So the first question that I want to start us off with, what do you remember from your first few days in the United States when you arrived?
When I first arrived, as I said, I was very young, I came right after high school. And then I was really ignorant about American anything, because when I came, I just finished high school. And I went to high school in Calcutta [India]. But the curriculum was British. So I didn't have really any real knowledge of America. I came, my oldest brother was living in California. So and I was, I guess, a very good student. So my father thought that, okay, you can go and they send me to California. They didn't know anything about United States, except you know, in the olden days, the people used to go to England, and in our days, people go went to America. So there was this vague idea. And my older brother was here. So when I landed in San Francisco, after a long, long flight, because in those days, they used to stop at every airport, like I started from Calcutta, and I think the first stop was Bangkok [Thailand], and Hong Kong and Tokyo [Japan] and Honolulu. And then San Francisco. I was, I cried all the way because that was the first time I was on a plane, first time I left my family. So you know, it was a very emotional experience.
So I landed in San Francisco, my brother was there. And then we got in the car and we were going, he lived in Hollister, the town I live in now, ironically. and I remember going on Highway 101, which was, at that time, the only connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And I remember seeing the taillights of cars. And that was really something remarkable to me to see so many taillights, red lights all going in that direction. And then of course, I was admitted into a junior college. In those days, people from India didn't come for undergraduate studies. They came for graduate studies. So the education system didn't know how to judge my qualification. They knew I was a high school graduate, and they assumed it was 12 years of education. But at that time, it was only 11. But they admitted into the college. And the college was a little distance from the apartment that I used to live in. So my brother arrange for one of the girls to give me a ride. And I took Spanish, Economics, English, PE [Physical Education] at that time.
I didn't have many clothes. I came with only a few. And I wore a sari and shalwar kameez. And I had long hair that I used to braid. So I remember when crossing the street people used to stop their cars to stare at me. And they didn't know what to make of it because of my brown skin. I could be Mexican, but my sari told them I was not Mexican. So I was, became a curiosity. But anyway, the early experiences of college was I came from a girls high school, it was all students were girls. And the teachers were women. There were no man. So I came into a co-education system that was very strange to me. And I remember in the economics class, there was a white student who was later found out he was the quarterback of the football team, and he sat in the front row, and put his feet up on the teacher's desk that really shocked me.
So anyway, I had to take biology and there was a classmate who I teamed up with and I didn't want to cut up the frogs or anything. And he said, he would cut it up. And if I would draw it, so we made this agreement, he would cut up the animals that we had to cut up. And I would draw for both. So the early experiences were a mixture, I went to a football game. And I thought the football was like animals butting their heads, so I told the–I don't want to see the game, because it was too violent for me.
I had to take PE. So I signed up for tennis at eight o'clock in the morning. And I was running around with the tennis racket, in my sari and tennis shoes. So you know. It was quite an experience.
And then what were some of the biggest cultural differences or similarities that you noticed between the US and Kolkata at the time?
So there was one incident that I remember vividly. As I said, they were very curious about me. And the church groups wished to invite me to tell them about India. And even though I was an Indian, but you know, I didn't know really about India, you lived in it, but you don't talk about it in the terms that they would know. And so I looked up a book on Indian philosophy. So I could talk about Hinduism, because I was a Hindu, but I didn't know the knowledge about Hinduism. So I read the book. So I found them curious–then, I told them what I had read about the caste system and all that.
Second thing was this economics professor, who was a German guy, then I was very fortunate that I had a lot of mentors, that someone guiding me, the one was the economics professor. And I remember I don't know why we were at this dorm. And he was talking to me, and my head, my head lowered, and my eyes lowered. And he said, “In this country, you have to look people straight in the eye. If you lower your head and lower your eyes, it means you have something to hide”. And that was a shock to me, because we were trained when we speak to elders, to lower head and lower eyes. So to look straight in the eyes of adults, was again, a big difference.
Another incident that I remember, there was award ceremony, and that I won something or the other. And this German professor took me to the ceremony. It was a formal dinner. I wore my really pretty sari to the dinner and there were forks laid out on the left and knife and spoons laid out on the right very formal. So I told him, I don't know how to use this. He said “Don't worry, just watch me and go to from the extreme left or the extreme right, and you will work your way in.” And then the main dish came. It was a steak and was rare. And the blood streaming out. I jumped up and screamed [laughs]. They quickly took away my plate and brought me chicken. So that eating style, and all were very different. So, many, many cultural differences.