Chitra and I left Mumbai for Cincinnati on March 4, 2004 and have lived in the US since then. We started fresh in the city of the ‘Flying Pig’ – Cincinnati (Cincy) – blessed with wonderful friends, who lovingly introduced us to the American culture and traditions. In the gloom and unprecedented events of 2020, we finally became US Citizens, which was the only bright milestone for the year. Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and kind friends helped us setting our foundation and living this American dream. Sharing a few reflections from the early times of this journey.
Learning the American Accent or Not
In early 2004, we went in for our H1 (work) and H4 (dependent) visa interview. We were among hundreds who waited in long lines, our documents organized and ready for submission. In front of us stood an Indian teenager applying for his student visa. His father had accompanied him for support and assistance (only till the entrance of the embassy building). All through our time in the queue, we overheard him speak to his dad and occasionally to us. All of us were nervous and a sense of uncertainty loomed in the air. Once inside the embassy building, we noticed that kid again, at a distance, waiting for his interview turn. He was visibly nervous and had his hands clasped, head bowed low, as if in in prayer. We got busy with our interview process and later, walked out of the embassy in relief. The embassy officer had retained our passports, which meant they had approved our visa. While we were buying bottled water from a stall outside the embassy, someone spoke to both of us in perfect American accent ” How are you guys doing?”. He rolled his r’s perfectly in an American accent and now had an exaggerated swagger. It took us a few seconds to place the voice and the face. It was the same kid, now with a sparkle in his eye and new confidence in his demeanor. He was also headed to the US and was already speaking with his new accent. In the roughly 60 to 90 minutes since we had last seen him, he had changed into this cool American Indian kid! We still think of that and have a good laugh. In this matter, we are both quite slow – it has been 17 years in the US and we are yet to give up our “native” accent.
“Welcome to the USA!”
We arrived in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) on March 4, 2004. There was to be one more screening before entering the US, with the US Border Agents who screen all international passengers. You always heard and read stories about people getting sent back because the border agent officer was not convinced by the visa holders case. So, after the ~20 hours journey, once again, we entered a zone of uncertainty. They examined my visa and supporting documents first. I remember being asked a few questions and then it was Chitra’s turn. The officer asked her a couple of very basic questions, stamped her passport and commented “It wasn’t as bad as you had imagined, right!!?? Welcome to the USA and enjoy your stay”. Chitra had a big smile on her face – that was her first interaction with an American in the US. I have to admit people in general are very polite and welcoming with her. I wonder why…hmm? 🙂
Second Honeymoon Ends
My employer, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS), was relocating me to Cincinnati to manage our new partnership with Procter & Gamble (P&G). My manager, Nikhil Puri, prepared me for the assignment and was very clear about how long the gig will last. “Suresh, this is for 6 months and then you come back”. I had shared this with Chitra and we were both quite excited about it. We had mentally prepared ourselves for this 6 month assignment – it would be our second, extended honeymoon! I had taken an Executive Rental apartment (Garfield Tower Apartments), which was a few blocks from the P&G headquarters. This apartment was very well stocked with everything we could need, from cutlery to well designed furniture, even a house keeping service. 75% of my salary was going towards the rent and we were really living a lavish “second honeymoon”. We hosted several dinner parties at home with some of my clients and friends. Our guests were impressed with our apartment and thought well of TIS for taking good care of me, the expat from India! My 6 month tenure was coming to a close and while talking to Nikhil, it became clear that they wanted me to extend it by 6 more months. We had zero savings at this time and I negotiated a 12 month plan. Then came the tough choice of moving from our executive apartment to an unfurnished apartment in the same building. We were now in an empty apartment and had to set it up from scratch. The purchasing guidelines were simple; cheap, good looking and sturdy. During this time, my client sponsor’s wife, Brenda, was visiting Cincinnati downtown and requested to meet. I vividly remember getting back from work to find Brenda very delicately seated on our new dining chair. She looked uncomfortable and I can only imagine, must have had many, many questions buzzing through her mind. The TIS expat had moved to this bare walled apartment with zero frills. If she had asked me, I would have said “honeymoon period is over and reality has set in”!
