America Deconstructed is the story of every person who walked a foreign land and made home, who weathered the storm and weaved their dream through resilience and determination. America Deconstruction is a celebration of human stories of the people who made America their home.
Lifestyle short stories
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“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself”
- Maya Angelou
- Chapter 1: An Alien in America
An Alien in America follows the journey of a 17 year old tomboy as she enters adulthood in America. The story follows her through various embarrassing situations such as her first Starbucks run, dating, fashion and eventually marrying an American. How does the 17 year old stay true to herself while becoming more acceptable in America forms the cusp of this story.
- Chapter 2: Azim Karimi is a Happy man
One morning Azim Karimi was working as a technician at the Afghan University, but by the end of the day he found himself imprisoned in a jail. Azim Karimi is a happy man follows Azim Karimi through his journey from the prison of Afghanistan to America where he becomes an engineer. His story chronicles the changes in America from the 80’s to the present in the eyes of a foreigner.
- Chapter 3: I saw a ripe mango I’d like to pluck
She is vivacious with a glint of mischief in her eyes. He is silent, calm and composed. Together, Ifeyinwa and Chidibere oozed chemistry as they spoke in their Nigerian accented English. In their story I saw a ripe mango I’d like to pluck, they chronicle their love story from rustic Nigeria to America, raising two African American boys as Nigerians and being black in America.
Chapter 4: You will be slaughtered alive!
When Shaima found out she was coming to America, she imagined living in one of the high rise buildings like the show Full House. In her story, “You will be Slaughtered Alive”, Shaima recalls her first day in an American high school, living in the ghettos of Oakland and the conviction to live the American Dream.
- Chapter 5: It is so colorful... can I touch it!
It is so colorful...can I touch it chronicles the life of Liti as she moved from India to America following love. In her story she talks about hating the smell of potatoes, onions in America, being startled by burnt meat (barbeque) and raising children in America.
- Chapter 6: There are some people who are coming to take me away!
Naseer was nine years old when the Taliban threatened to take his father from him. His story, There are some people who are coming to take me away, chronicles the journey of a nine year old as he shoulders the responsibility of his family. His journey spans different countries from Afghanistan to America, and in every continent his will to be successful remains his single driving force.
- Chapter 7: Are you really living in America?
In her story, “Are you really living in America”, Roselin talks about the conflict of staying true to who you are and the perception that comes with living in the West. She talks about her initial days as a new arranged bride, struggles of raising her child in America and loneliness of living away from family.
- Chapter 8: Kosovo? Really...Cool!
What do you do when your country of origin is unknown to the world? In the story, “Kosovo? Really...Cool!” Lisian chronicles his journey as an 18 year old in America from a small town in Kosovo. He talks about his embarrassments ordering fast food at a restaurant, the melting pot culture and his identity crisis in America in spite of being white.
- Chapter 9: I am exotic, mocha P-Diddy!
Parag in his story, “I am exotic, mocha P-Diddy” talks about being one of the two brown kids in an all-white school in the 90’s. His story covers topics such as racism, homosexuality and the impact America had in him acknowledging being gay.
- Chapter 10: Daddy, I want to be a farmer one day!
Every child wants to be like his father and every father wants his child to be better than him. The story, Daddy, I want to be a farmer one day, talks about the sacrifices his Mexican immigrant parents made so he could be an engineer. When he told his father he wanted to be a farmer like him, the family relocated to California and his story details the sacrifices his parents made for him.
- Chapter 11: I am Moo-hay and French because of my English accent
When Molly immigrated to the United States of America to live with her American husband, she did not expect much of a culture shock. She was from England after all. In her story, I am Moo-hay and French because of my English accent, Molly explains being shocked when her simple name Molly became Moo-hay. Mundane everyday activities like turning on a washing machine proved challenging and provided for some humor.
- Chapter 12: One inch from heaven & a quarter inch from hell!
When the Sierra Leone civil war erupted in the 90’s, Benedict was forced to leave his home without saying farewell to his family. He did not know if they were safe but he knew he had to leave Sierra Leone if he had to take care of his family. In his story, One inch from heaven and a quarter inch from hell, he talks about his life as a war refugee, his dreams that never happened and being African in America.
- Chapter 13: Is it for here or to go?
As an engineer immigrating to America, the protagonist did not expect issues with ordering food. In his story, “is it for here or to go”, he talks about the loneliness he felt being away from his family, language struggles and working as an engineer in corporate America.
- Chapter 14: I love you even though you are old school, mom!
In her story, I love you even though you are old school, mom, Myra talks about her modest life in Philippines and her journey live with her high school sweetheart in America. Her story covers the struggles of raising her child in the American school system, loss of loved ones back in the Philippines, accents and home
- Chapter 15: I was freezing in Hawaii!
JC in her story, “I was freezing in Hawaii, talks about her journey from China to Hawaii where she attended the university for her Masters. In her story she talks about the cold in Hawaii and walking around in sweaters while the locals were in shorts. As a woman in an electrical engineering field, JC talks about sexism in a male dominated industry, and raising her child in America.
- Chapter 16: I married my wife’s picture!
In his story, “I married my wife’s picture”, Sam talks about being an African kid in an American school, being different from African American kids and the embarrassing situations that arose from that interaction, visiting Ghana and his marriage.
