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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Kanwal Rahman, July 15, 1999. Interview K-0817. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Deciding to emigrate to the United States and struggling upon arrival

Rahman remembers a tough first semester at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Feeling isolated without contact with other South Asians, and feeling overworked, only her determination to prove herself prevented her from returning to Bangladesh. This passage introduces some of the hopes and challenges of Rahman’s experience as a new immigrant: she wanted to show those at home she could succeed in the United States, she hoped to use that success to benefit her homeland, and while she ultimately embraced America, Bangladesh remained her home.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Kanwal Rahman, July 15, 1999. Interview K-0817. 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

KANWAL RAHMAN:
Well, actually I came in August , twenty-first, nineteen-, ninety-one. That would be the exact date I landed at the JFK airport. But, for my background, I came here for graduate studies at UNC Chapel Hill in public health and policy & administration. Prior to that, I had a government position with the Ministry of Health, Bangladesh, as a dental surgeon, working in public health , work in rural areas. I had a dental surgery degree from Dhaka University, Bangladesh, and I just thought it would help my career, further a lot if I had a Master's from a recognized university. I talked to my friends who had a lot, er. . .. who were physicians, were already doing their master's here in public health. One of them suggested that UNC has a very good program, considering the out-of-state tuition rates, compared to other universities, and, er. . . I thought I'd apply. They accepted, and the other places I applied was Ann Arbor Michigan. They had accepted there too, but North Carolina being warmer, I decided to come here. I had no clue what I was coming into, just that I was accepted and I'm going. And, er. . . my background was such that, er. . . I really wasn't, expecting any kind of independent work apart from education. I wasn't mentally prepared for living alone and, and, er. . .. Doing everything alone with very little help. But I came—and the first semester was terribly hard—I landed in, within a week I decided I'm going back. There's no way I'm gonna complete it. And, er. . .. I had made up my mind, and then, talked to my father pretty often asked him and he said that, "well, finish the semester. You cannot, you have to give a try to a country before you can leave it—at least three-four months". So I just did it. I stuck to the semesters, not really liking it, very depressed. I by that, I mean, the first three months I had no contact with any other sub-continental, or Bangladeshi person. So, ahm. . .. I really felt like an alien, till a professor of mine introduced me to another professor who taught in Duke, and, ahm. . .. I got to know my fellow community member.
RAJIKA BHANDARI:
So, so you came in ninety-one—.
KANWAL RAHMAN:
Ninety-one—.
RAJIKA BHANDARI:
Did you, when you were on your way here, did you ever imagine you would be here—what—eight years now?
KANWAL RAHMAN:
When I was in the plane, I already—, had second thoughts. Why am I flying off the ground that I know very well? Why am I leaving the family, and the support and the, ahm. . . let's just say the ease of living and comfort of something known, for something totally unknown.
RAJIKA BHANDARI:
Yeah. . .
KANWAL RAHMAN:
And then, I guess I answered that, I said it's maybe, it's my wanderlust, and, if I don't make it, fine, I'll come back. But I never imagined I would stay eight years. And, I think, after the third year of living here I decided that I will stay here and try to make a life of mine here. Prior to that, I was going to go back home, and I was actually very determined.
RAJIKA BHANDARI:
So, right at the point where you felt made that decision of, I'm going to be here and not go back, was it more about America, or was it more about Bangladesh? Do you, do you see what I'm trying to say, was the decision more about because you wanted to live in America, or was it more about that "I don't want go back to Bangladesh"?
KANWAL RAHMAN:
My heart still wants to go back to Bangladesh. That's where my home is, and I think, America will always be a home—a second home—but never my first home. Ahm. . . to be very honest, the reasons are far more deeper and very personal. The reason I decided to stay back was, sort of, a stubborn decision making that okay, I came here, I got my degree. If I go back home, there are a lot of expectations, not from my immediate family, but around—. "Oh, she couldn't make it in America".
RAJIKA BHANDARI:
Right!.
KANWAL RAHMAN:
And, er. . . that's one of the reasons I stayed back and as I was saying was I spent so much time already—four years. Might as well try to make the rest of it here. And, er. . .. That was basically my motivation, otherwise, the other—the second—thought was because of the global politics, America is a forerunner in, er. . ... political power.
RAJIKA BHANDARI:
Yeah.
KANWAL RAHMAN:
And, er. . . Bangladesh has always had its political problems—this party coming in, and that party going out—lot of strikes, and I just thought if I could stay here, and make my life worth living, I might even be able to do something in public health there. Maybe from the, er. . .. Country's capital, like D.C.—.
RAJIKA BHANDARI:
Right.
KANWAL RAHMAN:
Make—, make our policies—.