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March 23, 2017 Blog

A Decade in the U.S: Reflections of a New American

November 22nd, 2006 is a date in my family’s life that will never be forgotten. My husband, my three year old hyperactive kid and I arrived at the Des Moines airport.

The day before, we had landed in Washington D.C.’s Dulles airport after a long twenty plus hour’s flight from our original destination of Kathmandu. At Dulles, we spent a good amount of time verifying our immigration papers and finding our gates, but had missed our connection to O’Hare. Luckily we were put on another flight late in the night to fly to Chicago. We spent the night in the airport with no food (all the shops were closed), and no sleep – sitting awake in chairs that weren’t designed for sleeping. Our three year old slept in the little stroller we brought along with us.

Three days after leaving home, and thirty plus hours in transit, we were finally greeted by my husband’s brother, who I had never met, at the Des Moines airport.

I was super excited to get out of the plane and airport and see the United States of America that so many dream of. I dashed out of the airport gates but in an instant gasped and retracted to go back inside the airport. Never in my life had I experienced such a cold wind. In all the preparation we did to come to the U.S. bigger jackets had not been part of our plan.

After reaching my husband’s brother’s home and getting to finally eat ‘Dal Bhat’ (Nepali staple rice, curry and lentils) I remember passing out in the bed. That was one of the soundest sleeps I probably have had in my lifetime! All of us slept like logs for a good 8-9 hours. Then for the next week or so, our sleep was off with the time difference. My three-year old woke up all night and we slept all day.

Weeks passed by, and as they say in the immigration process, there are four phases.

First was our ‘honeymoon’ phase. We didn’t have anything to worry about, no bills to take care of, and no job to go to, just relax, learn about the new environment, cook good food, eat and spend time with family. We were so happy to be in the land of the free and home of the brave, a place so many people from all around the world aspire to be in. We were awed by the nice roads, clean environment, friendly faces, plethora of options of food and vegetables in the grocery stores and much more.

Next was the rejection/culture shock phase. After a month had passed and our immigration (green card) papers arrived in the mail, we had to start applying for our social security cards, learn how to drive, take the driving test to get our driver’s license, and then the start finding jobs.

This was one of my hidden fears even before coming to the U.S. I never thought that I would have a difficult time adjusting to the new country. I was educated, I knew the language, we had some savings and we had family, BUT I knew we would have a challenge selling our degrees that we received outside the U.S to find jobs that would match our skills, expertise and interest. Unfortunately, this fear of mine came true. It was difficult - finding the right employment matching our skills, expertise and education. There were numerous rejections we faced in finding our first place of employment. I was shocked and disheartened that the only jobs that were offered to me were retail, customer service and other very entry level jobs. After trying for months, I accepted my first job at Wells Fargo’s call center as a Customer Service representative making $26,000 a year. When I took calls, I had people yell at me for my accent and ask me where I was from. They wanted to know if I was in Asia, and I had numerous people swear at me.

This led me to the third phase in my immigration process, which is regression and isolation. Every day at my job I was angry, I was sad, depressed and felt hopeless. I questioned if moving to the U.S was the right thing to do and how long it would take me to find the right job and to have the life we dreamed of. I constantly felt like ‘What am I doing here in the call center?’ I have a Master’s degree in Business Administration and have so many skills to be doing so many other things!! Yet, I knew I had to excel in this job to prove to my employer that I was capable of more and I worked as hard as I could. I worked on my accent so people wouldn’t yell at me and I could give the best possible customer service I could.

Lo and behold, after four months of doing the job, I was hired at Principal Financial Group as a Marketing Coordinator. This was one of my dream jobs, using my Masters in Business Administration with a specialization in marketing. I was mesmerized by the fancy building and pinched myself a couple of times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Unfortunately, this job did not pan out the way I thought it would. I had a huge cultural shock in many different ways and quickly figured out that the field of marketing in the U.S. was a different animal. It’s one thing to learn Philip Kotler’s marketing theories, it’s another to grow up experiencing them; selling cookies when you are 6 years old, having a strong command in your native English language and starting work when you are 16. Alas, after a year of employment and struggling to adjust to the new environment, I submitted my resignation and quit my job at the Principal Financial Group and stayed home to explore what was next for me.

This brought me to the fourth phase in the immigration cycle, adjustment and adaptation. By now, I had been in the U.S for about one and half years, knew more about the new city, people, culture and my own place in this new place. I had learned to adjust and adapt to the new country, my limitations and my place. I stayed home to figure out what I could do next. Could I go to college? Could I start a business? What kinds of jobs might there be for me where I will be able to thrive, not just survive?