According to the data released by the US Homeland security, there are 42.24million immigrants living in the US in 2014. The 42.4 million immigrants constitute 13.3% of the US population. America Deconstructed is targeted towards the 42.4 million people who have made America their home.
While America Deconstructed chronicles the human experiences of immigrants living in America, the book is targeted towards anyone who has moved away from home. The situations might be unique to America, but the experiences from cultural differences are universal.
Chaithanya Sohan immigrated to America from India in 2001. She currently works as an Electrical Engineer in the Silicon Valley. Chaithanya graduated from San Jose State University with Bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Electrical Engineering from Santa Clara University.
Chaithanya Sohan has worked as a writer since 2002 when she started writing content for various websites. She free-lanced as a writer until 2013 when she decided to write her book America Deconstructed. She worked as a research manager and writer at One Earth One Mission for over four years during where she authored various pieces on political issues such as women empowerment and racial issue surrounding South Asians after to the September 11th attacks. Some of her works are published in websites such as www.rethinkreality.com. Chaithanya enjoys traveling and runs her own blogs www.nomadicsue.wordpress.com & www.wordspeare.wordpress.com. Some of her most liked articles on her blog have been on cultural differences which has been an inspiration for this book. Besides that being married to an American has also played inspiration to the birth of America Deconstructed.
Chaithanya Sohan and Denell Hopkins have been married for eight years and have one human child, Maya (Age 1) and a puppy child named Zed (1 1/2). In their spare time, they enjoy basketball, traveling and hiking the mountains. They live in Newark, California with her parents and two cats.
The authors will use the following platforms to promote and market the book:
The authors have setup a facebook, twitter accounts for the book which they will use to regularly update their followers on the book. They will use the facebook page to give release information on the book.
Naseer who is one of the protagonist in the book owns his own online business that caters to the immigrant diaspora. He boasts of having 5000 followers on his facebook page and over 10000 followers on his instagram. He has graciously offered for us to promote the book on his various pages. Since his business caters predominantly to the ethnic diaspora, this could help get the word out.
Molly, who is one of the protagonists in the book has offered to publicize the book on her blog www.themovetoamerica.wordpress.com. Her blog has been featured in several websites that cater to the expats and has been awarded best blog several times.
Use medium to promote the book to other writers/bloggers
Shaima and I have created a blog/website for our book America Deconstructed. In order to generate content for the blog, we are going to interview more immigrants, and have snippets of their journey on the blog. We have already started interviewing/talking to people who are willing to share their stories with us. We are also trying to get bloggers who have similar stories as our book to do a guest blog on our blog so we can link it to theirs and get more traffic to our blog.
URL for our blog: https://americadeconstructedblog.wordpress.com
We are in process of contacting several expats to do a guest blog post on their blogs/website. Expat blogs are usually targeted towards immigrants and expats who have moved away from their home country.
Bay Area News group with 5 million readers weekly has agreed to do the book coverage for America Deconstructed. They have asked us to send the book upon being published to their office so they can start their book coverage.
India West the largest Indian newspaper in America with a circulation of 25000 has offered to publish our press release in their newspaper and website. The newspaper has two branches in California (San Leandro & LA) and in Mumbai, India.
We are approaching various bloggers who predominantly interview new authors to see if they can do author interviews with us.
Chris Smit of the Culture Matters podcast has agreed to interview us for his podcast. Chris Smit is a pioneer in the field of culture and diversity and has authored several books himself. He has been invited by several major organizations to talk on culture and diversity. He has offered us a guest blog post on his website as well.
This American Life, is a weekly public radio show produced by the Chicago Public Media. The radio station has about 2.1 million listeners. We have pitched the concept of our book to them and are waiting to hear back from them.
Womens Radio has forwarded our pitch to the host of their radio show and are in process of getting us a guest slot to talk on their show.
We are in talks with local colleges and local networks to get an interview on air and are waiting to hear from them.
The reviewers we have approached have offered to write a review of our book and post it on amazon, facebook, twitter, goodreads and other social media portal. Some of the reviewers who have offered to do a review of our book as well as author interviews are as follows:
- Amy’s Book Shelf (writeamyshannon.wixsite.com)
- Elise from Under the heather books
The following editors have been approached to do a review of our book and we are waiting to hear back from them:
Chris Schluep - Amazon editor
Erin Kodicek- Amazon editor
Adrian Liang - Amazon editor
Off the Shelf - Julianna Haubner
New York Times
We are also planning to send a copy of the book to book page so they can post a review of the book on their website. Bookpage website
Shaima and I are seriously considering hiring a publicist for our book. We have not contacted anybody yet, but as soon as we sign the contract, we will start researching on finding a publicist.
Articles on various websites with book/author platform:
Shaima and I are planning to use reddit, ezine, Quora digest to post articles so we can get some buzz around our book. Most of these websites have a specific book section. These websites are high traffic websites and can definitely help in getting the word out about the book.
Paul Varghese, an Indian American comedian is currently writing the foreword for our book. Maz Jobrani, an Iranian- American comedian has asked us to contact him upon getting a publisher for potential endorsement of the book.
We are contacting local colleges to introduce our book to the international student associations, and also hold talks as the book is nearing release. We also have contacted multicultural associations to hold talks regarding the book. University of California, Berkeley has a multicultural center where in we are hoping to get on their calendar so we can talk about the issues that our book addresses while introducing the book.
