“Are you ready to leave?” she asked me walking out of her room. I had been enamored by the microwave in our kitchen and had been staring at it for minutes now. I turned around. I knew the voice, but did not recognize the person standing in front of me. The lady whose sari clad figure had been part of my childhood years stood in pants and t-shirt. The image of her in pants signaled the end of the known in a lot of ways for me. I composed myself as I calmed the whirlwind of emotions I was feeling within me. It was 9:30am on a warm July morning as my mom and I walked out of the hotel into the streets of Pleasanton. We were walking through the deserted streets of Pleasanton when we heard someone call out to us. “Hello Ladies”, said a male voice behind us. We did not dare turn around or respond. Instead we walked faster. We could feel his presence behind us. From the corner of my eye I could see his tall frame. I told my mom he looked tall and dark. We turned into the 7-Eleven parking lot when the man overtook us. He stood in front of us blocking our entrance to the store. I did not know what my options were. We were a few hours into our new life in America. With no cell phone on us, we were clueless on what our options were. In less than 24 hours on the United States of America soil, I feared for both our lives.
Twenty-four hours before I was sitting on an Eva airlines flight watching the sun set upon San Francisco. As the stewardess announced our descent upon San Francisco, I remember looking outside and seeing the skyline. The orange yellow hues of the sunset against the San Francisco skyline signaled the beginning of a new life. As I sat there watching nature’s display I was reminded of a movie I watched a few years back titled Pardes (Foreign in Hindi). The San Francisco skyline looked exactly like the skyline from the movie. After a grueling few hours clearing customs and immigrations, I was officially welcomed into America with an alien number. As I stood waiting for my baggage, I realized I had successfully made the journey I had dreaded for the past few months. Unlike most immigrants who plan their trip to America for years or decades, I was given few months notice. My parent was suddenly transferred from their Indian office to America, and within months I knew I was immigrating to America after my 12thgrade. I resisted the move insisting I complete my college in India. Since I was in tenth grade I had made plans of what my college life in India would entail. My friends and I were going to ditch classes to watch movies, have boyfriends and do everything that college life in India guaranteed. Standing at San Francisco airport made the move concrete as I combated a gamut of emotions. I felt all my dreams of college life shatter away as I missed my family and friends back in India. I always wanted to attend graduate school in America or UK. At eighteen years of age as I stood outside San Francisco airport, I realized everything was happening too soon.
As I walked through the airport to our car, the fear and apprehension was slowly being replaced by excitement. I was enamored by everything from the elevators to the parking garage. I was excited to finally reach our car, as I was about to see what America was really like. I was ready to leave the airport and enter America or San Francisco to be precise. Everything around me was new. As the car drove through the parking garage to the exit, I looked around with amazement. Even the parking garage looked nothing like the ones back in India. I was relaxing in the car as I watched the car enter the freeway. I wasn’t aware of what a freeway would be like. As our car entered the freeway, it felt like a real life NASCAR race with cars overtaking one another. I held on to the car handle for dear life as I watched cars zoom by our car. After traveling for twenty -three hours on a flight, I was happy when the NASCAR race finally ended with us reaching the hotel. Our hotel was located in Pleasanton, California in a strip mall with several shops, Movie Theater and restaurants. We were given a hotel suite with a kitchen and two bedrooms by my parent’s office. I spent all night watching people throng the mall as I combated my jetlag and excitement. I could not wait for the next morning to begin my American adventure.
I felt the last twenty-four hours flashing before my eyes. When I woke up this morning I was excited to begin my American adventure. As we left our hotel I felt safe knowing I was in America. As we stood staring at the man who cornered us, I cursed myself for letting my guard down. The 6 foot tall African American man who followed us to 7-Eleven was smiling at us. My mom and I held hands and got closer. We were scared. He seemed satisfied to have finally cornered his prey. The man gleefully said, “Y’all are pretty. Where are y’all from?” I knew I had problems understanding American English but did he just really call us pretty. I wondered. Why would he call us pretty before hurting us? “India”, I responded coyly. “You ladies have a good day”, and with that he walked into 7-Eleven. He continued walking, as we stood there shocked. We were even more appalled that he called us pretty. He could have called us Angelina Jolie and we would have still been offended. In India men never compliment women directly and usually speak incognito around them. We decided to skip going into 7-Eleven in case he decides to talk to us again.
