by Hari Balasubramanian
This year marks two decades since I moved from India to the United States. I look back at how it all began in Arizona.
In the summer of 2000, after completing my bachelor’s degree in engineering, I had to decide where to go next. I could either take up a job offer at a motorcycle manufacturing plant in south India, or I could, like many of my college friends, head to a university in the United States. Most of my friends had assistantships and tuition waivers. I had been admitted to a couple of state universities but did not have any financial support. Out a feeling that if I stayed back in India, I’d be ‘left behind’ – whatever that meant: it was only a trick of the mind, left unexamined – I took a risk, and decided to try graduate school at Arizona State University. I hoped that funding would work out somehow.
So in August 2000, I found myself traveling across continents to this powerful country that I knew little about. It was my first ever time outside India and my first ever flight. From Chennai, I flew to Kuala Lumpur, then, after an eight-hour layover which I didn’t mind at all, to Los Angeles and finally, after the worry of a missed connection, to Phoenix, Arizona. The gleaming, modern airports, the meals and the movies, the turbulence and the clouds: it was all very exciting, a glimpse of an elite world that had once seemed inaccessible.
At the Phoenix airport, someone from the Indian Students Association at ASU came to pick me up. After what seemed like a recklessly fast drive – in fact it was normal: it’s just that I’d never experienced a 70-miles-an-hour ride on a highway before – he dropped me off at an apartment shared by three Indian grad students. One of them, my host until I found an apartment, wore a veshti, the wraparound skirt common in south India. He spoke Tamil fluently; he spoke it so well that I could well have been in my home state. I had a nagging suspicion at the time that people might change as soon as they landed in a foreign country – that they might change their attire, even forget their mother tongue. It was reassuring to know that wasn’t true. At the heart of such doubts, I see now, was a fear that I would quickly surrender my Indianness.
I slept well on the couch that first night, and when I woke up next morning, everyone was gone. There was a massive, just-opened bag of potato chips on the dining table. What better way to experience America on your first morning than digging into a big bag of Lays that grad students, making good use of buy-one-get-one-free, always had in good supply? I had never seen a bag that size! I ate some with guilt, consoling myself that nobody would notice. Not that anyone cared, of course. It was only the first of many ‘big’ things I encountered in those early days: a massive warehouse – a Costco store – where you could pick out things in bulk at cheap prices; gleaming red tomatoes as large as cricket balls (but strangely tasteless); monster trucks with 53-foot long trailers hurtling down the highways and interstates, looming behind small cars until they yielded.
I suppose this is the disorientation one feels on moving to a country on a higher rung of the development ladder: the so called first world. I was too young to understand the broader forces – a new wave of capitalism and globalization triumphant after the end of the cold war – that were shaping the world. I had heard and read about these things of course, but nothing resonated internally; they were pieces of a jigsaw that I hadn’t assembled. The country I’d left was itself in the process of being transformed by the same forces. After many decades of protectionist socialism, India opened its economy in the 1990s to foreign investment. Indians went from watching one national television channel to a dozen private ones; the acronym MNCs – multi national corporations – was bandied about by my friends as something highly desirable; the city of Bangalore was burgeoning with software companies linked to American IT projects that hired hundreds of engineering graduates.
But the pace of change wasn’t that fast: when I left, I still had never been to a supermarket; I had never used an ATM or a credit card; and I had no idea what a modern shopping mall was. So in that first year in the US, visiting the big retail stores was like entering a strange new world. How could so many different things be collected in one place? How could there be so many aisles? I remember how nervous I was of approaching the cashier at the grocery store, as if it was a job interview; how I stuck to cash to keep things simple and avoided the mysterious swiping and pushing of buttons: the coded exchange that entailed the use a debit or credit card.
I also carried within me then a sense of cultural inferiority – a feeling that the Indian culture I’d grown up in was somehow inadequate, and the West was inherently superior. It’s a feeling common among many growing up in formerly colonized countries and gets into your psyche in a number of ways. My relatives and acquaintances always lamented corruption in India; they often stated, cynically, that the country was irredeemable. On television, I would watch with wonder the highly organized traffic and clean roads, say in Berlin or London, and assume that there was something special about these foreign places, and that something special did not exist in India. The same mentality made me admire English more than the Indian languages, so much that I remained unaware of the antiquity and literary richness of my mother tongue, Tamil.
There’s a hilarious, but telling example of how my colonial mindset manifested in Arizona. One day, I was at a restroom in the engineering building on campus. Somebody – an American or at least somebody white – had just left the restroom and the stink was unbearable. I remember being surprised and thinking: oh, restrooms in America, though cleaner, can stink just as much as in India. I often chide myself now for being so naïve, but the fact that I wasn’t sure of this obvious fact – that Western shit smells as much as Eastern shit – suggests the extent to which I had internalized cultural inferiority.
There were other silly notions I had at the time: that all citizens of Western countries had a rational, scientific mindset and that religion in the West was a thing of the past. In retrospect, many of those early days, months and years were all about debunking false notions that I’d unquestioningly accepted – a slow process of learning to think for oneself.
My father, always wary of debt, had not allowed me to take a loan from a bank. Instead, he lent me half of his life earnings. But half of his life earnings amounted only to one semester of tuition and living expenses at Arizona State University. So my first and urgent task was to get an assistantship or an hourly campus job. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy and roamed the campus, looking for opportunities. I found myself struggling in the 45o C heat. Because I’d grown up in hot and dry cities like Ahmedabad and Nagpur, I’d assumed that the Arizona heat would not bother me. But physical discomforts can seem that much harder when something is on your mind.
