Being an Immigrant - A Steep Learning Curve

Naazish and Sonia first became friends in sixth grade (left), while living in Dubai. They continue to be close friends. (This essay is the original version submitted to PRI. The final version appears elsewhere on this blog)

"Where is the hot water tap?" I called the transit hotel front desk, feeling a bit idiotic. Perhaps that was one of my first questions fresh out of JFK airport, or was it LaGuardia? Here I was, a big city girl from Bombay, India, not quite sure how to work the faucets at the sink or in the shower. Yes, they were a puzzle - just one faucet, rather than two taps, one for hot water and one for cold.

Like many immigrants, it was marriage that brought me to the US. When I immigrated, it was time to find work, pay rent, adjust to a husband (who had only known the US as home), and find my place in my in-laws' family. It meant discovering that big meals, three times a day, were non-existent; I learned that I spoke too loudly, and when I said I'd do something, or be someplace, by a certain time, I found out my husband expected just that. In India, 'tomorrow' had meant any day but today; 'soon' had meant eventually and 'now' had meant some time today. Yes, as you can guess, drama and miscommunication haunted the early days of my new marriage!

That said, even as a new immigrant, I don't recall feeling like I was lost, or like didn't know what I had to do professionally. In India, given the competitive spirit, and the challenges to getting even the simplest things done, we learn tenacity, by default. Given the relatively limited opportunities at the time, our environment instilled us with a sense of persistence and a willingness to hustle. So, I did just that. I was writing as a freelancer within a couple of weeks.

I worked evenings as a telemarketer, and was the third highest producer. The accent intrigued people. "Where are you from?" "Oh India?" "That must be so interesting." At the end of those conversations, I guess they felt obligated to make a purchase. While the accent may have been interesting, imagine my exchanges at the local Jewel-Osco grocery, asking if they carried lady fingers! Here it was okra not ladyfingers, eggplant not brinjal, and sidewalk versus pavement, sorry versus pardon, pajamas versus nightsuit, vacations versus holidays ...

My husband and I lived on campus, where he was an undergraduate. I took a class, too. One of my clearest memories, was when I was spelling my name, Naazish, at the registration desk. I pronounced the letter Z as 'Zed' and couldn't get why the lady didn't understand me. I repeated it a few times before deciding to write it out. "Ah, Zee," the woman said. "Yes, Zee," I sighed.

In class, I was surprised to see students eating. When the bell rang, they'd leave even if the teacher was talking. Where was the respect? Speaking of surprises, winter was a shock. I hadn't experienced such freezing temperatures before and it took forever to dress, or undress for that matter. I had never had to wear so many layers in my entire life. My gloves didn't do justice at all. I still remember how much my fingers stung as I waited for the bus in the biting cold. Most importantly, I found out it was a bad idea to take short cuts across a field - the wind will freeze the marrow in your bones and, no, you will not get to a washroom in time.

Over the weeks, I didn't know what was supposedly 'out of my league' so there were no doubts and fears to overcome. I pitched to write for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago's largest newspaper, and the dots connected! Within the year, that same naivete worked in my favor as I applied for an internship at Chicago Public Radio, and pitched commentaries for NPR successfully.

What was hardest, however, was the emotional adjustment. Strange considering that my husband and I attended at least two dinner gatherings, each weekend. You see, the Indian immigrant community is large and yet small enough that everyone maintains their connections. I knew more people in my first month here than I ever did back in India.

But though I felt welcome, and fit in seamlessly, there was that gnawing, emotional void. The need to connect at a deeper level, to be understood for who I was on the inside, a short-hand to one's heart and mind, was missing. New husband, new family, new social circle, not withstanding, the void came from not having connections at a deeper level, either intellectually or emotionally. There is something to be said about the comfort of cultural short-hand and common histories, growing up watching the same TV shows, sharing a similar sense of humor. In the early years here, I didn't have much of that.

I became committed to creating the sense of security I had felt back home, nurturing confidants and cheerleaders I could always depend on. It meant pushing myself to be vulnerable and wholly present in every relationship…just as I was naturally, in India. It meant realizing that I didn’t have to have the same interests, or even the same background, as some else to become close buddies. It meant realizing that age was no consideration when picking a friend. It meant being committed to friendship and being an accessible, good friend. And as I now see, it meant having patience. A garden grows slowly. The friends I made 20 years ago, are my inner circle, my emotional and intellectual sounding board, today. Given my loneliness from the early days, I have learned that spending time with close friends is important to my sense of well-being and vital to my existence.