Placing a Biography in the Context of History

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Since her childhood in India, Pooja Sharma, aged twenty-three, believed she was destined for different things. “Since I was little, my mom says I was very different,” she begins. “I just wanted to do something different. My sisters, after they were nine or ten, they’d starting painting their nails. I got into tae kwon do; I got my black belt. I used to beat up my sisters, my brother. ” She recalls visits to the hospital, where her sisters would look at needles and “pee in their pants,” while Pooja wanted to touch those needles.

Her father was from the Indian royal family and was disowned when he fell in love with and married her mother, a Nepalese. “He had to start from scratch. They had nothing. ” Her father became a “very, very successful” businessman, but when Pooja was twelve years old, he died of lung cancer and left the family with enormous debts. “Most of money, our property, went to paying them off. She [Pooja’s mother] didn’t have anything left… She lived a very rich life, and later, she had nothing,” she explains. An opportunity for positive change arose five years later.

Pooja, a top student recently accepted into medical school, was among the three of 500 applicants who were awarded scholarships to visit New York and explore medicine. The scholarship arranged for everything she needed for the two months, including her visitor visa, airplane ticket, and hotel. Her brother especially encouraged her to go to the United States because of the promise of more opportunities. “Back home, there’s a lot of unemployment, even though you’re capable of a lot of things, you don’t have the right job,” she says.

Her primary reason for emigrating thus mirrored those of the majority of Indian immigrants, leaving their homeland on economic grounds. Career opportunities have been limited in India and unemployment high among the educated; population growth has outpaced development in India. 1 She joins the second wave of immigrants who have benefited from the 1965 Immigration Act, which abandoned the national origins quota system discriminating against Asians. Like most of them, she is young, educated, English speaking, and middle class. 2

At the age of seventeen, “I came over, and I saw everything here, and I thought it was lovely and better than back home,” Pooja says. If she returned, she knew she would be married by arrangement by twenty or twenty-one years of age, as very popularly practiced in her culture. 3 Her sisters, for example, had arranged marriages when they were nineteen and twenty years old and bore children soon afterwards. “They’re stuck with their family. They’re happy-they just never got the chance to explore anything besides their families. They think that’s their world and they should live in it and be happy…

They’re just so satisfied with whatever they have. ” She could have still completed schooling, but Pooja understood her working after being married would be disapproved. Despite the women’s movement in India, the traditional view of a woman being weak and vulnerable still holds. 3 “Just going back, getting married, having a couple kids, taking caring of house, being a housewife… ,” she says pessimistically. She decided to stay in the United States. She extended her six-month visitor visa for another six months. “I tell them I want to go to more places in the U. S. , so I want to stay for another 6 months,” she explains.

So they gave me, like, an extended visa. ” Her plan was to get her degree and return home, which was unlike the intentions of most Indian immigrants who come here to settle. For example, by 1980, 50 to 60 percent of immigrants had become naturalized citizens. 1 In addition, being a single and female primary migrant, she was different from most Indian women, who are sponsored by their primary migrant husbands. However, similar to the few Indian women who did come alone, she came as a student in sciences. 2 Unfortunately, Pooja found herself lacking resources with which to start a life in America. [The scholarship program] wasn’t willing to pay anymore money after those two months so I was on my own. And I didn’t have a work permit, so there was no way I could work in legal places,” she recalls. “But I took risk-I was just like, I’ll see how long I can survive and if I cannot, I can go back. ”

Pooja was unlike many Indian immigrants, who because of their less individualistic culture are able to mobilize resources and assistance from a wide family network. Most ask relatives and close friends in the United Sates or India for contributions to start out in the new country. Often for immigrants without relatives here, friendship circles become a surrogate kin group that offers support. Pooja had no family but did find a family friend in Berkeley who offered housing to her. In addition, “a couple Indians” were willing to pay under the table. She worked at a clothing store and at a 7-Eleven as a stock worker.

“They were paying really less, like 6-700 a month working 6 days a week like no good money… I did it for a couple of days and I didn’t like it at all,” she says, noting the long hours and poor pay. As a single female immigrant without family, she felt especially easily taken advantage of. The [7-11 cashier] guy was Iranian-American, I guess, and he says, ‘Maybe you can help me with some books inside. ‘… I went to his office and he held me in the wrong place… so he was very touchy. ” She continues, “He knew I didn’t have any family, and I was trying to make it on my own… I quit the job right away cuz I knew that he was so bad. ” Her experience was similar to the small group of Indian immigrants who do not have valid work visas and find work “off the books. “3 They are more likely to be exploited and are afraid to demand better pay and working conditions.

