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Brand New in America

February 2004
Brand New in America

For a fresh Indian immigrant, learning to open doorknobs in the newly adopted country may seem like a task. Yet even as differences between life-before-America and life-after-America dissolve, the Indian identity crystallizes with renewed vigor.



"The history of immigration", writes writer Oscar Handlin, "is the history of alienation and its consequences. For every freedom won, a tradition lost. For the gain of goods and services, an identity lost, and uncertainty found."

When I was younger and ?immigration' was just a word I didn't really understand, I used to dream of going to the United States and living like the ?kewl' Americans I saw in Hollywood films. The fast cars, the glitzy malls where cola-guzzling, smooth-talking dudes hung out looking for dates, seemed exciting and attractive.

At 24, a traditional arranged marriage finally gave me the chance to realize my American dream and become a part of the close to two million Indians living in the U.S.

Luckily for me, my husband Ajay also happened to work in one of the country's most Indian-rich states ? New Jersey. It would be a home away from home. Or so I wanted to believe. Well-meaning friends and relatives from America had warned me that I might face problems getting a job considering my visa status.

"What are you going to do when Ajay leaves for work and you are left alone at home?" said my relatively experienced cousin Vaishali, who had been living with her husband in the U.S., for the last five years. "Be prepared to spend your time doing only household chores for at least the first few months," she warned.

I was prepared to cook and clean, but nothing prepared me for the kind of desperate longing that I felt for India within a week of my arrival in Newark airport, NJ.

"Give it some time. You will begin to like it here! America will grow on you," my husband promised.

It wasn't as if Yankee land fell short of my expectations.

The cars, malls, beautiful people are all real as are the 24-7 drinkable running tap water and central heating. However, my heart was aching for the pungent Indian masala smells, chaotic traffic and yes, even the pesky neighbourhood Sharma aunty, whom I used to painstakingly avoid back home. I even began to identify with inane Bollywood films like Pardes.

"You need to focus your thoughts somewhere else", advised Ajay's cousin Mona, mother of two, at her home in North Carolina. Wearing jeans and sneakers, Mona is a sprightly 30-something, who perfectly manages her home, husband, kids and still finds time to work as well as pursue an MBA from a university nearby. "I could never do so much in India," she said. "I would have considered myself extremely lucky if I had managed to get a job there. An education at this age was out of the question."

The option of further studies had just sprung upon me. Education and freedom are after all what America stands for the world over, I reasoned.

"Indian immigrants tend to be among the most educated of foreign populations," declared an article in Daily Herald, a newspaper based in Chicago. The article also said that the stories that brought Indians to the United States were not as well known as tales about other immigrants.

My friend Chetana is one of those stories. An IIT Mumbai graduate, she came to California after gaining admission into a university there on a full scholarship. "You should go for it!" she told me. "But don't expect the Americans to welcome you with open arms. They are a friendly lot, but they do maintain a distance."

I realized that I was not alone in my feelings of isolation and a hopeless yearning for home.

Chetana, 23, coming from a conservative Bengali family in India, had within five months of landing here, started ?seeing' a boy. "I would never have dreamed of having a boyfriend earlier, but here, a support system is necessary", she confided.

That support system could be family, a distant relative, a friend or like in my case, my husband. Anything to combat the friendly aloofness that is so difficult to penetrate.

"Indians here know that it is finally their fellow desis, as they are called, who will come to their aid in times of trouble", said Meghana Shah, a professional and close friend. Meghana explained that this was also why most Indians prefer to have other Indians as friends.

Of course, they have found ways to maintain their distinct identity in the midst of a culture completely alien from their own. Shah, with her long work hours and hectic schedule, still finds time to recite her shlokas daily and regularly visits a nearby temple on weekends.

"It works both ways," she said when I asked. "Indians have also picked up a few good habits from Americans along the way."

I noticed how Indian couples shop together for groceries at the local supermarket, a phenomenon that is quite uncommon in the country they left behind. Men even take great pride in washing vessels after meals, something they would never do in India.

"It is the famous American professionalism that inspires all of us", admitted Nilesh Gupta, who heads an IT company in Georgia. Gupta immigrated to USA in the seventies, and within a span of thirty years rose to almost the top bracket in his industry.

An area that I couldn't help but visit repeatedly is the Indian ghetto. I loved being able to enter a saree shop like Kala Niketan, chatting in Hindi with a lady who looks just like Sharma aunty and is probably peskier than her.

I also enjoyed discovering vestiges of India in America, in the lamps of a random curio shop or in picking up an Anoushka Shankar CD from a books and music store.

"You can't escape from India, even if you want to," Ajay often tells me. "You might miss your country here, but you can never forget it. All you need to do now is get used to the American way. It will get easier. Everyone feels lost in the beginning."

Lost?when opening doorknobs and cans become a befuddling task. Or, when the local librarian has a problem understanding my accent. All I get is a blank look.

As Ajay often reminds me, "Your dream has come true. Only thing is that it has come with a price."

It is a price that I am willing to pay. I value my country now more than ever. Like Handlin says, the uncertainty does exist, but America continues to make me discover my identity, rather than lose it.

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