Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Pramila Jaypal Interview I
Narrator: Pramila Jaypal
Interviewer: Alice Ito
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: May 10, 2004
Densho ID: denshovh-jpramila-01

<Begin Segment 1>

AI: Today is May 10, 2004, we're here at Densho in Seattle, Washington. I'm Alice Ito, and on videography is Dana Hoshide. We're with Pramila Jayapal. Thanks, Pramila, for coming today.

PJ: Sure, Alice. Thank you.

AI: And I wanted to just start off with the basic question of when and where you were born.

PJ: I was born in Madras, India, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and I was born on September 21, 1965.

AI: And what name was given to you when you were born?

PJ: Pramila was my given name, but I was pretty immediately, my nickname was Munna, which actually means "little boy," because my parents, everybody around them was convinced that I would be a boy, because my sister was a girl, and the second child, you know, they thought for good luck, should a boy. And so my sister used to say -- my parents were living in a Hindi-speaking area up in the north part of India -- and my sister used to say, "Chota munna aayega," which means "a little boy is coming." And so that just stuck, even though I turned out to be a little girl. [Laughs]

AI: Well, tell me some of your family background, your mother, your father, and their families.

PJ: My mother's name is Maya, her maiden name was Maya Menon, and my father is -- actually, his real name is M.P., which is the house name in Kerala, the state where we're from -- which stands for Muduvangad Puthanveetil, and then his actual name was Jayapalan. So his given name was Jayapalan. But he changed it -- I think when he left India, he sort of used to always be called Jayapal. And so he made that his last name, and he made M.P. kind of his first name. They're both from Kerala, which is a state that's really well-known for a lot of things, including being one of the Communist, two Communist states in India. Very strong union movement, labor movement. My father's father was in the railroads, which was actually a, one of the most coveted jobs in India at the time, it was a very stable, government job. And he didn't earn very much money at all. My father was the youngest of four kids, and he was kind of the brainiest, nerdiest kid. He was, he went to college and he decided that he was going to -- basically, I mean, he ended up supporting the family. He would send a major portion of money that he made -- 'cause he would tutor other kids in engineering -- back to his family, and even though he was the youngest, I think in many ways he sort of ended up taking care of the family quite a bit.

My mother was the youngest, also -- actually, the oldest of four kids. And she spent a lot of her time away at boarding schools in her early life, or with relatives. My grandfather on my mother's side was the, in the police, and worked under the British. And so he would move around a lot, he was in Pondicheri, and then he was in Madras, and he was kind of all over the place, and so they would send my mother off to be with relatives. And I didn't really know my father's family very well because my grandmother on my father's side died before I was born. And my grandfather was quite old by the time I came along, and we would see him, but he had already lost a lot of memory and things like that. And my father's siblings, I really only knew one of them well. His younger brother had a lot of problems and actually was an alcoholic and ended up committing suicide when we were living in Indonesia. My aunt, my father's sister, I had met several times, but just for whatever reason, we weren't very close. But it was his oldest brother, who I'd heard about for many years, and then actually reconnected with him when I went back to India, and that was just delightful. He was the Secretary of Labor in Kerala, which was just such an interesting state as far as labor and unions go, and so he was just always somebody who was very interested in the world.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 2>

PJ: And on my mother's side, I'm very, very close to everybody, all of my aunts and uncles, and my, my grandparents. And my grandmother was an interesting -- I was very close to both my grandparents, and my grandmother was a very quiet, in many ways, woman. It was clear that my grandfather, they had a very traditional relationship, and I think sometimes it was hard for me to kind of understand or be sympathetic with, with that relationship. Though she had her ways of kind of fighting back, you know, in her, in her own way. But it was really my grandfather who just was an extremely powerful ruling presence in, in the house. And a lot of what my mother got in terms of love of literature and love of history comes from my grandfather and then has been passed down to me. He used to have, I think he had -- when he, he just passed away last January, and we were going through his things. I think he had something like forty-two dictionaries. [Laughs] Just, he loved it. From, from the, from as early as I can remember, he would get a dictionary out in the morning -- he would go for a morning walk, and he would memorize, it was either three or five new words every morning. And he did that until he died. He was just fascinated with words and language, and we found -- when I was going through all of his stuff, it was amazing. We found letters that he had written, just musings, articles, all kinds of things that he'd been keeping. And then we also found some amazing pictures of him with Nehru when, when Pondicheri was being turned over, or was it... I think it was Pondicheri, was being turned over to the British. And it was really, he was very central to that history, which I guess I knew, but sometimes you don't really know it until you go through and you see some of the letters and some of the pictures that go with it.

AI: That is really interesting. I'm, I wanted to ask you -- in fact, well, maybe I'll come to this a little bit later about how much of India's history you became aware of a little bit later on in your childhood. But before we go there, I wanted to ask a little bit more about your grandmother. Was this the grandmother you wrote of who was highly educated and who went to graduate school?

PJ: No, my aunt.

AI: Oh, your aunt?

PJ: I mean, my great-aunt, excuse me. My great-aunt, who was my grandmother's older sister, was highly educated, and went and actually was one of the first, maybe the first female ob-gyn in India, and was very, very well-known and a strong feminist. My grandmother was not. I mean, was really, I don't know, I've asked my mother many times, "Why is it that the sisters ended up..." I mean, she was educated, but she got married very, very young. I think she was seventeen, sixteen or seventeen when she was betrothed to my grandfather, and I think they got married shortly after that. And you know, I think that she always thought of herself as the one who wasn't educated and wasn't as good as her sisters.

<End Segment 2> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 3>

PJ: And my grandfather -- I mean, it's interesting because he was a certain way with my grandmother, which often, I think, really minimized what she did know. But when I, when he died, and I found some old letters that he had written, he was, it was very interesting. He was really the one who refused to allow his sister to be married off to a very old gentleman -- because one of his sisters died who was married to this man, and they wanted to marry his other sister off. And his other sister was very, I think... very vivacious and very -- and he took on the wrath of his family and wrote this letter saying, "He absolutely should not marry her," and, "she deserves to finish her education."

So, and then he was absolutely committed to his kids being fully educated. I mean, every single one of his children -- well, actually, three out of the four have graduate degrees, and he's got three girls and one boy. So, you know, he's just a very complicated mix. And he was always very... I was always scared of him, I think, as a child. But when I went back to India again, I developed -- I mean, going back to India for me was so wonderful because there were all these relationships that I reconnected with, and his was one of them. And he ended up -- he was one of those people who never praises, never. I mean, never, never says anything good about anybody, really, to them. Now, to somebody else he might talk about how wonderful his daughter is, or his grandchildren, but, but he wrote me a letter after one of the articles that I had written, which he used to get copies of. And I have kept it to this day, because my mother says he's never, she's never seen a letter that he's, that he's written like that to anybody else. Just talking about how much he enjoyed the article, and how well-written it was, and how much I covered. You know, just things that he wouldn't -- [laughs] -- I mean, I was so surprised to hear him say. So he's a, he's a complicated man.