We intend to use meetup.com to hold local meetup sessions and eventually book signing events. We have also contacted various book clubs in the Bay area where they have offered for us to come read excerpts from the book and also hold book signings later.
Although there are no known books that are similar to America Deconstructed, some of the works that were on the same topic are as follows:
- Letter of Transit - Essays by five outstanding authors on their experiences of exile
- Becoming American - 23 women from different countries share their experiences
The above books talk about experiences related to different countries, while America Deconstructed talks about American immigrants and their experiences. America Deconstructed does not delve into the laws and policies pertaining to immigration. The book talks about the human experiences of moving countries.
“Are you ready to leave”, she asked me walking out of her room. I had been enamored by the microwave in our kitchen and had been staring at it for minutes now. I turned around. I knew the voice, but did not recognize the person standing in front of me. The lady whose sari clad figure had been part of my childhood years stood in pants and t-shirt in front of me. The image of my mom in pants signaled the end of the known in a lot of ways for me. I gathered myself as I prepared for my introduction into America. It was 9:30am on a warm July morning as my mom and I walked out of the hotel into the streets of Pleasanton. We were enjoying our first day in America when we heard someone call out to us. “Hello Ladies”, said a male voice behind us. We did not dare turn around or respond. Instead we walked faster. We could feel his presence behind us. From the corner of my eye I could see his tall frame. I told my mom he looked tall and dark. We turned into the 7-Eleven parking lot when the man overtook us. He stood in front of us blocking our entrance to the store. I did not know what my options were. We were a few hours into our new life in America. With no cell phone on us, we were clueless on what our options were. If this were India, I knew I could have called out to the people walking on the street, but in Pleasanton, California there were hardly anyone on this summer morning. In less than 24 hours on the United States of America soil, I feared for both our lives.
Twenty-four hours before I was sitting on an Eva airlines flight watching the sun set upon San Francisco. As the stewardess announced our descent upon San Francisco, I remember looking outside and seeing the skyline. The orange yellow hues of the sunset against the San Francisco skyline signaled the beginning of a new life. As I sat there watching nature’s display I was reminded of a movie I watched a few years back titled Pardes (Foreign in Hindi). The San Francisco skyline looked exactly like the skyline from the movie. After a grueling few hours clearing customs and immigrations, I was officially welcomed into America with an alien number. As I stood waiting for my baggage, I realized I had made the journey I had dreaded for the past few months. Unlike most immigrants who plan their trip to America for years or decades, I was given few months’ notice. My stepfather was suddenly transferred from his India office to America, and within months of his moving here we knew we were going to immigrate here after my 12th grade. I resisted the move because I had already made plans for my college life in India. I was going to attend college with my high school friends, ditch classes to watch movies, have boyfriends, and do everything that college life in India guaranteed. Standing at San Francisco airport made the move concrete as I combated a gamut of emotions. I missed my family and friends back in India. I always wanted to attend graduate school in America or UK, but this was too soon for me.
As I walked through the airport to our car, I realized the fear and apprehension was slowly being replaced by excitement. I was enamored by everything from the elevators to the parking garage. I was excited to finally reach our car, as I was about to see what America was really like. I was ready to leave the airport and enter America or San Francisco to be precise. Everything around me was new. As the car drove through the parking garage to the exit, I looked around with amazement. Even the parking garage looked nothing like the ones back in India. I was relaxing in the car as I watched the car enter the freeway. I wasn’t aware of what a freeway would be like and no body warned me about the real life NASCAR race I was going to be part of. I held on to the car handle for dear life as I watched cars zoom by our car. After traveling for twenty -three hours on a flight, I was happy when the NASCAR race finally ended with us reaching the hotel. Our hotel was located in Pleasanton, California in a strip mall with several shops, Movie Theater and restaurants. We were given a hotel suite with a kitchen and two bedrooms by my stepfather’s office. I spent all night watching people throng the mall as I combated my jetlag and excitement. I could not wait for the next morning to begin my American adventure.
I felt the last twenty-four hours flashing before my eyes. When I woke up this morning I was excited to begin my American adventure. As we left our hotel I felt safe knowing I was in America. As we stood staring at the man who cornered us, I cursed myself for letting my guard down. The 6 foot tall African American man who followed us to 7-Eleven was smiling at us. My mom and I held hands and got closer. We were scared. He seemed satisfied to have finally cornered his prey. The man gleefully said, “Y’all are pretty. Where are y’all from?” I knew I had problems understanding American English but did he just really call us pretty. I wondered. Why would he call us pretty before hurting us? “India”, I responded coyly. “You ladies have a good day”, and with that he walked into 7-Eleven. He continued walking, as we stood there shocked. We were even more appalled that he called us pretty. He could have called us Angelina Jolie and we would have still been offended. In India men never compliment women directly and usually speak incognito around them. We decided to skip going into 7-Eleven in case he decides to talk to us again.
I reached America on July 12th 2001. Most colleges begin reviewing transcripts in May and have a decision for students by July. Since I missed the deadline, I was forced to stay home for six months and start college during the spring semester. I used those six months to acquaint myself with America. We rented an apartment and no longer stayed in a hotel. We had an actual address and a sense of normalcy. I also gave myself six months to return back to India for college. I threw tantrums and acted depressed for a while before I realized my parents were not falling for it. Eventually I caved in and accepted my new life. My mom and I spent our days walking to the nearby Walmart, going to parks and renting Indian movies from the Indian grocery store. Since we did not have a car or know how to drive, we walked everywhere. We were slowly regaining our confidence and getting used to the American ways. We bought a car and my stepfather got his license. Six months had already gone by.
