One Man, Two Cultures
Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
Chandrakant Sheth, 81, moved to New York City from India more than 40 years ago.
He recently reached the milestone of living in the U.S. longer than in his home country. Yet, as he ages, he faces new challenges specific to the immigrant experience.
Chandrakant arrived in New York City in 1969, with almost no money and a brother-in-law in Ohio who told him about job opportunities in the U.S.
In Mumbai, Chandrakant had worked as an engineer, earning accolades for designing a process which increased productivity at a Radio Corporation of America (RCA) factory. In New York, he quickly realized he would have to build a life from scratch. He attended school, did odd jobs and shared a small apartment with up to four men at a time cycling in and out. He often ate just a 10-cent apple on his lunch break. He missed his wife and 5-year-old son but hoped to create a better life for them.
“I didn’t know anyone here in New York," he said. "At that time you hardly saw any Indian people. It was a completely different world.”
Over the decades, Chandrakant became a partner in a TV repair business, owned and ran six candy and stationery stores, and he worked as an insurance agent.
In 1976, his wife and son joined him in New York. They saved and eventually bought a house in Woodside, Queens, where he still lives.
About 20 years ago, when his wife Sarala grew ill, Chandrakant retired from working to be her full-time caretaker. She died in 2007. They were married for 44 years.
With Sarala gone and his son grown, Chandrakant, now 81, struggles with loneliness. In 2008, the year after she died, he studied to become an insurance agent and worked for a few years in that field before retiring for good.
“It eased the situation a little bit," he said. "But Sarala was always on my mind.”
Chandrakant says he feels caught between the cultures of his old country and his new one.
“I’m lucky and blessed that I have examples of both the best and worst of both cultures. I grew up with the culture of India and keep it alive here.”
He appreciates the diversity, ambition and pastimes of America (he’s a devoted Knicks fan), but he misses the physical closeness of Indian families where multiple generations often live together and care for each other.
Chandrakant’s son, Rajesh, and daughter-in-law, Nisha, who live in Long Island, grew worried about Chandrakant living alone.
“I was cooking and doing everything myself," said Chandrakant. "My son said why don’t you stay with me in Long Island. I go there a couple of times. It is a big house. There’s space. They both go to work, and I was alone and I don’t drive. Here (in Queens), I go, I walk, take the bus, subway. I have so much freedom.”
So Rajesh and Nisha pitched the idea of her parents, Neeta and Bharat, moving in with Chandrakant in Queens; it would be a mutually beneficial situation. Chandrakant would have company and domestic help. They would pay what rent they could. And as a fluent English speaker, Chandrakant could help them, more recent immigrants with limited English skills, navigate life in the U.S.
The arrangement has worked out well. Chandrakant loves Neeta’s cooking. He’s helped them through the US citizenship process.
Chandrakant loves learning and spends hours at a time on his laptop listening to lectures, including some streamed from India. He also uses his computer to research the best ways to deal with his kidney issues, deteriorated sight, and knee pain.
He uses technology to bridge the distance between his grandkids Sofia, Sarina and Milan who are spread throughout the country. He emails, texts and speaks with them and his son daily.
During the spring and summer, Chandrakant enjoys tending to his garden, a luxury he did not have in India because his family was too poor. He grows cucumbers, hot peppers, tomatoes and various flowers.
Chandrakant practices Jainism, an ancient religion from India that emphasizes peace and teaches that the way to liberation is to live a life of harmlessness. His religion influences much of his views on life, including his lifelong vegetarianism. His children and grandchildren have had minimal interest in religion, which somewhat saddens him.
Chandrakant writes poetry to make sense of people and the world around him.
“Birds don’t need visas to travel place to place. Tigers, they don’t kill if they’re not hungry. Why do we?”
Chandrakant most frequently writes poems in his native language, Gujarati, and his granddaughter, Sarina, helps translate them to English.
When we first met Chandrakant, he had recently joined the India Home, a senior center in Sunnyside, Queens, in attempts to find community. India Home was founded nine years earlier to address the needs of the aging Indian and larger South Asian population in Queens.
