By Iman Malik
It was 1988. Ranjit Desai was 22 years old and on a plane to New York’s JFK airport. The pilot gave the passengers a short tour of the skyline before landing — Ranjit recalls the excitement he felt upon seeing the Statue of Liberty from his window seat. Back home, his parents had dropped Ranjit off at the airport and given him the usual advice: stay in contact, take care and be safe. When his feet touched the ground, the first thing he registered about the U.S. was its scale. To him, it was literally the conversion factor from kilometers to miles brought to life. Everything was much bigger — even the sky seemed wider.
Arriving in the U.S. was a big moment for Ranjit. It was everything he had dreamt about and more. Growing up in India, where he immigrated from, his first impressions of the U.S. came from stories he had heard from friends, books, movies and the news. Ranjit had formed preconceived ideas of what America would be like, but only after landing did he realize that it was so much more than he anticipated.
After meeting his brother at JFK, Ranjit planned to fly to Texas to begin his postgraduate studies in electrical engineering and computer science at UT Austin. Education was a major factor for Ranjit in his decision to immigrate — he was interested and excited about the research happening at American universities in his field.
“In graduate school, you're taking in the university atmosphere, you're making a lot of friends with people from all across the world and you're exposed to a new way of thinking,” Ranjit said. “You have to cook for yourself and you have to learn how to manage your own life in a new country. Just learning about the culture, discovering life in the U.S, I think that was also a lot of fun.”
Priya Desai, Ranjit’s wife, immigrated to the U.S. in 1993 when she was 23 years old, and also attended UT Austin. Priya’s parents thought it would be a good idea for her to get married before coming to the U.S. She had known Ranjit and his family back home, so they got married and Priya immigrated to Texas to begin school. Priya was grateful that she had someone to show her the ropes.
Before her flight to Dallas, Priya had only been on a plane once before, and never on an international flight. The first thing she noticed when she landed was how clean her surroundings were. Everything looked washed and scrubbed with soap and water. The saturation of the colors was different for Priya — the sky was bluer. The air felt so much cleaner that she kept taking deep breaths.
Ranjit was waiting for Priya at the airport and was confused when he couldn’t locate her among the passengers that had come on the same flight as her. Both Ranjit and Priya recall how there were no cell phones or other means of rapid communication, and so Ranjit could only wait for Priya to come. She was the last one to get off the plane because the airline had lost her luggage.
“I was so upset because I'd brought some of my saris and stuff like that,” Priya said. “But they tracked it down. What I think is remarkable is I landed on a Saturday or Sunday [and] by the following Thursday, my suitcases were delivered to me at home in Austin with everything intact. We didn't even have to carry them, they were delivered. I remember being really thrilled with those kinds of things. It's the expectations that you have of the U.S. and what it is going to be like, and then things happen that are slightly different from your expectations.”
Priya also remembers being surprised by how difficult it was for her initially to communicate with people in Texas.
“Texas was an interesting place,” Priya said. “I found it funny that I had grown up speaking English, but I found it so difficult to understand the Texan accent. And I would do this really silly thing — I would go into stores and ask [an employee] what an item was called. Most of the time, I would not understand their answer. Then I would go to another store and ask them the same thing, just so I could figure out what they were saying.”
Ranjit and Priya would call their families once a week. They would always watch the clock — the price of calls went up each minute and calls were expensive, especially on a graduate student budget. Because of this, their primary form of communication was handwritten letters that were mailed to friends and parents. Priya remembers trying to fit words everywhere on the page, including the margins. For senior Aman Desai, this detail from his parents’ immigrant story stands out to him.
“I can't imagine being separated from my parents,” Aman said. “Chances are, even if I end up living far away from my parents, they'll be a phone call away. And for them, that was not the case. If they ever needed to reach their parents it was a lot more difficult then, but now, I can reach my grandparents in India in three seconds. It seems small, but I think that would make a really big difference.”
Ranjit’s immigration journey is largely defined by what he calls “inflection points.” The first one that stands out in his mind is receiving an I-20 — a form that confirmed he had been accepted into UT Austin. Priya remembers receiving her acceptance as well — she describes the feeling as “finding out you got into your dream school.” To apply for a student visa, Priya and Ranjit had to go to the U.S. embassy in India. It opened at 9 a.m, but both of them recall arriving between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. and there was already a line outside. After graduating from college, Priya and Ranjit worked and earned their green cards — a document granting them permanent residency in the U.S. They are now U.S. citizens.
“It's a good feeling to be a permanent resident, to get some more privileges, [and it’s] very important in the immigration journey,” Ranjit said. “After eight years you have the option of filing for citizenship. And that's a big decision because India at that time did not support dual citizenship. There's an emotional attachment, so I do remember us thinking a lot about that.”
Priya’s immigration journey had a lot to do with her desire to attend school in the U.S. She has always held higher education in high regard and she and Ranjit were both eager to study more in their respective fields. She decided to pursue mathematics at UT Austin and is currently a bioinformatics researcher at Stanford University.
“We really came here to study and we thought we'll have a good life, but I don't remember ever thinking, ‘I want to become rich,’” Priya said. “It was always, ‘I want to do research.’ My focus was always how many papers I could publish.”
Aman believes the impact higher education had on Priya is reflected in his own values as a student. His parents encouraged him to find joy in learning. They told him it was about self-improvement — not about money or getting an A. Aman has asked his parents about their immigrant story multiple times before and it always inspires him.
“I have a lot of difficulty imagining transitioning to a whole other country that has a whole different lifestyle,” Aman said. “They were physically close to their parents at home and they had to start from the very beginning on their own. It’s something that I'm very proud of them for.”
Priya remembers UT Austin as an incredibly diverse community. As a recent immigrant, there were a lot of cultural phenomena she hadn’t experienced before, and she learned more about both America and other countries by interacting with her peers at school.
“It was like being in a little United Nations,” Priya said. “You learn to look beyond the stereotypes. All of Texas is definitely not uniform, they're not all white Americans, nor are they all brown Indians. There's everybody. So I think choosing to integrate was very high in our minds. It was a very big integration culture. And part of it was because there were not that many Indians so we could not cocoon ourselves into just being like we were in India. So I tried to grow as a person.”
Despite the difficulties, Ranjit acknowledges the excitement of moving from India to the U.S. He also emphasizes the important role immigration plays in America.
“I do think immigrants take their responsibilities very seriously as citizens and they're really looking to add and to bring the best of themselves,” Ranjit said. “Certainly that's the case in our own experience. Every immigrant has a story. We make a lot of sacrifices and we go through a lot of hardships. Sometimes it may seem very mundane, like waiting to make a phone call because you could only afford so much. But overall, immigrants are the strength of the U.S. After interacting with a lot of immigrants across nationalities, I would say immigration is an advantage by far. And that’s why it's really important to keep this current going.”