With Father’s Day around the corner, I was rooting around some old photos of my dad and came across these.
While watching me look for some places to stay in Germany and the Netherlands, my dad said, “Twenty-two. I was exactly your age when I first left India.” I’ve mentioned some snippets here and there about my parents in The Deoli Diaries and past projects, but a lot of people have been questioning my parents’ pasts. Outwardly, their combined story is paradigmatic of the American immigrant story: two folks who met, settled down, worked hard, played by the rules and slowly made their way toward the American Dream (home ownership, a small business, education for the next generation).
But that sketch doesn’t come close to representing where and what most immigrants come from.
I often mention Deoli Internment Camp, where my father was interned for nearly three years. That being said, my dad didn’t have a very typical childhood. He grew up in Calcutta’s Tangra, which is sort of like our Chinatown. That’s not to say that he fit right in. My dad’s family (and most internee survivors) stuck out in the community. They talked differently, carried themselves warily and worked ceaselessly.
The local Chinese school was perhaps one of the few means of acculturating internee children back into society. Funded by the KMT in Taiwan, everything was taught in Mandarin–a language distant and strange to the Hakka my dad learned at home. He didn’t last in school very long. He quit in the middle of seventh grade, which didn’t seem unusual for a boy of that time, place and socioeconomic class.
But where my dad lacked formal education, he made up with raw curiosity–which is how he ended up in Europe. My dad was probably in his early twenties and back in Darjeeling when he met a trekker from Copenhagen. This trekker had a rip in his backpack. Having worked in my grandfather’s shoe business, my dad knew how to sew it back up. My dad’s English was good enough that he could chat with the trekker. My dad wanted to know how he could get to the United States. The trekker replied, “Go to Europe first.”
Dad didn’t have the same language skills and certainly not the same education that I had. But again, my dad has always acted on his curiosity. By that time, quite a few Hakka from India were migrating over to Europe and had established businesses. It was pretty normal for bachelors to work in the restaurants, get some experience and then open up their own places and have their own families. For the next year, he traveled from city to city, restaurant to restaurant.