Part II: A Migration of Generations: Stories of South Asian Immigrants (read part I)
This month we're continuing our three-part series on South Asian immigrants, their journey to America, and the impact they're having on their communities today.
When Harnish Jani left the city of Vadodara (formerly Baroda) in the state of Gujarat, the year was 1969 and he was leaving behind someone special.
“[My wife and I] had a daughter on June 30, 1969, and I left for America on September 13,” Jani says.
Jani traveled from Vadodara to Ahmedabad. He took a flight from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, and it was from Mumbai that he began his international journey.
“As soon as my plane took off from Bombay, I couldn’t stop crying,” Jani says. “That was the fear of [the] unknown.”
But Jani was focused on what he had to do because he didn’t lose sight of the purpose of his trip, saying he was “looking for prosperity and definitely I was looking for a better life.”
“I passed through a hard life,” Jani says. “I had to support my home [in India], my wife, and myself over here.”
Like so many other young people before and after him, Jani began working on an American degree, attending the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, he found Indian companions in short supply.
“There were only two Indian families in Williamsburg, and in college there were only two Gujaratis,” Jani says.
Driven by the responsibility of supporting his family, Jani wasted no time in looking for a job.
“I landed on Saturday morning. Monday, I started looking for work,” he says. “I looked for a job in the restaurants and found one.”
Jani started as a busboy at the Lobster House, a seafood restaurant. Though he’d never eaten meat in India, Jani had no trouble adapting his eating habits to save money for his family.
“Even being a vegetarian, I started eating meat because it was free meals,” he says. “My goal was to earn money.”
“My pay was $1 an hour, and the waitresses were giving me 10 percent of their income,” Jani says. “I would try to get $25 a week.”
Despite difficulties with the language and being a foreigner, Jani took his new experiences with the wholehearted optimism of youth.
“I was all excited; everything was good and positive for me,” he says. “Even if someone made a racist remark to me, I would not go after them. It was me who was looking [at] everything [positively].”
Unfortunately, due to his family needs and his father’s death in India, Jani was not able to finish his degree at William and Mary; instead he got a job as a colorist in a textile printing company.
Jani was in the United States at a dynamic time; the Vietnam War was in full swing, and women were rising up to argue their right to be liberated. Jani was even able to witness the first gay pride parade in New York in 1970, one of the first parades of its kind.
Although he never had any negative experiences as an immigrant, like so many other immigrants, Jani faced several misconceptions from his American co-workers and friends.
“They had no clue about India and Indians,” he says, adding that most people with whom he interacted had the following ideas about Indians: “They don’t eat cow, they are poor, and they had [the] Taj Mahal.”
“To read Indian news,” he says, “I would go to the Indian consulate.”
After working in the textile printing company for a few years, Jani was able to complete a diploma in plastic technology from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which eventually led to his work as a senior research chemist in a plastics company.
In the meantime Jani was able to apply for his wife and daughter’s immigration.
“The day I got the green card, I filed for my daughter and wife,” he says. “They came in 1971, December.”
Jani found it easy to become a member of the American population in the early years of his life here.
“I concentrated on my professional life here,” he says. “You wouldn’t find anything Indian in my house in those days. We were totally involved in the American way of life.”
But he adds a disclaimer.
“That was naivete. I never thought there could be [so] many Indians or Gujaratis here,” he says.
Ironically, it was part of his old life in India that brought him in touch with the Gujarati community in his current home city of Trenton, New Jersey, as well as other Gujaratis across the country and the world.
Before ever coming to the United States, Jani had been an established writer in India, and with the encouragement of a friend, Jani began attending a literary meeting in 1992. That first meeting turned into a strong association with the literary group.
“I [eventually] managed [the group], and I helped them to publish in India,” he says. “Now I handle bigger poetry reading recitals and [other] Gujarati writing activities in New Jersey.”
Jani also re-discovered his own passion for writing.
“I again started writing in Gujarati magazines in India,” Jani says. “I write humorous essays, satire.
Now retired, Jani has ample time to devote to his writing and the promotion of literary pursuits within the Gujarati community. He has been invited to speak to groups in various cities across the country and has even had international speaking engagements.
He has had two books published; his first book, Sudhan, is a collection of short stories about immigrants. The second, released just this September, is titled Sushila and is dedicated to his daughters. It is a collection of essays on the immigrant experience.
All in all, Jani is relishing the opportunity to return to something he loves so much.
“My only regret in my life is that I did not write,” he says, referring to the gap between the time he left India and that first literary meeting in 1992. “For 22 years, I did not write.”
He’s looking forward to an upcoming trip to London in April on another speaking engagement and is thoroughly enjoying this era in his life.
“My retirement is wonderful,” Jani says. “I write and I’m working on my third book now.”
Check out Part III 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.