Immigrant Bengalis

California – Here I Come

Basab Dasgupta

New York and other big cities of the Northeast have always been the magnets for attracting the incoming flow of Bengali immigrants. The reasons are not difficult to understand. The opportunities for employment and higher education are bountiful; availability of mass transit is a major draw; a variety of different airlines and their routes to come to New York provides many different travel options; sight-seeing attractions have been well-known to them since childhood; emotional as well as more tangible support from other Bengalis who are already here is critical during the early days of struggle for any immigrant. Even though the harsh winter months with snow and bone-chilling wind cause all kinds of misery, it is also a new experience that the Bengalis learn not only to cope with but also to enjoy. It is also no wonder that, as the first-generation Bengali immigrants are getting old, Northeast has become the hub of Bengali cultural activities and religious festivities.

Even though we came to USA in 1971, it was not until 1984 that we visited California for the first time.  Since we lived mainly in the Midwest (Wisconsin and Indiana) during the seventies and eighties, it was much easier to travel to the East Coast and the southeastern part of the country by car and there were plenty of places to visit there from Boston to Miami.  Since most of our Bengali friends were also located in those areas, it was both economical as well as very enjoyable to visit and stay with them.  California, on the other hand, seemed to be a distant place where we had to go by plane, stay in hotels and spend a lot of money in car rentals and entertainments.  Our mindset those days was such that, if we could save enough money for such a vacation, we probably would have preferred to simply go to India instead.

It was a company paid conference attendance that took us to San Francisco (SF).  I only had to pay plane fares for my wife and daughter.   I still remember the plane landing at the SF airport in the early hours of a summer evening with the beautiful views of the mountains, the bay and the twinkling lights of the city.  Everything about the city was magical: The Golden Gate Bridge, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Sausalito, Alcatraz, Chinatown, Half-Moon Bay, campuses of UC-Berkley and Stanford and so on. A couple of years later, we again had the same conference in California; this time in San Diego.  Once again I toted my family along to mix pleasure with business.  The contrast between northern and southern California was striking.  While northern California was colder, damper, foggier and more rugged – both in mountainous terrain as well as along the coastline, with an eclectic mix of people, from Silicon Valley techies to hippies grown old -- southern California was sun, fun and bun (of a woman on a beach, of course) rolled into one. Southern California was definitely more tourist-oriented with its miles of sandy beaches and all kinds of amusement parks.  Natural beauty was abundant in both areas and I wondered why I had not visited California much earlier! 

I remember, while visiting San Diego, I thought it to be a vacation dreamland – almost surreal.  I could not believe that regular people like us actually lived there and I wondered what they did for a living.  A colleague of mine had moved from San Diego to Milwaukee in the early seventies and I commented to him at the time, “California may be nice, but it is so isolated from the rest of the country”.  “California, my friend”, he responded, “IS the country!”  I now realized the justification of his comment.

We returned to the Midwest with dream-like memories and tons of photographs, never imagining for a second that someday we would live there.  The opportunity came suddenly and unexpectedly.  My company, RCA, was bought out overnight by the mighty GE and GE, in turn, started to divide up the company and sell the unprofitable divisions almost immediately.  Unfortunately, our division was one of them.  Rumors of massive layoffs and factory shutdowns became rampant.  I started to look for job opportunities in the TV manufacturing companies who were competitors to RCA.  During that job hunt, I discovered that Sony had a facility in San Diego!  It was a mystery why Sony built a plant in the US at a time when all other companies in USA were taking their production off-shore and to Mexico; and they built it in California of all places.  The story was that Akio Morita, one of the co-founders of Sony, just wanted to have a place where he and his other Japanese executive buddies could come often to play golf; whether the plant made any profit or the idea made any other business sense was of no relevance to him.

Fortunately for me, one of my senior RCA colleagues had already left RCA to join Sony in a high position.  One frustrated evening I looked him up in the telephone directory in San Diego and gave him a call. To make a long story short, I managed to get a job at Sony with his recommendation. I still remember the trip from San Diego airport to the Sony facility during my interview.  Everything around me looked sparkling clean; the highway was four lanes wide each way; air was crisp with no humidity even in July.  I could see the ocean and hills off and on as I drove north.  The road was slightly winding and hilly and it was just a pleasure to drive on it.  Right after I passed the Scripps Ranch exit on I-15 and as I was going downhill, I saw a mountain range right in front of me on the horizon; there was a smell of eucalyptus trees in the air.  Right at that moment I fell in love with San Diego.  I just knew that this was the place where I belonged and this was the place I would spend the rest of my life.

