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Allergic to America: I Had to Move Away Because Life in the US Was Making Me Ill

My parents immigrated to an America of unbridled hope and prosperity. 40 years later, I discovered a work culture so stressful it made me physically ill. So I left.

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A few weeks ago, I found myself strolling through Hyde Park with an English friend. It was one of those rare, glorious, sunny London days. The water of the Serpentine glimmered as people lounged along its banks, having low, murmuring, exceedingly civilized conversations. My friend, who grew up in this city, took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Do you smell it?” he asked. “That smell—such an English autumn smell, sweet and woodsy and damp. I’ve known it since I was five. Isn’t it lovely?” When I inhaled as he did, I found myself unable to share his delight. I suddenly remembered the joy of hiking in a park or forest of the northeastern U.S., breathing in the refreshingly crisp, almost biting fall air, gazing in rapture at the fiery elms and oaks as dry leaves crackled underfoot. Before I could smile back at my friend and continue the day, I had to shake off a pang of sorrow at having abandoned the country of my birth.

For someone like me, the daughter of Indian immigrants, it hurts to let go of America. It is the country that, after all, saved my father. He grew up in the southern Indian city of Chennai, caught between warring factions in a chaotic post-independence atmosphere. The old Brahmin elite, which his family was a part of, vied with the newly elected socialists, who saw Brahmins as evil co-conspirators with the British Raj. As a child, my father had stones thrown at him on the street, and, later on, saw his older brother denied entrance to medical school solely on the grounds of caste. In 1970, when he was twenty-two, my father left for America, hoping to avoid such nightmares.

At that time, the United States only allowed select Indians who showed quantifiable academic or entrepreneurial promise to obtain visas. When he got his, my father rejoiced at joining this golden set who had the chance of living in what he and many of his peers perceived as the most powerful nation in the world, where social class did not matter and talent and hard work could allow a person to transcend any kind of difficult circumstance. When he arrived at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where he had been granted a fully funded master’s degree in chemical engineering, his first impressions surpassed his expectations. He fell madly in love with America. The frank warmth of the American people and the youthful energy of the hippie movement charmed him. He donned bellbottoms and grew a handlebar moustache, and soon found himself enjoying the attentions of Oklahoma women who told him he looked like Omar Sharif.

He also took full advantage of the meritocratic system. By the late 1970s he had finished graduate school, found a stable job as an executive at AT&T, and was able to go to India to marry (an arranged match, as per tradition) and bring my mother back with him. She finished her graduate degree in the States, too, and started working as a software developer—a harbinger of the Indian IT wave to come. A few years after my parents arrived in America, I, their first child, was born in the U.S.A. It gave my father great pride to know that I was a full-fledged, natural-born American citizen. As he guided me on my training-wheeled bicycle in our suburban New Jersey neighborhood, or threw a Wiffle ball to my bat, he would often tell me, with great zeal and optimism, about the endless possibilities I had. I admired my charismatic father and as I grew up under his influence, I began to feel his same devotion to the quintessential American values of freedom, individuality and hard work. I applied these values fervently to my own life, and, as I got older and discovered in myself an inclination for writing and an insatiable wanderlust, my version of the American dream became clear to me. I would become a journalist who worked for a major newspaper or magazine, and traveled the world as part of her job.

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