I’m trying to remember, really re-member, what it was like to be a new immigrant in the United States. It’s so long ago now, that cold winter and first spring back in 1970 when my mother and my sister and I first joined our father, who had had to come on his own the previous fall. So long ago that it is in danger of being reduced to a few frequently-retold stories, worn at the edges from overuse. A writer-friend recently terrified me by suggesting that memories once set down in black and white were fixed as such, and that details not included in the written version of the text—now the definitive version—would be lost forever. I have been trying to test the truth of this by recreating certain memories actively rather than allowing my mind to resort lazily to the well-worn anecdotes that have been passed down to the present, but the jury is still out.
If those early months on a new continent were bewildering to us children, how much more so they must have been for our parents, who were starting all over again in their forties, arriving with nothing but themselves and their nuclear family. No savings, no belongings but for a couple of suitcases of books and a couple of envelopes of photographs, and no one, neither relatives nor familiar friends, to welcome them and show them how things were done and what they meant in this brave new world.
We didn’t know what things meant because we couldn’t interpret the signs. Semiotics, or the study of signs and sign systems, creates the world for us, assigning names and significance to everything and placing every object or practice into a constellation of relationships that give it meaning within a particular system. If one encounters an object or practice in isolation, one has no hope of understanding its meaning or purpose. And so it was for us in the beginning, when we engaged in a daily struggle to decode the strange practices of the natives. Our parents had to set up a home, attempting to re-establish some of our old family practices, and we all had to define our own relationships to the new order without losing our identities, our self-respect, or our minds. I marvel at how migrants the world over survive this process, and how many—but not all, by any means—even manage to thrive.
Our parents had to learn to drive in short order, both of them for the first time. It is well-nigh impossible to manage without a car in the United States, and Dad knew that he would need one for work. I can’t fully appreciate how stressful it must have been for him to take the driving test, acquire a car, and hold the precious lives of his wife and daughters in a metal box hurtling down a crowded highway at 60 miles an hour, trying not to crash into the other speeding metal boxes, and harder still, trying to avoid being crashed into by them. Don’t forget that neither of them had come from car cultures. Not only had we never owned a car, but neither had most of our friends or relatives. Back on the university campus in Kharagpur, the bicycle was the preferred mode of transportation. Until I was about nine years old, I would get violently carsick every time I rode in an automobile, and I learned only recently that it was the same for Dad when he was a child.
Our first family car was a Plymouth Valiant, an automatic-transmission, four-door sedan, in a characteristically 1970s shade of dull gold. I don’t remember feeling excitement or pride at the acquisition of what must have been my parents’ most expensive purchase; if I did, it was drowned out by the anxiety that gripped my stomach every time Dad took us out on the road in it. Not that he was a reckless driver, quite the contrary. It’s just that he hadn’t yet learned the conventions and, as I suggested earlier, couldn’t yet make sense of the signs. The Gulf gasoline sign on Route 9 in Newton was a case in point.
Route 9 is an old highway that runs East-West through the whole state of Massachusetts. It is crowded much of the time, with two-way stop-and-go traffic, flanked by a mish-mash of residential and commercial zoning and strip malls, and punctuated frequently by traffic lights. It was a sign at one of these traffic lights that regularly bedeviled Dad.
In order to get out of Boston, no matter whether our destination was West, North, or South, we first had to drive west on Route 9 to get to Route 128, Boston’s major ring road. The stretch between Brookline and 128 was extremely busy, especially during the rush hours, and the closer we came to the ring road, the busier it got. For a new driver, even the seemingly simple operation of waiting at a traffic light on the upward slope of a hill and starting up again as traffic flowed in from left and right, was fraught with unknown dangers. As afternoon wore on, an additional hazard was introduced by the blinding glare of the setting sun in our eyes, making it difficult to see the lights on the traffic signals.
Waiting one afternoon at that particular intersection in swanky Chestnut Hill in Newton, near the venerable Longwood Cricket Club, and squinting into the sun to discern whether the light had turned green, Dad started moving only to find out that he was about to drive into oncoming traffic. He soon realized that the culprit was a neon sign advertising a Gulf gasoline station, bearing the words, Go Gulf, in which the Go was the same green as the traffic signal. Thanks to typical American-style laissez-faire zoning, the sign was positioned directly above and behind the traffic signals, so that it was easy to mistake the Go for a green light. Even when he had realized that the sign was a commercial one, he was still taken in by it a couple of times more; and even after he had fully taken on board the difference between the two conflicting signs, he still became exasperated every time we came to that intersection. At the sight of the offending advertisement he railed at the anarchy of the traffic planning and the danger it posed to motorists, and not only his but our collective blood pressure spiked apoplectically.
First Dad and then Mum eventually learned to drive in the U.S., and even to enjoy it at times. But the car never became the extension of themselves that it seems to be for so many Americans. As for me, although I soon became a reasonably competent driver, I had my own struggles with the decoding of signs, from making sense of movies and television to interpreting signals sent to and received by members of the opposite sex. A couple of years later, when I was a college student, business-as-usual came to a standstill when fellow-students took over a building with the demand that our university divest itself from business interests in Angola, particularly Gulf Oil. One of the slogans we chanted, Gulf Out of Angola, must have been especially resonant for me. I boycotted Gulf gasoline for years afterwards, now having a good reason to take my own back on the corporation that had made life for my immigrant parents that much more stressful.