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The Journey Begins
By Sushama Kirtikar - [email protected]

Thus we begin our journey as we examine the threads on this patchwork quilt of our creation. Do you remember the starry-eyed excitement of a new adventure, or the quivering fear of the unknown when you first set foot in the United States? Do you remember being dazzled by experiences grander than your wildest imagination, or being crushed by swift disillusionment?

Now imagine what it must have been like for the first Indian immigrants who arrived in the mid-1800s, settling along the West Coast. Today, the farming community of Yuba City, Calif., is said to be frozen in time with the mode of dress, customs and way of life reflective of 19th century India. That speaks volumes about people's need for security in things that are familiar. We all have a bit of the Yuba City farmer in us.

After the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the race preference for Europeans was lifted and a second wave of Indians arrived here. Transition into American life was easier because most people were conversant in English. Higher education and professional skill helped them assume a "quiet privilege'' status and fit the stereotype of the "model minority."

However, minority group status was controversial back then. The Indian League of America did not want Indians to be given "minority/non-Caucasian" status. There was concern that being branded a disadvantaged population might lead to marginalization as it did in the United Kingdom. Dr. Lorna Gonsalves, founder of Human Values for Transformative Action Inc., speaks of "the troubling response from the Indian Americans of extreme submissiveness and denial. Even though we have a long history of resistance we went out of our way not to make any noise and stay a model minority."

When the Family Reunification Act was passed, more family members started to migrate who were not highly educated or technically trained. That produced a more diverse population that led to more unique challenges. Today, we hear stories of the first Indian arrivals in the Tampa Bay area, who speak of times when they had to drink from the "colored only'' water fountains, or were denied access to some restaurants. Race discrimination was blatant and open, not subtle and covert as it is today. Initially, many tried to use their lighter complexion to blend into the dominant culture.

Those who emigrated here from other countries, such as Uganda, where they may have encountered hostility, saw the United States also through a lens of suspicion and caution, making adjustment harder. Over the years, some families who had been here for decades began to have second thoughts about their rapid assimilation and started to rediscover their heritage.

To this day, the seesaw of acculturation dilemma continues. Naturally, we, the first-generation immigrants are fumbling, stumbling and teetering to find some semblance of balance. Let us learn to make that a natural process of adaptation without tension, excessive worry and emotional distress.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or (727) 586-0626, or e-mail at [email protected]

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