An Education: An Indian International Student Wonders If Lines Have Blurred in America

The following interview was conducted December 8, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview is with Megha Srivastava, an international student from Delhi, India, studying Psychology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

I am from Delhi, which is the capital of India. Very metropolitan and busy. Noises can be heard at all times of the day and people are always on the move. When I first moved to the United States—to Columbia, South Carolina—the change really shocked me. For a few days I was depressed because I had been so used to hearing noises all day long.

What brought you to the United States?

My mom and me and my youngest sister came to get our higher education in the U.S., so my mom applied for a job her. My sister and I were not to enthusiastic about it. We were just fine where we were. But she got a job and then seven months later we followed her. I started to go to South Carolina for my undergraduate. My sister is still there.

What do your parents do.

My dad is a doctor in Kentucky right now, working on his residency. My mom is a middle school teacher in Columbia. We’ve been in the country about four and a half years.

What story might you have about growing up in India?

It was a very ordinary childhood, I would say. I come from a middle-class family. Being the elder daughter I had to struggle for things I wanted, and I am not as outspoken as my younger sister is. Everything I wanted I had to kind of fight for. And even though my dad was a doctor he struggled a lot. He started from scratch, and there were times were we had to think of whether we could buy things. So life wasn’t very easy for him when we began his practice. As the years progressed and his practice grew we eventually did pretty well.

How does a city like Delhi compare to a modern Indian village?

There is much less structure.

And the villagers subsist by farming, or—

Ah, no. Some states in India may have agrarian villages, like in Punjab to the north of Delhi. It will have more of an agrarian population, but villages around Delhi are comprised of low-rung populations that may work as servants in the homes or the hospitals or clinics. Because India does still have maids working in middle-class homes. Usually the servants are female maids coming to wash clothes, sweep, or some times take care of the kids.

The villages within the cities tend to be very poor; the people tend to create their own little circle so jobs can be found. They are not ghettos, they are probably smaller than that. If you can imagine a playground, or other small piece of land, they will settle there and make their little huts. They don’t even have toilets.

What services will the government provide to the people in need?

Don’t they provide subsidized housing here, for poor people. Some kind of shelters to go to?

There are often places offered in America, mostly in cities. There are housing programs for the poor, and some shelters. But many homeless still remain on streets. You would see some in St. Louis, downtown, on in other areas, like South Grand.

Okay, but at least you have a lot of shelters and places like that. We don’t have too many homeless shelters. If you’re homeless you just live on the street. Or you die in the street.

So the government doesn’t really help the poor people. If they want help they really have to pester the government, go after them, and beg for their lives. Usually though they don’t get it because of the middlemen take most of their benefits and opportunities.

There are the occasional disasters in India, such as mudslides of an earthquake, that effect many. What assistance do people get in cases like this?

In cases of natural disaster the government tries to help a lot, but the improvements after the devastation are really slow. If there is a huge flood or earthquake in a state it may take four, five years.

Like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Yeah, in New Orleans. Like that.

You came here for further study. What are the schools like?

Schools are much more disciplined. Every school has a school uniform. We have fixed schedules starting with morning assemblies where everybody gathers. The teacher gives a speech and then we have prayers and daily announcements for the day.

                           A typical Year 10 high school classroom in India

It may not sounds very good but my sister went to high school here, and then when I saw it, it almost looked like a brothel to me. Short skirts, short t-shirts, whatever they want to wear. Spending all morning getting ready to look their best. Here I was used to really strict school uniforms. The idea of not wearing uniforms is not very comforting. We couldn’t have our hair falling in our face, long nails or dangling jewelry and things like that.

Schools in India are also very formal. When a teacher enters a room the whole class stands up to greet the teacher. If you have to go out of the room bathroom or for drinking water you ask the teacher. It isn’t like you get up and go, like here. You can’t even enter school late, so it’s really, really formal.

The students I’ve met at SIUE from India are very dedicated to their classes.

Extremely dedicated. I would say this comes both from family and culture. Now, we did have people in my class who did not come from as educated a background, so they didn’t have they push to do well in school. Even though I did not have a particular push form my parents to do well, it’s that everyone in my family is well educated that I’d probably be a misfit if I wasn’t doing well or trying to do well.

And teachers in India are pretty blunt about your performance in class. They will be strict with you if you’re not doing well. They’ll say right in front of the class “You aren’t doing well, and you might not be able to take further exams if don’t improve right now.” Things like that. This whole concept of privacy over here, not handing out your grade to anybody else or no one getting to see your grade, it’s totally the opposite. Teachers announce your grade in class—and it’s so embarrassing! You don’t want your classmates to know you’re failing in economics or math.