India Home, Chandrakant's center, has grown from 8 to 60 members. In the winter the numbers dip to about 30 or 35 due to the lack of transportation. Current funding allows India Home to operate only one day a week and Chandrakant says Mondays are the highlight of his week.
Chandrakant became fluent in English as a student at an English high school in India. Although most Indian students study the language in school now, that was not always the case. He feels fortunate he doesn’t have the same language barrier most of the participants at India Home do. Only a handful speak English fluently.
“Many of the people came in the last 10 to 15 years. They are dependent on their children. They didn’t have the opportunity to stand on their own legs," he said.
Almost half of all New Yorkers over 60 were born in another country, and as the city's aging population grows, it also grows more diverse. For many immigrants specifically, there are language barriers, lack of access to information or benefits depending on legal status, financial obstacles for people who may have worked off-the-books, reconciliation with children and grandchildren's adoption of a new way of life and navigating old age with models from another place and time.
Many like Chandrakant, also serve as a bridge to American culture for newer immigrants and a bridge to their home culture for their families raised in the U.S.
In New York City, older Indian immigrants, like Chandrakant, are part of both a relatively small group and the fastest growing older immigrant group in New York. Between the 2000 Census and the last Census in 2010, older Indians in New York more than doubled in size to 12,000.
At India Home, those who attend celebrate Indian holidays, enjoy traditional food for lunch (although pizza occasionally makes an appearance), listen to familiar music and pray. Some wear salwar kameezs and saris and most converse in their native dialects of Gujarati and Hindi.
Although Chandrakant loves the sense of belonging he gets from the program, he wants to expand his experiences and wishes his fellow members would make a greater effort to interact with the people who attend the larger senior center where their center is housed, and with whom they share a lunchroom.
He recently arranged for his peers at India Home to go on a picnic hosted by the larger senior center. Fifteen signed up, but on the day of the picnic only Chandrakant showed up. He said it was heartbreaking, but he went on to have a “beautiful day” on the picnic, playing volleyball with new friends.
Chandrakant enjoys being exposed to new workshops at India Home. One day we visited, Indian artist, Uday Dhar, taught an art class.
Chandrakant says movement has become even more important to him in light of his chronic knee pain. He is supposed to have knee replacement surgery. He is avoiding it, not because of the pain or recuperation time, but because he worries few people will visit him and he’ll be lonely.
In India, it is common to have extended relatives travel far distances to visit and help for days or weeks, but he doesn’t anticipate that level of attention here. He knows his son would be there as much as possible but doesn’t want to inconvenience him.
Chandrakant enjoys talking to his grandchildren and son daily, but they don’t visit as much as he would like. Sarina, who lives in Seattle, has an easy-going personality which reminds Chandrakant of himself.
On this day, Chandrakant was proud to introduce Sarina to his friends at the center and they chatted and laughed about how tech savvy he is compared to his peers.
She told the story of how she sent her grandfather a photo of her new dog, and less than a day later was texted back an image of a framed Hudson now proudly displayed on his living room wall.
Sarina enjoyed getting a glimpse into his social life, calling him the "cornerstone of this community."
Chandrakant has a thirst for knowledge, but he admits he hasn’t always been the best about trying new things. The visiting artist who taught a class at India Home led a tour of the Rubin Museum of Art a few weeks later. Chandrakant, inspired by the recent class, signed up.
Chandrakant was enchanted by the beauty of the museum and was excited to see art from his home country displayed. He frequently asked the visiting artist and museum tour guide questions. He wonders why it took him so long to visit and vows to come to the museum more often, both for the exhibits, and frequent lectures they offer.
Despite his chronic knee pain, Chandrakant takes a walk almost daily, usually alone.
Occasionally Chandrakant visits Roosevelt Island or Central Park on his own, but he most typically strolls around Woodside.
“Sometimes I don’t have a purpose, so I just keep walking,” he says. “I want to be tired.”
He walks for the exercise and the people watching. “That’s the best thing, to just see people rather than sit at home alone,” he says.
On one summer day, Chandrakant noticed a boy shooting a basketball alone in the courts by his home. Chandrakant asked if he could join in and the boy's face lit up. For a few minutes, the seven decades between them fell away.
Keep following Exceeding Expectations for updates on Chandrakant.