Friday, November 18, 2011

Looking In The Rear View Mirror

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons - Castle79

You know all those people who always dream of coming to America? I was never one of them.

Yet six years ago, I landed in New York on what was a rather cold November day. I was a newly married 25-year-old who had never visited the U.S. before and ended up here to join my husband who worked here though he too, like me, is from Bombay. Thanks to visa processing delays, I had to wait behind for over two months after our wedding, which meant making the big move by myself.

I packed into two suitcases as many of my treasured possessions as airline regulations would permit, bid farewell to all my friends and family, and landed at JFK airport after a 24-hour long journey. As excited as I was to start a new life, along with me, unnoticed by the watchful eyes of the immigration, slipped in a certain sense of displacement, which though has diminished with time, I suspect will never really go away.

I barely knew anyone in the U.S. – I didn’t have a single relative here (can be a good thing sometimes, especially if you’re Indian) though I did have a few friends from school and college scattered in other cities. And if the amount of time spent together is directly proportional to how well you know someone, you could argue that I didn’t know my husband too (though I’d like to believe that was not the case.)

We had what is famously labeled in India as an “arranged marriage*” made more complicated by the fact that we were in two different countries and could only communicate virtually for almost a year before we got married. During this time, we had spent a total of three weeks of actual time together – the only time when the husband-to-be could take leave and come back home for a visit. (Sounds crazy, right? But crazy or not, considering it’s been over six years now, that’s still 30.417 times Kim Kardashian’s marriage (365x6)/72))!

Though I was no stranger to American culture – if a regular diet of Hollywood movies, American TV shows, MTV and Archie comics can be considered educational – I still had lots to learn about the new world I had landed into. At times, the smallest of things perplexed me:
  • How could the smallest cup of coffee at Starbucks be called ‘tall?’
  • In India, the floor at the ground level is called the ground floor and the level above is the called the first floor. So the ground floor in India = first floor in the U.S. This meant that I did mistakenly get into an elevator once (ok, maybe more than once, out of habit) to go up to the first floor.
  • Taking the ‘u’ out of words like colour and humour just seemed wrong, as did replacing the ‘s’ with a ‘z’ in organise and analyse. But I hastened at making a good effort to switch from British English to American after some of my spellings were marked “wrong” on college writing assignments <inserting eye-roll here for dramatic effect./>
Six years later, my written English is now completely purged of its British influence and I can’t help but reflect on how far I’ve come. While moving to a new country opens up a whole universe, it also has the unintended consequence of making you feel stuck in between two worlds. Most people end up clinging more than ever to their roots, struggling between the dichotomous paths of retaining a sense of their identity, even as they try to integrate themselves with the culture and people of their new home.

There was no Facebook or Twitter when I first got here and it’s also been interesting to observe the role new media has played in my life as an immigrant since then. Agreed, it’s often been a source of endless distraction – not everything I end up reading is of cerebral value, sometimes nothing more than inane details of other people’s lives. But at the same time, it’s helped me stay in touch with friends and events back home. Sometimes, I learn about breaking news events in India even before my family and friends do. It serves as an optical illusion that makes everything seem less distant and more connected.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also helped me better acquaint myself with my new home. I find myself more attuned to the world around me. In some ways, I have found it easier to connect with people through online channels. I don’t mean to suggest that virtual interactions can replace the depth of IRL friendships but I have found that the Web can have a unifying effect – factors like where you're from and whether you speak English with an Indian accent, matter much less. Virtual communication can make differences between people less pronounced and place the focus more on the actual interaction.

Six years later, I am grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had and all the good things that have come my way. And that’s only appropriate considering Thanksgiving is around the corner. (Traditional turkey with an Indian twist, anyone?)

How does new media touch your life personally? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

*arranged marriage - No, I wasn't forced to marry my husband. I could have said no if I wanted to. And I did, to other ‘prospects’ before him (God bless them!)


  1. Inspires me two write my first blogpost in the US this coming week as I complete three weeks here. Wonderfully written. Several expats can relate to this. I for sure can. Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Amith. I wasn't blogging when I got here and I now I wish I had penned some of my thoughts and experiences down. You should write a post on your own experiences - it would be a fun read! The first few weeks can seem a little overwhelming since there's just so much to learn and absorb. But I'm sure you'll do just fine. Enjoy Chicago & Edelman and good luck with settling down. I wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving too (your first one, how exciting!) 

  3. Lovely post Farida!! Having living in into only for 7 years, I consider myself more Canadian than Indian. I often forget to be grateful for all the opportunities that my family has presented to me. Happy American Thanksgiving. Our TG is in Oct. 

