Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

Half a Life Ago: An Indian Immigrant’s 60-Year Journey in America

Kishan K Bedi

In the winter of 1961, a 20-year-old young man from a small village in Punjab, India, went to the United States by boat with $300 in his pocket. Krishan Bedi went on to earn a master’s degree in industrial engineering at the University of Tennessee, got married, had children and grandchildren, and has now written a book on it all.

In the winter of his life, Bedi has written his life story in a memoir called Engineering a Life, a true coming-to-America story.

“Despite the progress and changes that have taken place, certain prejudices still exist,” Bedi, who spent most of his life in the United States, tells Little India. “I am experiencing more discrimination in the Midwest than I experienced while I lived in the south. However, there is more awareness about people from India since the year 2000.”

Bedi went back to India only in 1970 – to get married and return with his new wife.

“Overall, it was quite pleasant for me because of what is known as ‘Southern Hospitality’,” he recalls. “I was treated with dignity and respect. People were ignorant about India so it was educational for them to talk with me. Yes, people looked at us very strangely, thinking, ‘Who is this guy, and what is he doing here?’ But it was a shock to know how black people (known as colored at that time) were treated. I learned the culture and tried to blend in, as the saying goes, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’.”

Though the United States is now getting a reputation of being averse to immigrants coming to its shores, Bedi remains hopeful. There is more awareness about diversity now, he says, and tolerance of other cultures has increased, even though discrimination persists.

Bedi, on his part, did face difficulties in the United States, but the ‘American dream’ was achievable for him.

“You must have a burning desire in your belly to achieve whatever you wish for,” he says. “Naturally, it is not going to happen on its own. You must plan your strategy and work diligently. Eventually, you will succeed.”

Bedi, who enjoys telling the tales of his struggles and achievements, says that the happiest moments of his life involved earning his engineering degree and achieving the American dream. He now spends his time reading, cooking, spending time with friends and family, and participating each year in St. Jude’s 465-mile Memphis to Peoria relay-run, which has raised over $80,000 for the St Jude Medical Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Not that the going was all smooth. He recounts that the hardest moment of his life was when he was a college student. He once hitchhiked from Atlanta to Knoxville, a distance of 213 miles, which took the entire day, only to arrive at night and see that his house had burned down.

Like an indulgent grandfatherly figure — he has three sons and five grandchildren — Bedi narrates other interesting events in life.

A story his friends and family particularly enjoy listening to is about when he worked as a cook, but did not know how to prepare American dishes. He had to once make a collect call to his friend back in Knoxville to ask about how pancakes are made.

Then there was the time when he worked as a bus driver in Chicago while not knowing the city routes and had to ask passengers the way. “After hearing these stories, my friends and family suggested I should write a book,” says  Bedi. “It is a way for ordinary people to discover and share the extraordinary in their lives.”