Interviewed by: Melissa Paluch
Mallika Ghatak, 43, is a college graduate, was born in Mumbai, India. She has a 12 year old son named Vihaan and a husband named Haroon. Mallika initially came to the United States with her Indian husband. When Mallika arrived in the United States with no work permit, she struggled emotionally with the fact that she was about to start her new life while being dependent on her husband. She felt that she partially lost her identity since it was the first time she was not financially independent. Once Mallika became a permanent resident and obtained a work permit, her life improved. She started working for a major American television channel where she made her first friends and colleagues. She felt more integrated into the U.S. society. Mallika’s Indian culture is important to her. Her son speaks Hindi, and the family celebrates both Indian and traditional American holidays. Currently, Mallika works as a Senior Business Development Manager for a transportation company and lives in Northern Virginia with her family.
Reasons for Migrating to the United States
Mallika works as a Senior Business Development Manager for a transportation company. She shares an apartment with her family in Arlington.
Mallika came to the United States initially on vacation with a close friend, but she says, “Being on vacation is quite different than living here permanently...It’s not all New York City and Miami Beach….You also come to the country with the mindset of fun, but not to live there." What spurred Mallika to come to the United States permanently was marrying her husband, Haroon Ghatak, in 1999 in Mumbai, India. A few months later, they came to the United States to live for good.
Haroon’s Background in the United States
Haroon had already lived in the United States for many years before they got married. He attended a public university in Alabama and studied Computer Information Systems and Math. Later, Haroon attended a public research university in Georgia where he earned an MBA. After acquiring his academic degrees and beginning to work, Haroon wanted to settle down and find a wife so he returned to India.
Socio-Cultural Perceptions Regarding Arranged Marriage
While Mallika was enjoying her independence, her parents were thinking of an arranged marriage for her. Looking at their family tree, they found her a potential love match in Haroon, a first-generation Indian immigrant with whom she shared a common uncle. Her parents and his parents talked about the two of them being a good match. Mallika’s parents were quite impressed by Haroon’s academic credentials, though both Mallika and her parents sadly realized that marriage to Haroon would mean she would have to leave India for the United States. And this put Mallika and her family ill at ease as she had always lived with her family, even in college. According to Mallika, “Unlike the typical Indian arranged marriage where the bride meets her husband on their wedding day,” Mallika and Haroon met each other with their families before the wedding.
Struggles upon Arrival
Mallika and Haroon were married in India in November of 1999. In December of the same year, Mallika traded in her travel visa for a dependent visa. However, life for Mallika in America was a bit of a culture shock and didn’t meet her expectations. For starters, unlike what she saw on television and among her husband’s Indian friends, life in America didn’t lead to immediate material gain. As she described the situation, her husband’s Indian friends were buying their wives fancy new cars and houses. Mallika and her husband, on the other hand, lived in Arlington, VA across from the metro.
Gender- specific Struggles Faced upon Arrival
Mallika became quite annoyed with having to depend on Haroon and not having her own identity. She was used to Mumbai where she had her own identity and everywhere she went, people knew her and her family. In the United States, Mallika knew no one but Haroon and his friends. They knew her as, “Have you met Mallika, Haroon’s wife?” And what really irked Mallika was the fact that she could not work legally because of her dependent visa.* Mallika was so depressed about not being able to work and forge an identity for herself that she considered working for cash as a nanny, but she and Haroon agreed that even a few hundred dollars a day was not worth risking not receiving permanent residency.
Mallika had a hard time living in America and eventually left Haroon by saying that she missed her family. “I bought a one-way ticket back to India. I simply felt that I lost my identity.” Mallika thought that Americans perceived her as this ‘village Indian woman,’ when in reality she grew up quite cosmopolitan. Haroon was very understanding and knew that Mallika was not used to living away from her family. He knew that she was having a terrible time adjusting to life in America. He talked to her parents, and he told them to not let anyone influence her nor convince her to come back to him.
How Permanent Residency Enhances Immigrants’ Integration into U.S. Society
When Mallika came back to America, everything changed for the better. She received her permanent residency and got a job at a major American television channel. She finally started feeling like she could be herself. She made her first American friend, Brad. “We ate lunch together every day for six years,” she said. She really felt that God sent Brad to her. She felt very self-conscious of talking at work because of her accent, but Brad put her at ease. He said that if someone makes fun of her accent, she should just “laugh it up and own it.” She began to let her guard down and make new friends. She finally knew that she adjusted to America when Haroon attended one of her workplace parties and people said, “This is Haroon, Mallika’s husband.”
Once Mallika got her green card, she wanted to fit in with American culture, and she planned to achieve this through food. “When I thought of America, I thought of frozen dinners, fast food and Twinkies.” When Mallika would go out with her American friends, Brad and Alicia, she would head straight to Popeye’s or KFC, or McDonalds. Meanwhile, Brad and Alicia would laugh at her and opt for more healthy foods.
Creating a Network of New Friends and Colleagues
When Mallika arrived from India, she had several immigrant friends who were simply “social friends.” She had no strong bond with them. All of these “friends” became successful materially. However for Mallika, “success means growing intellectually.” When Mallika got pregnant with her son, her colleagues threw her a baby shower. They are her friends and are as close as family. And when Mallika learned that her father had passed away in India, her boss held her hand while Haroon’s father delivered the bad news to her at work. Mallika said that she, “drifted in and out of Hindi during that conversation, while her boss held her hand.”
Mallika’s Relationship with Indian and American Culture
Mallika’s Indian culture is important to her. Haroon’s mom only speaks Hindi, which is how Mallika’s son, Vihaan, learned Hindi. Mallika feels that it is more important for her son to learn Hindi than for her mother-in-law to learn English. Mallika, Haroon and Vihaan go to India every year for vacation. Mallika said that she would never move back to India to live permanently as India seems so different to her after her father passed away. To retain her Indian culture, Mallika celebrates both Indian and traditional American holidays. Diwali is known as the “festival of light,” and Mallika celebrates this at home. Every member of Mallika’s family has a candle holder that looks like a house. Mallika said, “Typically, only men are given this candle holder because they traditionally provide for the family.” Mallika has changed this tradition by providing a candle holder for herself, as she contributes to the family too. She wants Vihaan to feel special because he is her son, and not because he is male. Mallika wants to teach her son that men and women are equal. While growing up in India, Mallika and her family actually had a Christmas tree and they hung ornaments on it of Hindu Gods and precious memories. The tree is what bonds her to her father even in death so Mallika will not allow anyone to touch the tree. She will only give the artifact to Vihaan upon her death.
Mallika would like to become a U.S. citizen because she considers her life to be here because of her son. Haroon, on the other hand, feels a deep bond to India and does not want to give up his Indian citizenship. He even thinks about going back some day, but Mallika does not want to go back as her life is here. She is glad that she came.
* Mallika was likely admitted to the U.S. through the H-4 visa category (spouse of an H-1B worker), H-4 visa holders were not eligible for work authorization at the time. In order to work, an employer would have had to petition for her separately.