Our First Dinner Invite in the US
Penny and Dick are two of the kindest people we know. Chitra started volunteering at Dress For Success (a non-profit) and developed a strong friendship with Penny. We were invited to dinner and this was our first visit to an American household. They lived in Asbury, Anderson Township which was ~25 minute drive from our apartment. We did not own a car back then, so Dick very graciously offered to pick and drop us back. They had invited us at 4 PM and we assumed it would be fun to talk and walk around their 4 acre plot. In our minds, we would have dinner at some point later in the evening. We were totally surprised when they announced dinner had been served at 4 PM. Indians are known to eat a late lunch and an even later dinner. We had had our lunch around 2 PM so I was quite shocked to be seated for a steak dinner so soon. I truly enjoy my meat and I had a strong sense of disappointment for not being hungry enough for such a special meal. We politely let them know about about our late lunch and they were kind enough to pack our dinner to take home for us. We had begun to view America through their home and family. We were also beginning to break many stereotypes in our minds about the American culture and the way of life here. Since our first dinner invite, we have spent many dinners, luncheons, movie outings, Christmas and Thanksgiving with them. Penny and Dick, if you ever read this, our interaction with you made us feel at home, loved & accepted and also helped us integrate better with America. Thank you and we love you.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) Set A Strong Foundation for My Corporate America Journey
Working for P&G as my first American client was a blessing. I worked with the best in the industry when it came to global business processes, innovative thinking, people maturity and program communication protocols. I have to call out Eric Brocious, who was my client sponsor then, and the brain behind the partnership with TIS. He mentored me and walked me through every step of the learning curve. There are many moments from those years which are memorable (some funny, too), however I would like to highlight a an episode of failure. We were working on a global learning program, developing modules for new hires across the world for P&G. This program – P&G’s Success Drivers – had high leadership visibility and more importantly, many senior executives who directly provided content for many of the modules. During the content creation phase we hit bad turbulence and it took us long to correct course. The delayed correction was in-part because of our my team’s quality control process and partly because of the delays we faced in getting these senior executives to provide their material in the correct structure. We got summoned to a meeting by Keith Lawrence, one of the key sponsors for the global program. Eric, Kim McGraw (Global Talent, Learning & Development Manager) and I were participating as one team. I was, however, representing the supplier team (TIS) and got roasted in the session. Honestly, had the meeting gone on a bit longer, tears would have rolled down my eyes. The meeting got over, we all stepped out and Eric told me to take the rest of the day off. The next day, I remember meeting Eric and he coached me not to take this failure personally. “What was stated was not directed at you but rather, at everyone in the room”. Although, for me, Eric and Kim getting lectured for the poor quality on my team’s deliverable was a personal failure. It took me a few days to recover and we did manage to land that program successfully. Eric was not my direct manager, he was a client, however, his people management and leadership skills are something I hope to have walked away with. Eric and I continue to be good friends and did I mention, big fans of Skyline Chilli (5 way!).
Exposure Outside Cincinnati & P&G’s Cosmopolitan Bubble
Penny was a professor at Thomas More University (Northern Kentucky) and she had invited us (Chitra and me) to guest lecture the Executive MBA students on ‘Cultural Diversity and It’s Impact on Work Life’. The objective was for both of us to share from our personal experiences how Culture Impacts Work Life in the US and in India. These were 30-45 minute sessions and it also gave us a glimpse into American life outside the Cincinnati + P&G bubble. It was interesting to hear the type of questions being asked and to observe how our answers were being received. Many of the students attending the program had never stepped beyond the borders of Kentucky. In one session, we were asked if India was a Monarchy. This came as a surprise to us because CNN was running an advertisement campaign on air where their anchors were answering questions emphasizing CNN’s global reach. One such question in the campaign was “Which is the world’s largest democracy?” to which Anderson Cooper would answer “India”. We were once asked “what was one aspect that impressed us most about America?” We were not prepared for this question, but replied unhesitatingly and in tandem, “The public library system”! The students looked back at us almost in disappointment. Coming from India, the large, well stocked, friendly Public Libraries in the US were a marvel for us – it was a very honest answer. We undertook ~5 such sessions and in every interaction we would learn something new. I have to say that living in Cincinnati and working in P&G was a cosmopolitan bubble that is rare and we were lucky to experience it.
Finding Her Passion, Yoga!
Moving with me to the US was a big step for Chitra. She was going to be on a dependent visa and would not be eligible to work. We had both done our MBAs together, she was the second individual in our batch of 1996-98 to get campus recruited with a company that was her dream workplace – Shoppers’ Stop (the first corporate retail chain in India). She had always been sure about her decisions and goals. When I was offered the P&G role, she was once again sure about leaving behind her career and joining me on our “second honeymoon”. So, after the initial high of being in a new country, she wanted to get busy and my client Bea Davis directed her to Dress For Success (DFS). DFS’ vision is to provide assistance to women in need with appropriate clothing to interview for a job, and also provide a stable, safe and caring environment as they reclaim their lives. DFS’ Cincy office was walkable from our apartment and she began volunteering with them. Soon, she had a small circle of good friends and was in a happy place outside home. When we moved to a larger apartment in Mount Lookout, she ended up walking into Delta 1018 Fitness Center. That led her to meeting her first yoga teacher, Mary Kemper. Little did she know, that it was the start of her Yoga journey. Mary introduced Chitra to all her students saying, “This is Chitra from India and she has never done Yoga before”!! Yes, it is a shame that back when we were in India, Yoga did not get the respect it deserved (I know it has changed since then). I personally thought Yoga was for senior citizens, a slow moving activity that I did not want to be associated with yet. Since 2005, Chitra has been blessed with gifted teachers who have inspired and encouraged her. Today, she continues diving deeper in her practice and is a certified Yoga teacher. It gives her joy and balance. For that, we both say “Thank you, Mary”!