Definitely a new and exciting period of my life started with our move to San Diego. Working for Sony opened up an exposure to Japanese culture and business practices – a rather unique opportunity. We all loved San Diego.  San Diego has three things going for it: natural beauty, moderate climate and cleanliness, in addition to being a very large city. The natural beauty encompasses all kinds of terrains and landscapes. We felt that, no matter what we wanted to do, it was only a matter of driving for a couple of hours: swim in the ocean, ski on the mountain slopes or hike on a mountain trail, watch the desert bloom in the spring, experience a different country (Mexico), do all the things one does in a major metropolis (Los Angeles), visit fun places like amusement parks, taste wine in a winery, golf all day, go to some of the best schools in the country, gamble money away at an Indian casino, take a fast boat to (Catalina) island, audition for a role in Hollywood – you name it!  

A number of very significant events – not all good – happened to me during the following years: good performance in the job leading to multiple promotions,  divorce after twenty-one years of marriage, return to my childhood passion of painting, discovery of Paramhansa Yogananda’s self-realization fellowship retreat – something my father was closely associated with back in India before my birth, my daughter’s attendance at Stanford, world travel, romance with a couple of beautiful American women, roller coaster ride with real estate investments, and finally building my ocean-view dream home in the quaint little town of San Clemente, about half-way between Los Angeles and San Diego.  I am fairly certain that living in California had something to do with each of these events which changed the course of my life in a positive direction.

Even now when I have nothing better to do, I would just drive along some highway that I have never traveled before and see mountains or ocean or manicured golf course or vast farmland or some other grand panorama on the way. The towns along the route could be old western towns reminiscent of old California or sparkling planned new townships with look-alike track homes with red tile roofs and stucco exteriors and brand new shopping plazas. I would then just stop somewhere to have a leisurely cup of coffee. I can only describe it as living in paradise.

Friends and relatives often point out the perils of living in California: threat of major earthquakes, sky-high house prices, drought, pollution and traffic and the proverbial “nuts and fruitcakes” among people.  None of these possibilities really bothered me.  In fact, rising home prices helped me gain financial security and it is hard to complain about pollution when one is sitting on one of those numerous beautiful beaches in southern California.  I would also point out that more people were affected by the “Super-Storm Sandy” in the East Coast and hurricane “Katrina” in Louisiana than any earthquake related problem here.  As far as “nuts and fruitcakes” are concerned, perhaps I am one of them myself! I have seen several of my friends leaving California at one time or another, citing precisely the above issues, and moving to places like Oregon, Washington, Texas and Florida, but they all came back. Once you get used to living here, it is virtually impossible to live anyplace else.

I would concede, however, that this paradise-like weather and abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation is not necessarily good for an ideal family life. In the East Coast and Midwest one has to constantly battle mother nature: tornado warning after a blistering hot day, seemingly endless piles of leaves to rake in the fall, shoveling snow and scraping the car's windshield after a snow-storm in winter and cleaning up and seeding the lawn during the spring. All these chores keep the family busy in doing things together which result in a strong bond. This may also explain a relative lack of interest among the Bengalis living in California in carrying out activities to promote Bengali culture in this country.

What really cemented my resolve about living here is the fact that it is really a melting place of all ethnicities.  I lived in a number of states before moving to California: other than Wisconsin and Indiana I also lived in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Maryland for various short periods of time; I visited Texas and Georgia numerous times when my ex-wife was living there with my daughter.  I found people everywhere to be very friendly, helpful and trustworthy; I can honestly say that I never experienced any kind of discrimination.  However, deep down inside, when I lived in all those states, I always had this awareness that I was really a foreigner, that I did not belong there.  Surprisingly, I do not feel that way in California.  I consider myself to be just as American as Jose Morales or Kwan Lee or Reza Farrazadeh next door.  It is a very comfortable feeling, to know that this is MY country. People are also very laid back. Regardless of where you originally came from, you have to look cool if you want to live in California. It does not mean one has to dress very formally or casually; just feel comfortable and confident in one's skin. It is like that old Calvin Klein commercial: "Be a man, be a woman; just be".

A few years back, while visiting Europe, I was in a long line one day waiting to enter the Colosseum in Rome.  There was a young woman with obvious Japanese features standing right in front of me in the line.  I was tired of waiting and thought that I would start up a conversation with her and also impress her with my knowledge of Japan.  “So, what part of Japan are you from?” I asked after saying “hello”.  She smiled in a typically shy Japanese way and said, “No, I am American; I live in California”.  “Oh really?” I said “So am I.  It is a small world, isn’t it?”


(Posted August 1, 2016)

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