don't have recipes. I don't know what to do.” And so that was one and the other one was Starbucks. It was in my, like, in my university building, though, so it was like a local Starbucks that every—all the grad students and professors went to. And I went to order, I think, a cappuccino. And they asked me, What kind of milk? And I was not sure what the answer was. And I thought, I'm gonna be really cool about this. And I very coolly said, "cow” because in my mind, it was “Oh, maybe they're asking me.” Well, I thought I was cool. So I thought maybe they're asking me about some alternative milk, or maybe it's like, cow or buffalo or something. And but the, the lady was very nice about it. She pretended she, you know, she didn't laugh at me or anything, she immediately explained there, you know, it's about the fat content. So yeah, I, there were moments where I was clearly making a fool of myself.

I think, I think the last question, I think that's really important. And I'm sure like, we will have a perspective on that. So what advice would you give to someone that newly arrived to the U.S. now that you have spent some time in the U.S. and you have some experience here?

Yeah. I think it sort of depends, like the advice would be slightly older, based on whether they were coming as a student or they were coming here for work, because if you're coming for work, like if you're coming as a student, you have opportunities like the Grad Student Association, or like the Indian Grad Student Association, or South Asian, they're, like, seek those out. I didn't because I had an established network through my boyfriend that I could tap into, but if I hadn't had that, I think I would be pretty lost. So I think finding community, finding the local Indian or South Asian, or Pakistani, or whatever it is, association can be helpful as a jumping off point. And I think one needs to be open to taking risks and like, there, I think we will make a fool of ourselves if we're coming, like, invariably, we will, I feel like, I don't know, like Americans when they go to India or Pakistan, I'm sure they're making fools of themselves, like it happens, you're in a different culture. I think it's okay to be more open to that. I, there was a point where, like, honestly, because I was so confident that I knew everything about America, it was, I feel like I felt the culture shock a little bit more intensely than I would have if I just came with no preconceived notions. So I, I think I pulled back. Because things were so different from what I had expected them to be—it's great to have an open mind and to understand that generally, people are like, really friendly, and also racial microaggressions will happen sometimes, no. Quite often people are not, like intentionally trying to put you down or anything, they're just not aware that this difference is just—they're just not aware of the difference and they want you to—and it comes from that a little bit, and you need to let some of that sort of slide off you and not close yourself to experiences because of it.