I was born in a small town, Ariyalur, in Southern India, specifically in the state of Tamil Nadu. That was my grandparents’ little town. Usually the moms-to-be go to their parents’ house to have their babies. So that is how I was born there. I grew up in the same state, but our family used to relocate often.
In my first twelve years of schooling I attended thirteen schools. My father was a judge and he used to be moved often to keep neutrality. I attended different schools, some were public, some were Hindu religion schools, and some were Catholic schools. I had a variety of experiences attending different schools. When it was time to go for college, I did not want to go to multiple colleges. I went to a major city. It is called Chennai now, it used to be called Madras. I attended the University of Madras, which is a prominent institution. I went to the business school there. I was staying in the residence halls.
When I finished my undergrad, I started working right away in a bank. In those days for entering banks you had to take exams. It is a selective process. I had barely completed nineteen then but had a degree and a job. It wasn’t too unusual, but not ordinary either. While working I also did my master’s. After two years, I switched to a different bank in a higher management position.
My parents were trying to get me married. There is a lot of family involvement in the marriage process. There are a lot of lawyers in my family — both grandfathers, my father and a lot of uncles. Usually, a lot of the men would study and move far away for work, sometimes to a different state or even three thousand miles away. Some of them would even go abroad. Many would go to the UK, some came to the US, some went to Australia. You would know them. The families would talk about them. Women were different. My grandmother probably went up to fifth grade. My mom completed high school. Generation to generation women became more educated, but the men always had good professions.
Usually the parents tried to find partners for their children within a group of families that spoke the same language and from more or less the same region. In terms of marriage, parents tried to find families that were known and with common friends. Generally, a horoscope match is done as a preliminary step. Horoscopes are based on the time of birth, and in India it is the lunar calendar. Everything is based on the moon. There are trained people who do a horoscope as soon as a child is born. Families have a lot of faith in the horoscopes.
As a first step in the marriage process, the horoscopes should match. If the horoscopes match, then the parents get in touch with each other. In those days, parents would talk first and traditionally the boy would go with his family to the girl’s family to meet everyone. In my grandparents’ days’ I think they just saw each other. They never talked to each other. Just the families would talk, agree to proceed with the marriage and then the wedding would take place. Same thing even in my parents’ generation. In my generation, the man and woman would take some time to talk to each other. Sometimes they might have more visits before they agree or disagree to proceed further.
And then they look for good dates for the wedding. Usually they don’t wait too long and the marriage takes place within a few days. These are large weddings, with extended families that make huge gatherings, in the hundreds and sometimes even over a thousand. Family and friends live close by and a wedding is part of normal socializing.
In terms of my marriage specifically, my parents started looking for me when I was twenty-two or so. My father got promoted to a senior position at the national level and so he moved to the capital of India, New Delhi. It was just me and my mom in Chennai. The distance was creating more tension for my parents in terms of finding a boy for me. It was then that a lot of the boys after doing their undergrad were going to the United States to study and probably work later. But I didn’t want to get married and move outside of India. I wanted to stay.
My husband-to-be’s family knew our family via common friends. They had contacted us a few years back, but at that point I was staunchly against coming to the US and so it didn’t go any further. And then they approached us again. The only thing was that their son was already in the US. He had applied for his permanent residency here and while that application was pending generally you can’t leave in the middle of the process unless it is an extenuating situation. He was unable to come to India just to see me. In the meantime, my would-be father-in-law had a cardiac arrest so I think he really wanted to get his son married. There was more pressure on my husband then. He had told his parents, “As long as you see the girl and she fits some basic criteria, please fix the marriage. I am fine with that.” He put the onus on his parents. They mentioned about this to us, and that was even more of a deterring factor for me. We don’t even see the boy and how can we agree for the wedding?
At one point my father said let’s talk to him and see. In those days making a telephone call was very expensive, it was 1984. Back then you would have to place a call through an operator. It was a three-minute call and quite expensive. I went to New Delhi to be with my father because he had a phone there and we didn’t have a phone in our Madras house.
The three minutes went into just saying hi. It had to be extended twice ending to be a nine-minute call. My father said ok, he seems like a nice person. My husband-to-be asked my father if he could write to me and my father said of course, and so he started writing letters to me. Back then it would take three weeks for a letter to come from the US to India and this went on for probably six or seven months. In his very first letter he sent a bunch of his work material. He said, “I am an engineer and this is the work I do and this is what my company does.” But my family was insistent on seeing a picture of him. Everybody in his family had seen me and interacted with me, but none of us had seen him or interacted with him. We said we need a full-size photo. I think he went to a studio and got close-up and full-size pictures.
