Following the Family
Aruna Chawla’s 1978 journey from Chandigrah, India to be with the rest of her family
essay written by Ashley Chawla
Aruna Chawla immigrated from Chandigrah, India when she was thirteen years old. She came from a simple life in a family-oriented community. Coming to America was easier for her than for others, but she did have her shares of troubles. Chawla had problems adjusting to the education system and struggling with the language barrier. She faced conflicts between American culture and Indian culture. Although, she has always had strong family values, she never did like the family structure or values in America.
Many people come to America for more freedom and economic opportunities. This has happened for generations and still continues today. For Aruna Chawla, the journey to America was not as difficult as it would have been for others, because she did not escape from her native country like a fugitive or flee because of bad circumstances in her country. Chawla came from Chandigrah, India at the age of thirteen with her three sisters and parents. She and her family all moved together, because they were a really close-knit family. When she came, she received her immigrant papers quite easily. The only real struggle that came because of immigrating here was her education and, as a result, her career opportunities. Her lack of career opportunities led to fewer life opportunities available to her in the long run. Chawla did not have to face most of the issues that other immigrants face. She found that America has more opportunity but also more complications than India.
Life in Chandigrah, India “was very simple” as most third world countries are.1 Chawla’s family did not have electronics and other appliances such as televsions, refrigerators, and computers; they did not even own a camera. In addition, once people were married in India, they stayed married forever, because family and tradition were very important. Divorce rarely happened and was looked down upon when it did, when a partner was abusive or did something unacceptable. Everything was about sacrificing things for the family. For instance, in America people’s hopes and dreams only include themselves, but in India they are shared with the family. It was a very family-oriented community and country. Children like Chawla did not know or even talk about things like drugs, alcohol, or sex education. They were innocent and kind-hearted children. There was no rebellious stage or the problems that teenagers face in America. The children did as they were told, listened to the adults, and respected their elders. Children in America have very different issues or problems compared to Indian children. The issues for children in India are much simpler - their main focus is doing well in school.
The only movies that the Chawla family watched were also “oriented around the family.” 2 Not only movies, but “everything was more geared to family, [and]…the whole culture [was] about family connecting” to each other.3 In America, it is different because some parents do allow their children to watch inappropriate movies, which means some people that immigrate here do not like that aspect of American culture. In the evenings, all the neighbors would be in their yards, the kids would play, and most of the adults would socialize with one another. It was a very close community, unlike most of Southern California. For Chawla, life in an American neighborhood took some getting used to because people in the U.S. are more distant towards neighbors and are more involved in their own lives. Most fathers worked while the mothers stayed home and took care of the kids. It was still more traditional at the time but lifestyles in India are slowing changing.
The place where Chawla lived was an upper-middle-class community. Chawla was in the middle class and lived in a townhouse, and right across her street were larger, more expensive homes. She said it was a “very nice area.” 4 The school there was very different from American schools. She had to wear uniforms, like many other foreign countries, and after third grade, she went to a separate school from the boys. In school, the kids were kind to her and there was never any bullying there. As Chawla discovered, that was a major difference, since there is a lot more bullying and teasing in American schools than in Indian schools.
Chawla and her family came to America because her mother’s family had moved to America and her mother’s family “is very close” to one another.5 Indians tend to be extremely family-oriented. Therefore, unlike other immigrants, they did not come for better opportunities. They just wanted to live together with the family. The youngest brother of Chawla’s mother came here first. He stayed in America because he liked the freedom and the ability (or the idea) of being able to pursue his dreams without society getting in the way. When he did not return, one by one the family eventually moved to America, and her family just followed because they were the last of themm still living in India.
According to Chawla, at the time she came to America, people had other reasons for leaving India. Chawla’s reason for emigrating is fairly uncommon and unusual. Many people immigrate for a “better life in America.” 6 Also people come to pursue their dreams and to be more free, since America has much more than India does. There is also a lot of land in this country while India is much smaller country but has an even bigger population, so it is very crowded. Also, because of the population size, people have trouble making money in India. So moving to America for Indians is about pursuing one’s dreams and having an easier and better life. It is about being more financially secure. At the time there was not really anything happening that would make the people want to move to America other than for economic growth and freedom.
Because Chawla’s uncles took care of all the immigration processes, it was an easy journey for her whole family. In addition, her mother’s oldest brother had sponsored them, so that made the process even easier. He took care of the green cards and visas. Chawla said that it was a very “natural process” because “that must have been more than thirty years ago.”7 Everything just fell into place, and they came to America very smoothly. Her parents never had to go to the immigrant office more than once like other immigrants did. Also, it was easier to get a green card and the like back in her time, decades ago. Nowadays the process is much more tedious. But, even for standards of back then, her immigrant process, luckily, was extremely smooth.
