My name is Sulekha Somasekhar Alath Puthenveetil.
INTERVIEWED BY Kamala Gururaja x 24

Pondicherry, India

Los Angeles, California



Sunnyvale, California



What is your name?
My name is Sulekha Somasekhar Alath Puthenveetil.

What year did you arrive in the United States?
In the year 2000.

How old were you then?
I was 33, 34, about.

Which city and country were you living in before you came to the US?
I lived in India, in the Union Territory of Pondicherry. And that was for a few years before I came here, but prior to that I was raised in the city of Mumbai.

And which city and state did you spend your first day in the United States in?
In the city of Los Angeles, California.

And which city and state do you live in now?
I live in Sunnyvale, California.

What brought you to the United States?
My job, my career; actually, I was transferred here.

What mode of transportation did you take and how was your trip?
I flew. It's a long haul flight. I flew via Los Angeles at that time, because there wasn't a ticket, something was up with the availability to direct to San Francisco. So the airline I got took me via Malaysia, to Los Angeles. And then from Los Angeles, I took a domestic flight to San Francisco.

What were your first impressions of the country?
First of all was that it was very clean. Things were bright. I mean, I remember, distinctly, the traffic lights--the signals. The red was bright red, the amber was bright amber, and the green was bright green. Things were very clean. It was very cool because I came in the August-September timeframe. And my hair, which is a big frizzy mess in very humid India...South India, was behaving itself. I mean, it was sitting down behaving itself, and I couldn't believe it!

What did you do on your first day?
On my very first day, I found that I was awake a lot because jet lag was quite new. And I think that was the first thing I noticed about me as a person. Is that I was wide awake. I talked a lot to the friend who I met, who I was meeting after a long time...many years, and we caught up quite a bit. And generally just, I remember looking around a lot as we drove around, and asking questions. The freeway was very new to me, the speed on the freeway was, you know, interesting and exciting and new. And then I think I some point, I couldn't keep my eyes open. And though my friend kept saying, “I think you should just push yourself to stay awake and then you'll have a chance of resetting your circadian rhythm,” I simply couldn't. It was as if I was incapable of even thought. I slept like I've never slept before. So it was a very early bedtime and a very deep sleep, deep slumber.

What were some learning experiences you had in your first few weeks in the US?
Two things, I would say, come to mind immediately. One is that things opened and closed the other way around and I wasn't sure why somebody decided to do that. That was one thing, because after all, in my head, this was a country that was largely populated, aside from the Indigenous people who were already here, by Western Europeans, and everything has been somehow reversed. That was one I was constantly locking things when I was supposed to be unlocking them and shutting the door when I was supposed to be opening it and pushing instead of pulling and stuff like that. And the other thing was certain subtle changes to the English language, which you would think that they are only subtle, but for whatever reason what happened to me made that subtlety very... rather serious. What happened was that I was at the airport for my domestic flight connection, when the announcement came that “flight number so-and-so will be here momentarily.” Now in British English, momentarily means “for a moment.” Americans use it in the context of “in a moment.” And I thought, the flight’s going to just arrive and take off, it’s only going to be here for a moment! And I ran to the gate like a crazy person, I ran to the gate! There was nobody at the gate, because I realized later the flight hadn’t even arrived, that's what the announcement meant...“will be here momentarily...” that it’s still in the air somewhere. And fortunately, there was a lady behind the counter at the gate, and out of breath and flustered, I asked her about my flight, and she said, “It'll be here momentarily.” And I think I took about three seconds to connect the dots in my head and realized. My first reaction was rather judgmental, like, “Don't you even know the meaning of the word” kind of thing; then I told myself, just back off, maybe it's used differently in this country, and that's what it turned out to be. I made the same mistake after I went back into the office a couple of days later. But yeah, you know, it could be a word, but if it means something totally else, with a slight shift in the grammar, you could be doing something totally else.

What do you think the greatest similarity between society in Indian society and America was?
It took me a while to actually realize that there are such great similarities because they are not obvious. When you look at language, cuisine, the way people look, the ethnicity, things look so different. But as I've lived here, I've realized that the concept of democracy, for example, here is the world's most wealthy democracy and India is the world's largest democracy. The machinery of democracy in and of itself has a very fundamental similarity if a country adopts that. That's one thing; the other thing is, at least California, I feel, which is my home and where I've lived the most, the concept of diversity, in language and cuisine and appearance, that concept of diversity, although different, is there in India. Because when I lived and grew up in India, we moved whenever my father moved for his work. And the north of India is very different from the south of India, in language, in cuisine, in some traditions, although we're all Indians. I had to learn six languages in the course of growing up in India, and the medium of instruction, which is English. So many different cuisines, so many different schools of thought and tradition. There are those similarities, which weren't obvious to me as similarities, you know, you would just say “Oh, we are like this in India, and you're like this here.” I think these are the two things that I would define as similarities.