I reached America on July 12th 2001. Most colleges begin reviewing transcripts in May and have a decision for students by July. Since I missed the deadline, I was forced to stay home for six months and start college during the spring semester. I used those six months to acquaint myself with America. We rented an apartment and no longer stayed in a hotel. We had an actual address and a sense of normalcy. I also gave myself six months to return back to India for college. I threw tantrums and acted depressed for a while before I realized my parents were never going to send me back to India. Eventually I caved in and accepted my new life. My mom and I spent our days walking to the nearby Walmart, going to parks and renting Indian movies from the Indian grocery store. Since we did not have a car or know how to drive, we walked everywhere. We were slowly regaining our confidence and getting used to the American ways. We bought a car as soon as one of us had a license. Six months had already gone by.
The day I had dreamed about since I was in seventh grade was nearing. I was officially going to be a college student. A week before college could officially begin I was excited but as the day neared the excitement morphed into gut wrenching fear. I could not sleep at night from the fear of college so my mom offered to come with me on my first day. I had it all planned out. I was going to wear my best jeans, t-shirt and sweatshirt for college. We took two buses and a train to San Jose State University. I was still feeling fairly confident until I walked through the gates of San Jose State University. Instantly I knew I was underdressed in oversized clothes. I was a tomboy who loved wearing baggy clothes. I wore jeans two sizes bigger than me, my t-shirt was decent and my sweatshirt hung loose on my body. I also had very short boycut hair. As much as I was shocked by the different fashions around me, I had bigger problems to deal with. I stared at the map in my hands with stars on different buildings. Those were the buildings I had classes in, but I had no idea how to get to those buildings. I had never used a map to navigate in my life. During our freshmen orientation we were given a campus map. I had marked the various buildings for my classes the night before. As I stood near San Jose State University entrance, I had no idea how to reach any of the buildings. Eventually after making several wrong turns, I reached the engineering building for my first class almost 20 minutes into the class. I was just in time for attendance. I knew I could be called any minute now. After few names, the professor paused with brief silence staring at his sheet with a baffled look. He stuttered, paused and looked confused as he called me by my last name and asked how to pronounce my first name. When I told him Chai-tanya, he exclaimed how easy it was. This incident followed me throughout the day and for most of my college life. I obliged every time someone looked confused by my name. I wore my full name with pride and refused to shorten it until my senior year happened. My teammates and I were spending summer working with a professor on a project and were done for the day. As we walked down the hallway, I heard someone say “Shit-tanya”. I did a double take but he really did call me Shit tanya. I shortened my name to Chai that instant hoping I would never be called Shit-tanya again. In spite of shortening my name, I still get called Chi, Kai, Che, etc. People often tell me Chai means tea in their country. I stop myself from telling them chai originated in my country. I let them have their moment. I have my moment every time I visit Starbucks with Chai latte named after me or so I want to believe.
Before I could start college, I had to decide on the classes for the semester. I was clueless so I followed the four-year plan that was given during orientation. The plan included Math, General Engineering, English and Public Speaking. I had no idea what public speaking entails but I took it as instructed in the four-year plan. During my introductory English class, we were asked to introduce ourselves. My introduction included the country I was from and how long I had lived here. As soon as the class ended, one of my classmates stopped me and said “You must feel really lucky to have bathrooms now. I have watched documentaries of people taking showers on the street in India”. As he stood there watching my expression change from confusion to anger, I composed myself enough to explain how I grew up having bathrooms.
I was confident in my Math and English skills, but I had no idea what Public Speaking entailed. I walked into my public speaking class on my very first day at San Jose State University. The professor began briefing us on what we would need to do in order to get an A. “You would need to prepare and present three speeches on various topics that are assigned to you”, he said. I was sure I heard it wrong. I cleared my ears and asked the person sitting next to me if the professor actually said three speeches. I have been on stage since I was three years old and have emceed several events in India. I was used to presenting in front of a large crowd, but this was America. As I looked around the class and saw different ethnicities of people around, I felt my confidence disappear. I knew I was in trouble when the professor said the first speech was due in two weeks and it had to be on a topic that represented us ethnically. I did my first speech on henna (Indian artwork tattoo). I stayed up all night presenting my speech in front of the mirror. I was ready but as I reached the stage, my legs began vibrating. I was so nervous that the professor asked for a podium to ease my stress. I was still vibrating behind the podium. I had to give three speeches for my public speaking class and I vibrated my way through all three of them.
