Unhappy In America
America the beautiful? No thanks. All they want is a ticket back to India.
Can we call her Aparna? She is about to open up a vein and show you how she bleeds – but she’s not about to tell you her real name.
She is unhappy in America. Do you hear: unhappy! She wants to go back home!
People are incredulous when they hear that: who in their right minds would want to leave America, the golden land of opportunities and dollar bills? You have people clawing and scratching, trying to get into America – and she wants to leave?
Actually Aparna never wanted to come to America. An English teacher in a private school in Delhi, she was very happy with her life, her job. She had her own income, her own car, a close-knit family and a cache of wonderful friends. But then she fell in love and marriage brought her willy-nilly to America. Her husband’s extended family was already in the United States and he felt obliged to take a shot at the American Dream, even though he already held a decent job in India.
From the hubbub and colorful chaos of Delhi she journeyed to a town in the Midwest that shall remain unnamed. She recalls, “It was so lonely and cold. There was barren land on both sides of the house and I was alone, from morning to evening. I was new, but so was my husband. Indian women are supposed to be leaning on their husbands, but I would see him struggling with new situations. Every day he would go to work and I did nothing.”
Most wounding to her was the loss of her independence: Her H4 visa robbed her of her identity – she was not allowed to work, and did not have a bank balance or credit card – and to even take a trip back home, she was dependent on her husband.
The colors seemed to have been drained out of her life. Says Aparna, “The small pleasures of life I used to experience in India, I do not experience here. In India, standing on your balcony, you see life, you see kids playing, you see people sitting together. Neighbors stop to laugh and chat and find out how you’re doing.
“Here I would sit on the deck in the suburbs. All around me, there are beautiful trees, beautiful landscapes, and lovely cars. But there are no people. You might as well hang up a pretty picture in your living room and just keep on watching that. What’s the difference?”
The breaking point came when she heard of a big bomb blast in one of the busy markets in Delhi that her parents frequented. “I got the news after two days and the sense of the distance put me further into a depression. The third day I was like I don’t care whether we have any furniture or not. I want a television with the Indian connections. I need to know if something like this happens again, and I don’t want to know two days later or from an Indian whom I accidentally meet somewhere!”
Like Aparna, Vaishali Bhatia of Cleveland, Ohio, misses India deeply. Only Bhatia has never lived in India! So how do you miss a place with all your heart and soul when you left it at the age of 3?
Bhatia grew up in Dubai, which he imagines as a mirror image of India to some extent: “Dubai is so much like India that we never missed anything. We had Indian schools, Indian culture and cuisine. We were in a country away from home but in Dubai, it was as if we never left India.” Her husband, also from Dubai, has acclimatized well to America, but Bhatia and many of her friends, all young mothers, worry about bringing up their children here.
“Initially it was very depressing, because you miss your family and the whole culture is different. Like me, I have friends who had no choice – marriage brought them to the U.S. The cultural difference is the biggest thing. It’s tough to blend in with the people here. You may think you have a green card, you have citizenship, but you’re just not amongst them. They still look at you as different.”
Taking her 4-year-old daughter to day care, getting involved in the rituals of mainstream American life, she found herself wondering what she was really doing here. All the festivals she had grown up with seemed far away and lost: “My daughter is growing up here and I worry about her – that she will pick up the culture here and that constantly depresses me. I’m trying to blend in, but at times I still feel depressed and lonely. I think if I were 40 or 50, I would still prefer to go back. I cannot live here for good.”
She adds: “I think each and every individual is here to make money. Personally if given a choice, each one of us would be there and not here. So I guess each one of us is compromising and trying to adjust.”
She acknowledges that Indian communities are growing in America, but she still does not find it the real thing: “Everything seems to be artificial and formal and people seem to be pretending. You feel as if everyone has a mask on their face. They are not the same any more.”
In the five years she’s been there, she’s seen a big explosion in the Indian community in Cleveland and gradually she’s built up a support system of like-minded friends. She still feels it’s a lot of effort to make sure the children get their dose of culture while in India you just have it all around you.
As she points out, even the weather in Cleveland makes you sad. It’s bitterly cold for six to seven months and you’re confined to your house with nothing to do. What one wouldn’t give for the warm blaze and sea breezes of Bombay!
