By Nisha Bhak

It’s a Jungle Out There

She sat down on the couch and got comfortable for the long interview. Her face was depicted the strong gaze of a woman who almost looked regal with her perfect posture and her chin poised lightly up. Her face was blank, despite all that she had experienced throughout her lifetime. But as the questions began flow her eyes glazed over as memories of the past seemed to flood past in her mind. Chandrika Patel was born in Ndola, Zambia, Africa. She came to America in 1986 when she was only 28 years old. This is her story of her immigration to America and how it affected her thoughts about prejudice and immigration.

Zambia, Africa is mostly dry savanna grassland. I remember the sweet smell after the first rainfall, the mouthwatering mangos that you could pick right off the tree, the jacaranda trees that would turn deep purple, and the flame trees whose flowers would turn the whole tree red. It was beautiful, and I miss that beauty that I remember from my childhood. In Ndola there was everyday interaction between neighbors and the community, there was a closeness. Everyone knew everyone. Despite this, I grew up when segregation still existed. Therefore there were some opportunities that I was not able to have like being able to play a musical instrument. I loved the piano and I wish I could have learned to play it when I was younger. In addition, we had a lot of British influence when we were growing up. For example, we wore bell bottoms, skirts, and T-shirts on a daily basis, even our school uniforms were like those of students from Britain. However our parents all wore the traditional dress attire that they would in India. But we would only wear traditional clothes on special occasions like weddings or religious celebrations. The natives however, wore their traditional attire on a daily basis. In addition, we used to each vegetarian Indian food at home, but we also used to go out and eat English food like french fries and coke floats. Sometimes we even used to sit out with the natives and each their traditional meals of maze and meat. And generally everyone could speak four different languages: English, Gujarati (an Indian language), Bemba (a native language), and Lapa Lapa (an African language made by the British people who colonized Africa). Overall I had a pretty good childhood. However, I also saw Ndola’s liberation from the British and the gradual decline of political and economical stability that followed it. Because of this and being newly married my husband and I decided that American was a good place to start a new life due to the better opportunities the country offered. The trip over to America was pretty uneventful. It was just a simple plane ride over, which was something my husband and I were both used to due to previous trips to Britain and India. It was hard deciding what to take and what not to take, and we ended up taking very few things besides clothes with us since all of them were available in America. The hardest thing for me to do was being so far away from my family and doting parents. Though naturally I thought that life in America would be better because of the multitude of opportunities. I also expected to see snow, many different types of ethnicities, and tall buildings. I did not really have any big hopes or dreams, but I had a feeling that we would be ok.

We landed in California and went to live in the apartment that my husband had found when he came to America on a previous trip to make living arrangements and find a job as an engineer. One of the first things that I noticed was how vast it was and that the communities were much larger than back home. I soon learned that life was fast paced in California and it seemed really exciting but overwhelming at the same time. The lifestyle was very different, I learned that you had to be really aggressive and go out and fight for something if you really wanted it. I also learned that America differed from Ndola because there weekends were for relaxing, family time, festivals, movies, and no work, while in America people actually worked on weekends. I also did not like the idea of not always being able to fit in three square meals a day, let alone not being able to make that a fully family affair. I believe that family time is important because it helps to strengthen bonds and create new connections. Therefore when it was unable to be coordinated and carried out properly it bothered me greatly. But what bothered me the most was when people assumed that I could not speak English and then became incredibly surprised when a clean British accent came out of my mouth. I have found that prejudice exists in many different forms, it can be subtle or outright, but it exists everywhere. But over the years I have learned that for the people who give in to these prejudices, a lot has to do with their ignorance and when you understand that it makes it a lot easier to overcome. I believe that the more cultures and worlds a person is exposed to, the easier it is to understand and not succumb to prejudice. Knowing this makes my job as a pharmacist and the daily interactions with people go a lot smoother. Interestingly enough I had to go back to school in order to get my license for pharmacy again because the one that I currently had was not accepted in America. I had always like learning so I loved the idea of going back to school. I also noticed that back home schooling was a lot more structured and here it was more free, which was also something I liked because I believe it gave me more of a chance to grow and develop my own thoughts and ideas and be able to think for myself. Besides this the distance between my family only made me appreciate them more because I saw how much they took care of and supported me and how much more dangerous it was in America without them. I keep in touch with them over the phone, and I usually talk in Gujarati although they speak English as well. Despite living in America where parts of a culture can be lost in another I do not believe that I will ever forget my native language because it was instilled in me since I was young. I try to teach my daughter as well but because she learned how to speak English first and has not had as much practice, I am not sure that she will always remember. However other than all of this, life in America was not that bad because I was already accustomed to wearing American clothes, eating American food, and speaking English.

As a whole I believe that America is the “Land of Opportunity” and that to be “an American” immigrants should not change but adapt and not lose their culture, because the freedom of the U.S. allows them to do this. Honestly I don’t really think there is a definition for what it means to “be an American” because of all the diversity that we have. To me being American just means having an established life in America, having citizenship, or being born here. Because of this I consider myself an American, not only because I am a citizen but because I have life a grounded life here and I am part of the community and the nation and I contribute to it. But my personal family history is Indian so even though I live in America I consider my heritage a big part of who I am. And as for immigration and immigrants, all of America was based on immigrants, and I believe that it was, is, and will remain a vital part of American society and what makes us great. I also believe that the ideal solution to immigration would be to allow people in who would actually help boost the economy and benefit the country by bringing something to it, no matter what field whether it is farming or technology, because as long as it helps us it does not really matter who is doing it.

Chandrika Patel