She started looking at newspapers for other job opportunities and saw an ad for a nanny job in Sunnyvale. She remembers, “I came over and they saw this little 17 year old girl. And they’re all, ‘You’re going to take care of two babies?! ‘ I’m, like, ‘Yes, I can, I need money. I’ll do anything I can. I need to save money to go to school. ‘” She was hired, and “then it was very nice. ” Her experiences with finding jobs were like those of most Indian immigrants; they arrive in the United States with no particular job waiting for them. Only a few are graduates from top universities who were directly recruited. Thus, they search through newspapers ads and recruit advice and contacts from other immigrants who arrived earlier. Pooja worked as a nanny for $1500 a month, five days a week, with a place to stay. Within a year, she was able to save $10,000 for her education.

She enrolled in De Anza Community College in Cupertino, knowing she would not be denied admission. “De Anza would want international [students], you know. Seven dollars for resident versus like $110 for international? She was given an international visa for three years and allowed to work ten to fifteen hours a week for $140 at the school’s international office. Eventually, she realized she had to find additional jobs to cover her expenses, which included rent and the $2,000 she paid every quarter for tuition. When she was studying at a park, she met an Indian woman. “I told her all my story and she happened to be a lawyer’s wife, and she’s like, how about you meet my husband? ” The lawyer hired her immediately as a receptionist, paying $9 an hour in cash. In addition, she found a second nanny job.

She recalls the difficulties in juggling her responsibilities: “I was, like, working for three people-nanny and school. It was really hard. Like for nanny, get up four o’clock in the morning, take classes in the afternoon, go back, do babysitting for someone else. I cooked for people, and I helped them do laundry, iron their clothes. ” These three jobs were in addition to being a full-time student: “I had to take twelve units [because] I was an international student, so no less than twelve units. But I used to take fourteen to fifteen units. It was really hard,” she remembers.

“I got no sleep. She was like most Indian immigrants, working very long hours to succeed. 2 Fortunately, in a month or two, during her second year at the community college, the lawyer whom she worked for sponsored her for her green card. “He saw me struggling. He really liked me, so he sponsored me as his worker… my green card was processing and the next three, four months, I got my work permit for a year. ” With a valid work permit, she quit one of her nanny jobs and started a higher paying hostess and cashier job at Marie Callender’s Restaurant, and in a few months worked up to being a server.

At the end of her second school year, she also started working at Hobee’s Restaurant as a server. Her schedule was still very busy, she says. “Morning, Hobee’s. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I used to work morning 7:00 [a. m. ] to 3:00 Hobee’s, then Marie Callender’s 4:00 to 11:00 [p. m. ]. And I had school. I had babysitting. So I had 3 jobs until then. ” When her residency was proven after a few months, her life finally became easier. She was able to pay the resident’s tuition of $10 per unit at the community college. She took a year off to rest, learned to drive, and bought a car.

During her third year of college, her good performance in biology won her the department scholarship, which paid for her tuition and books. Now, after four years in the United States, Pooja feels she has achieved some financial stability and can relax a little. “Life is easier now [that] I have scholarship from school-whatever money I make from my job… I pay my rent, my car. ” Pooja is also glad she has finally formed friendships with some people here. “For [the first year] I had no family no friends, no one, very lonely, sometimes I’d just cry. She thinks cultural differences were obstacles to making friends. For example, she had some difficulties becoming friends with the woman she worked for as a nanny.

The woman was Indian but grew up in the United States, so “she had no idea about Indian family, about culture. ” However, her starting community college provided opportunities to build relationships with people who similarly emigrated from India. “When I started De Anza, I didn’t hang out with anyone cuz I didn’t know what to expect and felt like I was out of place,” she says. “Mostly, I hung out with Indian people. Also importantly, her trips to the temple after buying her car allowed opportunities to build her social network. She, like less affluent Indian immigrants, turned to a religious center to maintain contacts instead of joining, for instance, the larger and long-established Associations of Indians in America (AIA), which is mainly catered to the Indian immigrant elite. 3 Pooja thinks the Indian immigrant community in Cupertino is not cohesive and supportive overall. “Well, like rich people, successful people, everyone knows them,” she explains. But people like us? We’re just working and making a living.