The day I had dreamed about since I was in seventh grade was finally here. I was officially a college student. A week before college I was excited but as the day neared the excitement morphed into gut wrenching fear. I could not sleep at night from the fear of college so my mom offered to come with me on my first day. I had it all planned out. I was going to wear my best jeans, t-shirt and sweatshirt for college. We took two buses and a train to San Jose State University. I was still feeling fairly confident until I walked through the gates of San Jose State University. Instantly I knew I was underdressed in oversized clothes. I was a tomboy who loved wearing baggy clothes. I wore jeans two sizes bigger than me, my t-shirt was decent and my sweatshirt hung loose on my body. I also had very short boycut hair. As much as I was shocked by the different fashions around me, I had bigger problems to deal with. I had never used a map to navigate in my life. During our freshmen orientation we were given a campus map. I had marked the various buildings for my classes the night before. As I stood near San Jose State University entrance, I had no idea how to reach any of the buildings. Eventually after making several wrong turns, I reached the engineering building for my first class almost 20 minutes into the class. I was just in time for attendance. I knew I could be called any minute now. After few names, the professor paused with brief silence staring at his sheet with a baffled look. He stuttered, paused and looked confused as he called me by my last name and asked how to pronounce my first name. When I told him Chai-tanya, he exclaimed how easy it was. This incident followed me throughout the day and for most of my college life. I obliged every time someone looked confused by my name. I wore my full name with pride and refused to shorten it until my senior year happened. My teammates and I were spending summer working with a professor on a project and were done for the day. As we walked down the hallway, I heard someone say “Shit-tanya”. I did a double take but he really did call me Shit tanya. I shortened my name to Chai that instant hoping I would never be called Shit-tanya again. In spite of shortening my name, I still get called Chi, Kai, Che, etc. People often tell me Chai means tea in their country. I stop myself from telling them chai originated in my country. I let them have their moment. I have my moment every time I visit Starbucks with Chai latte named after me or so I want to believe.
Before I could start college, I had to decide on the classes for the semester. I was clueless so I followed the four-year plan that was given during orientation. The plan included Math, General Education, Engineering, English and Public Speaking. I had no idea what public speaking entails but I took it as instructed in the four-year plan. The plan gave me the best shot to graduate in four years with a degree. During my introductory English class, we were asked to introduce ourselves. My introduction included the country I was from and how long I had lived here. As soon as the class ended, one of my classmates stopped me and said “You must feel really lucky to have bathrooms now. I have watched documentaries of people taking showers on the street in India”. As he stood there watching my expression change from confusion to anger, I composed myself enough to explain how I grew up having bathrooms.
I was confident in my Math and English skills, but I had no idea what Public Speaking entailed. I walked into my public speaking class on my very first day at San Jose State University. The professor began briefing us on what we would need to do in order to get an A. “You would need to prepare and present three speeches on various topics that are assigned to you”, he said. I was sure I heard it wrong. I cleared my ears and asked the person sitting next to me if the professor actually said three speeches. I have been on stage since I was three years old and have emceed several events in India. I was used to presenting in front of a large crowd, but this was America. As I looked around the class and saw different ethnicities of people around, I felt my confidence disappear. I knew I was in trouble when the professor said the first speech was due in two weeks and it had to be on a topic that represented us ethnically. I did my first speech on henna (Indian artwork tattoo). I stayed up all night presenting my speech in front of the mirror. I was ready but as I reached the stage, my legs began vibrating. I was so nervous that the professor asked for a podium to ease my stress. I was still vibrating behind the podium. I had to give three speeches for my public speaking class and I vibrated my way through all three of them.
I have often been complimented on my English speaking skills. People ask me if I learned to speak English after I came to America. Initially, I would tell them we learned English in school and listen to Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears like the rest of the world, but now I politely say thank you. In spite of speaking good English, I did not realize there was a big difference between British and American English beyond the accents. Oblivious to the differences, I once told my friend I had called him the day before but his phone was engaged. He began laughing while I stood there baffled. I was clueless until he asked me engaged to whom. I forgot all about it until he asked me one day if he could borrow my pen because his pen was engaged. As ridiculous as this might sound, engaged is only used for the phone.
I have always been an introvert and extremely shy. In spite of being a popular girl in my high school, I have always had trouble in big groups. I could dance nonchalantly on stage, but cannot eat in front of people. The social scene in American colleges warrants eating out with people and I constantly shied away from it. I was completely wary of the dating scene when I first started college. When guys asked me for my number, I gave it to them even when I wasn’t attracted to them. It took me months before I realized asking my phone number had nothing to do with studying or even the classes we took. One of the guys who eventually became my friend asked me out to lunch and dinner for months. I always evaded him saying my mom cooked for me or I wasn’t hungry. Eventually he asked me out to a coffee at Starbucks which I could not refuse. I walked into Starbucks and stared at the menu on the wall. I had no idea what Cappuccino and Frappuccino was so I ordered coffee. I was rather excited to have ordered my first drink in America. I expected my coffee to have milk and sugar like it did in India, but what I received was black coffee. My date showed me to milk section. I was confused at the options I had to choose from. I had no idea what 1% milk, no fat and 2% meant so I decided to skip milk. I added two packets of sugar assuming one packet equated to a teaspoon. I excitedly took a sip of my coffee. It was bitter, and the two packets of sugar disappeared in the black hole in my cup. I stalled drinking the coffee until our bus arrived and gladly threw it away on the pretense that it wasn’t allowed on the bus. Eating out has also been extremely challenging for me and it took me several years before I learned to deal with it. Initially we only ate fast foods such as burgers and pizza’s. When we did go out to sit down restaurants I watched my parents and emulated how they used the fork and knife. In spite of coming from a multicultural background, I could never comprehend how to use a fork and knife. I always felt very anxious when the waitress chanted the options. Until I could graduate from college, my step father ordered my food whenever we went out to eat.
