The mantra of many Indians who left their homeland, for the longest time was – I will return to India in 5 years. The magic number 5 was almost unanimously agreed upon by many NRIs who moved to any part of the 5 of the 7 continents. Probably because only 5 were habitable, or because 5 years were enough to earn a degree, work a couple of years, and maybe even save $5K to get back home and start a new life! Whatever the reason, the promise was one of return to the motherland.
Back in the ’80s, college and job applications were non-existent. Applications had to be requested via regular postal mail. They had to be filled out by hand and mailed back. It was a time consuming and tedious process.
The arrival of the acceptance letter was followed by a series of phone calls to family and friends, distribution of sweets, and a party where sometimes entire neighborhoods were invited. After the initial ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs, came a torrent of tears.
As the departure day came close, the word ‘packing’ would send mothers in tears. Packing two suitcases with the maximum weight allowed was the most challenging and dreaded experience. Mothers wanted to pack not only clothes but food as well. In went processed condiments, homemade pickles, savories, and sweets. Fathers made sure documents, finances, and papers were in order. Suitcases were weighed, unpacked much to the dismay of mothers, repacked, and reweighed. After heated arguments, sobbing, complaining, cajoling, and hugging and making up, the final packing was done. And, after receiving a barrage of phone calls and reading numerous telegrams wishing ‘Bon Voyage’, ‘Best Wishes’, and ‘Happy Landings’, fatigue took over but sleep eluded, for it was the last day spent together before the great departure.
Upon landing on the new soil and clearing US Customs without any hassles, the migratory students adjusted to their new surroundings by flocking together. They forged bonds with other Indian students. From sharing dorm rooms, apartments, and even cars, to hunting for Indian grocery stores, Indian restaurants, places of worship, and procuring membership for Costco (earlier known as Price Club) they began their life here. All this coupled with coping with the new routine and rigor of academics, was the challenge of finding assistantships, on-campus jobs or other odd jobs to sustain a living.
Calls to India in the late 1980s were $3.95 for the first minute and $1.95 for every minute thereon. Parents and students agreed that outgoing phone calls would be made only once a month and talk-time would strictly be limited to no more than 3 minutes max. Almost every phone call would begin and end with tears and sniffing on both sides.
Letters to and from home would take three to four weeks to be delivered! (These were the days before the birth of the World Wide Web, Social Media, and Mobile phones) Aerograms or Airmails were used. USPS and Indian Postal Service were lifelines that held families together. Though the news and events (of birthdays, weddings, festivals, births, and deaths) relayed in the letter were long over, reading about them renewed all the excitement and also made one emotional.
Mothers checked in to see how their fledglings were doing, but it was actually a double-edged sword to drive one on a guilt trip for making the decision to study/work abroad, though it was a point of pride for them as well. It was always – “a cousin, a neighbor, or a friend’s son or daughter has gone to study in the US and is doing so well, so must you.”
The new students were in awe of the life here. Things that were unheard, unseen, and regarded as a luxury back home were basic needs here. Hot and cold running water 24/7, supermarkets carrying frozen breakfast and cut vegetables, ready to eat meals, shopping malls, washer/dryer, dishwashers, etc. was all thought to make life easy.
After the initial awe, shock set in, Chores! They were required to be done! No mother to provide fresh hot meals, no vendor bringing the vegetable cart to your door, and no domestic helper to help you clean and do the dishes. Every single chore had to be done by the student! It was time for the juggling act.
A brief period of stress followed graduation, the phase of changing the practice, a temporary F1 student visa into an applicable, permanent H1 work visa. Once that was settled, parents and students heaved a big sigh of relief. Parents proudly showed off photos of their sons and daughters, talked about their first car, H1 visa approval, and how they managed to find their first job.
It was now time to get married and settle into family life. If one was in love, it was time to take a favorite cousin, uncle, or aunt into confidence and have them convince the parents. Perhaps the parents were open and there were no issues, otherwise, after a lot of reluctance and melodrama, permission for marriage was given. If there was to be an arranged marriage, it required word to be spread about prospective brides and grooms, alliances would start to pour, photos exchanged, and matches made. The groom would then proudly bring his bride to this country and after the initial struggles, begin to settle down.
Once children were born, a new phase would begin. The free K-12 public school education, clean environment, excellent and prestigious universities for higher education, and so on acted as incentives to extend the 5-year dream. But soon the 5-year dream would be shelved, and a new dream, the vicious cycle of voluntary entrenchment would begin – obtaining a Green Card, buying a home, and becoming a citizen of the USA.
Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelance writer from Fairfax, Virginia.
Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.