I mean, you can have a set of friends, fifteen or twenty people a group, but that’s it-not the whole community. ” She mirrors the activities of most working-class Indians, who maintain small circles of friends and interact only occasionally with the larger population of immigrants. 3 She also describes how American-born Indians rarely associate with Indian immigrants at her college. “Indians here, you know, we call them A. B. C. D-American born confused dacys. Dacy’s a word for Indians. ” She talks about wanting to become friends with them, but they think immigrants “don’t know anything” and are “idiots. She adds, “Even if you see dark skinned, and you want to approach them, you know they’re Indian, but then it’s like ‘oh gosh’… They want to be cool, they want to be white, they don’t like Indian people. They don’t want to be different… I had crush on this guy, and he was American-born Indian, and he used called Indians stupid and they smell like curry. ” Nonetheless, she says the reception and attitudes of people in general have been positive, even though she knows many Indian immigrants haven’t been so lucky. “Scott, my manager [at Marie Callender’s], went to Nepal and he really, really liked Nepal.

I told him I was from Nepal, he hired me right away. He was really nice to me, we talked about Nepal. ” She says the restaurant patrons are friendly and curious too. ‘The first they’d say is, ‘Oh is that Poo-ha or Poo-ja? ‘ and they’d start asking about India and the culture… I think a lot of people were friendly. I liked talking to people, I liked telling them my story, I liked hearing about their friends. ” She is grateful for the open-mindedness and the willingness to learn about her culture that is in most people she has met. She admits, however, that she has been the victim of an Indian stereotype. It really funny, when I started De Anza everyone thought I’d smell bad. I think it was D. J. or Suzanne [her Marie Callender’s co-workers], they later says something like, ‘I’m glad that you don’t smell or something. ‘” In the end, she had the most difficulty dealing with the particulars of American culture. “There were things I didn’t know. Seeing people come into work all high… it was really, really hard to adjust… Drugs.

Sex. ” Although she learned English when she was young, she did not understand many jokes she heard. “One time, the joke was like ‘you like to suck d—‘ and I was like ‘you like to suck duck? I mean, I didn’t even know d— meant you know? Things like that. ” When asked about her dreams and goals, she says that money was the ultimate reason why she did not go to medical school and pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor. “When I started De Anza [community college] as an international student, I was thinking about going to San Francisco for med school. I applied for loan, but since I didn’t have a guarantor, they denied. ” She acknowledges that she was very disappointed not being able to go to medical school. “They didn’t trust me with money…

Now, after I have my immigration status, when I started working, I have a legal paycheck, they give me a loan for my car. But when I really needed it, school, when I started… ” Now, she has decided to go into a nursing career instead. “I did want to go to med school, but it was really expensive. I didn’t have any family support. So then I was, like, I’ll be a nurse and slowly I’ll move up as a practitioner and have my own clinic, which is not as good as doctor, but still close, you know. ” She says she wants to return home eventually. “I just want to be successful.

And when I go back home, I want to be difference and do something. When I have enough money, I want to open up my nursing home. Have a nice place. Treat people with respect. I can give the right care. ” She saw the inadequacies of health care in India especially when her father had lung cancer. “Seeing him in the hospital, the nurses back at home-gosh, they have so much attitude. If they see a pregnant woman crying, they would just slap them… they will say anything,” she remembers. “The medical world is really, really bad. The doctor can just steal your kidney and sell it to someone else.

You wouldn’t even know that you don’t have a kidney… it was bad. I always wanted to make a difference. I always wanted to be a doctor. ” Now, Pooja and her mom are saving money to recover the two houses and the land they sold when her father died. “It means a lot to her, you know, and she had to sell it… So for the past two years, since I started working, getting good pay, I started helping her $500-600 a month, and we bought one of the houses back already [$50-60,000 in five years]. And we’re trying to get our land back now… with another $30- 40,000. We have around $10,000 so we need another $20,000 or so. Like so many immigrants, Pooja wishes to return to her family but knows she has found more economic opportunities in the United States. 1 “I miss my family. That’s where I belong, but I know I’m not going to achieve my dream being there.

And when I feel like I have enough [money], I can go back and do something on my own. ” She believes emigrating has bettered her life, despite the loneliness and long hours of work. “If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have become doctor back home. Get married. ” She laughs as she reflects upon her emotional growth since coming to the United States. I learned a lot. I didn’t know anything about American culture. I didn’t know anything about immigration. I didn’t know anything,” she says about her first years in the United States. “I used to work at people’s houses. If they don’t pay me, I’ll be, like, I don’t want to get in trouble. Now, I know I worked for them, and it was my right to get paid. ” She knows her family will be surprised to see how much their youngest member has changed. “I feel more confident. I feel like I know more, and I know the system well-I just know so much more,” she says proudly.

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