My fiancé was approved for his green card, the permanent residency card. He was then able to travel and so a date for our marriage was fixed. It is a big event in our community and the marriage halls get booked way ahead of time. There was no formal engagement. Our family said, “We need to see him. What if something doesn’t mesh?” We didn’t want the formal engagement even though the marriage was fixed. Our marriage was on a Sunday. He arrived three days before on a Wednesday. The person who matched our horoscopes said that was not a day we could see each other. We believe there are good days and bad days. So, I was not able to go to the airport even. It was my family members who went. He didn’t know I was not coming. Anyway, the next day he came to our house and we spent a little more time getting to know each other. Saturday was the engagement and we were married on that Sunday.
I think it was the letters we had exchanged that eased our anxiety to a large extent. Once in a while my fiancé used to call my neighbor’s house, which was not really convenient, because we didn’t have a phone. There was a lot of nervousness. A lot of butterflies for both of us. I think he was more nervous than I was. He thought maybe there is a chance that the marriage may not go through. I was surrounded by people, with family members and friends, so the thought of a possible call-off never occurred to me. Having been far away from home for a long time, I think, he was more nervous.
The marriage went off well in a traditional way and with about a thousand attending. We got the marriage certified in the marriage hall. The next day was Labor Day and the US embassy in India was closed. So, on Tuesday we went to the US embassy early in the morning to make an application for myself for permanent residency. The waiting period for the spouse to come was at least fourteen months. We knew about this waiting period ahead of time. That was another deterring factor because everybody said, “Even if he comes and gets married he is going to go away. She can’t go right away. What’s the point?” At the US Embassy, you just apply but don’t know what the outcome will be. Fingerprints and all the paperwork were submitted. I don’t remember the process very well. This was in September 1985. My application went through and later in 1987 I was able to come to the US. That was a long wait.
Initially my husband had come to the US to attend engineering school on a student visa. He did his undergrad in engineering in India and came to the US to do his masters. After graduation, he had moved to Los Angeles to start work. Subsequently he applied for the green card. I’m not sure what his visa status was called back then. Now it is called an H1B visa. Permanent residency is a lengthy process for sure.
I came to Los Angeles in 1987. The year before, I had watched a women’s beauty pageant and that year’s winner was from Los Angeles. Based on her speech, my first impression of Los Angeles was as a vibrant city. I had quit my job in India. State Bank of India where I had worked has a branch in Los Angeles. So as soon as I arrived, my husband took a day off work to take me to this branch. It took forever, almost two hours to go from our apartment to downtown LA where the financial district is. I was struck by all of the different kinds of people. Just in that building as I was going up in the elevator I noticed a wide variety of people. I couldn’t distinguish where they were from, but they looked distinct.
When I went to the bank they offered me a job because I used to work in the foreign exchange division in India. It means a lot of numbers and calculations. I explained to them what I was doing and they were actually looking for that skill. They asked me to come work for them. But my husband said, “If you take the bus it is like three hours one way.” I said I would think about it and we came home. The fact that they liked my skill made me very optimistic about finding a job.
Bank of America had advertised for a position. I went to the financial district again and took the elevator to the fiftieth floor watching many dressed formally and professionally. Everything was very fascinating for me. I also had to really listen in to understand what they were speaking. They gave me an aptitude test and at the end of it they asked me to wait. They said I did very well. She said, “I haven’t ever seen anybody do so well.” I really like numerical information and the test was full of that. They offered a job right away. The commute was still too long. And my husband had forewarned me then, he told me to ask them about jobs in nearby branches. I could take two buses and get easily to two branches of Bank of America.
Shortly thereafter I started working in one of the branches close by. It was a part-time job and so the hours were not super long. I started working less than two weeks after I arrived in the United States. Everything had moved so quickly. To find out that I could get a job, that was very gratifying. My impression of the US went up multi-fold.
It was a very busy branch and I was in charge of the cash box. It was near where all the soap opera stars had all their accounts. There was a lot of cash that was handled. My issue was that one dollar would look the same as a hundred dollars. In India, everything is different colors and different sizes. And the dollar was worth so much value compared to the currency in India. For me that was an extra weight on me to do it right. I would count and recount. They didn’t have all these counting machines back then so we had to count by hand. At the end of the day we had to balance the cash box. I was very particular. They would allow a certain number over or under, that was allowed, but for me it had to be just so. Even when they signed Bill and their driver’s license said William, I would reject them. I would tell them their signature weren’t matching. I had some funny moments for sure. The job really helped me to transition.
The hardest part about leaving India was moving away from family and friends. And I really loved my job I had in India of course. Even though we moved a lot, I didn’t go far away. I had not ever taken a flight anywhere. We would take trains, buses, we walked on foot. The flight I took to come to the US was my first flight. I was nervous about that. Some people would say that the boys who came from India, they would already have girlfriends in the US. People wouldn’t really know what was going on over in the US. I wasn’t too concerned about it, but it is always in the back of my mind. There were a lot of things to feel apprehensive about. Just being far away. I usually make friends easily so I was not too concerned about that, but overall it was hard. I was apprehensive, but also excited starting a new life.