AI: Well, so then you mentioned that he made sure that his children were educated. And was that unusual then? Was it, I'm wondering how unusual was it for someone like your mother to receive as much education as she did in that era?

PJ: I think it was pretty unusual. I think that probably a small percentage of the wealthier or more education population received some kind of college degree. But for a girl to actually finish college and then be encouraged to go for higher studies, was very unusual. But we did, we came, we come from the state of Kerala, which is... I mean, one of the wonderful things about Kerala is it's a matrilineal society and women, for a long time, in fact, I think this has been less so, the modern age has actually reduced sort of the strength of women in Kerala. But for a long time it really has been that everything was transferred through the women. Land was transferred through the women, the women presided over a lot of the ceremonies, even though, technically, it was the mother's oldest brother that would, for example, preside over a marriage, it was still the mother that controlled everything. And the name was passed on. I mean, my name, if I went according to our lineage, and according to our history, would be P.K. Pramila, would be my mother's house name, it used to be called the taravad, taravad means "the house," that you come from. And it's defined by your, by your mothers all the way up. And so if you go to the temple, when we go to our temple, our family temple in Kerala, they will ask me who my mother is: "What is the mother's house name?" And they'll say, "Oh, that's Ramani's," and so they'll go through the maternal lineage. Like I said, that's changed, but I think Kerala has had this very strong tradition of respecting women. So I think in Kerala it may not have been so unusual, but for the rest of India it was very, very unusual. And still is.

AI: Right, right.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 4>

AI: Well, I also wanted to ask you a little bit about early memories, early childhood memories, things that, of course, you did write about some of them in your book, but whatever comes to mind that you would like to share.

PJ: Well, you know, it's always interesting 'cause, 'cause we do rewrite stuff. And sometimes I don't know whether these are actually what I remember or whether it's things people have told me, or things I've reconstructed from later life. But the things that I remember are so much of the smells. Because we had, my grandmother was a, was an amazing gardener, and, of course, she had gardeners to do things, but she would go out and tend her jasmine plants all the time. And the jasmine is just a persistent memory, even today when I go to India, I can smell it immediately, and it brings back all kinds of associations for me.

And the same thing with the puja. My grandmother was fiercely religious, my grandfather was fiercely atheistic. And he just had no time for her, for all of her "religious superstitions," he called them. Though, what's interesting is when, again, when we were going through his things later when he died, he has numerous books on religion, and he was very well-read about religion, he just, he didn't believe in prayer and things like that. So I remember my grandmother praying every morning. That's a very consistent memory, because we would hear it. And you know, the prayer is very, very melodic. It's almost as if you're singing. And even now, when I, you know, I say, "Namah Shivaya, Narayanaya namah, Achuthaya namah, Anandaya namah," I can go through the whole prayer, and I have her in my mind, 'cause she taught us all those prayers. So I remember that very clearly.

I remember a lot of sitting. You know, sitting around. We had these big kind of cane plantation chairs that were on the balcony. And the house that I remember is the house that my grandfather built and where they lived for the whole time that I was, that I was, after I was born. And it had a balcony that was cool stone and so I remember it would be so hot, blisteringly hot in Madras, and I would just go and lie on the stone because it was the one place, where -- you know, we didn't have air conditioning or anything -- it was actually cool. So I remember sitting there, and I remember in the morning, early morning, I remember early mornings very well, because my grandmother would wake up and I loved that time of day because it was quiet, and it was cooler, and my grandmother would be there, and then my grandfather would come out and have the newspaper and would sit in these cane chairs. He had his special chair so if we happened to be sitting in it when he came, we'd have to rush out. And then the schoolgirls would start coming, you know, and they'd be walking by. And my grandfather was so connected to all of the kids, he used to love kids, and they used to love him. And they'd walk by and they'd say, "Hello, Uncle!" and he'd say, "Hello, Mala, how are you? Are you excited about school today?" And there'd be this conversation with about twenty kids that walked by. So I remember all of that.

I remember very clearly the, there's very special sounds in India of the, people who are selling, the vendors, they have these cries. And, and you don't know what they're saying until you realize, like they'll say, "Tomatter, tomatter, tomatter," and they'll keep going and going and going, and you just don't know what, what it is. But once you get it, you can hear it clearly. And so we'd have all these vendors that would be working by six o'clock in the morning. And so I remember all of that very clearly.

I also remember the house very, very clearly. What it looked like and where the rooms were, and this one particular room that was my grandmother's puja room, but also the guest room. And so there was a little, kind of, she had made a cupboard, and it was a, not a very deep cupboard, maybe just like a foot or foot and a half deep, and all of the pictures of all of the gods -- 'cause, you know, there were many, many gods that were worshipped -- and the center was Devi, who was our family goddess, and then around her there were pictures of Shiva and Parvati and Krishna and everybody, and that room was where we slept. So we, that's part of why I remember hearing her always in the mornings. But also in the afternoons, my grandfather would go to take a nap. And when my aunts were visiting -- 'cause usually we were home when everybody was home -- all of the women and lie on the bed. And the fan would be whirring above, you know, just kind of that sound of the fan and we'd just all be chatting away and talking. And half the time my sister and I never knew what was going on, but we didn't want to be excluded from anything. I mean, we always wanted to be right there. So I think that's...

AI: And speaking of your sister, I wanted to ask, how much older is she?

PJ: She's three years older.

AI: And so these were all, it sounds like, very warm memories, from the time before you went to school.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 5>

AI: And then, actually, before you started attending school, your family moved. And I think I saw that that was in, at the end of 1969?

PJ: Right. December of 1969 we moved to Indonesia. And my father, my father is a, is a very focused man, and he had decided quite early on that he wanted to work for Esso. And he would stand, when he was, I think, in engineering school, he would stand and look up at the window of kind of the managing director of Esso in Bangalore and say, "That's where I want to be." And that's where he ended up being. And so he was offered a position to move abroad, you know, it was called "going abroad," and it was to Indonesia. And it was 1969, there was very little in Indonesia at all. I mean, it was really, there wasn't a very big Indian community. There was some, but not very big. And so he... my parents have always been adventuresome in a lot of ways. I mean, I think it was a big deal for them to leave India, but they were from -- the way they tell it, they were both very, very excited about leaving, and about the opportunity to kind of travel and see the world. And so we, yeah, we moved to Jakarta and there was, I think there were two hotels there when we got to Jakarta. There was the Hotel Indonesia, which kind of stands at the Freedom Circle where there's a big statue, kind of, almost like a Statue of Liberty, kind of breaking away from chains, that's the symbol of the democratic revolution. And so Hotel Indonesia is right there, and then Hotel Kartika Plaza where we stayed for months our second time coming back to Indonesia, 'cause we'd left and went to Singapore for two years in between and then came back. That was pretty much it, and the rest of it was just green spaces and rice paddies, and there really wasn't anything. And then our school, we went to a school called the Joint Embassy, it was called the Joint Embassy School at the time, later it changed its name to the Jakarta International School. But it was sort of owned and run and managed by four or five embassies. It was the U.S. Embassy, the British Embassy, the Canadian Embassy, maybe, Dutch and French or German, I forget. But, you know, it was a little tiny school at that time, later became a big school, and one of the best in Southeast Asia, changed its name to the Jakarta International School.

