I often catch myself referring to India as home in spite of living in America for over fifteen years. In the fifteen years I have lived in America, I have visited India twice which in total amounts for probably a little over a month of the entire duration. As immigrants in a foreign country, beyond the legalities and the paperwork the hardest aspect is feeling at home in the place you immigrant to. Home is often a security blanket for most people on good days and especially bad days. It’s knowing you have family who will hold you and see you through the bad. I was fortunate to have immigrated to America with family. I have encountered several 20-21 year olds in college who immigrated alone and often miss the comforts of that security blanket. As immigrants, forging a sense of being home in a new country is often the hardest task. In spite of having family with me, India has continued to be my home. It is the inexplicable that makes India home for me. It is friends who don’t need words to sense how you feel, family and sense of belonging that makes India home for me.
As the holidays are upon us and we celebrate it with friends and family, I am especially thankful for the family and friends I made in America who make it almost home.
I am an Afghan immigrant in America. When I started high school in America I could barely speak English. There was an Mexican guy in my class who used to tease me a lot. He didn’t like me for some reason. I would complain to the teacher but she couldn’t stop him either. One time I remember I had my hair down and he put some stuff in my hair ( I can’t remember what it was but that stuff was all over my hair. My hair was long and reached my waist). None of the students that were sitting behind me, including the fellow Afghan guy who was sitting behind me, let me know about it. The class finished and my friend who was sitting in front me noticed it. In another instance, he was standing next to this fake blonde beautiful girl and when I passed them and he said “Hi ugly”. I replied back “Hi Puto”. One of the Mexican guys I know taught me Puto which means ugly. So I wanted to tell this jerk Mexican that he’s ugly. But it actually means “fucking”. When I said Hi Puto, he got shocked and turned red and the fake blonde girl was dying of laughter ( she was Mexican too). But that however didn’t stop him from teasing me. After two years in high school, I started wearing a hijab. One day I was talking to my teacher when someone pulled my scarf down from the back. I got so mad and turned around to see who pulled my scarf. The minute I turned around he turned around so I was facing his back. And I slapped him so HARD on his back that he almost fell on the ground. He was scared to even look at me from that day on.
I am a software engineer from India. One day I was working in Chennai and the next minute I was standing in front of the US Consulate in Chennai to get my visa for United States of America. I came here late 2000 and in 2001 when my family immigrated to America. We came here as a family a month before the September 11th attacks on New York. I remember that morning my friend called me and asked me to turn on the TV. Initially I thought it was a scene from a movie but when the reality of what was going on struck me, I knew the days ahead for us as immigrants in America were going to be hard. I am from South India (the non turban wearing crowd) and with a last name Mathew, I did not have to deal with any racism. One incident that always stands out happened when one my co workers brought her daughter to work. The little girl was 6-7 years old. She looked at me and said, mommy is he a terrorist. I have a sense of humor so it did not bother me. It was interesting to see how little children associated the bearded, tan look to terrorists.
I am from Ghana, Africa. I lived in Ghana until early 1990’s. Growing up in Ghana was fun but every body and their mamma wanted to come to America. I was no different. I wanted to come here too. I came here initially in 1987 to New Jersey and then we moved here permanently in 1990’s. When we first came here, I was forced to wear a suit for the entire flight ride. It was hot on a long flight ride. I went to school here and was dropped off at school in ninth grade. In Ghana, we had uniforms and there were rules such as no talking even if the teacher wasn’t in class. When the teacher leaves they make someone write down the names of students who talked. My first day in school in America I thought I was going to get beat up because everyone talked in class. I tried to warn them but the kids in my class looked at me crazy. I got teased a lot in school for my accent. When I first came here kids told me you are so dark. In spite of growing up in Ghana, there was a range of skin color and we never thought about it. I was often asked, why did you speak like that. Why don’t you say What’s up? I started saying What’s up but it never came out as smooth as it did when kids here said it.
Long before I was an immigrant traveling to America, I was a young kid who moved from one state to another within India because of a personal situation. India is not only a diverse place, it is also a cultural jigsaw puzzle. North and South India are worlds apart not just in cuisine and language, but also in landscape and history. I knew that having been fed with Indian history throughout my schooling. I was moving between two states with South India and I expected the transition to be an easy one. I was moving from Bangalore, Karnataka to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Bangalore was a diverse metropolitan city moving at the speed of light while Coimbatore was a small town. I was going to continue my seventh grade in Coimbatore. I walked into school in my boy cut hair, mini skirt and top. My attire was completely acceptable in Bangalore but walking into my school campus in Coimbatore, I knew instantly I was dressed inappropriately. This was my first experience with cultural difference. Cultural difference followed me through my four and half years in Tamil Nadu. Everything from the twinge in my English to my short hair was heavily gossiped on. In an all girls Catholic school, I became the latest attraction. In a campus full of long haired girls, I stood out like a sore thumb. The initial years were extremely hard as I tried to retreat into a shell. I refused to participate in activities I used to enjoy prior to the move, and hated being the new girl on campus. With time the novelty of the new short haired girl wore out and I became one among the girls.
When Ana traveled from Azores, Portugal to California in America, she thought she was going to live in a city like New York City. Azores or the islands as she calls is surrounded by water, green landscapes and is a fishing town. Like most islands, the lifestyle is extremely relaxing. I asked Ana how she came to America and her first few days here:
“I don’t remember when I came here. Maybe it was the 80’s but it has been a long time. I am bad with dates. My future husband visited Portugal and we met there. He petitioned for me so I came here to get married to him. My family was back home in Azores, Portugal. I was the only one who moved to America. I wasn’t scared to come here to live with him. My grandmother, father, mother had already visited America at different times before me. We had a rich uncle who brought my grandmother, father and mother at different times to visit America. I had an idea about America and there were lots of pictures. I have cousins and uncles in Canada and Boston area, but my immediate family is back in Azores. I thought all of America was like New York, busy all the time. I landed in San Francisco and when they drove me out of the airport I was like oh my God, this is so big. When I landed in Boston before reaching San Francisco and I saw freeways, I thought it was so big. We did not have freeways in Azores. We had one way streets. I saw lots of difference between Azores and America. I thought we were going to live in a city like New York. I thought all of America would be like New York. I did not know where he lived. When we drove into Milpitas, I wasn’t impressed by any of it. I was surprised at how the houses were built especially the shingles on the roof bothered me a lot. I came into a Portuguese family so the food was not an issue. The first time I went out was for coffee. I thought I was going for espresso but when I saw a big mug of coffee, I was like what is this. They said its American coffee. I said what is the difference between American coffee and Portuguese coffee. Back in Portugal, our coffee came in small cups like shots of espresso. I had never drank so much coffee before. I loved the food here from the very first day. The people were very polite and laughing all the time here. People back home were rude back then but now they are getting better. The weather is so good in California. I love it over here and don’t want to go back. But I miss my family and ocean a lot. I remember I used to open the window and I could see the ocean in Azores. I miss that view.”