the immigrant experience

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Testing the waters

I’ve often wondered how the course of immigration has changed over the years. A century or so ago, an immigrant would typically be a man, most likely the head of the house, who, alone, or with his family, would board an available ship for a new land knowing that he, or they, may never return home. It was, you can say, a permanent decision. Irreversible. It was an adventure, no doubt. There was no ‘testing the waters’ as it is done today.

These days, immigration is rarely a single decision. Not just the man of the house, his wife, and even family members chip in. Questions abound. Should they migrate or not? Which country should they migrate to? Which country is likely to offer greater opportunities? Not just in terms of income, but also in regard to education for the children. Would language and culture-fit be serious problems there? Which country offers visas quickly? Which fares are most economical? Where to check into on arrival at their destination?

The family goes on the Internet. Checks things out. Downloads immigration forms. Searches for job applications. Exchanges information. Applies to jobs and, if lucky, is interviewed over email or telephone. In most cases, the network is activated. Friends or long-forgotten relatives living in the country considered for immigration are contacted for real-time information. Job opportunities and cost-of-living are priorities in their conversations. And then, the call for action is answered.

There are other approaches, of course. The student seeking higher education that leads to a job that turns out to be permanent. Or, typically, the software engineer sent abroad on an assignment with an Indian company, who switches jobs to take on another – or a series of assignments – before he or she finds a job that’s permanent and/or provides citizenship in that country. Sometimes, along with this, comes a trip back home for marriage, and returning to the new land with spouse, maybe a child.

Today, immigration is less of a permanent, irreversible, decision. It more often involves a series of researched steps. Perhaps, even a succession of short visits to the new land that grow longer until things are settled. There’s a lot of ‘testing the waters’ before a final decision is taken. Doing so is easier, today, thanks to modern communication – and the availability of many more friends and relatives with ready information. With all this going in the immigrant’s favour, immigration lacks the sense of adventure it did earlier.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The "Bong" Connection

A gem of an entry my sister sent over to me:

Monday, April 17, 2006


White was the colour of the lilies and the land-lotus that grew in our garden. White was the colour of my school uniform – and the Keds I wore on days I had Physical Training classes. White was the colour of chalk the teachers used to write on the blackboards. White was the colour of the pages in my notebooks.

Milk was white. Eggs were white. Most of the sweets I ate were white. My teeth were white. My pyjamas were white. My bed sheets and pillowcases were white. The interior walls of my house were white. The light from the fluorescent tube-lamps at home was white. In the heat of the summer sun, everything faded into white.

I grew up in whiteness. Much of my childhood in India was made of white. Moving to Australia changed all that.

I learnt white was a race – and a racial identity. White was a privilege and the proof of one’s citizenship and ethnicity. White was the accepted norm in society. White was the dominant force in the media, in politics – and a show of one’s superiority. White was the image of the world created by the Almighty.

Growing up in Australia, I learnt white was the colour of one’s skin.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Oh boy!

It was on a trip to Thailand in my early teens where I grasped the Asian preference for boys. I've got a younger sister. We've both been brought up abroad and never had any extended family living close by.

It was a sweltering hot day and we were at a Buddhist temple. A woman in three-inch heels and an umbrella came tottering up to us. Looking at my parents, she said: "Two daughters? No sons?"

My father said: "No"
She said: "But wouldn't you like any sons?"
My father: "No, I'm happy with two daughters."

She looked puzzled for a moment and then said: "For $25, you can buy a gold leaf and make a wish that maybe one of your two daughters will have a son."

We didn't buy the leaf.

Later, at a dinner party in Brunei. My mum was engaged in an odd conversation with a mother of a family friend. She was from Pondicherry and could only speak French and Tamil. Despite the differences, we had a stilted conversation. She called her son over half-way and spoke to him in a mix of French and English...he turned to us and smiled.

"My mother's saying that she wishes she had daughters. She says that daughters take care of their mothers better!"

Different strokes?

Travelling on a long-distance Greyhound bus, I noticed a young African American in the seat across the aisle, walkman in place, with an infant not more than a few months old. A couple of hours later, when the baby stirred, the man (who I assumed was the father) gently put aside his music, extricated a bottle and fed the baby, helped her burp and patted her back to sleep. All with minimal fuss. He then slipped the walkman back on, closed his eyes and resumed his foot-tapping preoccupation.