AI: So, did you start there in kindergarten or first grade?

PJ: I must have been in kindergarten when I started there. In fact, I was. I was a little bit young, but my mother just wanted to push me out of the house. [Laughs] She, she said, "You were so talkative, you were always talking, you just needed to be with other kids." And so she somehow managed to get me in. I think that was, must have been kindergarten. But then, somewhere along the line, I skipped grades, and I think it was actually maybe like second grade or second or third grade. And I don't really remember because my sister skipped grades as well. We never thought it was anything unusual. My mother had graduated high school when she was sixteen and so did each of us. And we didn't realize there was anything funny about it until we came to the States and I was, I remember being an RA for freshmen who were my age, and hiding my birthday because I didn't want people to know that I was younger than them, but supposedly more responsible. [Laughs]

<End Segment 5> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 6>

AI: Well, I wanted to ask about language, and what language or languages you spoke at home, and then how that changed, if much, when you started school?

PJ: Our native language was Malayalam, which is the language of Karela. And my grandmother spoke almost exclusively Malayalam, she felt much more comfortable in Malayalam than in English, though she did speak English. My grandfather really liked to speak English, but he also spoke Malayalam, and my parents spoke it fluently, obviously. So we grew up listening to a lot of Malayalam, but not speaking it. And I don't know, my mother has a master's in English literature, and my grandfather was very, kind of, British, loved everything about the British. And so it was, it was always seen as a value, something good, to speak English. And it's not that we were discouraged from speaking Malayalam, in fact, I think that my mother and my grandmother might have tried to push us to do it. But then once we left and went to Indonesia, then it was almost exclusively English at home. We did learn to speak Indonesian and I still speak some Bahasa Indonesian, Indonesia. But that was mostly outside, and not at home. So even today, I understand Malayalam completely, but I don't speak it. I think I could if I lived there for long enough. And now -- I've always loved languages -- so now I speak Hindi because I went and lived in India for two years. But I had to learn it when I went there. I didn't know Hindi before, and in the north, a lot of people are really surprised. 'Cause people in India don't understand how big the country is and how diverse different parts are. And so you look Indian and you should be able to speak whatever the language is of that place. But most people in India grow up speaking many languages. My mother certainly did. They spoke Tamil, and I understand some Tamil because we lived in Tamil Nadu. And then she, she learned Hindi in school, and then she speaks English and Malayalam.

AI: And then when you started school in Jakarta, then...

PJ: It was all English, the schooling was all in English, and then I think learned French and Indonesian in school as well. And, and then at home, my parents would still speak to me in Malayalam, but in some ways, I think... in a way, I think that they might also be more comfortable in English, now, than in any other language. It's interesting, I mean, they certainly speak it fluently, but I notice that the times when they use Malayalam are if they're very angry, if they're sometimes very happy or there's a particular expression in Malayalam that we all understand, that, that you cannot translate into English. Or, or if they want to, you know, if we're in an elevator and we want to keep something secret -- [laughs] -- we speak Malayalam.

AI: That sounds familiar. My parents used to do that sometimes, speaking Japanese.

PJ: Yeah, yeah. It's very handy, actually. It's very, very handy. [Laughs]

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 7>

AI: Well, you wrote some in your book about some of your experiences in attending this school, which was international and had a number of kids from various places and, including quite a few from the United States. I was wondering if you'd tell a little bit about that.

PJ: Yeah, it was really interesting. We were, there were all these kids from all over the world, and so I never grew up... I grew up thinking that the world was a very big place, and there were a lot of countries around the world, but that it was very small in that we were all basically the same, you know, 'cause we were all together as kids, and you don't really think about the differences, necessarily. I know, you know, there was Fuad was from Egypt, and Elena was from Yugoslavia, and so there were kids from all over, and I had friends from everywhere. But the biggest number, percentage-wise, I think forty percent of the kids were from the United States. And there was always, I think, certainly in general, but for me specifically, this U.S. envy. Because they all were, they were mostly kids of embassy folks, who had a hell of a good life, really. [Laughs] I mean, and, same thing with the oil company. There, by that time, a lot of people from oil companies were coming. And Indonesia was like a gold mine for the oil companies. And so they sent over all these people who, when you're an expatriate, you're given a beautiful house and commissary privileges, which is the American club where you can go and buy peanut butter and other things that are from the United States that they ship in. And there's an American club that's, you have to be an American to go there. And there's the American embassy that shows movies, and you have to be an American to go there, or you can go as a guest, but you have to go through all these, you had to be signed in and can't be left by yourself and all these kinds of things. And so there was always this kind of sense that, boy, America was this amazing place, 'cause they had like peanut butter and all these... [laughs] I just remember also going to people's houses, and everything was so beautifully decorated, and the bedspreads matched the curtains, and just things like that, that seemed big to me at the time. And I think part of it was also the contrast to, to India, which I was navigating, and going through my own kind of rejection of everything Indian, and kind of wanting to be like my American friends. But the school was an amazing place because it really did have this remarkable diversity.

The majority of the teachers were American; I think that was the other piece of it, is that even though the kids were from all over, almost all the teachers were American. Probably eighty percent of the teachers were American. And so we had almost this influx of American culture, but not quite. And later on, I realized how different life was for them, because I went to -- I stayed in touch with, one of my teachers was a, was typing and home economics, I think it was called, or something. And I became friends with her and her husband, who was the track coach, and I went to visit them in Wisconsin. They lived outside of Madison somewhere, a tiny little town. And they were like the renegades, that they went to Indonesia. Nobody even knew where Indonesia was, and they were not particularly well-off, and when you go there and you get this beautiful house, it must have been completely discombobulating in a way, for them as well.

