A Lucky, Yet Difficult, Experience
Aleyamma Joseph’s 1990 journey from Kerala, India as a result of her husband’s job
essay written by Ditty Parampathu
Aleyamma Joseph immigrated from Kerala, India in 1990, because of her husband’s job transfer and his dream to live in America. After their marriage, they moved to Texas, but soon had to return to India because Joseph’s mother passed away. Then, they returned to the United States, this time to Irvine, California. Joseph had trouble adjusting to the U.S. because of the language barrier, but she enjoyed meeting new people and learning about her new home. Overall, she is glad that she made the decision to immigrate to the U.S.
Aleyamma Joseph, an Indian immigrant, first came to the United States in 1990. She arrived first in Texas with her husband, because of his job obligations. Due to an unfortunate turn of events, she had to return to India for three years, but eventually came back to the United States to settle permanently. She considers herself a lucky immigrant because of her mundane and non-life-threatening reasons for leaving her homeland. Although she was not forced to leave India, although her journey was relatively painless, and although she was, and still is, connected to her family, her immigration was still difficult because she had to adjust to living in the United States.
Aleyamma Joseph was born and raised in Kerala, the southernmost state of India. Her father was a civil engineer and her mother was a teacher. Joseph specifically pointed out how, in India, “childhood life was very different from life [in America].”1 Short travel in India occurs mostly through public transportation, as opposed to private transportation, such as cars. In fact, most households in India, including Joseph’s, lack private cars, because people rely mostly on buses, trains, or taxis. When not using public transportation, people walk to their destination – observant people walk to their place of worship, people walk to a nearby grocery store, and children walk to school. Joseph recalls walking to school with her friends. She would be the first to leave her house at 8:00AM, although school started at 10:00AM, and she would pick up her first friend. Then they would walk together and pick up the next friend, and so on. By the time they reached the school, they were walking with a whole group of friends.
When she talked about her friends, Joseph also mentioned the family and social life in India. Most families in India, including Joseph’s family, live in joint-families, with more than one or two generations in each household. The children often live in the family household until they are married and in a stable job. This is because the “parents feel like [children] are independent after [they] get a good job and ... get marr[ied].”2 Because of this joint-family and long-term living structure, grandparents often tend to the children’s cultural and religious education. Daily life in India is based on a reciprocal relationship between people; the parents provide for the children while they are young, and in return the children look after their parents as they grow older – “but it’s not like a strict rule, it’s like...children should take care of [their parents],... out of [their] love to the parents, [their] love to the children. Nothing is an obligation here.”3
As Joseph grew up, she experienced India’s religious diversity. In order of greatest prevalence to lowest, there are Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. But in the area where Joseph grew up, the members of all three religions were almost equal in number. She stressed that all the religions were accepting and that no religious conflicts ever occurred while she was growing up. All the religions respected each other and everybody “celebrate[d] [all] the festivals and exchange[d] food and sweets.”4 Religion is a major part of life in India, but all religions coexist peacefully.
Joseph’s life in India kept her happy, and she “can’t say that America was [her] dreamland” as a child.5 Joseph first arrived in America when she was twenty-three years old. Although she never planned to leave India, she married a man who dreamt about America. Joseph’s husband had been to the United States a few times before their marriage because his company had sent him on many deputations, but he hoped to eventually settle there with his family. The fourth month after their marriage, Joseph and her husband left India for Texas. According to Joseph, she followed her husband’s dream of coming to the United States. The journey to Texas was long, about eighteen hours on an airplane. Not until Joseph reached the Texas airport did she realize that she was miles and hours away from her family in India. Although she was in Texas with her husband, she failed to fully realize what happened until that moment – “then only I realized, I really, really realized this is it and I’m on the other side of the globe”.7
Although they planned to settle in Texas, the sudden death of Joseph’s mother called Joseph and her husband back to India. After four months in Texas, they returned to India because Joseph’s family needed her support. Joseph’s husband joined the Indian branch of his company, while Joseph went to live with her family to support “the family through the difficult times.”8 They lived in India for almost three years until they finally returned to the United States – this time to Irvine, California, with their almost-two-year-old daughter.