I have often been complimented on my English speaking skills. People ask me if I learned to speak English after I came to America. Initially, I would tell them we learned English in school and listened to Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears like the rest of the world, but now I politely say thank you. In spite of speaking good English, I did not realize there was a big difference between British and American English beyond the accents. Oblivious to the differences, I once told my friend I had called him the day before but his phone was engaged. He began laughing while I stood there baffled. I was clueless until he asked me engaged to whom. I forgot all about it until he asked me one day if he could borrow my pen because his pen was engaged. As ridiculous as this might sound, engaged is only used for the phone in India.
I have always been an introvert and extremely shy. In spite of being a popular girl in my high school, I have always had trouble in big groups and cannot eat in front of strangers. The social scene in American colleges warrants eating out with people and I constantly shied away from it. I was completely wary of the dating scene when I first started college. When guys asked me for my number, I gave it to them even when I wasn’t attracted to them. It took me months before I realized asking my phone number had nothing to do with studying or even the classes we took. One of the guys who eventually became my friend asked me out to lunch and dinner for months. I always evaded him saying my mom cooked for me or I wasn’t hungry. Eventually he asked me out to a coffee at Starbucks which I could not refuse. I walked into Starbucks and stared at the menu on the wall. I had no idea what Cappuccino and Frappuccino was so I ordered coffee. I was rather excited to have ordered my first drink in America. I expected my coffee to have milk and sugar like it did in India, but what I received was black coffee. My date showed me to the milk section. I was confused at the options I had to choose from. I had no idea what 1% milk, no fat and 2% meant so I decided to skip milk. I added two packets of sugar assuming one packet equated to a teaspoon. I excitedly took a sip of my coffee. It was bitter, and the two packets of sugar disappeared in the black hole in my cup. I stalled drinking the coffee until our bus arrived and gladly threw it away on the pretense that it wasn’t allowed on the bus. Eating out has also been extremely challenging for me and it took me several years before I learned to deal with it. Initially we only ate fast foods such as burgers and pizza’s. When we did go out to sit down restaurants I watched my parents and emulated how they used the fork and knife. In spite of coming from a multicultural background, I could never comprehend how to use a fork and knife. I always felt very anxious when the waitress chanted the options. Until I could graduate from college, my parents ordered my food whenever we went out to eat.
When I first moved to America my confidence was shaken up. I lacked confidence to do things I knew I was good at. Basketball happened to be one such activity. I had been in love with basketball since I was ten years old. I played at the state level in India, and had a scholarship to play basketball in college. I idolized Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and wore my Chicago Bulls jersey with élan. I dreamed of playing in the NBA. During my freshman year in college, I found out San Jose State University was having basketball tryouts for the freshmen. I was excited and reached the try outs an hour early. With time I saw other girls walk in. Most of them were African American and they seemed to know one another. I sat in the corner and watched the girls chat with each other. I had been in America for six months at that point. I felt my nerves kick in which eventually turned to fear. I knew I was good at basketball but sitting in that corner I started doubting my skills. Eventually, in spite of pep talking to myself I caved into my fears and ran out before I could ever try out. Basketball continues to enthrall me but my dreams to be a professional player remains unfulfilled.
The four years at San Jose State University changed me as a person. I was an introverted tomboy when I first walked into college. I wore baggy jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt with boy cut hair. While I still believe I rocked my look, I have had to change to become more America acceptable. In the four years at college, my jeans got tighter; t-shirt morphed into fashionable tops and the sweatshirt has evolved into cardigans. It took almost two years of a slow progression for my appearance to change. I have in my own way learned to balance being myself while being more America acceptable. My hair has grown but I refuse to get bangs. My earrings continue to be studs and I refuse to conform to the chandelier wearing Indian-American girl model. I might have changed on the outside, but deep down I am the same Indian girl who boarded the plane on that July day. I love my Indian food, Bollywood music and Shahrukh Khan (an Indian actor) continues to make my heart flutter.
