Our Two Protagonists
Mother and Daughter
Although the two protagonists of these stories have lived in essentially the same environments, the stories they present are vastly different with a touch of similarity. They provide an account of two immigrant stories, one of a mother and the other of a daughter.
The sharing of these stories is a method of reflection, an opportunity to look back at the last fifteen years and understand the whirlwind of emotions associated with this journey. Although today, they have settled into America, there are still many questions to be answered and decisions to be made.
These are their stories.
Herjit was 30 years old when she boarded an airplane in New Delhi to make the long and arduous journey to the United States. She expected to find what most other immigrants also dream of - OPPORTUNITY. This was America, the land of endless opportunity, where everyone, from any background, could come, work hard, and become successful. She was going to be in a place where women could do the same jobs as men, where the gap between the rich and the poor was not as wide as it had been in India, and where social mobility was a common achievement.
Life here was not as expected.
There were no easy comforts. Her husband was traveling due to work. There was no car. Sometimes, she walked two miles to go see the doctor while pregnant. Sometimes, she had to ask acquaintances to drive her family to the gurudwara. Sometimes, she did not know where to go when the apartment was infested with roaches.
It was impossible to get a job. The dreadful events of September 11, 2001 turned her world around. After that day, no company was willing to hire an individual on a dependent visa. Without work, there was nothing to do.
The culture was different. Here, children spoke back to their parents and grandparents. In India, even if children did not respect their elders, they were obedient in front of their parents and never dared to act out. She vowed to instill the right values in her children, to ensure that they would grow up to be moral individuals.
When Japsimran stepped off the airplane, her tiny teddy bear clutched at her side, she did not know that her family was moving. At just four years old, she did not even know what it meant to move or how far America was from her old home in Chandigarh.
Here, she continued to live life as she always had, without a care in the world and an innocent smile on her face. She played with her sister and her neighbors as they pretended to be teachers, fashion designers, and chefs. In Houston, her father taught her to ride a bike and her grandparents taught her how to jump rope.
After a few months, she started attending school. In pre-school, she pretended she could read. In kindergarten, she actually learned to read. And in first grade, she wrote poems about animals and short stories in which she and her two sisters possessed super powers.
Life was easy as a child. Nothing like what it was for her parents.
In 2003, Herjit was ecstatic when the family moved to Pittsburgh. Her husband had been stationed in Pittsburgh for a while and now, everyone could be together. This city was a new land, with scenic woods, cooler climate, fewer bugs, and a better education system for the kids. Everything seemed to be going well.
Unfortunately, her husband’s job now required him to stay in New York for longer periods of time. It was still difficult, but at least in Pittsburgh, the family had two cars.
Herjit decided that it was now time for her to finally start her career in America. There were many options but only one fit her criteria. She needed to be there for her children, to welcome them when they came home from school, and to be there during their breaks when their dad was traveling. She decided to go back to school and become a high school math teacher. This job did not require the same amount of expertise or pay as well as her previous job as an engineer in India had. But still, she was willing to make this sacrifice to be able to spend time with her three daughters.
There were times in 2005 when her husband had to make regular trips to the Emergency Room. Those times were extremely difficult and in these moments Herjit missed her family the most. In America, she was on her own at the hospitals. There were no family members standing around her and lending their support. There was simply a sea of strangers, none interested in how she was doing.
Japsimran liked Pittsburgh; Houston had always been too blisteringly hot for her. She liked seeing the hills, the streams, and the river as her family drove over the bridge.
Her life, as is true of any child’s, revolved around school. She woke up in the morning, got dressed, went to the bus stop, learned and played in school, and then returned to a smiling mother with a bowl full of lucky charms in her hands.
Lunchtime at school was difficult. Sometimes, her mother would pack aloo sandwiches and kaju barfi. Inevitably, every time she pulled these foods out of her lunch bag, her friends started asking her what it was and why it smelled like that. Japsimran meekly answered, took a few bites, and threw the rest in the trashcan. When she reached home, she made her mother promise that she would never pack Indian food for lunch again.
In second grade, she was still intent on fitting in. She pronounced words as they were said in America, bought toys that her friends played with, and ate the foods that they also ate. She did not want to be different.
Today, she wishes she could have those aloo sandwiches for lunch everyday.
The move to Maryland in the summer of 2006 was an exciting time. New people, new jobs, and a new gurudwara. Her husband’s new job did not require any traveling and she had been hired as a math teacher in a new high school. The schools in Howard County were nationally ranked and best of all, the family could go to gurudwara three times a week.
However, Maryland did have some drawbacks. It was much more expensive to live here than it had been in either Houston or Pittsburgh. To make up for these extra expenses, Herjit began tutoring after school and her husband became a part time real estate agent. There was less free time but at least the entire family was together.
They searched and searched for a house and settled on one in the best education system. All of the different pieces were fitting together. She was getting closer to achieving her American Dream.
When Japsimran started school in Maryland, she had just studied in India for three years. Once school started, she quickly became aware of how different she was from her peers. When they asked if they could eat one of her chips, she would hand them the bag, telling them to take as many as they wanted. When she asked for one in return, they would take out a single chip from their bags and place one on her palm.
The way she dressed was also all too different from the others. Her long braid always drew unwanted attention. People would pretend it was a scarf, pretend to jump rope with it, and she would merely smile in response.
For the first time, America was a foreign place for her. She could not find a way to connect with the people she was with. She had a hard time making new friends. And all the while she wished that her friends from India could come here and go to school with her.
Today, Herjit still lives in Maryland with her family. Life is difficult as it is for everyone but it is also enjoyable. Will she ever return to India, back to live with her siblings and parents? Her answer - probably not. Her kids will be here and she will be here with them. Sometimes she does consider returning in a few years, but she was never close with her siblings, and she does not know what she would do in India. Once she arrived in America, she never really looked back. She was determined to achieve what she had travelled to America for.
Maybe her story is unique in this aspect. Maybe immigrants are expected to long to go back during their first few years here. Maybe one would expect her to miss her culture and her homeland. But her culture and her values have travelled with her. And there is nothing really missing in her life here -- except maybe good Indian restaurants. This is her new home.
Luckily, Japsimran did not remain as the awkward girl she was in middle school. Time was good for her. It allowed her to develop her identity, to better interact with people, and to form long lasting friendships.
Like her mother, she too does not think that she will ever return to living in India. She has thought long and hard about India and has finally come to recognize the gender oppression that she was living under. Too often her male cousins had been favored over her.
Today, she does not know whether to call herself Indian or American. She has yet to determine which culture she more strongly identifies with. She will probably never reach an answer and will continue to live with a hybrid identity that allows her to pick and choose the aspects she likes best from both cultures. Sometimes she wishes she knew where she belonged. Maybe one day a stroke of insight will hit her as she eats a large plate of rajma chawal.