In India usually each state speaks a different language so the common language is English a lot of time; you see signposts in English, the workplace. My husband had already had a group of friends. He introduced me to a couple of them to me during the waiting period to come. I had communicated with them. Not everything was so new when I came. I made some good friends at Bank of America. But I didn’t have any family here. I had some distant cousins, but back then the phone wasn’t so accessible so you’d only heard about them.
Within six months we moved to the east coast. We both applied to schools and then we went to upstate New York. We were getting a second masters. That was another big change. He mentioned to me right before we got married that there was a good chance that we would move back to India, which I really liked back then. The only serious point we considered it was maybe after five or six years. We were exploring some business opportunities in India and we decided not to go and do that. From upstate New York we moved to Austin, TX. That is where I became a citizen.
I became a citizen in 1995. I was also looking at working for the federal government. India does not allow dual citizenship. You have to choose between the two countries. It was a hard decision to make for me. But I was excited, too. It was a change that had a lot of positive things, but emotionally I was sad.
My children were both born here. Back in India when I was growing up, in some places, because my father worked for the government we would get a big house and in others we lived in tiny spaces where I didn’t have a separate bedroom. My parents paid for my undergraduate degree. But I paid for my master’s degree which I earned while working. Money was always a big concern. Rationing, planning and all the decisions were based on those. Compared to how I grew up, all the basic necessities have been given to my kids. I would say that my kids were more privileged growing up here.
The education system in India is also somewhat different. By the time you are in the ninth grade you pretty much have to decide what you want to be. There is not much flexibility there. Either you choose a science path or a social science path when you are young and go to school for a career. You do not change your education pathways. Even now it is pretty much the same. Starting from a young age I chose math and quantitative based areas whereas my kids have the freedom. They can decide anything they want to be. Education-wise the opportunities here are much wider. That is good in terms of making choices.
I didn’t have the opportunity to do any sports. Sometimes I went to co-ed schools which meant that girls didn’t have opportunities to participate in sports, but when I went to all girls’ schools that would change. Attending many types of schools made me more adaptable but at the same time my opportunities were limited. My kids can easily decide to do any sports or play any musical instrument in their school band. Opportunity-wise, education is good here in the United States.
I used to do a lot of volunteering and social service when I was in college through an association called National Social Service (NSS); at the hospital helping blind patients to navigate and also in the wards where mentally challenged women had given birth to children. A lot of those women were apparently victims of rape. This was a big eye-opener for me. I grew up in a protected environment. These experiences were impactful and made me more compassionate. Today’s societal pressures, I can tell, bother my children. I make sure they go and have experiences like helping homeless.
People who are not immigrants may not understand a particular family aspect. When I came here I was with my husband and I didn’t have any other family. The same for him, too. Literally both of us had to make phone calls and write letters to be connected with family. It was very expensive to visit. We would save money to visit family once every three or four years. That’s all that we could afford.
There is less awareness about how lonely someone can feel especially during holiday times, like Thanksgiving. Here people say, “I’m going to my grandma’s house. I’m going to my uncle’s house.” I think many people take it for granted that they are going somewhere and be with family. We made sure we did something on American holidays, but it was a lot of effort to mingle with groups and keep busy. Folks from other countries can be feeling very lonely, especially during those times when others are together. I used to volunteer at the library. I made some friends, I still keep in touch with them after thirty years. They used to invite us. The first year was hard. Afterwards we would go to a friend’s place on Thanksgiving. It was a potluck. That is how I came to know potlucks.
Now I teach at Portland Community College. Back in India I used to do some tutoring and was good at explaining lessons to my classmates. Often, we would sit together and do work as a group. Sometimes I would take one problem and explain how it works to the others. I enjoyed that process. When we moved to the east coast where I finished my masters, I started working for IBM. At the same time, I was teaching at a community college in upstate New York on Saturdays. I always liked the teaching part. Afterwards when we moved To Austin, TX and subsequently to Portland, OR, I took a long break from work that lasted about ten years. I did not work and raised my children. I had applied to PCC for a part-time job. One time I got called the Friday before the term started. Someone scheduled to teach on that Monday had to cancel and so I got the part-time opportunity. I taught for a couple of terms and then there was a full-time opening. That’s how I came to PCC. In India, there is no concept of community college. At least, it did not exist when I was growing up.
I have been chairing the Internationalization Committee at PCC and have enjoyed the work. As educators, internationalization of curriculum broadens our views and brings different perspectives. If we can take that experience to our students, it enriches their learning. Whether it is at work place such as Taco Bell or Target or at an educational institution such as PCC, knowing that we work with different types of the people and appreciating the cultural diversity that exists around us brings a better sense of togetherness.