A Migration of Generations: Stories of South Asian Immigrants (Part I)
In the mid-twentieth century, a flood of immigrants
from the Indian subcontinent rolled over the United States, inundating
this country with dark-haired, dark-eyed people who didn’t always
know the language or understand the culture but were determined to work
towards a better quality of life for themselves and the generations
to follow them. In doing so, those immigrants made a choice, some consciously
and some not, to rebuild their lives from scratch.
All of these immigrants have a story to tell. There are disconcerting similarities in their stories and vast differences. But each story underscores the same point: the experience of immigrating to a new country encompasses every part of a person.
In this three-part series, we tell the stories of three people who
left India and came to the United States with great hope, a dose of
apprehension and determination.
In 1974, Susheel Dharia arrived in Alfred, NY to attend
Alfred University (AU). He was 21 years old and planned to pursue a
bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in ceramic engineering,
then return to India.
“My dad came to the airport and he came right on the plane to say goodbye to me,” Dharia says, adding that his father’s gesture, while special, made it harder to handle the emotions after takeoff.
Dharia, second from right, enjoys time with fellow Alfred University students.
But Dharia’s thoughts eventually turned to the life towards which he was flying.
“I was eager to start college, start a new life,” he says.
Originally from Pune, in the state of Maharashtra, Dharia recalls with a laugh that warm day when he first arrived on campus. He knew one person at AU who was staying at a fraternity house.
“[My] friend came to pick me up and took me to
the frat house,” Dharia says. “It was a beautiful summer
day before school [started], all these girls in bikinis, and I thought
I was in heaven!”
“Pune gets to 60 degrees on the coolest night, and in Alfred it gets to minus-40 degrees with the wind chill,” Dharia says. This friend, upon finding out that Dharia had no heavy sweaters or jackets, volunteered to take him shopping for the right outerwear — an action that would prove fortuitous when Dharia got a job on campus to help pay his expenses.
“My first job was shoveling snow. They would call me at three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning,” he says. “When they would call, we had to be out there in 15 minutes shoveling snow.”
There were other new adjustments to be made as well.
“I never spoke English in my life before, so that was a big transition for me,” Dharia says. “It took me almost six months before I could understand a couple of the professors.”
“I got deferential treatment in India,” he continues, referencing his father’s position. “When I came here, I started living like a common man. What you got was based on your abilities.”
Dharia appreciated this aspect of his experience in the States. When asked what one thing he was happy to leave behind in India, he is quick to answer, “Definitely [the deferential] treatment.”
The students on campus welcomed Dharia but knew nothing of his home country.
“They thought [of] snake charmers, sitting on camels; they had less exposure,” Dharia explains. “There were only two Indian students on the whole campus.”
One of those students was Dharia himself, and the other quickly became a close friend through his college years.
Eventually, Dharia finished his education, went on three job interviews, and then followed the pattern that so many young men of that time period did: he went to India in the late 1970s and got married. While there he got a phone call that made him reconsider his original plans to stay in India.
Dharia, on the left, spending time with other students from Alfred University.
“AVX [a manufacturer and supplier
of electronic components] called me in India, and so I thought it was
meant to be [to return to the U.S.],” Dharia says.
Moving from one place to another, he and his wife Rani had two children
and knew they would never go back to India to live permanently.
Dharia, right, met former President Bush when the president visited San Diego in October 2007 after wildfires there destroyed Dharia's home and many others.
Dharia participates every year in the three-day walks organized by the Susan G. Komen Foundation — this year is his sixth walk. He and his team of friends, named Team Sweet Rani after his wife, raise $2,200 per walker and complete a 60-mile trek. The money contributes to ongoing cancer research; the walk contributes to an ongoing process of healing from the grief of losing loved ones.
As an aggressive supporter for cancer research and
fundraising, Dharia has observed that many South Asians usually won’t
get involved unless touched directly by the disease. He attributes the
lack of involvement in part to a conscious awareness of one’s
The tragedy of his wife’s death was underscored by a second tragedy when Dharia’s house burned down in the San Diego wildfires of October 2007 and he lost everything, including most of his wife’s pictures and possessions. These events have framed Dharia’s attitude towards life, although it might not be the attitude one might expect.
“What happens to me [each] day is the best thing that happens,” he says. “Just make the most of whatever happens and keep on truckin’.”
Check out Part II in next month's issue of ABCDlady.
Ekta is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas with her husband, two daughters and father-in-law. She enjoys writing features and helping others streamline their articles. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.