I dropped off resumes at various offices, knowing fully well they would disappear among dozens or perhaps hundreds of other resumes. I showed up at professors’ offices, awkward and very conscious of my accent, explaining my undergraduate background, the research I’d done back in India. These were my first serious face to face meetings with Americans. At that time differences in physique, body language, and most of all conversational style – phrases like “All set”, “Sounds good”– could create communication challenges. Most of these meetings led nowhere, and this was to be expected. I was just another student promising to be a good researcher and asking for money.
But one professor showed some interest. After three weeks of office drop-ins, he decided to offer me a 10-hours-per-week teaching assistantship. The salary was only $600 a month, but enough to live in a shared apartment with two other students. (My share of the rent was about $200, which seems astonishing now.) The assistantship meant that my tuition for the semester – the most expensive part of grad school– was waived. I could return the money I’d borrowed from my parents.
How relieved I was that day! Soon after I signed the paperwork at the department front office. I headed to the student union and celebrated with a Burger King sandwich. These days I won’t go anywhere near Burger King. But it was an innocent time back then. The veil of ideas – healthy, organic, local, fresh, fair trade – by which we navigate what we buy and eat was absent. Taste in the moment was all that mattered and the sandwich was delicious!
I didn’t know it then, but John Fowler, the professor who gave me the assistantship, would also turn out to be my doctoral advisor. I would work in his lab, the Modeling and Analysis of Semiconductor Manufacturing lab, until I graduated in 2006. I never had to worry about funding and tuition waivers after that. This allowed me to ease into the life of a grad student: classes, research meetings, and long hours at the library and computer labs.
It wasn’t all school and study, though. Indeed I remember those early years more for my attempts to make sense of the world around me. I was starting from scratch. My knowledge of history and current affairs was basic at the time. I did not know, for example, that Judaism referred to a religion, let alone the religion of the Jewish people. Or that Genghis Khan had once commanded an unimaginably vast empire. I didn’t have political views either: the terms capitalist and communist, conservative and liberal, left and right, Republican and Democrat meant little. The famous Bush-Gore election was the political backdrop to my first semester of graduate school, but I was oblivious to the election and the post-election drama.
It took only a few years to change all that. Something about my new situation – an independent life in a foreign place — brought out a new curiosity. I began to read with much greater purpose and a determination. These were the unsettling years marked by 9/11 and the buildup to the Iraq War. It’s remarkable how quickly one can go from being politically clueless and apathetic to becoming radicalized. I gravitated towards writers like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Tariq Ali. I learned of the manipulative tactics through which the US had controlled a long list of nations around the world installing puppet governments and promoting its own economic interests even at the expense of civil wars and authoritarian regimes in those countries.
By the time of the Bush-Kerry election of 2004, I was telling my American friends that Iraqis, because of the military intervention that had impacted their nation so consequentially, should be able to vote in the US general election. I even questioned the American War of Independence – what did it mean for recently arrived European settlers to declare their freedom from Europe? In the real American War of Independence, I felt, Native American societies would have freed themselves of European settlement, just as Indians had freed themselves of British rule.
These critiques of the United States might suggest that I did not like the country I’d moved to, that I wasn’t having a good time. But that was the paradox – the critiques came from what I was reading. They did not come from my lived experience. My grad school life – except for a tense interlude following 9/11 when everything seemed on edge – was going quite well. I was starting to get a hang of academic research, and liked the deep focus that a dissertation required. My social life was good too. International student groups would routinely take us on trips to the Grand Canyon and other scenic landscapes of the Southwest. I had new Indian and American friends; I also had friends from Turkey, Indonesia, Thailand, China, South Korea and Mexico. I was sampling cuisines that I’d never tried before: Ethiopian one week, Lebanese the next, Japanese or Vietnamese the week after. There was a palpable sense that a new cosmopolitan world was opening up.
The neighborhoods I lived in – streets flanked by spindly palm trees and patches of lawns constantly maintained by sprinklers – were full of Asian students who lived in shared apartments. There were also hundreds, perhaps thousands of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America who had made life-threatening journeys across the southern border and now worked in construction, retail and restaurant jobs. At my favorite Indo-Pak restaurant around the corner, I often saw Hispanic workers in the kitchen joking with each other while cutting the onions, garlic and vegetables that went into the curries that I enjoyed.
For most Americans, immigrant neighborhoods are commonplace enough to be ordinary, the stuff of clichés. But I’d never experienced such a mixing of people from so many different countries before, and was quite taken by it. This is why I’ve always felt that my time in Arizona was as much about an advanced degree as it was about the discovery of a complicated and interesting world. Some of the discoveries came from books. But the multicultural milieu of the campus and surrounding neighborhoods may have played an even bigger role.
And so the years passed. In 2006, I completed my doctoral degree. I moved first to Rochester Minnesota, where I worked at the Mayo Clinic, and then in 2008 to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where I took a faculty position. I’ve been in Amherst ever since. To dramatize, I like to say that I’ve traveled America’s 19th century westward expansion – its so called Manifest Destiny – in reverse: from the deserts of Arizona, the youngest of the western states, to the Great Plains of the Midwest, and finally farther east to Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims first landed, exactly four hundred years ago.
The less dramatic narrative is that I’ve only moved from one state university to another. The UMass campus with its rural setting and cold winters is of course different from sunny, metropolitan ASU. Still there are plenty of similarities. I now teach the same classes that I took as a student at ASU. And there’s a lot about the rhythm of the semesters, campus life, and the coming and going of international students that remains the same.
It’s been an interesting twenty years. Happy new year to everyone!