Leaving India

The media celebrated the arrival of South Asian engineers, but underneath this model minority community was another, a working class one.

By Minal Hajratwala Aug 05, 2009

Aug 5, 2009

The following excerpt comes from  Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala, copyright © 2009. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. To see more of her work go to minalhajratwala.com.

Los Angeles from the air is a patchwork of grays: concrete, slate, pitch, smog. For someone who has grown up on an island verdant with palm trees and cane fields, where the longest road is a 315-mile loop around the entire landmass, the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area is an awesome sight. On the approach, the endless gray dissolves into S-shaped blocks of townhouses and tract homes; just before touchdown comes the green shock of racetrack, then runway lights shimmering against the dark glass skin of hotels.  

Mala took in the scenery and the excitement of her three sons, but her own thoughts were focused, as they had been for most of the eighteen hour flight, on survival. What would they do in America, how would they live? Would they, who had done only one kind of work their whole lives, be able to learn a new trade at their age? Would she be able to keep track of new details, and would she need to learn to use a computer? How much was rent, food, schoolbooks for the boys?

These and other questions were the purpose of this, their first scouting expedition. Mala was hesitant about leaving the only homeland she had known, but her parents, siblings, and even sister-in-law were encouraging the move. They had to leave for the children’s future, everyone said; Fiji’s economy was shrinking, crime was rising, and the islands were no longer a paradise, at least for Gujaratis. And relatives already in the United States had invited them to visit and see how they liked it.

Besides, it was August 1998, almost a year after her husband Madhukant’s name had been drawn in the lottery. If they wanted to keep their options open, they had to activate their green cards by getting them stamped within United States borders.  

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In the late 1990s, the national media were abuzz with stories of South Asian immigrants to California: the H-1B visa holders, the brilliant computer scientists and engineers from the subcontinent who were flocking to Silicon Valley to be part of the Internet revolution. Their story merged with, and seemed a natural sequel to, the saga of the brain-drain generation, those polite professionals who had assimilated so smoothly into America’s suburbs, universities, hospital staffs, and engineering firms.

Pushing up underneath this visible, model-minority diaspora was, however, another South Asian community, composed of relatives and refugees and illegals who threatened not only America’s borders but the South Asian American community’s vision of itself. They were working class, either minimally educated or unable to apply their overseas educations to white-collar work in the United States. They were most visible as taxi drivers and newsstand operators, at 7-Elevens dispensing change and cigarettes, or behind bulletproof glass at gas stations and late-night liquor stores.

It was this quieter diaspora, one that was ultimately deeper-rooted and longer-lasting than the Silicon Valley megatrend but that never appeared on the cover of Forbes or Time, that Mala and Madhukant were about to join. With their rudimentary Fiji public-school education decades behind them, neither would be able to read English well enough to browse the help-wanted ads in the Los Angeles Times classifieds; their oldest son, Vinay, by then 20, would have to become their first translator in America. He would explain to his parents, as best he could, the terms of the lease on the one-bedroom Hollywood apartment where all five of them would live. He would go with Mala to a parent-teacher conference when little Pranil, in a 7-year-old’s tantrum, decided to fib to a teacher that his parents were beating him. Vinay would also take computer classes, decide which computer they should buy, and attempt with little success but good humor to teach his father to use e-mail. And when he started working the graveyard shift at a motel, where he would do his homework in the quiet of the night, and a man walked in and held a gun to his head and demanded the cash from the register, Vinay would speak to the police afterward in his most polite English before coming home in the middle of his shift and crawling into the bed that was his, in the living room next to the television, next to his younger brothers already deep in dreams.

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But all of that was far ahead of them, in the unforeseeable future. Landing at LAX on August 5, 1999, they waited to be picked up by a Fiji friend’s relative. One of their suitcases had somehow been lost in transit, so after waiting for it to no avail, they finally emerged from baggage claim and customs only to realize they had no idea how to recognize their contact person. They were behind schedule, the terminal was crowded, and they worried they had missed him. Mala suggested calling, but when they tried to use the pay phones, they could not understand how the American dialing system worked, nor did they have the proper coins or phone cards.

Hours went by. Madhukant said, — We have no business in this country; let’s go back. Over the next years, each time life in America threw up another hurdle, this would become a mantra of sorts for him. He kept thinking of the inventory he had put in storage in Fiji, the property he had not sold but leased out, holding on to it as a kind of insurance policy in case they needed to return. And then he would remember, or be reminded of, the break-ins. Even as they were finalizing their immigration paperwork by fax, the shop had been broken into once more; the fax machine, along with everything else of value, had been stolen.

It was Vinay who convinced his anxious parents to stay calm amid the chaos of LAX. — Just wait, he repeated; — just wait. And they did. Finally, as in the happy ending of a Bollywood movie, the man walked up to them, they all exclaimed and embraced in relief, and they picked up their bags and went home with him. That was their first day in America.  

Minal Hajratwala is the author of Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents and a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News. To see more of her work, go to minalhajratwala.com.