by Priya Chhaya
I love listening to the story.
We all have one, a narrative about how we came to America, how someone in our family made a choice to leave a home in one country and create a new one in another. While each of these stories is fleshed out with common elements, it is the details that make it unique to our personal experience.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to talk to the retired Dr. Momtaz Ahmed, and during the course of our conversation I heard hisstory.
In 1959, Dr. Ahmed took advantage of advertised openings through the United States Information Service exchange program and left his home in Bangladesh. He heard about the program from some of his friends and applied to different hospitals under the exchange visitors program. Much of his initial decision to train in the United States was because the country needed doctors. Dr. Ahmed was able to train here and used that income to obtain more training in the United Kingdom.
What fascinated me about Dr. Ahmed’s story was that he came to the United States (albeit temporarily, initially for about three years) well before the quotas opened up in the mid-1960s, and so I wondered, knowing that the late ’50s and ’60s were important in the civil rights movement, how a new immigrant would react to specific events.
It became fairly clear early on that while these events were occurring, they had very little impact on an exchange student at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital in Chicago, but in the process I learned a little bit more about the different ways that South Asian Americans immigrated to the United States As Dr. Ahmed states:
“In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the United States was heaven for foreigners. The United States economy was good, jobs were plentiful, and the salaries were more than adequate for foreigners coming from foreign countries. It was easy to save money and establish yourself.”
Dr. Ahmed received his green card, and completed his residency in the United States by 1970 and spent much of his career working in Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country. By 1971, Dr. Ahmed was married and had a daughter, Famin, who experienced much of the same elements of a proto-typical life as most Americans. When I asked her about her father, and if he told her anything about his earlier time in the U.S. she said:
“My dad didn’t tell us many stories about living here back then. He’s not much of a storytelling person. I think I asked him once who his favorite singer was and he told me it was Petula Clark, which I found very funny.”
For ten years Famin attended school here before the family moved back to Bangladesh, only to return to the United States in 1990 following her graduation. She says that she remembers moving a lot, and looking back on her childhood in the U.S. she recalls:
“I worked hard in school and was a good student. My mom used to teach before she married my dad so she would assign me extra work when I didn’t have homework-she was definitely a Tiger Mom. Plus, she taught me how to read and write Bengali as well as surahs from the Qura’an, and all that was in addition to anything they could do to keep me ahead of the rest of the class.”
But things changed once they moved to Bangladesh where:
“Classes were much harder once we moved to Dhaka when I was in fourth grade. I’m not saying this means I got a better education in Bangladesh than I did in the United States, but it was very different and for me, in many ways, much harder. I was lucky in that I had good study habits and was a voracious reader because I read the textbooks on my own and just taught myself that way.”
And this is where I found the story to be extraordinary. To some extent, the Ahmed’s “How We Came to America” story is a tale of three separate migrations—migrations that included travel between the United States, United Kingdom, Bangladesh and India (Famin went to boarding school in India for a short time). A family story that spans four countries and forty years.
We all have one, a narrative about how we came to America, how someone in our family made a choice to leave a home in one country and create a new one in another. Each one is unique, each one has its own connection to a personal history. Each one of us has a story to tell, to share, to reveal.
So….what is your story?
Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.