Remembering life and strong family ties in India
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Meeta Goel came to the United States in 1984, but her initial immigrant experience was in 1968 when she left India for Canada.
Goel: I left India on a plane by myself when I was 9 years old. My mother and father and my younger brother came to Canada via Sweden in 1967. My dad had done his master’s and doctoral work in Sweden and Germany. I had stayed in India with my grandparents. When my parents sent for me, my grandmother tied the key to the suitcase around my neck and told me to “bring the family back.” It was pretty safe in those days because the stewardesses looked out for you. But I had only learned three words in English: yes, no and thank you.
I just have fleeting memories of the actual plane ride. I remember feeling alone, and I did resent that they had left me in India and then put me on a plane by myself. My parents are great parents, so, over the years, I have learned to forgive and forget. Indians are totally motivated by schooling so they left me because I was in school. They didn’t want to pull me out of school and disrupt me. But, as it turned out, they pulled me out in April, the worst possible time.
School was finishing in India but it was still in session over here. So I came into the school not knowing English, and the teachers decided that I should repeat the year because I couldn’t speak English. So they held me back.
Over the summer we were staying at this place where there were a lot of other kids to play with. I learned English that summer playing in the neighborhood. So when I came back to school I was stuck in a grade I had already done. I was totally bored from then to graduation. I ended up being a leader and a high achiever in my school, but I never felt challenged because of that decision to hold me back. I had to learn to make my own challenges.
Gallacher: So it was difficult for you to understand why you had to stay and your brother was able to go?
Goel: Well the males are favored in that culture but, as time went on, I came to understand that my parents saw me as strong, independent and intelligent. I got a lot of positive feedback from the family. I eventually got over it, but, at the time, I felt like I wasn’t as important. I understand now that they did it for practical reasons.
You know, children are given away in India. If a sister or brother can’t have a child and somebody in the family has five or six they often just give one to him or her. It happened in my family. My uncle’s first wife died in childbirth and he got married to the sister of the woman that had died. The woman’s family felt that it was their fault that she had died so they gave this other daughter to our family.
The baby that survived was given to my aunt who didn’t have any children. Even though it was the sister’s child that the new wife would have been raising, it would have been treated like a stepchild. There are lots of instances like this one, but you are not supposed to take it personally. It is just the family looking out for what is best for the whole.
Gallacher: Do you have strong memories of India?
Goel: We had a great life there with mansions and servants. My two grandfathers were both civil engineers, and they designed many of the bridges and buildings in India. They moved around a lot because of their jobs, but we had a central house in Delhi. It was a large two-story made of cement. Unlike most people in India, my grandparents had cars and normal toilets like the ones in the U.S.
There were lychees* and mangoes growing in the large courtyard. Fruit was dripping off the trees, and my grandmother would peel the fruit for us. She had a puja room** that was huge and you didn’t enter it without bathing and taking off your shoes. It was so peaceful in there. I always felt a presence. Every morning my grandparents would get up and pray. They were both really great role models, and their lessons have stuck with me throughout my life.
Another important space was the family room. It was very large and there were beds for lounging and afternoon naps. That was a room the whole family hung out in. There were silk quilts you could cozy up with on cold days or you could go out on the veranda.
I remember the large family gatherings where we would all sleep out in the courtyard under mosquito netting. It was a wonderful place. So my parents were really torn about leaving and, in retrospect, I think they would have stayed in India. Over the years, I think they have learned that it is not the job but true friends and family that are important. My parents go back almost every year.
My grandmother was the family’s glue. She loved to garden and cook. She didn’t eat meat, and she didn’t allow it in the big house. Some of her sons ate meat, so they stayed in the apartments on the side of the house and cooked whatever they wanted.
Almost all my stories and memories have to do with my mother’s family, because they were very close. My dad’s mother died when he was 13 and the family fragmented. His sisters got married off and started their own families. His brothers all left India. That family didn’t have the same values. They were all about following the rules, and they seemed to be lacking in emotions as far as I was concerned.
Gallacher: Was your dad that way?
Goel: Yes, very much so. He isn’t like that now. My mother has helped him along. I think it was because he and his brothers and sisters had to fend for themselves after his mom died. But he’s great now.
Gallacher: What do you think your life would be like if you had stayed in India?
Goel: In India there are a lot more constraints, so my life would have been set for me in a number of ways. I’m sure I would have been someone who rebelled against most of it. Even here my family tried for 10 years to arrange a marriage for me.
I have enjoyed the freedom of expression here that I wouldn’t have been allowed as a woman in India. Education is critical in India, so I would have been sent off to school. I would have been educated, but, like most women of my generation and generations before, I would not have been given the opportunity to use it. Women got married and raised children. For example, my mom has a bachelor’s in English and psychology, and she never used it until we left India.
It would have been hard for me to find a job. That is changing now because the world is making us all more similar.
Gallacher: But India has had female leaders and the U.S. hasn’t. Can you explain that?
Goel: I think that is the exception rather than the rule. I think it is more token than real. Usually there are a group of males who are controlling things. It would have been a challenge to seek leadership positions there.
Gallacher: You describe yourself as rebellious. Where did that come from?
Goel: My grandparents had a phenomenal belief that you could accomplish anything. They believed anything was possible. My parents had that, too. The family was very supportive. I think it was in my blood.
Note: Meeta Goel is vice president of institutional effectiveness at Colorado Mountain College.
*The lychee, commonly called litchi, laichi or lichu, is a subtropical fruit native to China, and now cultivated in many parts of the world.
**A puja room is Hindu temple within the home.
Immigrant Stories runs Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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