What bothers the most, she says, is the school culture. “You’re more exposed to guns, you’re more exposed to drugs, there are kids being abducted. My biggest worry is the culture we are adopting because this is not what we are. This is not how we want our future to be, this is not what we were taught.
“We are giving our future generations away to America. They are not going to be Indian anymore. So we are just giving away our heritage, our culture, and that scares me the most. Once our generation is gone, we’re done. Nobody will be following anything Indian.”
That is the fear that stalks Aparna too, that her children will not know the India she knew and will grow up seeing their grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins only as snapshots in an album. She feels in America, people are running on mental treadmills, with no time for anyone. You dare not drop in on a friend uninvited or dawdle with extended family, chatting over dinner on a weekday.
She says, “It’s this ‘I’m really busy’ attitude. It’s the same 24 hours we used to have in India, the same 24 hours we have here. It’s the same time, what’s the difference, I don’t understand. Yes, I know we don’t have help here, but I’d make sure I give a hand with the dishes before I leave.”
The only thing she appreciates about America is the freedom a woman gets and she savors the fact that she can drive around at midnight or walk on the street without being harassed, as was often her experience in India.
Like a prisoner doing time, she is waiting to go back to India in three years, getting a teaching job that she loves and raising a family the way she wants in India.
Does she feel her life has been interrupted or put on hold in some way? “Yes, definitely. I just think I’m not living life as such. I want my coming generations to retain that which I feel I will lose if I live here. I don’t want to. It’s sad.”
She feels the financial rewards of America are overrated. So what if you have a house or car? “You have a car to drive, because here it’s a necessity. In India it’s a luxury. Here, you have a car, but it’s not your own. You have a house but it’s not your own. You don’t pay two installments, they’ll come and take it away. ”
Well-wishers point out to her the glittering wonders of America, the many malls where you can get anything your heart desires. She says, “Yes, because you don’t have a family or circle of friends whom you can be with, you walk around malls and ultimately buy things. It’s a consumer society and that’s the only entertainment.”
People warn her that after being exposed to America’s charms, she’ll never be able to live in India again. She retorts, “You lived there for 25, 30 years, and now it’s suddenly intolerable to you? I don’t understand that. It’s the same world, probably even better than what you had left earlier.”
Finally, what is the green card really worth? Aparna has seen people who have been unable to attend the last rites of their beloved parents, because they did not want to jeopardize their chances of getting this little piece of paper.
She says, her voice breaking: “People tell me I’m getting emotional. Yes, sure I am. If you cannot be with your dying parent, then what is life all about? They invest all their love, time and effort in bringing you up and you cannot be there for that final goodbye? When the child is not there, what’s the point?”
Partha Banerjee can certainly tell you a thing or two about being unhappy in America. The people he deals with every day at New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) in Jackson Heights, Queens, live incredibly difficult lives here in the richest, most affluent country on the planet.
He can feel their pain, because he’s been there. He grew up poor in Calcutta, but built his future on his education. By 25, he was a college professor and married to Mukti, also a college professor based in Calcutta. But the only job that he could get was in Basanti, a god-forsaken place right out of a Satyajit Ray film – a remote island in the Sundarbans area, 100 miles from Calcutta, without any roads, electricity or running water.
He says, “For me, with few government connections, it was very difficult to find a job in Calcutta.” So he applied to several American universities and set out to get his masters in biology at Illinois State University, which gave him a full scholarship.
“Many people, especially the professionals who come here with a green card, do not understand the struggles you go through when you come here as a foreign student,” he says. “I was a teacher’s assistant and for this I received a $380 per month stipend from which I had to pay the rent and feed the family.” This was his sole income since neither he now his wife were authorized to work by INS rules.
“This is the way foreign students live in this country and most people don’t know that. These students are taken advantage of all the time, because they have no place else to go.” As a graduate student with a wife and child, money was so tight that the family could not afford to go back to India for nine long years. During that period, some relatives and close friends passed away.
Even more grueling than the poverty was the loneliness. He says, “If you live in isolation, if you live in loneliness, that is the worst thing that can happen to an immigrant.”