What was the most difficult aspect of being an immigrant here to you?
For me, it was driving, or let's just say getting from A to B, particularly in California. And the other thing was about this whole concept of the fine print. So what I would say is, the first one about getting from A to B, I mean, California has...after all these years where I live, unless you're actually in San Francisco City, the public transportation system is pathetic and very expensive. And when I came here, short of being able to walk to a neighborhood store or two [for] everything else, I had to depend on a car or a friend who drove, to give me a ride on a weekend or even to drive to work. So learning to drive, (again, on the wrong side of the road, right side of the road,) and at the speeds at which one has to do that. It's a very different driving concept; it's not as if you just get in and if you know how to drive you drive at high speed; you are constantly looking and reading things, signs and exits and so on. It's not as simple as people think, that once you learn to drive, you're okay. You're constantly having to read and understand and it's more so when you're a new driver. So, I was never used to being so constrained in moving around as I was here. The second thing that I mentioned was about the fine print, which, I realized that things are not as they seem. The layer of sophistication, the uniform, the language, the English language spoken, is very superficial and can be very deceptive, like if you sign up for a contract of anything [and] you don't read the fine print and understand that when they say it's $10, it's not really $10. I would put it this way, it's a different kind of deception from the kinds of deception that you find in India where it's very obvious when something is corrupt. A Canadian friend of mine who lives in India had warned me of that “Just remember that in the United States, it is built into the system.” I was shocked, for example, that somebody who I hired to come and change a fuse for me, an electric fuse, it was 140 US dollars an hour. And I was thinking, where in the world would you pay 140 US dollars for a person to come and change a small little fuse in your fuse box. And I realized you're paying for everything: his fancy uniform, his English language, the car that he drives or the van. And it's all built into the system, this tremendous expense, and it's all under this very superficial layer of sophistication that can be very deceiving. You trust it without thinking that you should read more and understand it better. And then, I think, I was surprised about...I thought I was coming to a country that was very emancipated when it came to women and I was very, very surprised and even a little shocked that there was so much surprise about me being a single woman by choice. It was more like, “Why are you not romantically involved with somebody? Don't you have a boyfriend? Why not?” And I realized there again, you know, there's a similarity actually between a country like India and here, that there's a lot of weight put on being a spouse, a girlfriend, a partner to somebody. That came as a complete surprise to me, because I guess I didn't know enough about these complex problems for women even in the United States. I just thought, I'm coming to a country which is so forward and women are so emancipated, but it's not so, you know, there is the superficial layer that you have to actually look beneath to see the truth.

What was your favorite part about being in America?
I loved going to the national parks. I also love the different kinds of cuisine that you get here that I had never tasted or I had thought was different. And I enjoyed watching shows like America's Test Kitchen. I think in my first quarter of being here, I got pulled into this whole TV Shopping Network thing, which was very exciting--to see all these different things--that they do a damn good job of selling it to you and making you feel that there's nothing else in the world that would suit you better than to put your money down for this thing! That was very exciting, the whole Shopping Network experience. And of course, the internet, which was far more easily available than where I was in India at that time.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to a new immigrant coming from India today?
I would say always come with a sporty mindset. When you--and this is not just the United States, but I would say anywhere you go outside of your own country--the moment you tell yourself you need your food, your kind of people around you, you will cease to really enjoy the novelty of the experience. And that novelty lasts for a short period because by the time you get into the routine of things, the novelty is already wearing off. And I think that is what I would tell anybody coming new to this country. Be sporty. You will find foods that you like to eat, it doesn't have to be rice, and this and that. And you know, a lot of people get really stressed when they don't find their own traditional food but there are ways to just enjoy it even without having exactly that. And I would say, know the law to some extent...what you can and cannot do. What is appropriate to say and not say. That is another thing that I was rather used to doing; I would just speak my mind and it's not necessarily regarded as interesting or even appropriate sometimes. Every society has a different definition of what they like to hear and don't like to hear. So give yourself some time to listen, you know.

And overall, are you happy that you came to America?
Yes, I am. I'm very happy that I came here. Very happy for the opportunities it has offered me and particularly in the kind of life I have chosen for myself as a single woman who is, so to speak, married to her career, and be able to live those dreams and those aspirations.