You mentioned that you begin the day with a school prayer. That is interesting, as we no longer have morning prayer in U.S. public schools.

The prayers we have, it’s not religious, per se. It’s like, “Oh God, oh Lord, to thee I pray to increase my knowledge day by day. Thank you God for the sun, the birds, the nests.” Just a very broad prayer to God. And that’s about it.

Will you speak for a moment about Hinduism or your beliefs, whatever they may be?

To be honest I’m Hindu by background, but there is nothing in particular. I think compared to other more religious backgrounds, Hinduism, I would say, is a very open-minded religion, for lack of a better term. We like to enjoy things from all cultures is what I mean, festivals from all cultures. Whereas some cultures are not very open to doing that, trying new things. If you are Muslim you might just want to stick to your Muslim beliefs. Most of us are pretty open to other happenings or mingling with people. Or even worshiping in other religions, like a mosque or a church.

How would you characterize the gender equality of India?

It’s pretty good One thing, however, is something we discussed in class the other day. I don’t know if it’s every state here, but in America woman gets seventy-five cents for every dollar a guy gets paid. That’s not the case in India. You’d think it would be the other way around, because India is not yet a developed as the U.S. claims itself to be. We do not have that kind of disparity in India. If you do the same job as a guy you get paid the same as he does.

What was your idea of the U.S., before coming here, and were did you get your information from?

It came pretty much from the media. All of my mom’s sisters are here, so I would hear it’s pretty good—clean roads and clear air. Good college education, but expensive. But when I came, I would much rather have been back in India. Yeah, there are a few positive aspects, like the governments helping you. But there is a good face a bad face of everything the U.S. has. I’m fine, but if given the option, and if my life was totally under my control, I ’d want my kids to grow up in India.

                                International Student Services at SIUE

It’s not that I would be more comfortable in India. I just feel the U.S. has reached the point of being too liberal. It’s like we forgot where to stop and draw the line. Such as with disciplining kids. Kids talk back to their parents here, or can call up the cops if they don’t like what the parents did to them. In India there is nothing like that. I do want my kids one day to be open-minded, and I do want to be friendly with my kids, but not to the point that they forget the distance between parent and child.

What questions about the U.S. did you get from friends after you had left India?

To be quite honest, India is probably a step ahead of the United States. My friends are probably trying to mimic the Western culture while really being ahead of it. So if you talk about clothing or music they are really ahead. If I watch TV now it really shocks me. I can hardly distinguish between what’s going on here and there, as far as the gap in culture.

But they have some questions about my life now, such as how much money I must be making. For example, if you just graduating from college in India with just a bachelor’s degree there’s not too many options for job opportunities. Here you can still work at a lot more places. So the question I get are about job opportunities and what my pay scale might be.

Have you been pretty well received by Americans?

In terms of being Indian? A few of my experiences in school have been that a small portion were indirectly jealous, because I was doing so well in classes. But the things we were taught here we probably already covered in high school. So those things were really a brush-up for me. For this reason I already knew the answers, or I knew how to do something. And maybe some were not comfortable with that fact.

Other than that I really haven’t had any negative experiences. Thankfully they’ve all been pretty good. For my family as well. In fact my sister has jelled here much better than I have because she tends to make friends easily and I tend to pick and choose.

Have you had had any thoughts about our new president?

I didn’t really like Obama very much from face value when I looked at his speeches and read about him. But then, looking at the situation at which the United States was under with George Bush I think we all thought it might be better for a change. Anything would be better than George Bush. So by then we were pretty excited when Obama was elected. So that at least we’re going to see some change in the United States. We just don’t know if whether for good or bad right now.

That’s probably my opinion mixed with that I have heard from home. And with Obama being from a minority group in the U.S. he might be better equipped to understand that minorities go through, like equal employment.

The Mumbai bombing just recently happened. How you been following the story?

Sure, sure. It was really disturbing. I do have family in Mumbai, and even though they were not hurt it was just a huge shock. Hearing all these things, these attacks happening around the world. While it was happening I was in Chicago taking a tour of the Sears Tower. The scenes in my mind of what was happening in Mumbai really scared me.

                           The Taj Hotel on fire due to explosions in Mumbai, November 27, 2008

As far as what’s being reported past that, like who was responsible, I really can’t say anything because I have no trust in the media whatsoever. The people they’ve caught right now, saying they are Pakistani or whatever, there are other contradictory stories also circulating. But I don’t believe the media.

For a local example, I don’t know if you are aware that there was a murder of an Indian student here at SIUE a few months back. But when the media reported the details they did not agree. Her last name, where she came from, where she was murdered, were all different. I don’t know how those errors can be made.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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