He points out that while people who live in major metros like New York, New Jersey, Atlanta or Los Angeles, even if they are poor, are surrounded by community, but the thousands of Indians living in small towns do not have this luxury.
His life in Southern and Central Illinois, andlater in upstate New York was very spartan and emotionally bare: “These are small, cold desolate places and you have no friends.
It’s miserable. If you have no job, you are ill or have some health problem, then that’s the time you feel more isolated, more lonely. And that’s the time you wish that you hadn’t come to this country.”
After taking a PhD from Southern Illinois University and his first postdoctoral job at the New York State Department of Biology, he segued into writing, earning a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University.
Foillowing a stint as a TV producer, he chucked it all to become a full-time advocate with NICE, doing grass-roots work with immigrants of all races and helping them in their day to day struggles.
And in taking a pay-cut and leaving academia and corporate America, Banerjee found himself. He says: “If you really are in a lifelong searching process, it’s an exploration to find where you belong and what makes you happy. It’s not about making money.”
Spiritual gains in this hotbed of consumerism? He seems to have got it all wrong. Isn’t India the place people go for spiritual gains? He says, “It’s really about knowing yourself. In India surrounded by family, you don’t really learn so much about yourself. Coming here to America and struggling, I got to know myself.”
Banerjee, whose inspiration is Swami Vivekanand, says, “I am much more privileged and much happier than before, now that I have found my own niche in working for the poor and the dispossessed.”
Daily he sees the ugly underbelly of the American Dream as he fights for new immigrants, people whose dreams are completely broken. There are battered women who have no way of going back home; construction workers who are old and still struggling on scaffoldings for a pittance; domestic servants who are not even given a mattress to sleep on; the hundreds of men with Muslim names or brown faces who have faced a hard new America after 9/11; random victims of accidents, circumstances or crime. Being with them and providing them with some kind of hope and solidarity gives him satisfaction – and yes, makes him happy.
“There are so many stories of unhappy people,” he says. He recalls a Bangladeshi couple, a doctor and a pharmacist, who won the Immigrant Diversity Visa lottery and came to this country to make it big. “Recently I saw him working at a gas station, pumping gas at 3 a.m. His wife is waiting on tables at a restaurant.”
Then there are some elderly parents for whom the large suburban palaces of their children have nothing to warm them. Having joined their offspring in America, they are cut off from their life-source, marooned in a fast-moving America they cannot connect with, dependent on busy children who don’t really have time for them.
Yet Banerjee finds that poor families tend to give more emotional mooring and respect to their elders: “The rich are more acculturated and Americanized and they really follow the white American model of lifestyle, which is not really conducive to what South Asian senior immigrants expect.”
The new immigrants he meets often have learnt to live with dashed expectations. Many cannot go back, because they have nothing to go back to. Homes have been sold, old lives shuttered. Then there is the very real obstacle going back a failure, of losing face with one’s own people.
“I know many people who tell their families they are doing great jobs here. They are working on Wall Street or doing some great business, whereas in reality they are working as a cook in a dingy Indian kitchen or working as a street vendor,” says Banerjee. “There is nothing wrong with these professions, because they are all equally dignified. But the point is they are embarrassed to tell their families they are doing this type of job.”
To this list of unhappy people, Sharmila Rudrappa, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, adds another category: the much envied IT worker.
Rudrappa, who hails from Bangalore, is author of Ethnic Routes to Becoming American, which is based on observation of Indian immigrants in Chicago at Apna Ghar and Indo American Center for her PhD project.
She is currently working on a new project, researching technology workers, whom she calls techno-brasseros, a hreference to the agricultural laborers from Mexico who come to the United States as temporary workers. Yes, whether you’re picking beans on a farm or deciphering endless code on your computer screen, life can be equally hard and monotonous.
The people she’s met have gone through tremendous ups and downs: “Not all these IT workers have fabulous pay packages. They work crazy hours and they can get incredibly depressed about the kinds of isolation and the lack of job satisfaction they face. Sometimes they encounter xenophobia at work, and also after 9/11 there is a general anxiety about brown people. These things have a resonance which affect general well being.”