When my family and I went to the consulate to get my US visa, the officer swore I would marry a US citizen. I shrugged it off insisting I had a prototype for my man. He would be tall, tan and handsome with the quintessential Indian haircut. In 2003 I met a curly haired African American boy in my computer engineering class who I now know was unlike anyone I had met. We exchanged hi and bye for little over a year. One day I decided to ditch my class and gave him my phone number so he could call me if there was a quiz. The calls that followed did not include a quiz but a friendship that eventually turned into a relationship. In 2008, we got married in an Indian-American fusion wedding. I had lived in America for over seven years at this point and was convinced my cultural differences were behind me. Little did I know being married to an American would have it’s own challenges culturally. Even after five years of friendship, my husband still chuckles when I say calcium or aluminum with a British accent. In America, calcium is pronounced as cal-c-um while the British pronunciation is cal-cheum. Few years into our marriage, I told my husband about a coworker who met with an accident. He started laughing saying they had an accident and not met with an accident. With him, I live a cultural mix-masala every day.
Few months into our marriage, I was invited to a summer barbeque at his aunt's house. I had not met his extended family until then. I did not realize the noise level at an African American home until that day. I was welcomed by a slew of high-pitched voices introducing themselves as family. I was the first Indian girl in their family and I tried to be the best ambassador of my culture. I tasted my first peach cobbler and realized it was an acquired taste. While I love my banana puddings and carrot cake, I would rather have my gulab jamun (Indian dessert) and jalebi (Indian dessert) any day. It’s been eight years since we got married and I still talk when talked to. I have also introduced Indian food to my extended family. In 2014, I made my famous Indian spicy chicken for a Thanksgiving potluck. My in laws opened the lid of the container and felt the radiating heat from the chili powder. As they contemplated if they should taste it, they saw my African American husband eating it with much ease in the corner. They were shocked when one of his cousins said, “What did y’all expect? He is married to an Indian girl!”
I visited India in 2009 after eight years in America. This was my first visit back home and my husband’s first visit to India. My family pampered him by being at his beck and call. They ensured he was comfortable by adding ketchup to Indian dishes to reduce the spice. Wherever we went people tried to ease him into the Indian ways. He played American football since school and is built like American football players. Sales women at stores insisted on helping him with clothes as they wondered why a football player was built like him. They asked him if he was related to Mohammed Ali because of his body type. In India football was soccer and they had no idea about American football. Neighbors told him they loved President Obama while my husband wondered why they were talking about the President to him. In India, my husband was related to President Obama, Mohammed Ali and Will Smith. In short it was his big Indian adventure and my homecoming.
The initial years in America were extremely hard. I came here on a H4 dependent visa and was not allowed to work. My Indian parents did not want me to work. Instead they wanted me to concentrate on my studies. At college, my friends often teased me for being lazy and not working. In order to combat that, I started volunteering for organizations without pay. It allowed me to tell people I worked in spite of not being paid. When I left India for America, I told my friends I would visit them every few years. It took me eight years before I went back to India.. My parents did not want me to go back on a visa in case the US consulate did not let me return back. I waited until I got my green card to visit India. I was homesick every second of those eight years. America was home but it never felt like home.
It’s been fifteen years since I landed in America. I was seventeen years old then. Since that day I have received two engineering degrees and married an African American man. Yet, every time I look at the mirror, I see the seventeen year old me looking back at me. America has given me everything from education, marriage, career and a fairly luxurious life. Yet, I yearn for the simplicity of life back home. I miss drinking tea to the monsoon, the talks I had with my grandmother each evening, my friends who visited me with no prior notice and the childish banter that always followed those visits. The hardest aspect of my American life has been the loneliness I feel everyday living here. In spite of having family here, America has never felt like home.
In 2009, I visited India for the first time in eight years since I moved to America. As I walked out of Chennai airport, I realized I was home. The air felt familiar, the smells and sounds echoed the familiarity from my childhood. I knew I was home. All my life I have been told home is where your family is. I realized it was wrong at the instant when I walked out of Chennai airport. I was meeting my friends after eight years and I was nervous wondering how the years could have changed our friendship. I knew how stupid I was when I met my friends. It seemed like time had stood still. It felt like I had never left India. The conversations flowed as we walked through streets holding hands like we did in school. For the first time in eight years I felt the sense of belonging I had yearned for in years. In those three weeks in India, I realized my physical address could be anywhere in the world, but my home will forever be India. India is and will always continue to be the place I call my home.