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The Life of a Transformed Chameleon: An Oral History
Introduction: I interviewed Nagammai Meyyappan, my mother, because she was a chameleon her whole life. She always changed herself for other people and only broke out of it during my lifetime. I've always asked her questions but I've never gotten full stories. I got them now.
I was born in Neyveli on May 2nd, 1967. It's a southern state in India and a very peaceful town. There was only one movie theater where no recent movie ever played. We lived a couple of kilometers away from everybody else, in a decent sized house. I have two sisters and one older brother. My dad's name is Meyyappan and my mom's name is Solai.
The dad always worked, he was very busy at work, and mom stayed home. So, she gave us chores to do around the house. Anything and everything from cleaning dishes to cleaning our own clothes, cooking, sweeping, and we even do a lot of things from scratch. Like the grains have skin on them, we take them out on Sunday. All day we do extra work, so it's you have to take the skin off the grains and then kinda dust it out and pick out the stones from them and my dad would boil the rice on Sundays and we have to put it on the corridor and make it dry all day. At the end of the day, we grab them all, put it inside the house and we have two rooms and we spread them all over and we make circles so that we can walk while the rice is drying up by air for about 4-5 days and then my dad would take it to the mill. [There he would] take the husk out and bring it back. Again we have to dust it out to take the extra husk out and take the stones from the rice. So, a lot of extra work.
Everybody will do [the chores] except my older brother. The boy is treated differently. Some families [treat the boy differently], some communities treat boys with a little more superiority than girls. I don't know about other countries so I can't tell if it is [normal].
[About childhood], it was very serious. We didn't even know what fun was. It was strictly you had to: study and obey older people. [An example of a fun experience was when] my older sister got married and when they came home with their children. Little things like that. Playing with them or something like that. Or than that, there was no...I didn't know fun for a long time.
My mom stayed home and my dad was an engineer. [Economic status], maybe somewhere in the border of low to middle class but not in the upper end in the middle class, in the very low end of middle class. Because there's four children and two adults supported by just one income. He worked for a government type of company so he gets housing allowance and water is free and electricity costs very very little so that's all part of his benefits so the income wasn't very high. The power station where he worked have a German collaboration so he had an opportunity to go to Germany for one year when I was in 5th grade and he took that opportunity only because he could get an extra income in Germany, very little, and he would get his salary in India too. So, just to get some additional income, he took up an assignment like that. In those days there was no phone, he doesn't have any time to write some letters because he has to study the German language and also work in the power station in Germany, learning new techniques [for] when he come back to India. So he was pretty occupied all through the day and there were 5-6 people who went from Neyveli, who all stay in one house, so they have to cook for themselves and eat because it will be very expensive if they eat outside.
There was no money that we had, personally, none of us had any money but just we'd go once a week to buy vegetables, in a market, so it'd be cheaper. So, me and my older sister, we take the bicycle and go. We have a lot of small bags and we buy, but first going from one end to the other end, just watching all the prices to know which item is cheaper and where it is, on our way back from the end to the front, we purchase. While walking from the front to the end, we're only watching prices, we're not buying anything. Only after thoroughly looking, we buy the vegetables. [Then], she takes a bunch of bags and we put it on both bikes and ride back home.
Mom would only decide what would be cooked on the days and she used to cut the vegetables and give it to us. We were strict vegetarians so there was no meat cooked in the house. Not even egg. Mom would cut the vegetables and my older sisters would cook it when they were older and I was very small. So, I just help in washing dishes or sweeping the house and, in the morning, we sweep the corridors in front of the house and we put water and there's a little artwork they put with a little powder. I don't know how to do that so my older sisters would do that. So that happens everyday. I do things like that and then the clothes are dried. [We have to] take them out,
fold them, and always help with the chores. That's the number one priority. And later, after we finish all the work, we can study.
We never went out. By the time I came to America, I was in India for 21 years, I only ate one meal outside. That was when we decided to go out to a three star hotel. It's not very very posh but it was a three star hotel. We ate [the] meal outside and we all had vegetarian fried rice. We didn't like it. It was very expensive, we were shocked by the price.
[Other cultures], we don't know anything. We didn't know anybody different, just the neighbor that was from the state north of us, Andhra Pradesh, and they were a very reserved family. So it's not like [there wasn't curiosity], I would go to their house sometimes, they were very reserved, and [they] had only one boy so they all like to have a girl stick around the house. I go around to everybody's house, most of the neighbors didn't have girls so, whenever I go, they like it. So that's how it was. I didn't know anything about any other culture, even people within India,I didn't know anything because we didn't have a TV so we have no way of knowing other cultures.
[In India], the caste system wasn't that present. Just living, we would not know. The only way it affected me and my family was the community had a lot of dowry. The girls had to be given lot of gold, diamond, money, and vessels when they are getting married. So the boy's family would take all that from the girl's parents. In my family, because we are three girls, there was a lot the father had to save from his income so that these girls could be married to good families. The demand is very high, it's not only at the time of the marriage [but also when] the grandchildren are born, every time there's a festival called Diwali, every time there's Pongal, and lots and lots of continuous expense so it's not just at the time of marriage. It's again and again. If you have to find the same boy within the same caste then you have to give a lot. When I say a lot, for my older sister, the gold, diamond, cash, and clothes and vessels altogether then was probably 200,000 Indian rupees. No, it was much more, maybe 500,000 Indian rupees and that's just for one girl. There's another girl and the third girl.
