Quest for Opportunity
Kiran Patel’s 1990 journey from India to leave behind a broken country in search of better prospect and better future
essay written by Priya Patel
Kiran Patel immigrated to the United States in November of 1990. He sought better opportunity and lifestyle from the corrupt systems of India. Although he had trepidations about how he was going to live without his extended family and get accustomed into a foreign culture, he had made well thought-out plans for his new life and eased into the American culture. He now lives with his wife and two daughters in Irvine, California. Although Patel had made a big leap from culture to culture, he has simultaneously assimilated into the American society while still maintaining his Indian heritage.
Kiran Patel had the future of his family in mind when he immigrated to the United States on November 12, 1990. Historically, people have immigrated to the United States for a variety of reasons. Some people were driven from their home cultures due to dire political, social, or economic conditions. Some fled due to threatening conditions such as warfare, persecution, or poverty. Some came here for religious freedom. Kiran Patel was pulled to the United States by the hope of a higher standard of living and escaped India’s rigid society, overcrowding, corrupt and inefficient political system, and a bleak future; he “came for better opportunity and better lifestyle…and most importantly for the better future of [his] children.”1 Although Patel fit into the culture more easily than other immigrants because he was an educated and trained professional, he still needed to adjust himself to the new way of life. Especially with the difficulty of leaving the family, Patel faced an abyss of an unknown future, despite having made so many preparations and done so much research for coming to the United States. Factors that affect immigrants in the assimilation process include family and culture supports, language issues, economic status, and marketability of skills. These issues cannot easily be overcome. Nevertheless, Patel sought to find a more honest, sophisticated, well-structured country in which to live, and it took all his courage and perseverance to achieve this.
Most people in India during Kiran Patel’s youth lived modest, simple lives. Patel was born in 1962 and grew up in the small town of Sadhli in the state of Gujarat, where his family owned farms. He moved to the larger city of Baroda for boarding school at the age of twelve. Not typical of a common Indian large city, Baroda was a relatively advanced and well planned city, and had “electricity, running water, [and] a very good sewage system.”2 Patel’s daily life in India was very family oriented, as extended family usually lived with or near each other. The family unit in society was usually the main source of emotional and social support, so leaving that behind was difficult for Patel. While people of the older generations owned farms or small businesses, the newer generation was increasingly receiving higher education. Patel had access to a good education, but the opportunities available were scarce; there was virtually no variety in what career one could choose—the best students became either engineers or doctors; the rest were left to compete for mediocre jobs. The agriculture-based economy of India was changing, and people increasingly left smaller villages for more urban areas in search of better work and lifestyle. Some more educated left the country altogether, causing a “brain drain.”
India’s flaws made it very hard for Patel to continue life there—he did not believe there was any future for him or his children in the country. For example, bribery was (and still is) endemic in society; if someone needed a birth certificate, death certificate, or driver’s license, he would always need to bribe the officials to get what he required. As for political leaders, “uneducated, unqualified politicians resort to anything…they will buy the votes and pilfer so much money.”3 Although it is a democratic country, a single dynasty has been in power since India’s independence. Patel felt that the extremely corrupt political system would adversely affect his chances of succeeding. India calls itself a democratic country, yet the government is a collection of dishonest, power-hungry people. Patel knew these vices of the government system guaranteed that advancement would be very slow for India.
Another significant wrong of India’s system that Kiran Patel did not approve of was the quota system based on caste. Historically, India’s citizens were categorized into four castes: Brahmin (scholar, teacher, priest), Kshatriya (warrior, soldier, king), Vaishya (merchant, agriculturalist), and Shudra (worker, artisan, service provider). After India’s independence in 1947, the government implemented a limited quota system that reserved places in the public and private education and work sectors for the lowest caste people, who had been discriminated against for centuries, in the hopes that more equality would be established; it sought to foster development and opportunity to the disadvantaged castes. But this “reverse-discrimination” actually ended up proving counter-effective—quality was compromised and quota kept on growing, causing outrageous competition for positions among people in higher castes. 4 The quota policy, Patel thinks, “has become perpetual, and it is even increasing…it’s because of the vote politics. That’s how the politicians perpetuate their power.”5 Patel maintains that this aspect further epitomizes the corrupt and weak foundation that the country is stuck on. This system ended up bringing unprecedented unfairness and inequality to India’s educational system and work force, something that Patel saw held no promise for him or his progeny.