When I first moved to America my confidence was shaken up. I lacked confidence to do things I knew I was good at. Basketball happened to be one such activity. I had been in love with basketball since I was ten years old. I played at the state level in India, and had a scholarship to play basketball in college. I idolized Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and wore my Chicago Bulls jersey with élan. I dreamed of playing in the NBA. During my freshman year in college, I found out San Jose State University was having basketball tryouts for the freshmen. I was excited and reached the try outs an hour early. With time I saw other girls walk in. Most of them were African American and they seemed to know one another. I sat in the corner and watched the girls chat with each other. I had been in America for six months at that point. I felt my nerves kick in which eventually turned to fear. I knew I was good at basketball but sitting in that corner I started doubting my skills. Eventually, in spite of pep talking to myself I caved into my fears and ran out before I could ever try out. Basketball continues to enthrall me but my dreams to be a professional player remains unfulfilled.
The four years at San Jose State University changed me as a person. I was a introverted tomboy when I first walked into college. I wore baggy jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt with boy cut hair. While I still believe I rocked my look, I have had to change to become more America acceptable. In the four years at college, my jeans got tighter; t-shirt morphed into fashionable tops and the sweatshirt has evolved into cardigans. It took almost two years of a slow progression for my appearance to change. I have in my own way learned to balance being myself while being more America acceptable. My hair has grown but I refuse to get bangs. My earrings continue to be studs and I refuse to conform to the chandelier wearing Indian-American girl model. I might have changed on the outside, but deep down I am the same Indian girl who boarded the plane on that July day. I love my Indian food, Bollywood music and Shahrukh Khan (an Indian actor) continues to make my heart flutter.
When my family and I went to the consulate to get my US visa, the officer swore I would marry a US citizenship. I shrugged it off insisting I had a prototype for my man. He would be tall, tan and handsome with the quintessential Indian haircut. In 2003 I met a curly haired African American boy in my computer engineering class who I now know was unlike anyone I had met. We exchanged hi and bye for little over a year. One day I decided to ditch my class and gave him my phone number so he could call me if there was a quiz. The calls that followed did not include a quiz but a friendship that eventually turned into a relationship. In 2008, we got married in an Indian-American fusion wedding. I had lived in America for over seven years at this point and was convinced my cultural differences were behind me. Little did I know being married to an American would have it’s own challenges culturally. Even after five years of friendship, my husband still chuckles when I say calcium or aluminum with a British accent. In America, calcium is pronounced as cal-c-um while the British pronunciation is cal-cheum. Few years into our marriage, I told my husband about a coworker who met with an accident. He started laughing saying they had an accident and not met with an accident. With him, I live a cultural mix-masala every day.
Few months into our marriage, I was invited to a summer barbeque at his aunt's house. I had not met his extended family until then. I did not realize the noise level at an African American home until that day. I was welcomed by a slew of high-pitched voices introducing themselves as family. I was the first Indian girl in their family and I tried to be the best ambassador of my culture. I tasted my first peach cobbler and realized it was an acquired taste. While I love my banana puddings and carrot cake, I would rather have my gulab jamun and jalebi any day. It’s been eight years since we got married and I still talk when talked to. I have also introduced Indian food to my extended family. In 2014, I made my famous Indian spicy chicken for a Thanksgiving potluck. My in laws opened the lid of the container and felt the radiating heat from the chili powder. As they contemplated if they should taste it, they saw my African American husband eating it with much ease in the corner. They were shocked when one of his cousins said, “What did y’all expect? He is married to an Indian girl!”
I visited India in 2009 after eight years of living in America. This was my first visit back home and my husband’s first visit to India. My family pampered him by being at his beck and call. They ensured he was comfortable by adding ketchup to Indian dishes to reduce the spice. Wherever we went people tried to ease him into the Indian ways. He played American football since school and is built like American football players. Sales women at stores insisted on helping him with clothes as they wondered why a football player was built like him. They asked him if he was related to Mohammed Ali because of his body type. In India football was soccer and they had no idea about American football. Neighbors told him they loved President Obama while my husband wondered why they were talking about the President to him. In India, my husband was related to President Obama, Mohammed Ali and Will Smith. In short it was his big Indian adventure and my homecoming.
The initial years in America were extremely hard. I came here on a H4 dependent visa and was not allowed to work. My Indian parents did not want me to work. Instead they wanted me to concentrate on my studies. At college, my friends often teased me for being lazy and not working. In order to combat that, I started volunteering for organizations without pay. It allowed me to tell people I worked in spite of not being paid. When I left India for America, I told my friends I would visit them every few years. It took me eight years before I went back to India.. My parents did not want me to go back on a visa in case the US consulate did not let me return back. I waited until I got my green card to visit India. I was homesick every second of those eight years. America was home but it never felt like home.
