A Surprise Behind Every Sari

“People assume when they see you are dressed in a different way,” Rita Kapahi says of Americans who do not know who she is. This is an issue that many immigrants, whether Indian, Chinese, or even Guatemalan, face. People see someone that looks different than what society deems as “normal” and make assumptions about his/her character and life. It’s a shame, because these people might be missing out on an opportunity to meet a truly interesting and kindhearted person. They might be missing out on an opportunity to meet a well-educated person, who loves their field of work. They might be missing out on meeting Mrs. Rita Kapahi.

Rita really came to America with a clean slate. Her family remained back in India, and she arrived alone, waiting for her co-workers to pick her up. She had not a single possession when she landed in the airport in Atlanta, as her luggage was lost during her journey. All she had to her name at that moment was her sari and her vast knowledge of mechanical engineering and computer science.

The fact was that Rita came here 33 years ago to work on a software project, and has lived outside of Atlanta ever since then. Back then, only the most skilled workers were recruited from India to come work here, and she pounced on the opportunity. This is something that has changed in recent years, as Rita says Indians of just about any skill level have the chance to start a life in America now.

Thirty-three years ago. The year was 1984, and the state of Georgia was populated for the most part with white Americans. Georgia was nothing like Rita had ever imagined about America. She says “When you think of America, you think of either big cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, or you think of big farms, or you think of Florida. [Georgia] was nothing like that.” On her drive from the airport, she notes that “there was nothing, just a few warehouses and some small straggling gas stations.” To her, the vast emptiness of Georgia was a complete shock, and strayed from what she pictured America to be.

Of course, this difference was not just about landscape, it was something much larger. Rita initially lived in Smyrna, and as it turns out none of her neighbors were like she was. They were all White, and most of them had never come into contact with a person of Indian descent. Unfortunately for them, they did not even seize the opportunity to meet one, as Rita says that most of her neighbors never attempted to get to know her. They took no time to consider that she was in an new, unfamiliar location, and stayed away simply because she wasn’t like them. Dr. Fred de Sam Lazaro, the director of the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas, similarly speaks of arriving in Minnesota and standing out as one of the only Indians in an almost completely white area. Both Lazaro and Rita speak of a unique perspective, in which they were judged simply because they were different.

For this reason, Rita, like most Indian immigrants, socialized with others like her. Her friends consisted of other Indians, Pakistanis, and Bengalis, all people that hailed from Southeastern Asia. Interestingly enough, her husband, who she met through work, immigrated to America for the exact same reason. She says that both of them went to top-tier schools in India, so they had an instant connection not only from work, but from the knowledge that they shared. In fact, Rita and her husband’s first conversation was about their joint love for ALGOL, a now obsolete computer language.

Another aspect of her new life in America included leaving behind the rest of her family in India. This would be difficult for anybody, as not being able to see a loved one for an extended period of time can definitely be trying. All that Rita, and most other Indian immigrants, could do is keep in contact with her family back by calling them. She recalls that a long-distance call to India used to cost $2.99 per minute, which meant calls had to be short in order to save money. So, it’s easy to imagine how happy Rita and her family were when the price of calls decreased to $1.49 per minute. In the modern age of Skype and other video chat services, sometimes we forget that long-distance communication used to be costly; we do not realize how much a fifty cent price decrease can positively impact someone’s life.

Luckily for Rita and many other immigrants, times have indeed changed, and with it, technology has also improved. Now, there is no need to have contracts with third-party companies in order to call home, there are several businesses that will provide that service for little to no cost at all. Rita is able to contact her family in India at any time, with no financial inconvenience nor time restraints on the length of the call.

Something else that has changed since she arrived in the United States is the fact that she now has a family of her own living here. She now lives in Dunwoody, about half an hour away from Smyrna, with her husband Sunil. Together, they have children that have lived their whole lives in the United States. As with many second-generation immigrants, their children are more “American,” in that this nation’s culture is the one that they have experienced for the most part. They are even in relationships with other Americans, something that was unheard of during the time that Rita came to this country, but something that we commonly see in our society today.

Rita’s story is truly an interesting one, and provides a point of view that the majority of Americans are unaware of. Many natural-born American citizens make assumptions about a person solely based on his/her appearance, but do not consider how fascinating he/she may really be. They do not consider what that person had to go through to live in a completely new part of the world. But ultimately, they do not consider that the person might just be Mrs. Rita Kapahi.