But it was a remarkable school. I mean, we had amazing arts, amazing music; we would put on these musicals every year that were full-fledged performances, I mean, beautiful. My Fair Lady, we had these incredible costumes, and, and then there were just these little bits of Americana that if I had been here, I'm not sure I would have gotten them. Just, I remember one of the songs we had to sing in our choir was a series of American commercials. [Sings] Like, "Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don't." And I just remember, people say, like, "How do you know these things?" And part of it is because we got a lot of that at school, for better or for worse. [Laughs]

<End Segment 7> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 8>

AI: Well, that's so interesting to me, because it, especially it sounds like having so many, or a large proportion of teachers being American from the U.S., that that would really influence some of their assumptions and teaching and what they conveyed to you, and how you take that in.

PJ: Yeah, I wondered about that, but most, many of the people who were there really wanted to be there. And so sometimes I wonder, was there -- because the one thing I really always hated about our school is that Indonesians weren't allowed to go there. And so all of my friends that were Indonesian were made from outside of school, they weren't part of the school. And I remember then thinking and asking my mother about it, and asking teachers about it and saying, "How come Indonesians aren't allowed to go?" And there was a couple who was half, the mother was Indonesian, I think, and the father was American, and their kids were allowed to go there, but it was a big deal. And I remember, I think their names were Maya and... two sisters. And I remember talking to them about it, and saying, "This is so unfair." I mean, "Why, why is this?" And a lot of international schools are like that, you're not allowed to, the host country doesn't get to send kids there, which creates a tremendously horrible dynamic between the local folks and everybody else. And so I remember that was hard. I never really felt that the teachers passed on sort of negative attitudes about the country, though, and I don't know if that's just -- I think that's, partly because I had good teachers, or maybe it's because... maybe it is because they really did want to genuinely come there. But I've wondered about that myself, too. I've thought about that many times and thought, "Did I just block that out because I didn't like it?" But it really seemed like people were there because they wanted to be there, and that they appreciated Indonesia for what it had. And I don't remember people making the kinds of comments that I'm so familiar with now, around other foreigners and other countries and things like that.

AI: Well, I did want to ask a little bit more about your sense as a child, too, or as you were, as you were growing up and going to school there, that it sounds like, primarily, you had a very positive experience. And as you say, that most of the teachers were very positive and not denigrating toward people of various nationalities. But I'm wondering, do you recall a time when you started understanding that differences were not always accepted as equal differences? That sometimes differences were equated with being inferior or less than or...

PJ: Yeah, I think it was economic. And I think that there was a lot of economic -- you know, there's just a lot of classism. And I still see it today in the expatriate community, and I think that... so many times we separate racism and classism, and I actually don't know that they're so separated, and I think they're very intertwined. And I think I, I saw it as a flaw -- when you're young, I think in some ways, you see it as a flaw in yourself if, if you sense that, that kind of judgment going on, and I think that when I think back on the things that were hard about that school or about my growing up, it really had to do with class. My, my father was not wealthy, and yes, he was provided a house and he was wealthy compared to -- you know, it's all relative. But compared to most of the people that were there, we were not wealthy at all. We couldn't go on vacation -- I mean, we never went on vacations. People would jet off to Singapore and all these places, and we never did any of that. And I know my parents supported, my father in particular supported his family at home. And so that's what I remember as being the, and I remember... I remember thinking about -- I don't think I thought about it in exactly these words, but I remember thinking about kind of the injustice of it, except I think I used to think about it, it just doesn't seem fair that there would be all this money for Americans, but then here's my friend Emina Radavonivich, who was also from Yugoslavia and was my closest friend, who -- and her father was actually in the embassy. But there was war going on in Yugoslavia at the time, and people were dying -- I mean, she would come and talk about people dying in Yugoslavia. And I just remember kind of being, it sort of felt like we were in this fairytale world over here, and then here was the real world, outside And so I remember that kind of classism very much, even within the kids. 'Cause you know, kids can be very mean sometimes. Maybe like, "You mean you don't have such-and-such?" Whatever it is.

And then again, like I said, the stuff with the Indonesians was really disturbing. And a lot of the kids I think would start off not realizing that there was a difference, but then something would teach them, their parents, or the school not allowing Indonesians in, or all of those things would teach them differently. And so there was this attitude of, "Well, we're the International School and those are the Indonesians." So I think it did permeate, and there were a lot of things that we would do that were supposedly connecting us with... and some of that was on my own doing and some of it was through clubs or whatever, at school. But it was, it was... the time that I remember feeling like that again was when I was in investment banking and we used to have this program where analysts would go out and paint shelters or whatever once a month. And it felt to me like these dislocated worlds. You know, that there were, there were just these separations, and that nothing fit together. That you actually had to cross, like maybe take a bridge over from one to the other, versus having it all be an integrated part of your life.

AI: Right, that you started seeing some clear separations, and gaps in worlds of living.

PJ: Very early, I think, actually. Very, very early. I remember economics being -- and also because it was discussed a lot at home, you know, just in terms of having the money to do this or that, and I remember kind of, money being a dominating factor for a lot of my life. And sometimes I think that the, just... sometimes I think that my rejection of India actually had as much to do with that as it did with everything else, because there was just too much poverty there, and it just reminded me of, how come there's all this poverty here, and my friends talk about doing this or that or the other thing, and they'd have, you know. There's no, there's no equation that puts those two together.

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<Begin Segment 9>

AI: So, I want to try and understand this. So as a child, then, are you saying that you perhaps were equating the poverty of India with just being undesirable? And that as a child, you didn't want to be affiliated with something that was so poor and undesirable?

PJ: Yeah. I mean, it's not that different from the way people think about India now. It's just dirty, uneducated, I mean, all of the stereotypes. But I didn't have, I was still young, and I didn't have the presence of thought or mind or kind of reflection to be able to make my own decisions about it. And so I think I instinctively just sort of said, "Oh, I don't want any part of that. I want this," which is it what I've seen as being abundance and desirable and clean and all of these things. Which in some ways, goes to some of the work I did in India, where there was a -- we'll talk about this later, maybe -- but a focus group that was done with youth in the villages, where they were shown two pictures, and one was of an Indian model and one was of a Western model. And they had to associate, kind of free associate with those two. And it was really interesting because they free associated all good things with the Western model and all bad things with the Indian model. And, and tradition was considered bad. So in other words, somebody would say like traditional medicine versus modern medicine. And so traditional was considered bad. And I think a lot of that came through television, and kind of the beaming across of American culture. Which, in a way, is exactly what we had in Indonesia, except we didn't have television. We just had it acting itself out.

AI: Well, in kind of a related question, I wanted to ask about how much you were learning about India or your Indian heritage at this time, that here you're in Jakarta, and you're at this international school with a lot of Western influence. So while you were growing up, I was wondering if you had much of a sense of Indian history, or if your parents shared some of that?