In the world of body shopping and intra-company transfers, there is no sense of permanence: She recalls one programmer from Banglore who came to the United States with his wife and soon had twin babies. He made the mistake of buying a house , just two months before he lost his job. She says: “They had to sell the house, pack up their stuff with two new babies and relocate to a completely different part of the country to a new job. And within the year he lost that job too.”
It’s not just money alone, but an immense sense of uncertainty that adds to the anxiety. People who came on H1B visas in the latter half of the 1990’s are often the one’s affected. She says, “Coming to the U.S. is not pain-free for these people. To come on an H1B visa and then to have it not pan out in the ways they would like is incredibly heart wrenching. So, very often they don’t get U.S. citizenship, they’ve made tremendous sacrifices and dragged their families back and forth. They find that their middle class aspirations are not as easily transferable here as they thought they would be.”
The wives of H1B visa holders aren’t permitted to work, which many find very frustrating if they led active professional lives in India. They are tied to the home, curbed of their economic freedom and power in a way they would not have been in India.
Another phenomenon Rudrappa has seen in Austin, Texas, where the oil industry flourishes involves many mid-career Indians from various Middle Eastern countries, who transferred to the United States.
While these executives keep busy with work and their children go to college, it is the wives who have a hard time adjusting. Most cannot drive – in Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia they weren’t allowed to drive – and so here they are stranded in suburban homes in Houston and Dallas: “It is absolutely isolating and incredibly depressing for them,” Rudrappa says.
Immigrants seem to live with a constant internal tussle about the trade-offs, the losses and the gains. Merit is often touted as the barometer of success in America. But, of course, many other variables kick in – whom you know, the color of your skin, the kind of networking you do and just pure luck.
Nor can immigrants fully escape the class factor even here in America. Says Rudrappa, “Class advantages in India can translate very effectively for you here. If you speak with a British accent, you’re cool. If you speak with a strong Indian accent you become this oily, ugly immigrant. People might think that in coming to the United States, they can transcend class, because no one knows them here and they can pull themselves up by sheer dint of hard work. Not necessarily true.”
Every year, tens of thousands of Indian leave home and loved ones to make it in America.
Outside, the crickets chirrup incessantly in the humid Indian night. Inside, the neon-lit airport is abuzz with human voices: the huge Boeing jet sprawls out on the tarmac, ready to fly the next load of dreamers to the Promised Land across the oceans. The air is awash with the fragrance of marigolds as families weep and hug their departing ones: proud and sad and a little apprehensive, but incredibly happy for what the future holds.
There is the young man smiling, fighting back tears, as he waves to his family before disappearing past the gates. There is his new bride, bangles of red and ivory clinking on her wrists, clinging to her parents before she too follows her husband into a new life at the gates. There is the long-married husband and wife, having sold their house and belongings, as they head down the walk-way, their children skipping behind them into the unknown.
The families watch and wave as they disappear, swooped and carried away by a mighty silver bird into the sky.
Out in the mustard fields on the outskirts of the city, the father looks up at the starlit skies as he hears the drone of the magical winged bird, a tinge happy, a tinge apprehensive envious for the son or daughter catapulting to a new life.
The premise of the American Dream falls apart if they don’t succeed in America financially, because economic success after all was the raison d’etre for leaving the homeland.
Many would be immigrants confuse the real America with the America perpetuated by Hollywood, enhanced with Dolby Sound. Whether it’s a romantic comedy, a thriller or a musical, the women are sexy, the cars are fast – and yes, life is beautiful. All dilemmas are settled by the end of 90 minutes, and though you know it’s just a movie, when you are living in India and have never seen America, it’s all you have to go by.
Yes, you see drug dealers and seedy neighborhoods in the movies, but isn’t that just cinematic color and drama for the backdrop? Immigrants never picture themselves in that scene. They visualize a landscape where the streets are paved with gold, with a house in a pristine suburbs and a hefty bank balance.
It is often a rude awakening for a new immigrant to find himself in a rundown seedy apartment crawling with roaches and rats, counting pennies and struggling to hold on to a miserable job that he hates, if only for survival.
The faces of indifferent strangers greet him in the corridors and on the streets. At that moment, the string bed in the open courtyard of his village home, surrounded by loved ones and a pot of saag cooking on the family hearth, seems incredibly inviting.
This too is somebody’s American Dream gone awry.