It’s been fifteen years since I landed in America. I was seventeen years old then. Since that day I have received two engineering degrees and married an African American man. Yet, every time I look at the mirror, I see the seventeen year old me looking back at me. America has given me everything from education, marriage, career and a fairly luxurious life. Yet, I yearn for the simplicity of life back home. I miss drinking tea to the monsoon, the talks I had with my grandmother each evening, my friends who visited me with no prior notice and the childish banter that always followed those visits. The hardest aspect of my American life has been the loneliness I feel everyday living here. In spite of having family here, America has never felt like home.
In 2009, I visited India for the first time in eight years since I moved to America. As I walked out of Chennai airport, I realized I was home. The air felt familiar, the smells and sounds echoed the familiarity from my childhood. I knew I was home. All my life I have been told home is where your family is. I realized it was wrong at the instant when I walked out of Chennai airport. I was meeting my friends after eight years and I was nervous wondering how the years could have changed our friendship. I knew how stupid I was when I met my friends. It seemed like time had stood still. It felt like I had never left India. The conversations flowed as we walked through streets holding hands like we did in school. For the first time in eight years I felt the sense of belonging I had yearned for in years. In those three weeks in India, I realized my physical address could be anywhere in the world, but my home will forever be India. India is and will always continue to be the place I call my home.
I did not have a watch indicating the time of the day. I could not see any light enter the crevices of the wall signaling night and day. I could not remember how many days I had been sitting in this dark cell. Was it a day or had it been years? I did not know but it felt like eons. I had nothing to do but ponder on this trivial information. I felt hope diminishing with every second I spent in this small cell. It felt like yesterday I was working as a technician at the Afghan University, but today I am sitting in a jail cell. In the days since I had been in jail I saw people when I was beaten and tortured by the guards. Each time I saw one of them walk into my cell, I knew what followed. I was scared, nervous as thoughts of never walking a free man clouded my thoughts.
It seemed like yesterday when my life was headed in the right direction. I attended Afghan Institute of technology established by the Americans in Kabul. Upon graduation, I worked as a technician in the college of Engineering at the Afghan University. Three years passed as a technician when one day I was told I was admitted to the University for Engineering. I was beyond happy knowing I was going to University. Afghanistan was under the communist regime at that time. They were opposed to Afghans receiving education from the Americans. As more Afghans began attending the universities and colleges run by Americans, things started going south. Things got so bad that forty-eight American professors and staff members at the education institutes were ordered to leave the country immediately. The people who attended the institutions, Afghans who taught in these institutions, or those affiliated were considered communist targets. I remember I had stayed up late studying for my midterm exams the night before. I was a sophomore in college. I had heard they were arresting people around the city who were affiliated with Americans. As I walked through my university gate I saw several military trucks full of men in uniforms pull in to the university parking. The men jumped out of the trucks loaded with arms and ammunition. There were several of them. I was scared but hopeful I might not be arrested or taken away. All that changed in minutes when one of my professors asked me to report to the Dean’s office. I was trembling with fear. I knew I was in trouble. As I walked into the Dean’s office I saw uniformed men with guns standing around. “We will be taking him outside for questioning”, one of the men said. I hoped someone would rescue me from this situation, but it never happened. I followed the men outside.
“Is your name Azim?” I stood there worried. I wanted to deny but I knew I would be in greater trouble for lying. I nodded my head. “Are there any other Azims in this university?” I told them I wasn’t sure and they would have to ask admissions for that information. I saw a silver lining and was hopeful there might be another Azim somewhere who would free me. I felt my silver lining melt away as the uniformed guy chose to ignore me. He said he was taking me for interrogation. Once we reached the car, I asked if I could lock the lab before going. He denied my request. I insisted on going at which point he pointed the gun under his jacket at me and told me to do as I was instructed. I knew if I disobeyed I might be dead. I got in the car fearing for my life. I knew if I did survive the interrogation my father would rescue me out of anywhere. My father retired from the military and could use his contacts to get me out of here.
I ran the scenario leading to my arrest million times as I sat in my cell. I wondered what could have happened if the guard had chosen to check for other Azims. I knew there were three outcomes for my situation right now. I could end up in prison, go to a correction facility or get executed. I did not know if one was better than the other. It felt like the end of the road for me. I pondered on my situation wondering if I was ever going to get out of here. One fine day I heard the cell gate open as the guard said, “Azim, let’s go”. I was told I had been in jail for two weeks. As I sat in that dark cell those two weeks felt like a lifetime. My dad’s friend who was part of the communist party called his contacts to get me out of jail. They let me go on one condition. I had to sign a release form that prevented me from talking about the beating and torture I endured in those two weeks.
Those two weeks in jail had a deep impact on my life. The bruises healed with time, the scars began to fade but the torture I faced in jail continued to haunt me for years to come. I could not tell anyone about those two weeks. I continued to work at the university pretending like everything was normal. I knew in my heart things were far from normal. I knew I had to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. My stint in jail made me a possible suspect for the rest of my life. Each day I feared I would be picked up again as a suspect for interrogation. I walked each day with a target on my back. My fears came true when one of my friends informed me of the undercover cops who were looking for me at the University. He told the cops I wasn’t at the University. He warned me they were possibly going to my house looking for me. “No matter where you go make sure you don’t go home”, my friend warned me. I rode my bike as fast as I could to my relatives’ house. I asked them to inform my parents about the situation. As I waited for the tensions to subside, I was told the cops mistook my uncle for me, and took him for interrogation. During interrogation they realized they had the wrong guy and released him. I knew I had to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible if I wanted to be a free man. After days of pondering, my relatives bought me a ticket to Khost, a bordering province to Pakistan. I would then cross Pakistan, although the plan did not detail how I was going to cross Pakistan. I left Kabul for Khost without meeting my parents or saying farewell to the people I was closest to.
