Upendra Chivukula currently serves as a commissioner on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Through his efforts, he encourages the political involvement of Indian immigrants and works to empower immigrant and minority communities. Upendra expresses how there needs to be greater support for Indian immigrants in the United States in order to accommodate their difficulties in transitioning to life in a new country.
It was a total shock, even though I was coming from Bombay…just when I saw, of course, Montreal airport and all the things…it totally flabbergasted me. And New York City, when I landed in Kennedy Airport, the cars and the traffic and the people…and it was uh, it felt like a Hollywood movie. I was tired but I think I never felt tired. I felt more excited. Goodness, I’m in America finally.
I used to take the subway to go to City College, which was in the Harlem area. But you know, Harlem I had a very good time because you know, I have to tell you this story. When I was a student, a graduate student, there were other Indian students and we were supposed to get off 145th street in Amsterdam and we’d walk, we’d all walk in bunches just because of the—we were afraid of guns and all that. And that was the reality of that time. But I told people that, I said, “Oh there’s no problem being afraid of these things.” I used to get off at 125th street and walk through the St. Nicholas Park. You know, people said, “You are crazy.” But in the morning I see these people hanging out and I used to—they all knew me. I used to hang out with them for a little while. The same people at night mug you. So that was interesting (laughs).
Well, you know, it’s a major transition for me in that it’s a cultural transition because I used to go by New York subway. And for me, coming from the southern part of India, and um, a rather conservative and rather orthodox type of environment, and I see this—I see people kissing each other in the subways, and (laughs) those are all, those are initially very shocking. And then, of course, we got used to that.
One experience I had, because I was living in a Jewish neighborhood in Queens, and it was Saturday. I think Sabbath. And I used to be the person to turn off the lights and all that for the Jewish people. They don’t turn on the lights, Orthodox. They don’t—Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, they can’t use power or energy so they need somebody to turn on the lights for them and do all that stuff. I was the person who was doing that. One day I saw—there was this lady. She had her head covered, this Jewish lady. She came—she was crying. Then I went to her and asked her, “What happened?” “Oh I left my house. I saw my husband falling down but I got locked out.” And so I went to the back door and I looked at it and he was lying down on the floor. When asked her I can have her keys, she didn’t have keys. So I said, “Can I break the glass?” and she said, “Okay.” I broke the glass and I went in. I was about to check if the person was breathing or not and she screamed. She said, “Stop! Don’t touch him.” I think it was some Jewish tradition or something so I backed off. Unfortunately, he was dead. And, all this commotion was going on, I thought someone would pick up the phone and call 911 or some kind of help. I didn’t see anybody moving. It could be because of Sabbath, I don’t know what it was, I don’t know the reasoning. So I had to go back home and pick up the phone call 911 for somebody to come and help her.
Then I had a couple of jobs I did. One day a carpenter who came to--because it was a group home where a lot of people were living—this carpenter was building a liquor store and he was looking for somebody to come and help—he was looking for help. The fellow he was looking for was rather laid-back, rather lazy. He didn’t want to work. This carpenter was so desperate. Oh, he looked at me. I was weighing 100 lbs, 110 lbs. I was very light. He looked at me, “Oh do you want to make some money?” I was surprised he was even asking me. But anyway, I went to work. It was outdoor work and it was my first winter. It was 20 degrees or something outside. And I didn’t have a coat. Somebody lent me a coat, but this coat was a small size and I’m like a petite size (laughs) I guess. This coat was like a---you know when you hang a coat on a hanger? That’s how I looked (laughs). It was so cold and because it was not tight on your body, cold air was coming from the sides, from the top, everywhere it could possibly. And I didn’t have gloves and I was working outdoors. And every so often you missed the hammer and then you hit your fingers. You’re already frostbitten and you get hit by hammer. It’s very painful.
Yeah I did that work and I got some twenty dollars. But then I realized I was so tired the next day I couldn’t wake up! I said, “I should be focusing on my graduate studies. I shouldn’t be doing this stuff. “ I stopped!
So these are all my experiences that I remember about living in New York. (laughs). I think you know, I used to go to museums and spend a lot of time and I also learned---I was doing silk screening. I was very outgoing and trying to learn things out of curiosity. It was a very interesting time of life, I think. I love New York.