Around the World in 32 Years
Bipin Nakum’s journey to US in 1986
essay written by Bhavna Nakum
This paper chronicles the life and the American experience of Bipin Nakum. His story begins in Uganda; within the next 16 years, he would be in America but along the way, he spent 10 years in India discovering his motherland. He would then go on to England where he encountered western culture and his 5 years there prepped him for life in America. He has now been living in America for 23 years after having gone through a myriad of difficulties and emerging as proof of America’s reputation as a land of opportunity.
The United States of America is truly a unique nation: there is no one true ethnicity that defines the nation and in fact, it is the opportunity for all ethnicities that makes America the destination of so many who seek their dreams. Bipin Nakum was one of these people. His tale is similar to those of other Indian immigrants seeking a better life but unique in the sense that it begins in Uganda and snakes itself through two other countries before arriving in the United States.
Most people find it fascinatingly unbelievable that Indians have any association with the African continent let along being born and brought up there. The truth is that many Indians migrated to and settled down in East Africa and this was a very common practice in the early 1900s to late 1960s.
Nakum’s grandfather was born in Gujarat, India in 1889 – a time during which the British Empire peaked in its power. While the British conquered and ruled the world, the opportunity for Indians to progress or achieve success in any manner was not available; there was a high level of discrimination with Indians treated as subservient, second-class citizens. Because opportunities for overpowering the stringent social structure were virtually non-existent and tension constantly ebbed in his large family, Nakum’s grandfather, at age 13, decided to run away. Equipped with only basic education, he journeyed through most of East Africa before he finally settled down in Kampala, Uganda. It was here, Nakum said, “he started from scratch…and gradually [learned] how to drive trucks; he built his own capital and bought his own truck [with which he started] his own transportation business and [gradually] prospered.”1 He eventually went back to India to marry and returned to Kampala where a few years later Nakum’s father was born. He went to school and eventually worked as a clerk in a British company and helped with the family business. At age 29, he traveled to India to marry Nakum’s mother and they too returned to Kampala to start their family. On October 16, 1954, Nakum was born in Kampala as a second-generation Indian-Ugandan. Because Uganda at the time was a British colony, Nakum was automatically a British as well as Ugandan citizen. Six years later in 1960, his sister was born and life was generally pleasant as Nakum went to school with his cousins and grew up in a large joint family with twenty-seven members and lots of pets.
Nakum grew up with a hardworking, loving father and a gentle but formidable mother. As a stock officer, Nakum’s father worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Nakum would eagerly await his arrival from work so he could spend time with his beloved father. Nakum had fond memories of his dad, who upon coming home, would sit with him and would teach multiplication tables, how to read, how to have good manners, and they talked about their day. Being one of the children, Nakum was fed earlier so the elders could eat and converse with each other without interruption but when his father sat to eat, Nakum remembers “climb[ing] into his lap and being fed tidbits from his plate…I was a daddy’s boy.”2 Nakum’s mother, on the other hand, was quite different. She was a quiet but frank person who didn’t live to please people’s egos and fiercely protected those she loved. Nakum noted that “she wouldn’t accept anything less than perfect and wouldn’t show her love openly but when I was sleeping, she would pat my head and massage me.”3 Nakum grew up as a carefree child who had a large family and sort of a miniature zoo in his house with four German-Shepherd dogs, parrots, and cats.
Life, however, was not always so carefree and happy, as 1964 proved to be a pivotal point in Nakum’s life. His mother’s untimely and tragic death from leukemia at age of twenty-nine left nine-year old Nakum and his three-year old sister motherless and the family in disarray. Although Nakum’s grandmother and aunts were there to console him, his mother’s death was an event that had a deep and scarring impact upon his early childhood and his adult life. Not too soon after this depressing occurrence, Nakum, barely 10, was shipped off to boarding school in India for two years. Forced to grow up more quickly than he imagined, Nakum remembers that he was “scared …and very lonely; there were a lot of insecurities [he felt] especially since [his] mother was usually there to take care of [him].”4 The youngest at a private Catholic school, Nakum was bullied and discriminated against as a non-resident Indian who couldn’t even speak his own language correctly. While he initially faced difficulties adjusting to the local mannerisms, practices and the strict environment of a Catholic school, Nakum was able to use this experience to toughen himself up against future adversities and learn a lot of basic skills that made him independent at a young age. He grew to make friends with boys who initially bullied him; as he adjusted to the recent whirlwind of events in his life, he learned to love India and accept the nation as his own.