Similar to the first journey to Texas was the second one she made when she left India for Irvine. As she travelled alone for the first time with her young daughter, in her own words, “it was terrible, really.”9 Although moving thousands of miles away from her family was difficult, Joseph considers herself lucky to have been able to make a peaceful journey without any complications.
However, the process of getting her visa did complicate her immigration experience. Joseph’s husband arrived in the United States with a job visa, but Joseph had to apply for a visa through the consulate. She had to go to the consulate three times before she finally gained her visa. It rejected her application twice because of problems with her marriage certificate, since she held a marriage certificate with her maiden name. Because of this complication, she waited almost eight months before getting a visa, but she says that she “couldn’t say that [was] a struggle” compared to “other people’s immigration, this was an easy thing,... since he [had] a job visa [and] [she] had a dependent visa”.10 Joseph was extremely relieved when she finally acquired her visa, since she could now settle down in America.
The new culture and way of life in America both bewildered and excited Joseph as she settled into Orange County. Joseph was, “frankly speaking,... really impressed with this country.”11 First, she noticed the multitude of orange trees on the drive from the airport to Northwood. She clearly remembered taking the exit from the freeway onto Jeffrey and seeing the area near Irvine Valley College filled with oranges. She also recalled the oranges lining the road almost the whole length of the drive to her new home. The large amount of oranges amazed Joseph because in India she had never seen orange trees, only oranges in the baskets at grocery store. The clean roads and how everyone obeyed traffic laws also impressed Joseph. She was accustomed to crowded, cluttered streets and chaos-filled roads, with “the road [being] shared by pedestrians, cows, goats, and everything.”12 The differences Joseph saw between India and Orange County were often positive.
Most of what she saw in Orange County left a pleasing impression on Joseph; she liked her new home. She really liked going to the grocery stores because they were so different from the ones near her home in India. Although there are now supermarkets in India, for most of Joseph’s life, she frequented different stores for different types of groceries. Joseph also liked the public school system. She particularly valued the admissions system because children are supposed to go to their neighborhood school. She preferred this system, because in India, if everyone knows about an exemplary school or a school with hardworking teachers, everyone rushes to register their children. Because of this, it becomes a “first come, first out” system, “people...have to rush into the place to do the registration first or the teachers’ kids will get into [the school] first.”13 Joseph appreciated that she did not have to worry about where she sent her children to school because she knew they were permitted to attend the neighborhood school.
Along with these aspects of America that Joseph encountered in her new home, she also witnessed cultural differences. She enjoyed meeting people of many different backgrounds when she sent her children to school. She realized that the people she met, despite their differences from her, also shared certain values, such as an emphasis on family. Joseph also found the different celebrations she learned about interesting. As a Christian, she knew Christian holidays, and because she was from India, she knew about Hindu holidays. But when she came to America, Joseph discovered new celebrations like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. And, although she was familiar with Christian holidays, the different customs surrounding them were new to her – like the candy and bunnies during Easter. Coming to this country, Joseph enjoyed, and still “like[s] to see different culture[s], how they celebrate, how they take care of the older people, how they, the young ones, what they are expecting of the children, what they are expecting from the parents.”14 Joseph’s first impression of America was that it was a new, impressive place bursting with different cultures and people.
Even though she liked her new home, Joseph still found it difficult to grow accustomed to this new country. Joseph alluded to the movie Namesake, saying that those who have watched the movie will understand her adjustment – “in that Namesake movie that lady put Indian masala in the cereal and [ate it]? Same thing,...no difference at all.”15 Almost twenty years ago, when she first arrived in Texas, there were barely any Indian stores because of the low number of Indian people in the area. Because no Indian-specialty stores existed in the nearby area, Joseph failed to find many of the ingredients needed to make the Indian food she was accustomed to making; she especially missed coconuts, because Kerala cuisine relies heavily on coconuts. When she finally found an Indian store, she bought a whole coconut. In India, there are special instruments that assist in breaking the coconut, but here, in America, Joseph could not find the right tool. So she tried many things, and one day, she broke the coconut open on the concrete outside her house. Joseph says that, in those days, she probably made chicken most nights because that was the only thing she knew how to prepare without coconuts.