Then, I learned about the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in Iowa. The Bhutanese population here are ethnically Nepalese and come out of refugee camps in Nepal. I had known about the Bhutanese refugees but didn’t know about the refugee resettlement process in the United States. I was very intrigued by the process and how these refugees, who didn’t seem to have much education, knowledge of culture, savings or relatives in Iowa (compared to my own situation) would make it and thrive in this community. I started volunteering and helping the Lutheran Services of Iowa. I bought groceries for the newly arriving families, helped to set up apartments, picked them up at airports, drove them to their appointments at the Social Security Administration, clinics, enrolled children in schools and much more. Very soon, I started working at LSI to help these refugees find jobs, then moved to Catholic Charities as the Program Coordinator, moving up to become the resettlement director in a short three year period.

I attribute this quick success to the basic foundation of education and my nature of working tirelessly until I get results. However, after working as resettlement director for four years and putting in 60-70 hours each week, I was burned out. My two year old stopped recognizing me; he would run away from me when I got home and call my husband “mama.” These were all indications to me that I had to look for other options.

When the job at the Department of Human Rights (DHR) opened up, it was a great opportunity to bring all my experience working on the ground with refugees. Because I knew the gaps in the system that exists for new refugees and low income individuals, I was excited to go to work on systemic issues to fill in the gaps.

Working in government was a whole new world for me. Working at DHR was a great opportunity for me to work with my community, being a voice at different tables to influence decision makers to think about Asian Iowans and to serve them appropriately. It has been a great pleasure knowing so many Asian American advocates who volunteer their time and talent for the betterment of their community.

Leaving DHR has been a very bitter sweet moment for me. As I sent my departure email to my community members - the numerous phone calls, text messages, emails I received with good wishes, congratulations, happiness, sadness and many other emotions - made my head hurt by the end of the day with mixed emotions. It made me realize what a long way I have come in a decade of being in the U.S. It made me think of all the hardships I had in my first few years of being here and how hard we worked. It made me thankful for all of the friends, colleagues, well-wishers and acquaintances I have built in the ten years who care about me, who love me, who accept me, appreciate me and welcome me in this new country I call home.

Written by: Sanjita Pradhan, Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs
Note: We'll miss Sanjita at the Department of Human Rights, but we very much look forward to working with her in her new role at The Greater Des Moines Partnership.  Sanjita is starting a new position as the program director of talent development where she will focus on the Global DSM: International Talent Strategy in addition to other talent attraction and development programming. She begins work at the Partnership on March 28.

Native American Mascots

In 2012 the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs took a position against Native American people and spiritual symbols being used as sports team names and mascots. They urged policies to be created that disallow their use (see our website for more information). I think it is important that we understand just some of the reasons why this is such an important concern that is often not understood by addressing some of the common arguments that Native Americans have heard:

“We are honoring Native Americans”

Mascots and fans dressing up like “Indians” is insulting and highly offensive, and not an honor. Fans performing the “tomahawk chop” at a game is not an honor. The word “Braves” or “Redskins” is a racial slur, not an honor. It causes Native American children to feel embarrassed and ashamed of whom they are and it trivializes adults.

“It’s our “tradition”

Perhaps for a few decades you may have not have been educated about the issue, but Native Americans have traditions that are tens of thousands of years old. None of those traditions bear any resemblance to the stereotyped or caricatured images and antics associated with mascots and team names.

“This is just “political correctness”

Getting rid of names and mascots has nothing to do with “political correctness”. It has everything to do with dignity, respect and decency. It is about ridding of damage to the Native American culture.

“I wouldn’t be offended, so why are you?”

If you have not had a history of racial oppression, it may be hard for you to imagine. It is hard for those who have not experienced it to comprehend what it is like to experience it. Therefore, it may not seem like the team names or mascots are a big issue, but in reality they are painful.

What can you do to change the situation?

Spend time with Native American people. Take the time to listen to their stories and who they really are so you can gain a deeper understanding of who they are. Read credible information written by Native American authors. Join us for a Commission meeting. Gain access to information on our website. Advocate with us.

In Solidarity, Jill Fulitano Avery

Written by: Jill Fulitano Avery, Office of Native American Affairs, Office for Persons with Disabilities and Office of Deaf Services