[Editor's Note: This article is based on a personal letter which has been reformatted and modestly edited for purposes of publication.]
I was inspired to narrate my story of arrival in the USA, and my complex personal reaction over time to my adopted land, after reading my friend, Debajyoti Chatterji’s account, “A Love Story … With Many Ups and Downs”, in the July 1 edition of the Immigrant Bengalis website. (https://www.immigrantbengalis.com/ups-and-downs.html) To me, Debajyoti and his wife (Shikha) represent examples of Reagan's thousand points of light on the hill.
Debajyoti’s article on loving and hating America is right on the money. I believe he has expressed accurately (and with admirable talent) the inner thoughts of a majority of immigrants from India. His depth of analysis and power of choosing the right expressive words are remarkable, as is his memory. I owe him this preamble before starting my story.
I came to America from Ghana, and not from India. So, the pre-arrival circumstances had to be different, but not by much.
There was a Dr. Lahiri, M.B.B.S., M.R.C.P., in Ghana. He was green with envy at my coming to America. He told me: Roads are paved with gold in America; one could easily get steaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in America; life is easy there. Obviously, the bad effects of cholesterol were not yet known or considered important enough for one's health. That was in 1964.
Once here, in 1964/65, I found that extreme hard work was the norm in this country, and that was how people of America built up their nation, voluntarily or not.
'Love', personal and socio-personal, is important for one's all-round development, as everybody knows. When I arrived at the US border, after crossing the security and customs barrier, I was given a grand welcome that I will describe later below. Contrast it with what a cousin of mine experienced here, about 8 years later. He was given a job in the prison system of New York City where he was faced with the worst examples of human behavior. He immediately began to passionately hate America. He used to call me and ask me how I could live in such a country. He went back to India in about six months. Of course, later in life, as a high official in a private company, he visited America and other countries several times.
My personal story was and is completely different.
I was a member of an organization called 'Experiment in International Living'. There were many others like me. Thanks to that organization, my entry experience was kind of blissful as soon as I came out into the lobby of the JFK airport.
I found a middle-aged man waiting for me in the lobby. He took me to a coin-telephone booth and dialed (rotary) a number in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, that was my final destination. During the conversation, I heard the clanging noise of coins coming back and falling into a cup. (That was one of my first wonders in America.) The host family of Robert and Margaret Smith were waiting to receive me. Talks over, I was led to board a plane for Champaign-Urbana.
I stayed with the Smiths in their huge house for one month. They were rich, highly educated farmers. They lived among their extended family members who visited them every day from nearby houses. Their 90+ year old Auntie May lived right with them. The Smiths took me everywhere they went. They were marvelous people. Details are unnecessary here. It was they who put me up in a comfortable apartment on the University of Illinois campus before the semester started. They looked after me for many months afterwards.
I fell in love with the United States of America. But then 'Nixon' appeared on the scene as the President, and white supremacists raised their ugly heads. Even so, I went on receiving meaningful help from all quarters. The history of America since that time has been nicely described in detail in Debajyoti Chatterji’s essay.
While I was settling down in Urbana-Champaign, atrocities on the black population were going on in the South. We were aware of some of the despicable events since our very young days. But we conveniently ignored it in the race for survival. How does that reflect on us?
I find in my old age that my love for India has not diminished -- it might have even increased. This is true even though the 'home' of my childhood has vanished, and it will never come back. The bulk of my knowledge of India and the world was acquired after I had left India. I am thankful for that.
Let me end my ruminations with some poetry.
And life goes on
With divinity peeking through the horizon
To help us old people
Facing problems multiple.
We are never sure
Which way to turn for cure
For the ills of the world.
But we march on with flags unfurled.
The few more years we have to live,
We will take from others, and we will also give --
Whatever is our capability
Depending on our stability.
Love and hate continue with us
Happiness and sadness alternate thus.
We have lived long.
We were right and we were wrong.
The author wishes to thank Amitabha Bagchi for transforming his letter to an article.
(Posted October 1, 2023)
Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Loving And Hating America