Coming from a culture where men hardly indulge in active participation when it comes to nurturing infants, I was impressed enough to recount this to some of my American acquaintances, only to be cautioned against stereotyping. Bronx realities, I was told, should not be generalised.

Over the next few months, however, I discovered that White American males were just as adept at raising their children sigle-handedly. Sometimes the wife worked while the man kept house. The matter was literally brought home when I met an American scholar at a conference in India last month. He was accompanied by his wife, but since they had two very young children, he invariably had to take care of one of them. Much to the amazement of the hotel staff and the culture shock of Asian participants, he fed the toddler and kept him busy enough not to disturb the four-day proceedings, which was really remarkable. At dinner one night, when we discussed this, he said he saw this as an enriching ordeal!

When I watch the men in our society stride ahead on the street, leaving the wife to struggle behind with the children and the paraphernelia, I wonder if they realise that they could actually be missing out on some special joys.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

ACLU accuse federal prosecutors of ethnic bias in meth sting

RAW STORY Published: Wednesday April 5, 2006

“The American Civil Liberties Union is accusing federal prosecutors of ethnic bias in a sting last summer in which South Asian owners of convenience stores in Georgia were charged with selling household ingredients that could be used to make methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug,” Kate Zernike writes in the Thursday edition of The New York Times.

Excerpts from the article:

In a legal filing, the A.C.L.U. said yesterday that prosecutors ignored extensive evidence that white-owned stores were selling the same items to methamphetamine makers and focused instead on South Asians to take advantage of language barriers.

Prosecutors said the clerks should have known that the ingredients would be used to make methamphetamine because the informants who bought them said they needed the items to “finish up a cook,” slang for making the drug.

But several South Asians said they believed that the informants were talking about barbecue.

Forty-four of the 49 people charged were Indian, and 23 out of 24 stores in the sting were owned or operated by Indians.

Full article at The New York Times website [needs registration to log in]

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Promised land

We had been in Australia close to two years when we moved from Rockhampton to Brisbane. And a new life emerged before me. Not because Brisbane’s city-life dazzled my laid-back small-town outlook, but because it created a disturbing divide between my parents and me.

Looking back, I must confess that I’m a little confused about this phase in my life. Was it the city which was responsible for this parting? Was it time and the rigours of leaving adolescence for teenage that changed things between us? Or, was it a certain consciousness, an awareness of who I am, which took control of my destiny? Perhaps it was a mixture of all these; or something else altogether. Whatever it was, it led to frequent endless and inconclusive arguments between us.

I remember a feeling of hostility towards my parents in those days – a sense of alienation from my family. My parents suddenly became old-fashioned, riddled with out-dated virtues. They became Indians with poor command of English, the way the Australians spoke the language. They became conspicuous in their ways, always pushing their supermarket trolleys towards the racks of spices and chutneys. They became immigrants looking for a promised land, while wanting to go back home every day that passed in their lives. They became misfits in my eyes – unable to define their place in Australian society.

Unlike my parents, I had no hang-ups of my Indian past. Australia was where I lived and belonged. It was not my promised land.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Bridging the gulf

Nearly 100 scholars from the US and South Asia spent four days last week interacting at a picturesque seaside resort in India. They ranged in age from 22 to 77, had academic interests and skills of a myriad kind and belonged to diverse cultures. The only common thread was their immigrant status: either as Americans staying in South Asian countries or vice-versa.

It's amazing how such a forum can highlight and question much of what we take for granted. For instance, a few of the Americans were staying in villages that have no electricity and scanty water supply. Yet in their own home, they go into a tizzy if a storm shuts down power for a few hours, or the air-conditioning in their cars happens to malfunction.

Similarly, those of us who had ceased to savour our spectacular landscape were much humbled when the visitors remarked on the "picture-postcard" views or said that "India is the original birthplace of colour." They delighted in sporting khadi attire and joined in tribal dances with a fervour we could never hope to match.

When we live in other countries, our initial reaction to the difficulties and differences is not always one of appreciation. It takes sensitivity and maturity to surmount the obstacles and make the most of the situation, turning each learning experience into a cherished memory.