Poverty and inefficient government management in India have also given way to other problems like overpopulation/overcrowding and rapid depletion of natural resources. When Patel left India in 1990, the population of India was approximately 800 million. Today it is about 1.1 billion; the increase is equivalent to “the [current] total population of the United States,” although India is one-third the size of the United States.6 The exponential growth in population causes more and more deforestation of precious natural lands and habitats, clearing the way for more cities and population. The overcrowding “puts so much strain on [the country]. You see so [many] slum areas, filth…poverty.”7 Patel fears this growing poverty will only get worse, but since India is a democratic country, population control cannot be forcefully executed; thus, overpopulation keeps contributing to the nation’s problems. Although he had many friends and family in his home country, and was relatively successful in his early twenties, Patel decided the best thing to do was to immigrate to the United States. He filed a petition to immigrate to America in 1988 on the basis that his wife, Geeta, was already a legal U.S. resident, and was able to start a new life here.
Assimilating into a new country is not easy for any immigrant; Patel had to confront learning about a new culture, handling conflicts between home cultural ways and new cultural ways, and functioning effectively in a new environment. Patel had studied extensively the history, geography, and politics of the United States before immigrating, and therefore assimilated relatively easily into the new culture. During the two-year waiting period it took for the immigration request to process, he planned out exactly how he was going to go about his new life. Yet one of his main fears was how he was going to “cope…without [his] immediate family.”8 In the society he lived, every family was tightly bound within themselves as well as with other families. Everyone in the vicinities knew each other, and support from countless family members and friends was always present. Patel observed that people in America live so much more “individualistically,” it was intimidating for him not to have extensive support at every step, having to go about life alone. 9 He feels that while decisions and actions are undertaken in relation to the welfare and traditions of the family in India, in America self-reliance is highly valued. The journey to and amidst the United States was a somewhat lonely one for Patel, in comparison to the omnipresent support back in India.
Patel was fascinated upon first coming to the United States. For quite a while after he landed at JFK airport in New York in 1990, he was in awe of the organized freeway systems, ubiquitous lighting, and skyscrapers. It was overwhelming to see such an advanced place, but not very surprising since it was everything he had studied about and seen on TV. Patel “found it impressive, considering the place where [he] was coming [from and] its nonfunctioning systems.”10 His initial experiences were not too adverse or shocking, since he knew what to expect and several lifestyle basics were not too different. Patel’s adaptation to life in the United States was further eased when he found a good engineering job in California, where the weather was less harsh than in New Jersey and more similar to India’s warm climate. Because of India’s British colonial past, English was spoken almost as widely as the national language, Hindi; it is even more widespread today. Because of this, Patel did not have a hard time coping with communication issues, but it still took a few years to get accustomed to American idioms and national, regional, and local styles of speech. Also, India is a democratic country just like America, so Patel was used to some power residing in the hands of the people. Since the United States’ language and political system are somewhat similar to India’s, Patel, just like many other educated immigrants, did not have a very difficult time getting accustomed to the new country.
Much of what Patel knew about how to live, communicate, and get along in India did not match established norms in the new country. These experiences and differences in attitudes affected his adjustment in the new country. Especially after Patel arrived in the United States, the standardization, strength, and effectiveness of this country’s systems made India seem less and less appealing, yet adjusting still took time. Patel came with little money, yet in need of some further education in the Chemical Engineering field. He decided to work part-time and study part-time to build a foundation for his and his family’s future in the United States. He had to complete several registration, examination, English proficiency testing, and application for admission to universities to achieve what he thinks is the key to success—higher education. Patel maintains that “higher education will lead to everything good in your life, and once you have that you can have better employment, you can choose where you want to settle, …which type of the company you want to work [for], where you want to raise your family.”11 With this ideal he got through being a new immigrant and has worked for four different Fortune 500 acclaimed companies, which Patel “would describe as [his] biggest success in this country.”12Adjusting to a new lifestyle and country took Patel’s perseverance. It is a difficult process for some and easier for others.
In so many ways, to Patel, America is a better, more refined society with fewer limitations than India. In addition to general social differences, such as friendlier, more generous people, the overall “flexible, resilient” systems of America is what is most impressive to Patel.13 The “entrepreneurial…‘can-do’ [type of] attitude” of the United States has captivated immigrants like Patel.14 Social, political, and economic changes and progression are accomplished relatively easily in America “because it’s not a traditional society with a history of many, many centuries; it’s relatively young culture.”15 Patel especially appreciates that federal services provide for the public good, such as “infrastructure, this impressive freeway system, airports, seaports, bridges, dams, canals, irrigation and agriculture system” benefit all ways of life.16 Upon comparing the two countries, Patel concluded that the socio-economic mechanisms do not remain stagnant in the United States like India’s do; it is not hung up to a certain belief or tradition. Overall, Patel feels that in the United States “if you are smart, hard-working, innovative, the success, reward is almost guaranteed. It’s a system that rewards your innovation, your hard work, your smartness.”17 It concerns him that, in India, so much talent and ability goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Patel knew India was not the ideal place for the education and upbringing of his children. Education in India, even though it is free, is “not very well-designed” and puts too much “emphasis on memorizing and cramming.”18 Because of quota systems and limited resources, there is no room for innovation or creativity, therefore little room for a bright and successful future, unlike the limitless opportunities the United States provides.