I reached Khost as planned. Instantly I realized there was more chaos in Khost than in Kabul. I eventually found out the government forces and the freedom fighters (Mujahedeen) that wanted to rid Afghanistan of the Russian influences were fighting amidst each other. The situation was very bad. I did not know how I was going to cross the border into Pakistan. My friend’s uncle told me the only way to cross the border was to walk the distance by foot. On a cold morning when the horizon was dark we began our journey towards the high mountains bordering Pakistan. We walked for hours with the initial three hours being the most terrifying. There were moments when we feared getting shot. After three hours of looking over our shoulders, we crossed the rivers and were finally safe from the government forces. We walked for three days before we reached the border. During those three days, the local villagers and mosques on our path provided food and shelter for us. The Mujahedeen’s helped us tremendously as well. The Mujahedeen’s were American allies fighting against the communist government.
Finally after days, I reached Peshawar, Pakistan with $1000 in my pocket. I met several other Afghan refugees who were going to Germany and other European countries. My friend helped me get a passport for $500 and a ticket to United Kingdom for $500. I flew to Karachi from Peshawar to board my flight to Germany the next day. The plan was to reach United Kingdom through Germany and France. I arrived at the airport for my flight to Germany and was first in line at the check in counter. The guy looked at my passport and said, “Oh, you are Afghan?” I did not know what that meant but what followed crushed me. He said, “Sorry, Afghans cannot go to Germany without a visa”. I was even more disappointed when I found out the night before they received a notice from Germany stating Afghans would need a visa to enter Germany going forward. The guy at the check in counter asked me to go to the German embassy to get my visa. I went to the German embassy and filled out an application for my visa. Days turned to months as the wait continued for my visa. I was tired of waiting. One morning I decided to go to the airport again. I went to the counter, showed them my passport and ticket. The guy asked me of my intended destination. I told him United Kingdom as I wondered what was going to happen. Lady luck smiled at me finally as he stamped my passport. As I walked to my flight, I thought I was dreaming and wanted to board my flight before I woke up.
My final destination was United Kingdom, but I intended to stay in Germany during my layover. Upon reaching Germany I filed for political asylum, which allowed me to stay in Germany until my case was processed. The German system was completely different than what I was used to. They required thirteen years of high school as opposed to Afghanistan. Everyone spoke German. I realized I would have to learn the language if I wanted to stay here within my first few days in Germany. I was very discouraged by my prospects in Germany, and called my professors in Afghanistan for help. They suggested I apply for political asylum in the United States of America. I applied for political asylum at the American embassy. As soon as I applied for the US visa, my political asylum in Germany was accepted as well. While waiting for my American visa, I applied for jobs in Germany. When I left Pakistan for Germany, I knew it would be difficult, but I was educated and could speak English. I was confident I could survive in Germany. Reality turned out to be very different. I doubted if I would ever learn German. I had no money or a job to support my stay in Germany. A month after I was accepted in Germany, I received my American visa. I was beyond excited to go to the United States of America.
When I first landed in Germany, I was looking forward to a new beginning. In addition to my financial and language problems, people were not very nice to foreigners like me. People who didn’t look white were treated like second-class citizens. While each day in Germany was a challenge, I also received a beautiful gift in the form of my first wife. She came to Germany seeking asylum like I did. We did not know what America would be like, but we packed our bags and began a new journey to America. I left Germany as a married man to begin a new life in America. Sitting on the flight to America, I decided I wanted to continue my education while working. I knew it was going to be difficult, but treading difficult paths was my forte.
The year was 1981. We landed in New York City. The tall and beautiful New York skyline instantly welcomed us. I was told I would be living 50 miles away from capital which I assumed was Washington DC. I imagined Washington DC to be like New York or even more beautiful because it was the capital. We were told to board another flight to Kansas. We landed in Wichita, Kansas where we met the family who would help us settle in America. They greeted us and drove us to our final destination. I looked around hoping for the tall and beautiful American skyline I imagined. I noticed Kansas was nothing like New York or Washington DC. I kept looking for tall buildings but we continued to drive away from any city life I saw around us. The lands turned to farmlands as the roads seemed barren. I was extremely disappointed by my American welcome. We were going to live in the middle of nowhere.
I thought I was going to live in one of those big cities in America, but ended up living in a small city with a population of about 10,000 people. We were among the few immigrant families in our city and were treated like celebrities. I noticed people in America were nicer than in Germany. Everyone who visited us wanted to learn about our culture and food. Even the local newspapers met us hoping to run an article about me in their newspaper. I felt like a celebrity for the first time in my life. I spoke good English, which made communication easy. We were invited to speak at various churches, schools and other institutions about Afghan culture. The next morning I was surprised to find my picture in the newspaper titled “Azim Karimi is a happy man”.