After residing for two years in India, Nakum returned to Kampala in 1966 and finished the rest of his elementary education. He passed the departmental examination to enter high school in 1970. But again his family was to move, this time back to India. After Uganda received independence in 1963, a new government with anti-Indian policies arose and materialized into unfair and discriminating practices against the local Indian population. Nakum’s father, who owned a grocery store, experienced financial difficulty in conducting business with the many restrictions placed on what Indians could sell, buy, and trade. Before business ventures deteriorated further, he sold the business and in April of 1970, the whole family migrated to India where they sought a better life. Nakum’s family was lucky enough to leave Uganda before the disastrous regime of Idi Amin commenced and therefore was able to escape the violent persecution directed towards the local Indian population. Nakum finished his education and went to college where he received his undergraduate in commerce (accounting) in 1979. While he was in college, his father had the chance to move to Leicester, England. In 1980, Nakum, his sister, and their grandmother joined him in Leicester for better job opportunities and a less hectic lifestyle. After living in India for 10 years, Nakum felt “sad to leave [India] because [he] had really built a good bond with the land and there was something special here [India]… I had a life but I didn’t know how to live it until I came to India.”5
Life was difficult in England as Nakum faced discrimination which wasn’t obvious at first but it was, as he said, “under the surface, under the mask of so-called equality [which]… hid a lot of dirt in [the] face of the world”.6 There were also barriers in the path of his education because his university diploma wasn’t recognized by British education and employment systems. He had to go back to school and enrolled in a local university, where he took classes in accountancy to gain necessary credentials. He struggled to find a job as an accountant and was in his second year of school when he met his wife, Pravina Kanzaria, in 1984.
Upon discovering that they shared quite a few interests in common, including their professions as accountants, Kanzaria put forth a condition to Nakum; they would discuss marriage further only if Nakum was willing to migrate to the United States after marriage because they would be able to pursue a life that would be beneficial for their careers and future family. Nakum, after the first meeting, asked his father about this proposal to he replied to in a “very encouraging [manner] and said that it was a good idea to go [to America] and pursue a better life.”7 In 1985, Nakum and Kanzaria were married and by 1986, Nakum received his visa without almost any complications and left for the United States with his wife. If it were not for Kanzaria’s insistence to migrate and Nakum’s desire to be with her, their dream for a fulfilling life would have never been realized and they wouldn’t be in the United States today.
It was during his first flight to the United States that Nakum reflected that more than feeling sad about leaving behind his father and aunt, he “was concerned…[about] their health and well-being; I felt like I owed them something.”8 Nakum’s port of entry was Boston where they stayed for a few weeks with his brother-in-law. Then they drove from Boston to Los Angeles in two weeks and along the way, they explored the new country in a carefree manner and saw different places like Washington, D.C., New Mexico, Oklahoma, New York, Virginia, and Ohio. During this trip, the couple noted the vast array of diversity in geography and most importantly in ethnicities; everywhere they drove, they noticed an amalgamation of races and saw the success they had achieved in America. This observation was encouraging to the couple as they realized that in time, they too would realize dreams and gain grounding in this unfamiliar but opportunity-filled nation.