PJ: Not really. I mean, my mother is a, is very into history and my father not at all. And I think, actually, part of my rejection of India also, in some odd way, came from my father, too. My father very much -- never said it this way, but he always wanted what was better for us, and that usually what was better was not Indian. You know, he wanted us to go to the International School. There was an Indian school there that a lot of kids went to. He did not want us to be there. And so I wonder how much of it also -- now, they've gone back to India, and he's very happy there, but he still grumbles about it a lot. [Laughs] But I think that... I've lost your question now, that got me talking about that...

AI: Well, I'd originally asked about how much you had known about India, or how much you had learned about it.

PJ: Oh, right. That's right. So my grandfather was also very interested. So I did get some pieces of it, but it really wasn't until the eighth -- you know how when you have kids, you tell them things that you think they should know, but unless they really want to know it -- [laughs] -- or they're in a stage where they can take it in, it just goes sort of right over their heads. So I think my mother tried. But it really wasn't until, I think it was eighth grade, the summer of eighth grade, and I went back. And we went on this trip, and we went to the Taj Mahal, and we went to Delhi and we went to Gandhi's tomb and we went, I mean, we went to all of these places where I suddenly started realizing, "Oh my gosh, this is incredible. Look at, just incredible history." And in fact, far from being backward, when you look at Moghul cities, for example, ancient cities, they had sewer systems long before... and ones that worked for centuries, not just for five years or ten years. [Laughs] And so the intricacy of the cities combined with kind of, India is so rich, and I've, it took me a while to get to recognizing it, but there's so much in terms of history, art, culture, music, clothing, food, color, that I think I was just amazed, and it felt like discovering it in a way. Because most of the time we would just go and hang out at my grandmother's place, or we didn't really go out very much, and my family was very protective of us that way. So that, I think that was really the first time, and then I started to get more and more interested as time went on. But then through the next ten years or so, had these moments where I would, again, kind of push it away and try to fit in, and then... it just took me really until -- I'm embarrassed to say -- until I went back to India, to be able to just sort of come to terms with it and say, "This is amazing," and, "This is as much a part of my culture." And yes, there's some really horrible things in India, too, as there are everywhere. And it took me a while to be able to get there, though.

<End Segment 9> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 10>

AI: Well, I was, wanted to go back to what you had said about your father also, and his outlook on wanting the best for you and your sister. And wondering if you could tell a little bit more about, about him and his, some of his values, some of the things that he passed on to you, some of his expectations, and if there were things, including things from his own background and culture, that he really tried to pass on to you that -- and I'll ask the same about your mother as well, but...

PJ: Yeah. Well, he really didn't have any money. I mean, his family was very -- my mother's family was fairly well-do-do, comparatively speaking, my father's family wasn't. And so I think my father grew up with this terrible fear of not having money. And so, as a result, he had an incredibly strong work ethic, and I think many people do in our countries, very strong work ethic. And so we were always taught, you work hard, and I always look around today and I see parents helping their kids with homework and stuff. We never, I mean, we were just, it was just expected. You did your homework, you didn't get reminded to do it, we did all of our college applications on our own. And so it was just, you were, that was what was expected. And that we also knew that he had sacrificed a lot for us, that was always a very clear strand through everything. And so there was this huge responsibility, I think, that he sort of conveyed to us. I think he also... he did very well for himself, but he also has a lot of insecurities, my father does. And so I don't know exactly why this translated this way, but he always felt we could do anything. He literally, he's always talked about not -- being very glad that he didn't have boys, which is really interesting 'cause a lot of people in India, you know, want boys. And he says, "I wouldn't have known what to do with boys. But girls, they work hard, and they're good, and they look after their families." And so there were all those things that went with it, but he never ever, ever felt that we were limited in any way by being girls. And that was very, I mean, that came through very clearly. He always wanted us to be well-off, he always wanted us to not have to worry about money. And so I think he was, it was very difficult for him as I chose different paths than he would have chosen for himself, and it still is today. Because for him, that's what you worked for, is so that you could get comfortable and have a comfortable life and educate your kids well and have all the things that you want. I think those are the probably the main things that he, that he imparted to us. Mostly around the work ethic, and being able to do anything we wanted, wanted to do.

AI: That is really interesting to hear, very interesting.

PJ: Yeah, he's... yeah. It is interesting, because he is not, I would not call him a feminist in the least. And in fact, there's a lot in his and my mother's relationship that has been very difficult for me. And so there's a real discrepancy, again, it's just like my grandfather in a way, real discrepancy between what was right for them and their relationships, or even their view of the world, and what was, what they thought about their kids. Or their grandkids, in my grandfather's experience.

AI: And what about your mother? What kinds of things did she try to pass on to you?

PJ: My mother is one of the most compassionate people in the world, and next to her I always feel heartless, because she, she is just... she's got friends that she's maintained for forty years, she is, she's just one of those people that everybody loves to talk to. And young, old, I mean, she's got friends who are twelve years old, and friends who are twenty years old. I remember all the twenty-year-olds would come and say, "Oh, you're so lucky she's your mother." And I was like, "Really?" [Laughs] "I can't talk to her, how come you can?" But I've always been very close to my mother, and so I think with my mother, it's the curiosity. You know, she was a very curious person. She always was interested in other countries, and history and kind of the intellectual side of things. My father is not, he's bored by, kind of, conversation. He's not a very political person, he doesn't have a strong ability to kind of have a political analysis of the world, and as I've grown older, that's become more and more important, and created more and more of a distance, actually. Whereas my grandfather and my mother are very interested in politics. My grandfather in particular, but, passed it on in some degree to my mother. Very good writer, I think my love of the language and my love of writing all came from her. So I think a lot of the sort of softer, softer side is from my mother.

<End Segment 10> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 11>

AI: I also wanted to ask about how your parents discussed religion, or, and the part, you wrote about that in your book. And if you could say a little bit about from that time, that you were becoming aware of things, and here you were, again, not in India, but being raised in some traditions, some religious traditions. If you can talk about that...

PJ: Yeah. I always felt that we didn't get enough of an explanation. I would always ask why. You know, "Why is it that way?" And they'd say, "Just, that's just the way it is." Or I'd say, well, what does this -- this prayer that I started reciting: "Namah Shivaya, Narayanaya namah, Achuthaya namah, Anandaya namah." And I'd say, "What does that mean?" And my mother would say, "Well, it's names of gods." And I'd say, "Well, why am I saying all these names of gods?" And I never felt like I really was able to get -- and I don't know if it's because I didn't ask the right questions, or because it was, they had never asked those questions. You know, I really think that, sometimes I think that they didn't know the answers to those things, either. So we were always raised, you know, I was taught that we were Hindu, but it was a very open-ended concept. I mean, we had the puja room at home, just like my grandmother did, except we had a whole room, and we would have to go and do puja in the morning, and in the evening we had these prayers that we chanted. We would go to a temple when my, when we would go home to India, we would always go visit the temple. My grandmother would write, and she would always write, "I pray that Devi holds you," or, there was a lot of language, in her, in her language there was a lot of Devi, kind of god, religious language woven through. But, and my father -- and so I, that was just sort of a persistent, it was just always there. And I think I didn't necessarily think about it as religion, I'm not sure that I thought about it as religion, it was just sort of the way that we were. And it wasn't until people would say, "Well, how come you believe in a lot of gods?" And I'd say, "Well, because there are a lot of gods." And there's, there's all these different facets. And, but it was, that's when I would come then and started asking questions.

