What brought you to the United States?
I got married and my husband was working in the United States so I came here to be with him.
What mode of transportation did you take and how was your trip?
We flew from Chennai, India and it was my first trip to the United States so everything was overwhelming.
What were your first impressions of the country?
I had a culture shock because I grew up in a conservative, typical South Indian family and coming here and seeing it all was just overwhelming, and a cultural shock.
What did you do on your first day?
You're asking me about 46 years ago, so I don’t remember the details! My two older sisters were already in the United States, in New Jersey. So my husband and I spent a few days with them and got to meet all their Indian friends who were there. Then we moved to Michigan, where my husband was teaching, at Michigan State University. We lived there until we moved to Wisconsin, five years ago.
In your first couple of weeks in the United States, what were some learning experiences you had?
Actually, my two sisters were my mentors, because they had been here since the 1960s. One sister came here in 1960, and one sister came in 1965. So they had been here long enough, eight to ten years or more, and were able to guide me on what to expect and what to do. That was pretty helpful, because otherwise I would have been lost.
What did you find was the biggest difference between America and India?
In terms of the culture, we grew up in a very close knit, intergenerational family, because my grandma lived with us. Here, everything is so different, and everybody is on their own, each to himself or herself. So that was a big shocker. And also [in India], we had helpers for household help, and then people who could afford a little bit more had a car of their own and a chauffeur. But here, you have to do everything on your own, including cleaning the house and cooking. There, you could get help to do that for a reasonable price, but here we had to do everything and then we also had to work. So that was a big, big difference.
What did you find was the most difficult aspect of living in America?
Like I said, it was not that difficult in general, but I missed my parents of course. I missed my parents and my younger sister. My two older sisters were already here in this country, in New Jersey, but my younger sister was back [in India]; even now she is still in Chennai. I missed my grandma, my parents, my sister, and that was very, very hard.
What was your favorite part of being in America?
There is a little bit more freedom compared to India in doing things. You didn't have to get an “okay” from your elders for everything, so that was a little bit of liberation.
Did life in America meet your expectations?
Absolutely. 45 years ago, definitely. Things are different now, but 45 years ago, it definitely met my expectations.
Over time, did your experience as an immigrant in this country change? Have your views on America changed over time?
Not until recently. Not until the last four or five years [as of 2021]. But now, it's totally different.
Do you think that anything about being a South Asian immigrant in particular has made your experience as an immigrant distinct?
Like I said, not until four or five years ago. Now things feel kind of uneasy and uncomfortable. That also depends on the area you live in. Not every city, not every suburb, not every area is that way. We live in Madison, Wisconsin, so it's a university town and it’s more diverse, so that is different from other parts of the country. Prior to that, we lived near Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, again, another university town, so it was different. If you live in a rural area though, I don't know how it would be for a South Asian person.
How have you been able to find a community of South Asians in America?
When I came to Michigan, a lot of Indians were here already in the 70s and they had formed an association called Sangam. Sangam is a Sanskrit word that means a group of people. They had formed a Tamil Sangam for people who speak Tamil, which is my mother tongue, so we became a member of the Tamil Sangam. There they used to celebrate all the Indian functions like Onam, Diwali, Pongal, even Indian Independence Day. So it was a nice thing to go to, it would be like a potluck, where everybody would take a dish, and so we made friends there; that’s how we met a lot of Indians.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to a new immigrant today?
Try to assimilate more instead of isolating yourself because you are here and this country is providing for you. You came here for a better life, and they're giving you a better life for which you have to assimilate yourself instead of being isolated but expecting them to reward you for that. I think that assimilation is the best thing. Appreciate what they give you and assimilate, that makes it easier for us. Tamil Sangam and all that is fine because you get to talk your language and all that stuff. At the same time, if you're only going to be clustered in your own group, it is not going to be nice. You need to assimilate, in my opinion.
Do you see any similarities between the American culture and the Indian culture?
Not very many. There are families who reflect some of our values, like taking care of elders, but it is pretty much totally different.
Is there anything that you would change about your experience coming to this country?
We all get wiser as we grow older. I think my attitude is totally different now then when I set foot here 45 years ago, so it's not the same mindset.
And overall, are you happy that you came to America?
Oh, absolutely. This is home. I don't know any other place. Most of my adult life I’ve spent here, so this is my home. Absolutely. Of course I still miss my sister in India, but this is still home. And now we have our own family here, our kids and granddaughter.