Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Going to America

Going to America- -
Malayalam Manorama, Copyright 1966 (click for larger image)

It can be so hard to know the implications of our very next endeavor. Back in 1962, when my mom was 6 months pregnant with me, my dad was accepted into a surgical training program in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was a program that was tough to get into and he fully intended to return to a teaching post in Kerala, a lush coastal state in India. But once there, the faculty urged him to "go to Chicago" for hard core trauma experience, in a surgical residency. So he shared the long term value of such a move with my mom, changed plans and sojourned to the Windy City. When I was around 2, my mom joined him and I was dotingly taken care of by my grandparents, particularly my mom's parents, I believe. Finally, just before turning 4, my father insisted that I join them in the U.S.

Given the price of air travel, the most prudent option was for me to be chaperoned by Air India flight staff. My dad's dad, Chachen, a PR minded trial lawyer, implored the largest local paper to "see" the editorial opportunity that was right under their noses: that the youngest Indian to ever travel to America was leaving in 2 weeks. This idea sold its way on to the front page and that shot is seen above.
From what one of my dad's sisters, Baby Auntie, shared just a couple of years ago, the actual excursion was pretty unpleasant (for me, that is). I was under the impression that all my dad's siblings, and his parents, were getting on the airplane with me. As my dad's family has 14 children and he is the 2nd oldest, many of these siblings were not much older than me - - and we played closely together. So what a fantastic idea! Getting on a jet plane, with all of them?? I was out of my mind excited at such a prospect. My aunts and uncles were mortified by the reality, and no one had the guts to clarify what was really going to happen. I was a bit puzzled when my dad's dad was the only one that walked on to the 707 with me. And shortly after the stairway was rolled away, they brought it back. "This child is making a ridiculous fuss. He can't fly with us. No way." So Chachen, more stubborn than me, calmly and smilingly walked back on board, this time with a bag of candy. Damn that candy.
Upon landing in JFK, I vaguely recall a man walking up to me with a Tonka truck and saying, "Santhosh, I am your daddy." It was our first meeting. I was about to turn 4. What a glorious moment, eh?
I have thought often about the sheer sacrifice my parents make. As I have two boys, one nearly 6 and one who is 4 1/2, the notion that I see them for the first time at such an age is remarkable. Had my dad known that his 6 month program in Scotland would "take him 4 years forward" before he saw his child, I am not so sure he would have boarded that plane. And reaped the benefits of that action. But we cannot see what the future holds. And arguably, that may be for the better in the long run.

First Passport Photo 
India Passport Agency, Copyright 1966 (click for larger image)

1 comment:

debendevan said...

Abe, what an excellent story of hardship and sacrifice in aspiring for the American Dream. I am one step removed from your experience (my Dad was a child immigrant from Belgium) and am always impressed with anyone who has made that journey across both borders and cultures.

Best regards & Happy New Year,