And I went through this period where I wanted to convert to Christianity, and I was Jesus in this play. [Laughs] And I came home and told my mother that I was Jesus in this play and she just had a fit. She said, "You can't play Jesus. You're not Christian." And I said, "Well, why can't I play Jesus? He's got a really great song." It was a musical. I said, "There's a really great song and there's a solo I get to sing, and I want to play Jesus." And I just remember having a long conversation about that, and about how, "Well, we're Hindu, and you can't say you believe in Jesus Christ, 'cause you don't." And I said, "Well, what if I do? What if I want to?" And so it ended up being this -- but it was more from an, I mean, it was, I think she was really threatened by the idea that I might actually convert to Christianity. And so we talked about it some then, but there was never really an explanation of Hinduism, and as I've gotten older, I've realized why. Because it isn't, there is no explanation, really. [Laughs] I mean, there are no books, there's the Bhagavad Gita, and there's the Upanishads, and I've read all of those texts now, the religious texts. But Hinduism is a way of life. It really is. And there, there are now kind of the fundamentalists who are making religion into a religion versus a way of life, in an exclusive way in India. But that's not how it was intended.

But we talked a lot about Devi, I mean, I remember having this conception of our goddess and how my, how she became our goddess. My great-grandfather had struck an axe and found a statue that was the, was the manifestation of Devi, and that's how he -- and he build a temple there to her name, and that's how she became our family goddess. Great-great-grandfather. And so some of those things I remember hearing, but there wasn't a, "You cannot do this, you -- " and we ate, I mean, I remember eating beef, my family ate beef, so that wasn't, we didn't seem to stick to kind of the "traditional Hindu ideals," in whatever way you might define them. And then later I realized there just aren't that many of them.

AI: Well, I thought that was so interesting to, to read some of that in what you were writing and to hear about, hear you talk about it. It is very, it seems like a very open, well, more than a concept, but something that is, would be very difficult to explain to a child, certainly.

PJ: Yes, I think that's right. And I also think that a lot of the things that get associated with Hinduism now are not actually religious, they're cultural. Like the caste system, people say, "Well, Hindus believe in the caste system." But, you know, Hindus are people from the land of Hind, people from the land of India, and the Indus Valley, and so the caste system was introduced as part of the culture in the Indus Valley, but it wasn't, nowhere in the, any of the holy books -- not that we really have, you know, we don't have a definitive one -- but there isn't a caste system outlined in the holy books. So that was a cultural concept or construct that was introduced that's been combined with Hinduism now. And there certainly was -- as everywhere, the priestly class was higher, and so maybe that's part of the way it gets incorporated into religion.

<End Segment 11> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 12>

AI: Well, I did want to ask you when, if you can recall, about when or how you became aware of caste. Because again, here you were living in Indonesia, you were in a setting far different from the one you might have grown up in had your family stayed in India, how did that come into your awareness?

PJ: Well, everybody in India talks about caste in one way or another, and the Nayar caste, I think that's where it came into my, my sort of just general intellectual space, was just through this one caste that we belonged to called the Nayars, because the Nayars were sort of the glory light. Everything was passed down through the women, it was, it's a matrilineal caste, it accounts for, I think something like 52 percent of Keralites. And so I remember hearing about caste through that, and the Nayars were always considered, they were the advisors to the king on financial affairs and business affairs. And so we weren't in the top two -- it took me, I don't think I knew this when I was younger, it took me until much later to figure out that we weren't, we weren't Brahmins and we weren't Kshatriyas, who are warriors, we were -- Shudra is the business caste. I'm sorry, the Vaishyas were the business caste. And so it's not like we were very high on the caste scale, but there was a lot of prestige associated with the Nayar caste, and kind of financial acumen and world acumen. So I think that's how it came into being.

And then, the thing that I remember about my grandmother that I hated -- and I loved my grandmother very much -- but she was absolutely horrible to our servants. Horrible. And she... I shouldn't say "horrible." I don't know what's, what's... I don't know what was typical, I guess. But my mother says that that's how everybody was. But, you know, she would be really rude. And I remember part of -- sometimes she would say things that either directly said or maybe it implied, "Well, they're a lower caste and they're..." And I wanna sort of go back and say it wasn't that she was horrible, 'cause she also would finance their education, and so there were other pieces to it. But I just remember feeling kind of embarrassed by some of that. And so I think it entered my consciousness very quickly, because you see it everywhere, how people are treated differently. And I always wondered about that, and I think I started to equate that with standard in life or level, status in life, which was really the caste system.

AI: Right. So even if you didn't have a lot of actual discussion or conversation or teaching about it, it was something that was visible in everyday life.

PJ: Absolutely. And they would say things about the higher castes like, "Oh, he's a Brahmin." "She's from a Brahmin, she's from a good Brahmin family." And so I would always say, "Well, what is a good, what is a 'good family'?" They'd say, "Oh, she's from a very good family." And I'd say, "Well, what is a 'good family'?" And then they'd say, "Oh, it's a Brahmin family." So it wasn't talked about as much in terms of caste that way, but it definitely was there in terms of how people thought about what was good or bad in terms of people's status in life. And again, some of this, it's confusing to me when I actually figured out what it was versus what I was told at the time, or what I recognized at the time.

<End Segment 12> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 13>

AI: So, we're continuing our interview with Pramila Jayapal, and Pramila, I wanted to ask you about, a little bit about your sister's experience. That, you had mentioned in your book that your parents decided that they would do their best to send her to the United States for college.

PJ: Right.

AI: And then that set in motion a number of things, including your own desire to go to the United States.