“Listen People, Suresh Jogs!”
Among the many people I interacted with in P&G, Deb Lowell is a name I can’t forget. We did not work on a project, neither were we close friends. We ended up working in the same work bay and got to interact as office colleagues. She was curious to learn about my experiences and would often pull my leg over my choice of words. She was a firecracker with a great sense of humor. We were once talking about our routine after work and I said, “I jog in the evenings”. She asked me to repeat what I had said, which I easily did. She then proceeded to stand up from her chair and announced loudly “Listen people, Suresh “jogs” in the evenings!”. I don’t remember if anyone paid attention to what she had announced, but she later explained to me that I should be “running” and not “jogging”. Growing up in India, going for a ‘jog’ or ‘jogging’ was part of my vocabulary. More importantly for me, my ‘jog’ was like a punishment. When I would get in trouble, papa insisted I go for a ‘jog’ or when our soccer coach made us ‘jog’ around the field for not performing. She went on to share her wisdom on the word ‘run’ and how that fit well with my age, fitness level and action. That led us to exchanging notes on how much we ran etc. She sowed in me the idea of running the ‘Flying Pig Half Marathon’. On May 1, 2005, I ran my first half and since then ‘running’ has become a big part of my life. I have completed two full marathons and it no longer feels like a punishment. Chitra, too, has been bitten by the bug and has run two half marathons. So ‘running’ is now an integral part of our lives gives us joy and balance. Deb, wherever you are “Thank you”!
Jai Hind Jai Maharastra
While staying in the downtown apartment, we met Bhavesh Parmar, whom I fondly call “Bhavesh bhai” (Bhavesh brother). He also hailed from Mumbai, Maharastra, and as we Mumbaikars say, our wavelengths clicked immediately. He lived in the same apartment building and we started hanging out together – movies, dinner/lunch, tea/coffee, Indian temple trips and ping pong (table tennis). Bhavesh was single then and a very mild natured, kind, human being. He had been living in the country longer than us so, in that respect, a senior with more experience. Chitra always narrates the story of serving Bhavesh bhai his first cup of tea in our house. She asked him how many spoons of sugar, to which he replied “six”. Chitra confirmed that twice and then proceeded to make Bhavesh’s special sugar tea! To his credit, he has now curtailed his sugar intake drastically. He owned a black Volkswagen Passat and would never hesitate in offering us rides to Newport on the Levy or the Indian Temple. Did I mention he is a devout Hindu and takes his Monday evening trips to the Hindu Temple in Cincy very seriously. We were not as religious but dinner plans after temple visits used to be a good motivator to tag along. As our friendship grew, we would greet each other with “Jai Hind, Jai Maharastra” (Victory to India, Victory to Maharastra). Till date, every time we talk or meet, this greeting makes both of us smile. He continues to flourish in wonderful Cincinnati with his beautiful wife – Dipali, son – Bhavya and their pet dog – Fufi.
Meet the Davis Family
While working from Mumbai, my first P&G project was with Bea Davis. It was also her first project with TIS and an Indian team. As a Project Manager, my role was to make Bea successful with her clients and leadership. She was responsible for the learning and development activities for the Supply Chain Operations group. This project of mine was a success and I think she had given Eric a good thumbs up for my performance and selection as the Cincy based Key Account Manager from TIS. Her late husband Joe and she were one of our first dinner party guests. They were open to exploring the Indian cuisine and Chitra churned our her best dishes – Bhindi Churi Muri (thinly sliced and spiced fried Okra), Yellow Dal (lentil dish), Indian Fish curry, Roti (Indian Bread), Rice and Gajar ka Halwa (grated carrot sweet dish). They loved the food and Joe, specifically, loved the fried Okra, which became standard on our menu every time they came home. Two points about Joe, he could talk intelligently about any topic and he had a towering yet gentle personality. They reciprocated by having us over to their home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other occasions. Bea’s green bean casserole is the best ever and I haven’t had better anywhere else. She may never realize this, but the confidence her words instilled in me, gave me the courage to fly higher professionally. Bea, you will always have a soft spot in my heart.
Reflecting back on our American journey, we were lucky to have started in Cincy, at P&G, and surrounded by friends who brought positivity into our lives. We love you all and look forward to many more memorable moments together.
Related data points:
- Cincinnati, Ohio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cincinnati
- Procter & Gamble (P&G): http://www.us.pg.com
- Thomas More University: http://www.thomasmore.edu
- The Flying Pig Marathon: http://www.flyingpigmarathon.com
- Dress For Success: http://www.dfscincy.org
- US Flag image from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org