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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mary T. Mathew, April 25, 1999. Interview K-0815. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Adopting an American identity

"I don’t miss anything that I left behind in India," Mathew declares. She recalls embracing Western clothes and hairstyles and while her community in Kerala was very conservative, even judgmental, Mathew does not remember receiving treatment like that in the United States. While she experienced a period of boredom and anxiety after her arrival, she soon enjoyed four breakthroughs that cemented her new identity: she got a work visa, got a job, stopped wearing her sari, and started to drive a car.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mary T. Mathew, April 25, 1999. Interview K-0815. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

RASHMI VARMA:
Ahm. . . is there anything about your community life or family life in India that you miss now, or, ahm. . .. How is your community life here different from the one you left behind? In other words, are there things about India that you miss at all, or has it been a discovery of other things and you, don't really miss certain things?
MARY T. MATHEW:
Ahm. . . the truth is that I don't miss anything, that I left behind in India. Ahm. . ... In fact, my life in this country has been a simple process of one dream after the other, getting fulfilled. Ahm. . .. Educationally, and socially, and in personal development in terms of the family, and so on. So, there is nothing that I miss back home. Ahm. . . Of course, I like my family, society, and so on, but, since I see them every summer and spend time with them, I don't feel that I am being deprived of, these things. What I greatly like in my life in this country is that there is a great deal of freedom. I like the fact that I am anonymous, and I like the fact that I can wear the clothes I like—. [Laughter] Ahm. . . comb my hair the way I want to—in other words, manage my own life, and not have to, justify my decisions to society in general.
RASHMI VARMA:
I think that would not have been possible in India.
MARY T. MATHEW:
In the particular community I come from, it was not possible.
RASHMI VARMA:
Would you say something about that community?
MARY T. MATHEW:
Okay. Er. . .. This particular community was, ahm. . .. What shall I say? It was a very traditional, very conservative society from the North of Kerala—.
RASHMI VARMA:
What [unclear] ?
MARY T. MATHEW:
These are the areas around Tirvalla. Right. And, everybody dress the same, everybody did the same things, and to be different was to be considered wrong and bad. And, so, for example, when I grew up, was growing up, I asked my mother, can I wear—, I wish I could wear a short skirt and a top, I wish I could cut my hair. And my mother would say, don't do any of this now, let me just find a groom for you and after that do what you want. [Laughter] So, it was in those ways a very restricted kind of society and, I always liked freedom, personal freedom. I should say, in defence of that community, that they had very strong moral and social, religious values and in every way it was exemplary, but if you were different you paid a cost.
RASHMI VARMA:
Okay.
MARY T. MATHEW:
Yeah.
RASHMI VARMA:
But what about being different in this country and this country? Was it ever an issue, or do you think, you know, you were able to fit in and if you were able to fit in, what do you think were the possible reasons, for that?
MARY T. MATHEW:
Ahm. . . My personal experience in this country was that if you were different, you faced friendly curiosity, and not, judgement. So, since that has been my experience, ahm. . .. and since I was always surrounded by people who, appreciated the kind of culture, the kind of values I represented, so it was never an issue of feeling different or discriminated against. I never felt that way, and I can't remember a single instance when I felt embarrassed because I was different.
RASHMI VARMA:
Uh-huh. At what point do you think did you start thinking of America as your home? Er. . .. You know, you talked about always wanting to have come to the west, ahm. . .. Were the early years different, ahm. . .. From the years more recently? Was there a particular incident, or event, or a certain time in your life, or a certain experience that made you think, okay now, you know, this is my home? Or were you—, or had you always come with the intention of making this your home and, there was never any struggle around it?
MARY T. MATHEW:
Ahm. . .. The strange thing was the second I disemb—, disembarked in New York in 1970, I felt I had come home, because I had thought about that moment, thought about this country so much. However, our first, almost ten years in this country were filled with tremendous anxiety because we did not have the right visa. And we, lived on, ahm. . .. Teaching assistantship and so on. So, we, I, plus in those days I did not have the visa to work and study, and for some, and for all these reasons I always felt like I was not a part of the ongoing life. And, I had my little sphere with my small children and my household duties and, that defined my existence. To me the breakthroughs came, from four different things. One was, we got our visa and the second was I began working. A third was that I stopped wearing all the time my traditional sari, and I changed, started using western clothes, and the fourth one was I started to drive. So, these four things took me out of my limited sphere, completely. And that, I would think, was the time when I began to really feel like this a new life, and that I was a part of it.
RASHMI VARMA:
And that this was your home? This country was yur home? That's when you realized?
MARY T. MATHEW:
Hmmm. . . Okay. I would say that I always felt very much at home here, but there were many, ahm. . .. Many times when I felt bored, in the first few years when my work in-house would be done and there was nothing to do and, so, my life became more meaningful, and my participation in the life in this country became exciting and challenging and all those things, with these four turning points, and I would say, that's when it really began to be a home in the sense you felt so fulfilled and so comfortable in it. Yeah.