Chawla has a hard time remembering what happened when she first arrived, so she does not really have any first impressions, only early impressions. This is because it was so many years ago and she did not really pay attention to all the differences when she came here. She was just “being very excited [and] looking forward to the change.” 8 She was glad that her whole family was moving together and not separately, like other families sometimes do. In some cases the father moves first and then the rest of the family follows. Chawla does not really prefer to do it that way. She thinks that because she was only thirteen when she moved, she did not really think about what America was going to be like and the changes it would bring her. She did not think about that fact that she would miss her friends, neighbors, or surroundings. She just went with the flow and thought it would be like an adventure. The whole process just simply happened to her, meaning that she just got swept away with all the changes. She did not do anything to fight them or even worry about them-she was just a kid. However, she does remember that when she came to America she was surprised about the sizes of the houses. She found the houses were smaller than what she had first expected them to be. This is because people in India view America as a place of abundance. They think that America is very wealthy compared to India. It is a common stereotype in India, and it is exaggerated. She knows that the first impression was different for people who immigrated at an older age, like her older sister. She did think it was very different and just watched the process of being here. She also heard that other people who immigrated at an older age saw the contrasts of India and America much more clearly than she did. She did not analyze, but just experienced like many children do. Therefore, it was difficult for her to explain her first impressions.
When Chawla’s family came to America, her father’s job skills were no longer useful, since he had been a lawyer in India. This is common and many newcomers end up taking low end jobs, which can be difficult to accept for some in the beginning. He “had a very nice job in India, in [the] language department.” 9 Later, he had trouble finding a job, so he ended up working in a factory, but he hated that job very much. He later quit that job and took a normal minimum wage job, at a place similar to Seven Eleven It was a little better for him, but in the beginning he was really disappointed. He had expected something better when he came to America. Part of the problem was that Chawla’s uncles did not plan that part for their family very well. Chawla’s mother, who had been a stay-at-home mom, also started to work to “contribute…to the finances.”and so Chawla‘s family “moved in a low income family home.”10 So she became disconnected from her kids’ education. She stopped making sure that her children were doing well in school, and so their grades fell. This later affected Chawla very much, and she deeply regretted it. Later, she kept trying to pursue education, but it just was not the same without her mother’s support. Because she did not try harder in school, her education was not as good as it could have been. Not only that, but she did not finish college, due to certain issues. When she was older she kept taking community college class, but it did not work out well.
For Chawla herself, adjusting to a new education system was hard because of the language barrier. This is similar to many immigrants and is the hardest part about coming to America. Many struggle with it. She also believed that she “came here at a very odd age.”11 This is because if she moved earlier, she could have learned the language much more easily, and if she moved when she was older, the language barrier would not have affected her education. This was one of her major regrets. The language barrier also affected her socially in some ways, as it was hard for her to make friends. She also had to take English as a second language classes and she had a very difficult time in school. For her the happiest part of the day was coming home to her family and three sisters. That would always cheer her up and make everything feel better. Fortunately, because she was living in a community with fewer Whites and more Hispanics, she did not face any racism like some other immigrants do. However, her sister did face some racism when they moved to a community with more whites, but she and the other two sisters faced none. Her little sister was picked on by some girls because she was Indian, and she faced a lot of racist comments. When Chawla’s family moved to Stockton, which is more of a white community, the racism grew more intense. At a certain point, she would come home crying every day to their mother.
Chawla says that part of her “never adjusted [or assimilated] to the culture.”12 She believes that most immigrants coming here never assimilate, but that only the second generation people do. So all her life, she kept struggling between the two cultures of India and America. She wanted more than anything to balance them out, because she likes balance in her life, which is actually amajor part of the Indian culture. However, she found that to be extremely difficult. There were certain things that were hard for her to adapt to but, she wanted to adapt because part of her felt very American. She grew up here, and American culture had become a part of her over time. However, she strongly disagreed with the family aspect in America, because family was a main element to her background in India. After her daughter was born, she did not really instill the Indian culture on her child because since her culture was forced so strongly onto her as a child. She did not want the same for her own daughter. As a result, she took the opposite route and did not teach her child the culture. Some parts of the culture were naturally received, not forcefully, like how she as a teenager had received it. Her daughter learned by watching and not by being forced to learn the culture. However, like in the Indian culture, Chawla did teach her child the correct way to treat others, because she believed this to be the most important aspect of the culture. She also taught her child how to behave around family, elders, and when guests, and about the spiritual aspect of the Indian culture, which is particularly strong in her family. This taught her daughter to see life in a more profound way. Other than that, some of the old traditional ways of India, which some people here would call backwards, she did not pass on to her daughter. So, her child could be more free.
Chawla’s major regret was coming to America at the inconvenient age that she did. She said that if she were to do it again, she would wait and learn English at school in India so that she would not slip behind in her schooling. The language barrier affected her education severely, and that affected her life as a whole. She tried to pursue education again, but was not successful. Although she tried to enroll into one community college after another, in the end she failed to get a college degree. But, still, she was glad that she came here at the age she did because now she has both of the cultures with her in a more even way, unlike her older and younger sisters. One is much more comfortable with American culture, while the other has a very strong Indian identify and had a much harder time adapting to the culture because of the age she got here. She believed in the American dream. The reason that she initially rebelled was because “the American dream is freedom.”13 Currently, she still believes in her definition of the American dream. Lately, however, she has found American culture to be bland and wishes to visit India more often. This means that she has been somewhat disconnected to her new American culture, and she will be satisfied if she connects to Indian culture once again. Chawla believes that she had to take the best of both or all cultures and she thinks that Americans should do this as well. Overall, she is at peace with the two cultures. She has finally found a way to balance them better than ever before.
1. Aruna Chawla. Personal interview. 25 May 2009, 1.
2. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 1.
3. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 1.
4. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 9.
5. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 3.
6. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 3.
7. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 3.
8. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 7.
9. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 4.
10. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 4.
11. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 6.
12. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 12.
13. Chawla, 25 May 2009, 13.