It is not often that I get a chance to observe a person from my hometown in India, a relatively small place, come to US as a student and adapt to the American way of life. This happened recently as one of my nieces came to study.
She, like me fifty years ago, has struggled with the new environment. Very different food, unfamiliar people, strange customs, and clearly different weather have been some of the main issues. Also, she, like me, is separated from her family and friends, and copes with having to make her own decisions, instead of an elder doing so.
However, in many cases her experience was quite different from mine.
When I came to this country, it was almost impossible to remain a vegetarian. Forget about finding Indian restaurants… there was just one in entire Boston area. There were a few Chinese restaurants, but they served inedible Cantonese food. The cafeteria had mesh potatoes boiled vegetables or grilled cheese sandwiches as options for a vegetarian. Quickly frustrated, I started eating everything.
That has not been the case for my niece. She has lot more choices in her cafeteria and if she wants a change, there are plenty of restaurants, including an Indian one, within walking distance. She can also get Indian groceries to cook, which was impossible in my time.
The biggest difference is her ability to have an on-going communication with her family and friends in India. In the world of email, FaceBook, Skype, and WhatsApp, no one is too far. When I told her that I did not talk to my parents for the first six years of my stay here, because the cost of a phone call was at least $12, which is probably $50 in today’s money. This was clearly unaffordable. Writing letters, and, in emergency, sending telegrams were the only options for keeping in touch. Compared to that, my niece switches on Skype every evening and keeps it on, so virtually she is back home everyday.
Unlike me, she hardly gets exposed to the Western culture, as she is able to tap into Bollywood and Indian shows on her laptop. For us, the Indian entertainment was a monthly event when we got an Indian movie to screen in MIT’s theater. This I know well, as I was the projectionist. There were hardly any Indian concerts and the only way one could listen to Indian music was playing reel-to-reel tapes, which got stale after a while.
She does not watch TV, as is the case with many folks of her generation. There is no daily news or sitcoms she gets exposed to. Her news and entertainment comes from her laptop, carefully curated to what she is familiar with, primarily from India.
Of course, it has not been easy for my niece — -she is a young undergrad, not grad like me — — but her struggle would have been much harder if she had come when I did. The dislocation has been mainly physical. Mentally, she can continue to live in India if she chooses. The family is always there, just a mere Skype click away. They can guide her, provide her company, and even help her pack, as they recently did.
However, this convenience comes at a cost.
Having the crutch of easy access to family would lead to not really becoming independent. Being able to eat Indian food would prevent her from experimenting with different cuisines. Ability to curate what she wants to watch and listen means that she can take the path of least resistance and avoid Western entertainment and news all together.
While she will live in US with more comfort than I did, she may miss the opportunity of benefitting from what the West has to offer.