School is a lot of work, lot of homework and lot to study. Academics is much more in India, there's always five subjects and there's always exams. There's [the] quarterly exam, a half yearly exam, and the finals. You have to keep on studying [all the time] because of them. Studying and
studying. There weren't that many creative projects, it was mostly whatever was in the textbook we had to understand and 95-98% of the questions we'd be studying would be in the textbook. There's different subjects and a lot more lessons [than in America] but mostly we just have to understand the principle and pretty much memorize the answer.
[On punishment in school], children used to get beaten by the stick. Teachers could beat the children. The whackings were given to their hand and the lower portion of their body and everything. But I never got any punishment at home or at school because I always used to be
very good. Some of the guy teachers would give really hard punishments. Nobody cared, in fact the parents would come and say discipline the child. The parents want the teachers to be strict so there life is made easier at home. Especially the boys. The only class I had joint boys and girls was the 5th grade. The boys are very mischievous. The parents, without the kids knowing, would tell the teachers be strict and because they definitely need that extra help.
We went to the same kind of school but my brother went to an English Medium. That is you pay a tuition fee and you have an uniform and shoes and everything. It's just a little more metropolitan and it's a CBS syllabus, it stands for Central Board of Syllabus and all through India they have schools like that. So it's basically an English Medium and he paid tuition fee. I studied in Tamil, my mother tongue. I only had one subject in English so we learn the alphabets and know how to read and write. We don't know how to speak in English. We do question and answers so we have composition and questions based on that and we have lessons and that's all we know.
I liked school a lot. I knew that the only way I could be successful was by studying good so I liked school. I was always ahead of all my classmates so some of my teachers would encourage me in different ways. They would even let me correct the assignments of other kids. So, I used to have a red pen and correct mathematics papers when I was in 5th grade. I always liked math.
I wanted to be a lot of things [when a little kid]. I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to be a tennis star. I wanted to be a basketball player. I wanted to be a lot of things. They were mostly dreams but then again I wanted to be an engineer just like my dad. Which is why I ended up becoming one and I always wanted to work in the power plant. So when I came to the U.S., I worked in the nuclear plant.
I was 21 when I moved to America. I got married to an immigrant and got the dependent visa. What happened was that he was in India to attend Green card interview and then we got married. So he surrendered his Green card and then we both got the Green card together with the marriage certificate. It was an arranged marriage. [We met] because of a common family friend. She knew and said there was a boy like that but the boy wasn't in America at the time. Only my father went and saw him when he was in India, it was just a brief meeting. I don't know how long it exactly was, maybe a half hour or something like that. I think my dad basically asked only a couple of questions like whether he smoked and if he had a habit of drinking alcohol. I don't think...there was no in depth knowledge of the person at all and the guy was over 13 years older to me. So there was nothing in common and there was no relationship. His name was Ramanadhan.
[About being married], it wasn't an average relationship because all he wanted was the money I made. At home, there was actually no conversation so there was nothing to share and not good thing no bad thing. He didn't want me to have any connection with my brother, he was in
California at the time, he said I couldn't contact or write letters to my parents so there was nothing so it was just like a slavery.
[About living in America], there was freedom but I didn't enjoy any of it. I like living in America because I was able to work right away. Within 4 or 5 months after I came, I was able to work so I used to work in Downtown Chicago and was pretty occupied throughout the day. I wake up very early in the morning, take the train and work very many hours. So I was very busy. Come home and then cook dinner. Only weekends were free. I was pretty busy and liked living in America because I could drive. I liked it a lot because I had a career.
I really didn't miss India. In the sense, I don't know where my life was going with this guy but, at the same time, I was just happy going to work and totally concentrating on what I was doing at work. I don't think I thought a lot about India. I just didn't know what my future was with a guy like that but that didn't mean I would go back to India because I thought that one I had a job I should just try to establish myself here in America rather than go back to India. So within a year and a half, I separated from the guy. But I still didn't go to India right away. I stayed here, the first trip I made was very close to five years after I came from India.
While I had a career in the nuclear plant, it was very good. Once, I got the field assignment to Arizona, I like Arizona very much. I didn't want to come back to Chicago. So I quit my consulting company and I joined a utility company. I became a permanent employee of Arizona Public Service. Then, I wasn't getting any interesting projects, at work, so at that time I made the decision to resign my job. I didn't know that it would be so bad for my life later on. I had no clue.
I married again in 1994 and it wasn't an arranged marriage. I had two kids from the marriage; an older daughter and a younger autistic son. I resigned my job before marriage and then I studied a little bit in Cal State Hayward (Computer Science) and took some courses and then we moved to Minnesota before having my first child. That's where we had our company, a computer company for 12 years. Once the boy with autism was born, I stopped work for a long time, almost 10 years. Now, I'm trying to do a business here in Chicago. It's very challenging.
[How growing up in the 70's shaped her], whatever you learn as a child sticks with you forever. Even though I came to America and I am by myself [now], I still have those really old conservative values and I stick by them. That's life. The values you grow up with are the one
that you follow. If you thing they're nice, then you will stick with them. If you don't want to keep them as you grow up, you make an attempt to be different. I accepted it. I just lived the same way.