They reached busy and traffic-prone Los Angeles, which for Nakum reminded him very much of Kampala, the heart of Uganda. They then traveled to San Francisco to another brother-in-law’s home where they stayed for six months. They then moved back to the Los Angeles area where they rented an apartment in Anaheim and were for the first time truly on their own. Nakum’s wife, having already lived in America two years prior to marrying Nakum and having passed her Certified Public Accountancy (CPA) exams, had already completed her credentials but was not able to procure a job until six months later because she, like my dad, lacked American job experience. Nakum noted that “there was a vicious cycle; we [could not] get experience without a job and we [could not] get a job without any experience.”9 For a while, he struggled searching for a job before his wife suggested that he too take the CPA exams which would speeden the job-finding process. All along this time, the Nakums experienced financial difficulty more than racial discrimination. With his wife barely making enough for one and Nakum reviewing for exams and working part-time as luggage-store clerk, their budget was quite small and there were times when they worried about their future in America. However, in 1988, after passing the CPA exam, Nakum was able to get his first job as an accountant in Torrance which was indeed a big accomplishment as he had finally overcome the barrier that his lack of experience and American education had proven to be. With both Nakums working full-time, they were able to pool their savings and purchase their first home in Anaheim; they were able to start living the American dream with Nakum’s first job and their first house. However, with the birth of two daughters, another problem arose and that was one of education; the lack of proper schools in Anaheim led the couple to make the difficult decision to sell the house and move to Irvine, which was considered to have an outstanding school district. Again, there was an issue with money because living in Irvine was beyond their monetary capacity but they were able to pull through.
After arriving in this country in 1986, the Nakums went through “quite a bit of difficulty, mostly financially,” while adapting to an American lifestyle. 10 The miscellany of the American culture was initially surprising but they weren’t completely shocked and were overall accepting of the differences in ideas and customs they came across. Actually, they were able to adjust and fit in quite well because they had experienced various cultures and lifestyles in the nations they previously resided in before coming to the United States. The diversity of influences has contributed to their overall bringing as open-minded people. Having been brought up in nations other than their own, they were able to relate to quite a few of the difficulties their daughters face being Indian-American where they try to sustain traditional Indian values yet at the same time try to absorb the broad American system. The migrant and nomadic lifestyles they led set them apart from other Indian parents who might have a harder time understanding the struggles their children go through living in America, a land of opportunity yet at the same time a land of temptation. Keeping their children’s names Indian and teaching them the Hindu scriptures and their native language to them has indirectly been part of their effort for their children to retain their culture and identity as Indian people. They, although extremely attached to the Indian way of life, are very satisfied with the value system of America which promotes practicality, sincerity, and success which is achievable if one is willing to work hard. The notion of hard work is deeply engrained in their ethics since both of their educations were interrupted a number of times and to catch up academically, all they could do was work hard. Both have seen and can say that American people are not confined in one line of thought and are open-minded to good ideas no matter where they come from. Their judgment of a person was not based on social status as much as work ethic and a drive to thrive in life; it was therefore possible to climb the social ladder.
Although England was Nakum’s first true introduction to the western culture and ideas, he dad felt there was a big difference in the value system of both nations. England, being embedded in tradition and old ways, seemed slightly backwards to the ways of America which was flourishing with their radical, although visible, progress. Overall, Nakum is happy he listened to his wife and agreed to come to America; he felt that it would have been difficult to achieve a lifestyle of advancement if they remained in England. However, it was Nakum’s time in England that allowed him to gain somewhat of a feel of how life would be in America; his initial frustrations and difficulties in procuring a job as well as adjusting to the English culture helped him learn that his “culture wasn’t in any way lower than the western culture.”11 He too had to learn how to harmonize his identity between being an Indian and citizen of a nation with western values; this attainment of balance in England was helpful in making his adjustment to the American lifestyle smoother than it would have been otherwise.
Coming to the west has added more to his life story of travels around the world and Nakum feels he has gained different sets of values in each country he has lived in. In America, he gained the confidence to pursue his dream and the idea of practicality to further his ambitions in many ways. His experience is unique from that of other Indian immigrants in that he was not born in India and has been to nations other than only India and America. Nakum had literally been around the world in thirty-two years living in Uganda, India, Britain, and finally the United States. The twenty-three years he has spent in the United States has probably been the longest he has ever resided in one country. Nakum’s experiences have led him to become an open-minded father who has a grasp of American values and yet possesses a formidable understanding of our culture.
1. Nakum, Bipin. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009, 1.
2. Nakum, 24 May 2009, 4.
3. Nakum, 24 May 2009, 4.
4. Nakum, 24 May 2009, 4.
5. Nakum, 24 May 2009, 5.
6. Nakum, 24 May 2009, 6.
7. Nakum, 24 May 2009, 6.
8. Nakum, Bipin. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 6,7.
9. Nakum, 24 May 2009, 3.
10. Nakum, 25 May 2009, 5.
11. Nakum, 25 May 2009, 5.