I was a local celebrity and everyone knew about me. I even received a letter from the governor and senator welcoming me to Kansas. The governor offered his help if I needed anything in Kansas. While I was enjoying my stardom in Kansas, I knew I wanted to build a life in America. I decided to attend Kansas State. I remembered the governor’s offer and wrote a letter asking if he could help me with my admission and fees at Kansas State. I was very new to the American system and was completely unaware of the financial aid availability. I waited to hear back from the governor but ended up receiving a big package from Kansas State with all the information regarding the admission and financial aid. The governor's office had directly contacted Kansas State University regarding my admission. I was beyond elated. I walked into college at Kansas State University and felt right at home. I saw similarities between the education system at Kansas State and Kabul University. The desks and chairs were the same. Many of the textbooks were the same ones I had read in Afghanistan. I was welcomed with open arms in college by my peers. I felt at home in America.
Although I qualified for financial aid, I worked part time to afford a life for my wife and me. My first job was at Dairy Queen in their ice-cream department. I was paid minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. My manager came up to me one day and asked if I could clean the food from under the table which was dropped by one of the customers. I looked at her and could not believe she would request me to clean the floor. I refused to clean the floor. My manager could have fired me, but she allowed me to explain my reasons. I told her I was an educated man and was surprised she would ask me to do something as low as cleaning the floor. I had high self-esteem and believed I should be doing professional work. My manager laughed it off. It did not take long before I realized if I wanted to survive in America I would have to do any work I was offered. With that revelation, I started doing jobs such as painting people’s homes, driving taxi at night and working in construction while attending school during the day. I worked as a taxi driver at nights, which allowed me to complete my homework in the car during downtimes. I would work until 6am; sleep for three hours and then attend classes at 9am.
The days when I worked and went to school were hard on me physically. The hard work began paying off as I began bringing my entire family to the United States one person at a time. My family had immigrated to Pakistan by then making the process easier. The senator in Kansas helped with my family moving here, and the immigration process was easier too. Initially my older brothers were denied of their visa. The senator pulled strings at the American Embassy in Pakistan and my brothers joined us in the US soon after. America in the 1980’s was very different than what it is today. The rent was cheap. I remember paying $100 for a good size apartment. I was able to do a lot with my minimum wage salary.
Years passed by and before I knew it I was graduating from Kansas State University in December 1986. It was a big milestone in our lives. I had worked hard for this day. I started looking for jobs. Kansas did not have opportunities for Electrical Engineers. I applied to jobs all over the United States. One of my professors from Kabul University had moved to California in 1986. He asked me to visit him and told me about the opportunities California offered for technical majors. I decided to visit him in the Bay Area for a month. I was browsing through the San Jose Mercury newspaper during my Bay Area visit when I noticed there were three pages of opportunities for engineers. I decided to move to California. I went back to Kansas, packed everything, bid adieu to friends and moved to Bay Area in July 1987. While there were several opportunities for engineers in California, they required experience, which a new graduate did not possess. I remember interviewing at a company where the person told me I did not have enough experience for the job I applied to. I had heard it several times already and I was frustrated so I asked him “Where do they sell experience for me to purchase? Will Wal-Mart sell experience to a new graduate like me?” I started working as a technician at a company. I worked as a technician for 6 months before I was offered a position as an R&D Engineer in Sunnyvale at one of their branches. Life started moving in the right direction. I received promotions and with time I started climbing the corporate ladder.
I have lived in America for thirty-four years now and have witnessed the changing times. I have seen things change for the worse in the years I have lived here. I remember getting paid $3.35 an hour and raising a family with it. I could afford a normal living with the money I was getting paid then but now a middle class income is not enough to survive in America. Everything has become about money and business here. It was easier to make it in America thirty years back than it is now. The American system and party affiliations of democrats versus republicans has become an issue in this country. If one party wants to do something good for the people here, the other party will oppose just because it is coming from the opposing side. There is no bipartisan work being done here. This is supposed to be the greatest country on Earth. I witnessed its greatness when I first came here but now it is changing for the worse. I still believe things can revert back to how it used to be and improve for the better.
I always tried to stay connected to my culture. I have always been very excited to introduce my culture to the West. I remember the day I arrived in Kansas like it was yesterday. I had just arrived from Germany where I had rarely felt welcome. Kansas bowled me over with how friendly everyone was. I felt very welcome in Kansas. I drove for hours to see Afghan families that lived in different corners of Kansas. I tried to introduce my culture to my children as much as I could. I feel proud every time I see my children enjoy Afghan food. I feel overwhelming emotions knowing my children can read and write in our native language. I feel pride seeing them wear their culture proudly on their sleeve. I tried very hard to stay connected to my motherland, Afghanistan. I went back to Afghanistan several times after twenty-two years of life in America. Instantly I noticed a different Afghanistan than the one of my childhood. People were different, and were not as friendly as I remembered them to be. I felt the mountains of Afghanistan echoed the tears of warfare, the buildings bore signs of the bloodshed around, and the trees where I spent my childhood years echoed the fears and pain of the surroundings. I was yearning to go back to Afghanistan of my childhood but when I reached there, I felt I didn’t belong. I have been in America for thirty-four years now. I have called this country my own. The country has given me everything I have today and has allowed me to provide for my family. I want to see this country go back to the America I lived in where people were friendlier and trusted each other. There was a sense of community that instantly made America home to an immigrant like me.