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Pragati. Good to connect. It's always interesting to hear from other Indian expats and learn about their experiences. Though I miss home and it can be an uprooting experience to start all over again in a new country (though so much more easier now than it was 20 years ago), there are many great things about being here that I sometimes take for granted. And Thanksgiving is a good time to remind ourselves and appreciate all the opportunities we have had! 

  5. Amishi Shah MerchantNovember 21, 2011 at 9:41 PM

    Very nostalgic post Farida. And so nicely written. I can totally relate to what you said - changing our written form of English, being perplexed at some basic day-to-day things, etc. I complete six years next April. My take is that our transition was smooth to a large extent as a) we made the effort in every single way, b) we couldn't have asked for better partners. In fact - as I write this - in a year or two - it would be ten years since we started at Mid Day :-)! I am very glad I met you at the SAJA conference and have known you since.

  6. Loved your writing style, Farida - very evocative and lyrical. Your line - an optical illusion that makes everything seem less distant and more connected - reminded me of the song "Objects in the rear view mirror" by Meat Loaf. I completely agree with your thoughts on social media - I have written about it in a blog I just started (the impact of social media and friends I have made though social media). Trite but true - Twitter did change my life.

  7. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Amishi. You're right -- the transition would not have been easy without the support of our partners. And we both know it hasn't always been easy! It was such a complete surprise to meet you at the SAJA conference. I'm really grateful that we've become such good friends over the last six years. Thanks for always being there whenever I needed to talk to someone. I do miss my time at Mid Day!

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Suchitra. Great to connect with you. So glad you enjoyed reading my post. I haven't heard the Meatloaf song but I'm going to listen to it now. Congrats on starting your blog; I'll definitely check it out! Twitter is a great place for connecting and learning with a lot of smart people and it's amazing how it's made the world a much smaller place. I wish you luck with your blogging pursuits!

  9. Hi Farida. Excellent stuff...I'm sure our teachers will be proud of the work you are doing...6 time flies....I miss the times we used to hang around in college with Priyanka & Alina....Good luck to you :)

  10. Hi Naznin! SO good to hear from you after so very long. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I miss it all too! We've had some real fun times together. And too bad that all of us are scattered across the globe now. I hope you all are doing great. (I just saw your baby's picture on FB - she's really cute!) Stay in touch. 

  11. wow... so much to relate to... and you describe some of the experiences so well, Farida. I recently saw this movie called 'Amreeka' about a mother and son from the west bank who move to the US. Her cousin says " even after 15 years here, I feel like an outsider and miss home terribly" (I'm paraphrasing)... can't say I completely agree as people here have been welcoming, generous and open to our culture. But it is without doubt a source of frustration when people stereotype based on limited information on India (extremely common here in the midwest), or when they dismiss you because the concept of them interacting with someone who speaks differently is so alien...

    All immigrants to the US experience the same cycle of emotions... Great post and congratulations on completing 6 years here!

  12. Thanks, Sabera. I knew you would relate. I've seen the movie 'Amreeka' (I think I may have told you about it.) It's a good watch. I think it's a lot easier now to integrate and adapt as an immigrant than it was 15 years ago -- and social media definitely plays a role in it.

    Stereotyping is always damaging and reeks of ignorance. Even I, who normally finds everything amusing, didn't think it was funny to be told by a college writing professor (in the middle of the semester) that my "writing is basically quite good considering I am from India and English is my second language" while also suggesting that I could take up additional courses in writing because I would find it helpful. It was offfensive because I felt I was being judged not on the actual merit of my work but based on where I am from. (Though to his credit, he did finally tell me at the end of the semester that I was an 'superior thinker and writer and that it had taken him some time to see that but that he was finally convinced."!!)

    That's like me telling an American who is good at math that their math is "basically quite good considering they are American," because as the stereotypes go, Americans are not supposed to be that good at math and science. That wouldn't go down well, would it? But again, for every one such person I've encountered, I've met many, many more wonderful and welcoming people. I think it's amazing how this country has opened its arms to outsiders of every nationality and allowed them to build a life for themselves here. And we should always be grateful for this generosity (though the U.S. immigration laws are another can of worms it's best to leave out of this conversation for now!) :)

  13. Loved it; as I've always loved your pieces of writing. And I agree with Amith. Many expats can relate to it, even a Brazilian married to Swiss living in Uruguay ;) Keep shining! Love, Paola

  14. Paola, my lovely Brazilian friend, it's great to hear from you! Thanks for reading. I miss you...and wish that I could have spent more time with you when you were here. Come back to New York! Much love to you and your little ones (who are absolutely adorable!)

  15. Nice stuff.I love the way you have described your new experience in America. Your way of describing newly experience is really awesome.  I enjoyed reading your post.


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