Building Family In Unfamiliar Spaces

In 1965, the gates of the United States were open far more than previously before, bringing in waves of immigrants from all over, especially the countries in the Eastern hemisphere.

My story as an Asian-American starts with immigration. Namely, the immigration of my father Vinay Vasudev in 1980. Talking with my father about his reasons for leaving, it was clear that this was not a decision popular with his family. He was almost 30 years old, already working in India and just recently married. Nobody in our family, both on my father and mother’s side, had immigrated to the U.S. and so this move was also unprecedented.

Contrasted with the immigration patterns of Indians today, who largely come to the United States for work and already with connections of Indian communities already in the country, my father came to further his education and without a community already in place, especially in the small capital city of Louisiana, Baton Rouge.

Coming into this class, I knew my parents had an extensive archive of pictures of our family. It was large, each period was organized into their own album. My brother and I even had our own albums with pictures of us since we were born. I was familiar with perusing these albums with my parents as well as the ever-present nature of my father with his camera, ready to capture more.

The one gap that always existed for me, however, was the time between 1980 and 1986. During that time, my dad was attending college at Louisiana State University, obtaining his Master and PhD in Computer Science. It was during this time that my dad, along with my mom, were building their own family in a place that was unfamiliar to them at the time. Pictured above is my father working at a computer for his studies.

When I asked my dad for pictures from his time at college, this was the first picture that he shared with me. My dad is the middle of the three Indian men pictured above. I found this picture interesting for the simple fact that, in his apartment in Louisiana, the people invited in were other Indians. In this private space, my dad seemed to keep stay surrounded by that which felt familiar, at least early on in his time in the U.S.

Again, this third picture shows my dad, as well as my mom in the center, surrounded by those who are familiar: fellow Indian immigrants. The noticeable Indian garb asserts their Indian heritage, such as the ladies’ saris and the man’s turban, which identifies him as a Sikh.

In contrast, this next picture shows my father in a public space surrounded by colleagues, who are all white except for my dad. His clothing here is more professional, which is explained by the setting: The four men pictured above are attending a conference. Dressing in such a way was also a way for my dad to show his status and assert that he could stand with these men as well and claim his own space. I found this picture particularly interesting for the contrast in the racial makeup when compared to the previous photo. An interesting tidbit is the man furthest to the left is now my dad’s best and closest friend to this day.

This is another picture in my dad’s home in Louisiana and the first one that has a non-Indian present in the private space. It seems that as my father became more comfortable in the U.S., his circle widened to include more people. What really stands out to me in this picture is the faces of the two men, which show obvious humor and joy. Additionally, my dad’s hand on the back of the other man indicate the closeness and comfortability one would exhibit with a friend.

This final picture is at a later point in time. It would indicate that, at some point, the private and public space began to merge. Both Indian and White students coexist freely in my parents’ place. I found interesting the act of my dad and his friend reaching over the table to shake hands, as if it is some act of greeting one another for the first time, or bridging the divide between two parties. Additionally, the physical closeness of the group indicates a high level of comfortability. The mood is light and, based on faces, full of joy and/or humor.

There is still much to know about my dad’s time as a student in the United States. These pictures illuminated his life as it related to the people around him at the time. As I’ve viewed these pictures, I have become interested in learning more about this period of time and how a newly married couple were able to come on their own, with no family connections, and set-up a life independent of the one that existed back in India.

I think it also brings questions to mind of my mom’s experiences during this time as a new bride in a new country. Many of the pictures above feature my dad prominently, with the exception of one photo that also has my mom. Does this mean she is the one behind the pictures being taken? Are there pictures of her during this time as well?

Finally, these pictures exist as a snapshot of one man’s early life post-immigration to the United States. My parents have now been in the U.S. for 37 years and lived more than half of their lives here. All that time has been squarely in the South, whether in Louisiana or North Carolina. It is a very specific narrative to consider, which I think contributes to an understanding of Indian American stories not being the same story across the board and offers a unique view into the similarities and differences that each person’s story holds.

For me, I hope to continue learning more about my parents’ story in the U.S., particularly before I was born, to further understand their experiences and how it really defines the experiences of my brother and I.