PJ: Yeah, I think my father, again, was the driving force. He really believed that the United States had the best education. And it's interesting 'cause a lot of Indians felt that England had, the British system was better, and partly, I think, going, being around all these Americans in Indonesia, and partly going to the International School, we had such a good experience there, and that was based on American system. So my father had decided that this was where he wanted us to go. And so my sister in 1979 went off to Pennsylvania, she went to Swarthmore College. And it was just kind of a given that that's what she was gonna do, and she was really excited and it was a given that I would follow and go to, go to the United States as well. But you know, I've thought about it so many times, I've asked my mother about it so many times: "How did they manage to send their kids off all the way away?" We were sixteen. I mean, both of us were sixteen. My parents didn't have enough money for us to visit often or even call. I remember, I think we would talk to each other maybe twice, on our birthdays and then I think maybe on New Year's would be kind of the time that we would get to talk to them, and other than that, we were just off on our own. So my sister was the first one to do that, and she went to Swarthmore, and she was really happy there. I mean, she, it was a really good school, and my father was delighted because she got, very early on, I think she got a scholarship, and she got her room and board paid for. And she and I were just talking about it yesterday, actually, I was in Portland this weekend. And she said, "You know, it only cost -- " I think it was seven thousand dollars or something at the time, for Swarthmore. [Laugh] And she said, "And that was a fortune." It was. I mean, it was a huge amount of money, and of course, now it's $35,000 or something like that, but I know that money was kind of always dicey in terms of being able to afford it, but yeah, she loved it.

AI: And so when you talked to your sister while she was there, it sounds like she had really good things to say about her experience, that she was happy, she was positive. And did she say anything in particular about college there, about America that enticed you or that gave, or that gave you any second thoughts?

PJ: You know, I don't remember her talking about it very much, other than to say that she was... you know, she had all this freedom from my family and from my parents and so I remember her talking about that, and how great it was that... just all the typical college things. I mean, that nobody knew what time she came in and all of that kind of stuff. But I don't remember her talking about being a big culture shock or, or even some of the, a lot of the things that I went through. But my sister is very, we're very similar in some ways, and we're very close, but she's also quite different. She's much more contained, sort of self-contained, and much less emotional, and also has never really gone through all this India, sort of finding her own heritage. I mean, she's just never really struggled with that for whatever reason. And so I don't think it was a big deal for her. I think it felt very kind of natural, and, you know, it was what she expected and she fit in very well, and she seemed very happy.

AI: Well, and just earlier you had mentioned wondering how your parents could have let her go off at such a young age, and you also. Do you think that they had an idea that you might stay in the United States? Did they talk to you at all about plans for the future, and...

PJ: No, they didn't talk to us about plans for the future, though my father -- you know, my father's big dream was that my sister and I were gonna be CEOs of IBM. I mean, that was the, the thing for him. But they, other than that, they didn't really talk about it. But I've asked my, my mother in particular, since then. I've said, "Did you know, when you sent us away, that you were essentially sending us away forever?" And my mother has said, "Yes." She thinks she knew that. She said she couldn't think about it so much, because it would have been even harder, and she had a very hard time. She would, we would always tease her because she would always cry when we were leaving, and... or is it the other way around? Anyway, she, it was whatever it was that was unexpected. So I guess when we were coming. That's what, yeah, she would always cry when we came, and she said it was just so hard for her because she was so -- one thing I didn't say about my mother -- she absolutely loved being a mother. I mean, she was just... she only started working when we were, later in kind of junior high, and she was working part-time as an English teacher at what was called the Lembaga Indonesia Amerika. It was a, taught English to Indonesians. And, but her first and foremost priority in life was her kids. And she has a story where when she was pregnant she would walk around with her stomach sort of sticking out, and my father apparently would say, "Don't do that. People will know what we've been doing." [Laughs] She, but she was just, it was always something that was really, you know, just what she wanted. And so I imagine it must have been -- and not just imagine -- she's told me it was very, very difficult for her. But she, again, wanted kind of what was best for us. And she was, she always used to tell us, "Make sure that you're self-sufficient. Don't depend on anybody else for anything." And I think part of that is also her experience with my dad, being very dependent on him, and not wanting us to be in the same position.

AI: Well, you've, you were certainly, kind of bore that out -- [laughs] -- as we'll talk about later.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 14>

AI: Well, so when you were getting ready to leave, where, where were you leaving from? Were you leaving from Indonesia to go to college?

PJ: Yeah. I was leaving from Indonesia, but what had happened is that January, I think, December or January of that year, my father was going through a very difficult time work-wise, for the whole year before I went off to college, and it was very uncertain that I would even be able to go to college. And I remember that was very difficult. But then that December, I think it was December, he got an offer in Singapore. I think he left his -- either he left, or he was... or the company closed down. I forget, but he ended up not having a job in Indonesia and got the software in Singapore, and, but he had to move to Singapore right away. And so they moved, my parents moved, and I didn't want to leave, 'cause I only had six months left of school. So I stayed with my uncle -- who was my mother's brother, who was living in Indonesia at the time -- and his wife, and finished school there. But it was a very difficult six months for me. They had never had teenagers, and my uncle was incredibly strict, and it was my last six months, and I was, I was miserable. I remember my father coming, and I love my uncle very much, he used to be my favorite uncle. But that was a bad time for the two of us, and I remember my father coming to visit, and I went to stay with him in the hotel and I begged him, I was in tears, I said, "Just let me go stay with a friend of mine." So it was a hard six months. But then I basically went from that to -- I spent a couple of months in Singapore with my parents, and then I went off to, to Georgetown in August or September... August, I guess it was the end of August of '82.

AI: Well, and so how did you choose Georgetown? How did you come to go there?

PJ: It was, you know, I look at all these kids now who go and they do tours, and I was literally like flipping through a book, and you know, saying, "Okay, well, this one looks good." And I had an aunt, my mother's older sister lived in Maryland. And so there were these two colleges, and she had, she said, "Well, you should apply to Georgetown, and then there's this women's college called Trinity." And so I applied to Trinity and I can't remember where else I applied. But my parents really wanted me to go to Washington, D.C., where I would -- either to Swarthmore, where my sister was, which I absolutely did not want to do. I did not want to go where she was. I always felt like I was in the shadow of my older sister. And then, so the other option was to go somewhere where my aunt was.

And so literally, I got into Georgetown, I hadn't, I mean, I didn't know what it was. I didn't even know it was Jesuit. [Laughs] I didn't know it was a Catholic school. I got to Georgetown, and I realized that there was a priest who lived next door to me, and I just, I was so surprised, you know. And so that's how I chose it. I got in and I decided to go. I think I got into a couple of other schools, Trinity, I didn't want to go into a all-girl's school, and I forget where else I got in, but I just decided I would go to Georgetown.

AI: That was one of the questions I was going to ask you about the Jesuit Catholic heritage, if that had been a concern of yours, that...

PJ: I had no idea, and then I got there and I found out that this, there was this, you know, institution, this kind of Catholic institution and that there were church services and everything. But actually, it was so much less religious than the Baptist missionaries had been in Indonesia -- 'cause, you know, I wrote a little bit about this in the book, that there was just so much of the, kind of the Baptist missionary presence in Indonesia -- that Georgetown felt, didn't feel religious at all to me. In fact, I remember my birthday, I think we had some wine or something out and the priest started to walk down the hall, and I said, "We have to put the wine away, the priest is coming." And everybody laughed. I mean, they said, "Don't you know the history of Jesuit priests?" [Laughs] It was just, it was not a particularly religious place in that way. I never really felt confined by the Catholicism.

