“The history of immigration,” writes Oscar Handlin in his book The Uprooted, “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 a word I didn’t really understand, I used to dream of going to the United States and living like the “kewl” Americans that 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 enticing.
At 24, a traditional arranged marriage finally gave me the chance to realize my American dream and become a part of the approximately 1,500,000 Indians living in the U.S., according to the India Community Center, a non-profit organization based in Milpitas, California.
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 without a work visa I would face problems in getting a job and my purely Indian education would definitely be a hindrance.
“What are you going to do when Ajay leaves for work and you are left alone at home?” said my cousin Vaishali, who has 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 me.
I was prepared to cook and clean, but nothing prepared me for the desperate longing that I felt for India within a week of my arrival at Newark airport on a cold December day. Strange faces and a completely alien environment made me want to run back to the land I had left behind. The snow-laden tranquil landscape, so different from the bustling streets of Mumbai, depressed me further. “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. I was also struck by the quiet discipline of the American lifestyle, how people determinedly go about their work trying not to bother anyone too much. Even at the movies the viewers speak in polite whispers.
However, my heart was aching for pungent Indian masala smells, chaotic traffic, loud Indian cinemagoers, and the pesky neighborhood Sharma aunty, whom I used to painstakingly avoid back home. I began to identify with inane Bollywood films like Pardes, where Mahima Chaudhary’s character becomes passionately patriotic once she lands in the U.S. of A.
My neighbor, a pretty young blonde, delighted me initially. She always greeted me with a “Hey!” or a “How ya doin’?” to which I would try to respond with equal enthusiasm. I wanted to be her friend. But soon, it dawned on me that she wanted to limit our conversations to just the occasional greeting. My efforts at getting her to open up more met with failure.
Ajay explained that this was quite common. Americans, he said, are quite reserved even with their fellow Americans, so why should they make an exception with me? There is an amount of formality even in personal relationships. “You can’t barge into someone’s house uninvited like you used to in India, even if the person is your friend.”
Probably this was also why most Indians prefer to have other Indians as friends and not Americans. “Indians here know that it is finally their fellow ‘desis,’ as they are called, who will come to their aid in times of trouble,” reiterated Meghana Shah, a family friend.
I began to realize why a support system is essential in the States—whether it is family, a distant relative, a friend, or like in my case, my husband. You need someone to combat the friendly aloofness that is so difficult to penetrate.
I took all my woes to Ajay’s cousin Mona, mother of two, at her home in North Carolina. Somewhat of an inspiration, 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. “You need to focus your thoughts somewhere else and consider all your options,” she advised. “There is a lot you can do here. Just keep an open mind. If you can’t work right now, maybe you could study.”
Speaking with her gave me a fresh perspective. Education and freedom are after all what America stands for the world over, I reasoned.
Deciding to be more positive, I started to look for silver linings and I did find some. I noticed how Indians had also picked up a few good habits from Americans along the way. I observed how Indian couples shop together for groceries at the local supermarket, a phenomenon that is quite uncommon in the country we left behind. Men even take pride in washing vessels after meals, something they would never do in India. There are no porters to carry your baggage, so both men and women willingly lug their bags.
The roles of husband and wife are not so clearly defined here. The lines separating the two genders that have begun to blur in India, don’t exist at all in America. Everyone does everything.
While this did give me a feeling of independence, it also made me miss my sheltered life in India, where your family took care of you and vice-versa. The interference that was stifling at times had now become a void.
Thankfully, Indians are everywhere. From the cashier at Wal-Mart to your local banker, a familiar yet unfamiliar Indian visage always pops up unexpectedly, the eyes feigning disinterest. I sense an unspoken understanding at such moments. They probably have been through similar emotions themselves, I tell myself.
Indian restaurants dot almost every state in America. And although the masalas are less pungent, eating at one of them does give me a nice homely feeling. They also satiate my periodic cravings for bhel-puri and dahi-papdi chaat.
Another area that I can’t help but visit repeatedly is the Indian ghetto in Edison. I love being able to enter a sari shop like Kala Niketan, chatting in Hindi with a lady who looks just like Sharma aunty and is probably peskier than her.
I also enjoy 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 tells me. “You might miss your country here, but you can never forget it.”
All I need to do now is get used to the American way. “It will get easier,” he comforts me. “Everyone feels lost in the beginning.” Lost, like when opening doorknobs and cans becomes a befuddling task. And when the houses and streets look indistinguishably alike.
Or when the local librarian has a problem understanding my accent. I ask for a particular bestseller. Not comprehending me, she says, “Excuse me?!” I repeat the name of the book, slowly and more clearly this time. “I don’t follow,” is her response with a condescending arch of the eyebrow. I lose my nerve, mumble an “I’m sorry,” and beat a hasty retreat, wishing that I had a bag to cover my head with.
“Your dream has come true,” Ajay often reminds me. “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.
Sonal Upreti’s writings have been published in the Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, and Khabar magazine. She now lives in Somerville, NJ.