Along with not being able to find the correct groceries, Joseph encountered challenges in communicating with others, so she could not ask them for what she was looking for, either. For the first few years of her life in America, the language barrier remained an immense problem. Because she was not familiar with large stores like Ralphs, she needed to ask people where everything was kept – but she did not know how to ask them. She said that her accent was “a problem...a really big problem.”16 She had to resort to using “our universal language – that means sign language.”17 Sometimes she had to write the words out for others to understand her. As she adapted to her new home, Joseph’s English improved, although she still makes a few grammar mistakes.
Although the language barrier challenged her, Joseph managed to cope with the help of her friends. When she first came to Orange County, everyone she encountered was a stranger. First, she attempted to find some Indian friends. She used the White Pages to try finding someone Indian, “and whenever [she felt] like [she saw] one Indian name, [she] call[ed] that number.”18 However, Joseph formed her first real friendship about a month after she arrived in Orange County. A friend from North Carolina gave Joseph the number of an Indian real estate agent she knew. The real estate agent was polite and friendly, but she had no free time to meet, so she gave Joseph the number of another woman, Leela, who enjoyed meeting other Indian people. Joseph called the number the real estate agent gave her, and from then until now, Joseph and Leela’s friendship has been ongoing for sixteen years. Through Leela, Joseph met many other Indian people. Also, because her daughter was young and needed friends, Leela introduced Joseph to other young mothers. Joseph is still good friends with these other women who were her first friends in this new country.
As her children grew old enough to attend school, Joseph considered what to teach them culturally. Deciding where to send them to school was not difficult because she liked the public school system. She sent her children to Good Shepherd Preschool and then to Deerfield Elementary School, Venado Middle School, and Irvine High School. At first, Joseph was “really, really worried about the school[s] here and the people [she was] going to meet there – the teachers, parents, and also the friends [her] child [was] going to get.”19 Joseph sent her daughter to preschool at the same time as a group of her friends so that she would have friends in school. Joseph really enjoyed the way the schools worked, especially the interactive learning and the arts and crafts.
Culturally, Joseph wished for her children to grow up with both Indian and American cultures because she believes that all cultures are beneficial. She pointed out that American society is multicultural because America possesses a mix of people from different backgrounds. Joseph loves her Indian culture and most of its values, such as respect for elders, and tried “to bring those things and especially the cultural values, the social values from India to here.”20 Joseph teaches her children how to respect elders, how to behave properly at home, in school, and with friends. She teaches them about their religious practices and also tries to continue the cultural values she learned in India. She takes her children to Indian cultural programs, such as Indian dance festivals, and teaches them about their heritage. Joseph invites her children’s friends to her home because she gets along well with people of all cultures; in fact, she would like her children to grow up surrounded by different cultures. She wants them to “grow up in this country [among these] multicultural people and along with that [she] want[s] them to know ... Indian culture and Indian social values.”21 Joseph believes all cultures have positive and negative aspects and wishes it were possible to combine all the good sides of all cultures to form one perfect culture. Knowing the impossibility of this, Joseph hopes that wherever they are, her children know right from wrong and act according to their conscience.
It has been about twenty years since Joseph first came to the United States. Although she had to leave her extended family behind and immigrate to a strange, new country, Joseph is pleased that she and her husband made the decision to settle in the U.S. She wishes that her children could have experienced the joint-family structure and the bustling social life of India, but she appreciates the education and opportunities that are available for them in America. She said that “frankly speaking, [she] want[ed] to go back then, [but] not now.”22 Joseph is very proud of her citizenship; allowed to vote, she feels as if she has the power to make a difference. Joseph arrived in the United States with the fear and apprehension that comes with moving permanently to a new country, but she overcame that fear and learned to adjust to and enjoy living in America. Joseph is a woman who lives without any regrets, and as such, she would not change her decision to immigrate or the experience of adjusting to a new country for anything.
1. Joseph, Aleyamma. Personal interview. 23 May 2009. 1.
2. Joseph, Aleyamma. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 20.
3. Joseph, 24 May 2009, 21.
4. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 8.
5. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 2.
6. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 4.
7. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 10.
8. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 4.
9. Joseph, 24 May 2009, 23.
10. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 5.
11. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 6.
12. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 6.
13. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 7.
14. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 8.
15. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 5.
16. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 13.
17. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 13.
18. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 5.
19. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 7.
20. Joseph, 24 May 2009, 13.
21. Joseph, 24 May 2009, 14.
22. Joseph, 23 May 2009, 10.