Finding Punjabi Culture in San Jose

Punjab folkdance: Creative Commons; by Shamrock23








“We have now blended our culture with American culture, but that does not make us any less of either group?”


*Note: My Grandma does not speak English and my words are rough translations of what she told me. Some words that exist in Punjabi do not exist in English, so I did my best to convey the exact emotion and sentiment that she relayed to me while being interviewed.


My Grandmother, D. Chopra (name changed), first arrived in San Jose, California in 1985. She is a resilient woman who has faced the never-ending hardships of life in two vastly different countries. As a single mother who was widowed, she raised three daughters who all ended up immigrating to America as well, changing the slate for Indian mothers who raised children on their own.

1) Was it difficult to transition to American society? 

– “Moving to a new area was not only fascinating, it was scary. We only knew one or two other families who moved here, since I sent your Aunt (Grandma’s oldest daughter) to America when she was 12. In our city back home, we knew every family by name, and everybody was willing to help no matter what. Coming into America, how did we know anybody would befriend or help us? Although I did find it difficult, I will have to say it was made easier by the other Punjabi families we met here. Our neighbor, who lived right in front of us when we first moved here, were also Punjabi but had immigrated here many more years before me (1960’s-1970’s).”

– “Society here is not the same as in Punjab. Our women are taught differently back home, especially when I was a child. Jeans were not a thing, studying to college was not a thing, and expecting to hold a job was not a thing for women, unless their families were struggling. While much has changed in India now, I came to America with extremely different ideas on societal norms. Of course, this clashed with how my children had to raise their own children, but sometimes things have to be done a new way in order to survive.”

(My Grandma never pushed her views on us and is very open-minded. While she did not prefer to do things like wearing American clothing or eating meat, she never stopped her children or grandchildren from partaking in these activities.)

She found life in America profoundly different from traditional life back in Hoshiarpur, and things like architecture even surprised her.

– “When your Aunt and Uncle (oldest daughter & son-in-law) picked me up from the airport to take me home, I was astonished by the houses. I asked them, where have you brought me? Why are the houses like this? And when we finally arrived to their home, I was even more taken aback by the low ceilings. It was just unsettling to see something so different from what you had pictured or been told. Back home, everyone was telling us how America has the best houses and the most beautiful everything. They weren’t hideous, but they were quite plain and unusual, compared to what I was used to. Later, your aunt told me the houses were like this because of California’s proneness to earthquakes and that all houses in America weren’t built like this. We laugh about this memory a lot, and I always remember how shocking it was to see the houses here.”

In the end, she told me that it was difficult to transition and it continues to be difficult living here, due to cultural differences and her inability to speak English. My Grandma never had a “traditional job” in American society, but she did take care of all eight grandchildren from the three of her daughters. In my eyes, she held the job of a mother for my cousins and I, so that our mothers could work and provide for the family.

– “Yes, it was and is still difficult. I learned things like the ABC’s and how to count in English, but I never learned English itself. I only speak Punjabi, so this posed/poses a problem when having to do things by myself. Most of the time, my children and grandchildren helped me, and this is still true to this day. While it has become a little bit easier, because more Punjabi immigrants have come to this region and hold jobs at places like the doctors, this is not true for every place I visit. American society is difficult to adapt to when you cannot learn the language: I was already 48 when I came here and it was not easy to learn English, especially growing up speaking an entirely separate language. While the transition was difficult, we now have family and friends here, and it is wonderful to be a part of the community we have built here.”

2) How did cultural conflicts affect you? Did they pose an issue when raising your grandchildren in America?

Cultural conflicts were not a major issue, even for the grandchildren. Seeing as we are multicultural and had to grow up in two societies (Punjabi and American), it might seem like it was a constant tug of war. For my Grandma, all she knew was to instill values in us that reflected true Punjabi character. She did not bend to American society and has held true to her roots to this day, although some blending of culture has certainly occurred.

– “I knew you all (the grandchildren) would never get to experience life the same way that I did. However, I did not want any of you to forget where and how your ancestors grew up: your Punjabi culture is important to you, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, so of course I instilled traditional values into you all. If you didn’t want to carry them on, that was not my business, because I have already done my job by teaching you our traditions. Sometimes, kids are hard-headed but I’d like to think that cultural conflicts did not pose a major issue when raising everyone. Cultural conflicts were and are not an issue for me at all. Yes, we now celebrate holidays like Christmas, but there were individuals in India who also did the same, due to British colonization. This is not a conflict in my eyes. We have now blended our culture with American culture, but that does not make us any less of either group.”

3) What prompted you to make the decision to move to America?

– “I sent my oldest daughter to America for studies when she was 12. Once my daughter had finished her schooling, she came back to India to get married: after her and her husband established a life in California, I made the decision to immigrate to be with my grandchildren. In America, everything was different. My oldest daughter had to work, so she needed someone to watch her children, and this is where I came in. The whole reason I came to America was so that my daughters could have a better and easier life. When they had children, it was only my duty to care for them to make everyone’s life easier. Of course, we moved to America for more opportunities, there is no denying that. My children have jobs now and so do my grandchildren. I wanted to move here to support my family and I have effectively done that: I am proud of all they have accomplished and all they do for me. The only thing I have left to do is get my grandchildren married.”

– “On the topic of opportunities, another reason why I immigrated here is because I heard back home about how great America is. I wanted my children to experience that, instead of the hardships I dealt with growing up: I did not want them to struggle in poverty or raise their own children in poverty, who wants that for their children? In a land that was rumored to be the best for starting a new life, what more could I want than to move there?”

