Today we share the third installment of our Stories of Hope series! This project is all about putting a spotlight on the real lives and faces behind immigration in the US. This month, we’re thrilled to introduce you to Ankit, who comes to us from the vibrant land of India.
Coming to the United States
Born in 1988, Ankit grew up in the Indian state of Gujarat, about five hours outside of Bombay — a town of about 300,000 people. In 2007, at the age of nineteen, he made the decision to move to St. Louis, Missouri to pursue his higher education. He laughs thinking about how he made his decision to come to the US, and St. Louis specifically. As a child, he always imagined what life in the US could be like for him. Although he received advice on how and where to apply for college, “I ended up in St. Louis just because of the arch. That was my dream to see the arch and that was the only reason I took a college over there. I went over there looking for an arch.”
He made the long journey alone, leaving his parents, brother, and extended family behind. But he did not leave without a big send-off. His favorite memory of India is being dropped off at the airport; 150 people came to see him off. Aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, and more all came to wave goodbye. The sense of community and joy he felt in that moment was overwhelming.
Once on US soil, he had no local family or contacts. When asked about how he felt when leaving his home country, he states “It was a terrible experience because, you know, when I applied for college and everything and started the project, I was very excited and feeling like adventure and everything.” But then, once he received his student visa, “it was time to prepare everything. I was totally broken inside because I never left the country before—that was my first time ever. I had no experience.”
Leaving your country behind is hard for everyone, in almost any circumstance. But back then, in 2007, “We didn’t have that much internet service over there either. So I wasn’t familiar with any places. Nowadays, you can just Google it and you have an idea of everything that you’re going to go to and you know. But before that, I didn’t know who I’m going to live with, where I’m going to stay, what I’m going to do or anything.” Going into the big unknown, although exciting, is extremely grueling. Eventually, “I was just excited. But the day finally came, when I left from there, I was crying a lot. I cried all night long.”
Once in the US, having imagined this movie life for himself, he faced reality; “I used to imagine that I will have good luck, good job, and all that stuff, but I had a real struggle.” This made Ankit reevaluate his position and he learned that “nothing is easy, I know. There is an American dream and we all can pursue it, but you have to put in your efforts, your time; you have to do all that struggle and only then will it come true.”
Adjusting to a New Life
Coming to the US was a big shift for Ankit. He describes his life in India as “You know, India is a very populated country, 1.3 billion people. So wherever you go, you’re going to see the people.” But that definitely changed when he moved to St. Louis; “up here when I first came, I didn’t see that much of a crowd. So I had that homesickness. I used to be around the people, talking to them, hanging out, and all that stuff.” But the culture in the US is quite different, especially when it comes to community. “Here, people have their own schedule, so it’s hard to find someone to talk to or just hang out,” especially as a newcomer. Leaving his family behind, “When I came, I had nobody. I had to start from scratch.”
One of the things he misses most is the festivals; “we do have too many festivals over there in India, it’s the culture. Any special occasion has a festival and there are going to be lots of people coming by—uncles and aunts and all that.” With his extended family remaining in India, it’s hard to celebrate those occasions the same way, being swept away in a big crowd of loved ones. The biggest culture shock for Ankit, he says, was celebrating his birthday differently. “I had to celebrate by myself instead of celebrating with family and friends, I really miss it. Here, either we are working on our own birthday or even if you want to celebrate, then only you are going to celebrate.”
Calling America Home
With time, Ankit slowly adjusted to his new life and culture. After finishing his education, he moved to New Jersey, where he met his wife, who is also originally from India. Through an arranged marriage, they were married in March of 2014. A year later, they moved to Georgia to her family, where Ankit still lives with his wife and two children.
At first, life was so busy; “When I got married, it took me about three years to start having those feelings [of home]. When we were both working, me and my wife, we hardly saw each other, at night only. But when I had my son in 2016.” That’s when it clicked—Ankit was at home. “That’s when I started having that feeling. I had my own home. When I go home, I’m gonna play with my son, and I have friends and family and her family.” It all fell into place. With the birth of his child, he started envisioning a future for his son, and for himself along with it. Thinking of his son’s life, “he is going to grow up and I will have another shoulder to hold onto.”
Now, thinking back, he says that now “I like it here better than over there because it’s different after living here for almost 14 years. I like it here.” With his parents still living in India, he does go back to visit. Describing his trips, he laughs, saying “When I come back, I am happy”—the US is now his home.
Reflecting on his identity, Ankit does believe that he has changed quite a bit in the fourteen years since he left India for the US. Leaving at the relatively young age of nineteen, Ankit had to become an adult more quickly than he may have studying in India. At home, “Anything I did was through my mom and dad, they were the ones who were making the decisions. Since I came here, I had to make those decisions, I had the final say.”
Coming to the US alone, Ankit had time to self-reflect and improve. “I am more mature now because, before, when you’re constantly around family, I’m in a safe place. I didn’t need to worry about myself. That changed when I was living by myself.” Facing a new country, university, and culture by himself, Ankit had to adapt. “I had to look out just for myself. I knew only about my [immediate] surroundings. Now I know much more than that.” Having adjusted to his new life, Ankit has been able to open himself up to more than just adapting and surviving. His eyes have opened to the bigger picture, “I know what is happening in other countries and I’m very well aware of different things going on around me and other countries economically and politically. Before, I was just in my own world. It’s definitely better than what I used to be now.”
Ankit’s eyes opened further during his favorite memory in the US—a cross-country road trip in 2012. Driving from New Jersey all the way to California, all in seven days, Ankit saw cities like Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Las Vegas, and sights like the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, Yellowstone, and, his favorite stop, the Pocono Mountains. Exploring all the different landscapes and communities the US has to offer, he found it “really surprising how one part of the world is so developed the other part of the world still doesn’t have infrastructure—they’re not developing up.”
Ankit’s identity also changed because he shifted fields and career paths. In India, he received his diploma in pharmacology, working in a government hospital as a pharmacist for three months before he decided to pursue his education in the US. Had he remained in India, he probably would still be in that field. But when Ankit came to the US, he started working part-time at a gas station. Unlike in pharmacology, he began to flourish; “I really opened up, working with people in the US. I will say the whole world turned upside down.” Now, having worked in retail for thirteen years, Ankit still loves it. He and his wife now own their own gas stations in North Georgia. “I’ve been talking to different people. I see lots of people every day. So they do share their point of view and they tell me about different stuff.” Through his job, his eyes have been opened to the world around him, going back to how he was able to learn and absorb much more than he did in India and when he first came to the US.
Community and Immigrants
In a media landscape often filled with negative narratives about immigration, building connections between locals and newcomers can be quite a challenge. Both sides tend to hold their own unique viewpoints and biases about each other. Which inspired the goal of this series — to share the stories of those living in our communities. However, there are many ways through which communities can unite and gain insight into each other’s diverse backgrounds.
Thinking back to his early days in the U.S., Ankit reminisces about his college dorm life. St. Louis wasn’t exactly known for its bustling Indian community, unlike places like New Jersey. He reflects, “I wasn’t around my own community, Indian people. I used to live in a dormitory, so I was with American people, different people.”
Being in this diverse mix, Ankit noticed that, back then, not everyone had a solid grasp of cultural differences, including his own Indian background. He states “You know, they know India, but they don’t know how it is culturally different and all that stuff.”
But Ankit points out that people’s knowledge keeps evolving. He shares how things have changed since he first set foot in the U.S. Nowadays, people are more curious and open to learning about different cultures, and excited to celebrate each other’s traditions. Ankit stresses how important this shift has been, highlighting the value of embracing diverse backgrounds with open arms.