In 1948, a young Belgian woman, frustrated with her secretarial job in Paris and restless after the war, decided to hitchhike around the world. She started with just $5.
Four years later, Christiane Zeebroek had made it to Calcutta, where she met my Indian grandfather. Together, Ashis and Christiane Janah started India’s first art ceramics studio, resurrecting old tribal designs and hiring artisans whose craft was disappearing.
Christiane with my mother, Martine, in Calcutta in 1956. My mother was born in 1955, and decades later, in the summer of 1978, she accepted a proposal via telegram from a young, James Joyce-loving structural engineer she’d met in Bombay who was living in the United States.
They were married at a courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio. My mother wore a blood-red sari, looking fierce, while my father smiled giddily.
They worked their tails off to create a solid future for their kids. My mom’s first job in the US was slicing onions at her local Wendy’s in Buffalo, New York. Life was stressful. They’d left India’s most cosmopolitan city, a tropical place where poetry was discussed over coffee into the wee hours, for an industrial town with bleak winters and 7-foot high snow drifts. They had no money, so they furnished their first apartment with finds from thrift stores, and my mother learned to refinish all kinds of wood.
Eventually, my parents moved to a sunnier place, and my brother and I began school in Tucson, Arizona. We were the odd ones out — ashy-legged, knob-kneed Indian kids who didn’t have TV at home. I was bullied mercilessly, often the only brown kid in my class and several above and below me. But we were lucky. My teachers boosted my confidence, told me about gifted and talented programs, and eventually helped me enroll in a math and science-focused high school in Southern California.
Miraculously, the children of two completely broke Indian immigrants managed to live the American dream. My brother and I went to Harvard and Stanford, holding down jobs to support ourselves in school since our parents couldn’t swing the tuition. I was lucky enough to build a company that now employs over 1,200 workers around the world, including several dozen here in the US.
I am a first-generation American, here by the grace of so many immigrants who came before my parents, and by the grace of tolerant, courageous, and just policies that have made this country a shining light to the world.
I will fight as hard as I can to ensure that this grace lives on in my country.
Immigrants have become scapegoats for the joblessness and desperation plaguing America’s white working class. This is unacceptable, just as it was when Irish and Italian immigrants were scapegoats in a prior era. As a nation, we have always been more of an affinity group than an ethnic group, united not by our skin color or religion but by our core philosophy that a person is the sum of his actions, not his ancestry.
That’s what makes America great.
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