While two of her daughters did not go to college, the oldest was able to obtain an education in America. All three of her daughters were able to find employment, as well as their husbands, although her middle daughter resorted to being a stay at home mother after one of her children fell ill.

4) Did you ever feel alone or was the community that was built here comforting to you? 

Over the years, the Punjabi community in San Jose has increased significantly. While it was relatively small when my Grandmother first immigrated here, it has since developed tenfold. We have large extended family here and our temple, the Gurdwara, is always a place to meet those we know.

– “It was never lonely, considering the fact there were always grandchildren around. Aside from that, we also always had Punjabi family members and neighbors near us or visiting us. I felt very happy that I could experience a new life with people who understood what it was like to be new here. While not all of us had the same experiences, there was still a tied cultural bond that we shared and we were always able to relate to that at the end of the day. It is lonely now, because we are in the middle of a pandemic, but before that, we would always have people to visit or meet. I am so glad we have a Punjabi community in San Jose that teaches our young people our culture and exposes all cultures to our culture. I am thankful to be in such a welcoming area that even allowed us to build a temple to practice our religious beliefs: it is hard to feel alone in an area where we were so kindly welcomed.”

5) Do you feel fulfilled after moving here? 

While my Grandma still longs to be in India, she is glad she moved here to provide a life of opportunities for her children, as well as her grandchildren.

– “You always feel like the grass is greener on the other side. I do not regret moving here, but I will always love Punjab. I dream about visiting every year, but my health does not permit me to. There is some part of me that will always want to be in India, so I do not entirely feel fulfilled here. Being with my family here is more than I could have ever wished for, but I am still attached to the family I have back home too. I built memories in Punjab for many years, so it is only expected that I feel sorrow and a sort of emptiness away from home. This is a hard question that you ask, because on one hand I want to be at home but on the other I want to be here. There is no one answer I can give you to this question, but I can tell you that I am happy when I am with any members of my family. Fulfillment is also difficult to define, but does that matter when I am happy?”

6) Are there any regrets you have about immigrating? 

– “In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the negatives, but I can give you a list.

-1) I was away from my home in Punjab that I loved.

– 2) I had to leave other family members behind in India.

– 3) I lost my community back home and I was only able to contact them via phone.”

7) What do you feel were the positives about immigrating? 

– “What mother does not want to see their children succeed? When coming to America, all of my children and their spouses found jobs. I was overjoyed when I first heard of how well they were doing and I instantly knew we made the right decision. I was happy that I immigrated so my children could focus on succeeding in their careers and building a life for their own children. I watched a Punjabi community grow immensely in front of my own eyes in San Jose, and that was more than I could have ever wished for in an unknown area. In an area where I was new to, I quickly became familiar and made many new friends. In the evenings, a few years ago, I would always go on walks with the Punjabi women in our community. We would meet up at 5 or 6 PM and go for our daily walk and talk: who would’ve thought this would happen? The positives of immigrating focus on my children, grandchildren, and my happiness: everyone was satisfied in the end, so these are the positives.”

8) Were there any cultural differences that shocked you? 

– “I found it a bit strange that women worked here at first. After a few years, I got used to it, as my own daughters were working all of the time. I also found the clothing choices here to be a bit immodest, but I was not forced to wear them, so I never truly cared about them. I only policed the grandchildren because I was worried for their safety. Hearing about all the evil people, you could never truly be too safe. There were no major cultural differences that shocked me: they were relatively easy to get used to. Just because we had one view of things in India did not mean there was not another view elsewhere, so of course, we adapted. If I was not forced to give up my important cultural practices, then I did not pay too much mind to other things.”

9) What do you feel is the biggest change that occurred when moving here? 

These ideas may not necessarily be true or medically backed, these are just topics that some immigrant families talk about, as they feel like their health was at its peak back home. My Grandma also never consumes American foods and has a strict diet of healthy Punjabi foods, so it was a surprise to her that she developed many of these diseases.

– “The biggest change that occurred had to be my susceptibility to diseases. When I came to America, after a couple of years, I developed high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more. My daily foods are lentils, rotis, and vegetables. We do not eat or prepare spicy food. I did not understand how I fell ill with these diseases and it was frustrating to experience this. Soon, I had to take anywhere from 6-8 medications for my conditions! Whenever I used to travel back to India, I would be just fine. I do not understand what the issue is or why this happened to me, but this is the biggest change that occurred.

– “In my late 70’s, I also developed lymphoma. I had breast cancer when I was back in India, but it went away after a surgical procedure. Developing another cancer was hard for me, as I was much older and already had health problems, so I did not know how I would fare. Eventually, I entered remission and there is now a constant check every year by my doctors to ensure I do not have any issues. Unfortunately, after chemotherapy, I also developed eczema. It has been the worst and bothers me constantly. I was not aware that this would occur and I long to be back in India to get a doctor’s opinion.”

10) Now that it’s been about 35 years, is there anything you would have changed or done differently when coming here or adapting to the culture here? 

– “No. Life is written the way it is and there is no rewriting your journey. We live a pre-scripted life from the moment we are born and it is our duty to live it out the way it is meant to be. I believe I have fulfilled my duty, and immigration has been a wonderful decision. While learning English would have been beneficial, it strengthened my bond with my children and grandchildren to not know English. It taught them how to speak Punjabi. It taught them to help and care for their elders. It also taught them that sometimes people don’t know everything: no person is superior to another. I’d also like to think it taught them to respect other cultures and to recognize that not everyone talks a certain way, or looks a certain way. While it has been wonderful to immigrate here, there is not one thing I would change.”



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