Many weak points of the American society were difficult to comprehend for Kiran Patel. A growing problem of American society that he noticed is that people spend more money than they earn; the practice of saving money has dramatically decreased over the past few decades. In addition, it concerns Patel that in the U.S. “success and performance is rewarded, but non-performance and outright failure is also rewarded [to failed corporate CEOs]”; corporate CEOs make hundreds of times more money than the average employees, and they have become progressively greedier.19 Our democratic system has been tested and proven efficient, yet what Patel calls the “ideological divide” between the right and left is widening, especially on social issues.20 More and more conflicts are arising due to these growing differences in opinion, hindering an otherwise effective system. Another of his concerns is Americans’ “hunger for cheap goods and cheap labor”—foreign consumer goods and illegal immigrant labor are weaknesses of this country.21 Yet, “it is a well-functioning system, despite [the] complaints you see or you hear, it’s no way close to what [Patel has] seen growing up in India.”22 Patel is also unsure of the future of the healthcare system in the upcoming decades—“there is some possibility that things [will not] work out well in those areas.”23 Patel came to America in search of a better future, but he has concern for his forthcoming years here, in terms of social security and retirement. Although he has family and owns property in India, Patel says it is not likely that he will move back to India “in the near future”; in comparison to from where Patel came, the positive aspects of the United States outweigh the flaws.24
Kiran Patel did not want his children to be completely devoid of any sense of Indian culture. Along with celebrating the adopted country’s traditions such as Christmas, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and the Super Bowl, his family “in many ways observe[s] the Indian way of life.”25 They speak the Gujarati language at home. They read and watch Indian news to keep up with what’s going on in the country and watch Bollywood Hindi movies. Patel certainly misses his authentic homeland traditions, “family, friends, festivals, and food,” but tries to alleviate those feelings by celebrating traditional Indian festivals, such as Navratri (festival of worship and traditional Garba dance), Holi (festival of colors), and Diwali (festival of lights), and wear traditional colorful Indian clothing during all the cultural events.26 He also savors spicy Indian food at home. Patel’s family has adhered to their Jain religion, and goes to temple every Sunday as well as practices the ideals of strict vegetarianism and nonviolence. Patel’s story proves that absolute assimilation into a new culture is not necessary; rather a gradual ease into a new culture can be made along with preserving time-honored customs and ways of life to prevent complete obliteration of origins. As difficult as living in a completely different culture is, Patel and his family have made sure that their Indian heritage does not disappear.
Kiran Patel is very content with life in the United States. This country has provided everything that he sought—a new place and new beginning from the society he wanted to leave, despite having deep-set roots there. Leaving one’s closest family, friends, and lifestyle for a new start is a plunge into an uncertain territory, yet it is a decision that many like Patel have made. Permanently moving to a new country means dealing with ethnic, social, and ideological conflicts, and some immigrant families find their most basic principles and traditions contrast with the new culture. Certain sacrifices are necessary to adjust to such a massive change, but Kiran Patel thinks that for progression and betterment of one’s future, it is a necessity.
1. Patel, Kiran. Personal interview. 25 May 2009. 2.
2. Patel, 25 May 2009, 2.
3. Patel, 25 May 2009, 2.
4. Patel, 25 May 2009, 4.
5. Patel, 25 May 2009, 4.
6. Patel, 25 May 2009, 5.
7. Patel, 25 May 2009, 5.
8. Patel, 25 May 2009, 8.
9. Patel, 25 May 2009, 11.
10. Patel, 25 May 2009, 8.
11. Patel, 25 May 2009, 9.
12. Patel, 25 May 2009, 11.
13. Patel, 25 May 2009, 15.
14. Patel, 25 May 2009, 15.
15. Patel, 25 May 2009, 15.
16. Patel, 25 May 2009, 15.
17. Patel, 25 May 2009, 15.
18. Patel, 25 May 2009, 4.
19. Patel, 25 May 2009, 16.
20. Patel, 25 May 2009, 16.
21. Patel, 25 May 2009, 16.
22. Patel, 25 May 2009, 8.
23. Patel, 25 May 2009, 10.
24. Patel, 25 May 2009, 12.
25. Patel, 25 May 2009, 13.
26. Patel, 25 May 2009, 11.