AI: Right.

<End Segment 14> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 15>

AI: Well, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about some of your early impressions of United States. And, of course, well, your earliest impressions were when you were arriving into the country, which you wrote about coming into the airport.

PJ: Right.

AI: And how, maybe a little bit about how some of your, your impressions and your experiences differed from what your expectations might have been?

PJ: Well, all I had to judge on was what I had seen and heard in Indonesia. But I think I wrote about this in the book, I arrived in Kennedy and I saw, you know, these, this couple just kissing passionately. And I remember just looking, I didn't know where to look, because there were just little things like that that I remember that were so different from the way it had been. Like Indonesia is a Muslim country, and that was one of the things I think, the kids at school were certainly demonstrative and everything, but, but not, not quite that openly. [Laughs] And then I remember just... I just remember driving with somebody, I can't remember who, fairly, right after I arrived. And just being stunned at the spaciousness, but in an isolating way. So I remember driving, I think it was from New York to Washington. And I just remember thinking, "Where is everybody?" Like, "Where are they?" And I would see houses every once in a while from the highway, but I remember thinking, "Where are the people?" "Where do they eat?" "What do they eat and where do they sleep, and why aren't they outside?" I didn't, I didn't see anybody. And when you come from Indonesia or India or any one of those places, there's just people everywhere. And so I, I remember being stunned by that. Just stunned.

I remember physical discomforts very clearly. You know, just being cold. And to this day, my ex-husband would always tease me and say, "You'd get a chill in your bones that starts in September and goes until May." And it's true. I just am very, I get very cold, and I've not accustomed to that. And so things like wearing socks, I would get these awful rashes all over my feet, because I had never worn socks before. [Laughs] And sweaters, first I bought these wool sweaters 'cause they were the warmest, but my skin is very sensitive, and I would get rashes all over my skin. And then I think I wrote about this, the first time that I saw snow. I was so stunned. I was a freshman and this guy from New Orleans, Tyrone, who's still a good friend of mine, came up, and you would think with a name like Tyrone, you'd have a certain picture of him. Tyrone is this five foot two inch white guy -- [laughs] -- from New Orleans, who has this total New Orleans accent. He goes, "Pramila, Pramila, it's snowin', it's snowin'!" And so, it was like ten o'clock at night, and we literally, the two of us, ran out there, 'cause he hadn't seen snow. No shoes, no gloves, no coat, no hat, nothing. And so, of course, we're like... my sister had said, "You know, you have to make angels in the snow." And so we were lying and making angels in the snow. And I just remember just this complete wonderment of this stuff that was coming down from the skies. It was white and wet and cold, and so I remember very clearly, memories like that. And then coming in and having these frozen hands, and immediately turning on the hot water, because I wanted to heat 'em up. And just the pain, you know, just not realizing, oh, you can't do that.

Things like sweaters, I remember arriving at Georgetown and my roommate was from New Jersey, and she had arrived with her mother, her boyfriend, her grandparents, and like fifty pieces of luggage. And I was allowed to carry two pieces -- otherwise you pay overweight, and so you're allowed two pieces on international flights -- of luggage. So I had these two suitcases that were filled with impractical cotton clothes that you really can't wear. And just arriving and just feeling so bereft because here she was, with everybody and everything and I just had no idea where, where I was or what I was doing.

<End Segment 15> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 16>

PJ: So I remember, you know, I remember all of those. I remember going to Georgetown, the foreign student office, because I hadn't gotten my housing assignment. And walking into the, the office said "Office of Foreign Students" or "Office for Foreign Students" or something. And there was this guy there, and I said, "My name's Pramila Jayapal, and I'm a foreign student, and I didn't receive any of my housing assignment." And I think all he heard was "foreign student." And he says to me, "Do you speak English?" And I thought he, I just couldn't believe it. I said, "Uh... yes, a little, but if you answer me -- that was a prepared speech, and if you answer me back, there's, I'm not gonna know what to say back." And then he suddenly realized, and he got very embarrassed and apologized.

But I remember being amazed at how little people knew about the rest of the world. And I had chosen Georgetown in part because it was in Washington, D.C. and it was cosmopolitan, and people just had no clue. I had this roommate next to me, her name was Cricket Telesco. And she had these little Dorothy red shoes, kind of red glitter shoes, and her family was very, very wealthy and they had this private jet that they chartered. And I put up -- on the first or second day of being there, I was so homesick, and I went into Georgetown and I bought this big poster of the Taj Mahal, that said "India" on it, and put it up. And she came in and she said, "Is that your home?" And I thought she was kidding. I, 'cause I'd, it never occurred to me that people would not know one of the Wonders of the World. [Laughs] And plus, it said "India," it was clearly a poster. And she, and I said -- so I thought she was kidding, and I said, I said, "Well, actually, it's the servants' quarters. The house was to big to fit there, and I'm actually a princess, and I'm just a little embarrassed to be called Princess Pramila." And she went away, and I just thought she knew that I was kidding. And then about a week later at some party, somebody came up and I introduced myself and they said, "Are you, are you the real live princess from India?" [Laughs] So there were all those things that would happen that I just remember being so amazed at, because when we were in Indonesia, we knew countries, you know? I mean, I knew Yugoslavia and I knew... I mean, wherever it was, Thailand. And it was stunning to me that there were these really educated, wealthy people who didn't know where India was, and would ask me the strangest questions. So, yeah, it was... some of the, some of those...

AI: Well, it seems like some of your early experience there at college was really seeing how these other students -- Americans -- perceived you and getting these, their strange range of reactions to, to you or what they thought about you.

PJ: Yeah, yeah, very much. Very much so. You know, because in Indonesia, the thing is that we were all visitors, and everybody was kind of, in a way, trying to figure out the lay of the land, and looking around, and here it was very much like I was the outsider, and I looked different, and Georgetown didn't have the diversity of international students that it has today, even though it was very international. And again, class was a huge issue, I think as it is in all private schools like that. Class was a big issue, so a lot of very wealthy, but not particularly literate about the world. Which surprised me; I guess that disconnect just surprised me.

<End Segment 16> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 17>

AI: Well, I'm wondering that, in addition to this, these kinds of reactions that you received as someone from outside the U.S., from India, from a place that many people had no knowledge of, did you experience anything that you would consider racial prejudice or discrimination during your college years?

PJ: Yeah, there were always, I think, always comments and things. People would talk about the color of my skin or... you know, I think as much about being a woman, actually, as anything. Like I remember when I was interviewing for investment banks, and one of the questioners, guy, said, "So, you know, you come into the office and somebody says, 'Oh, you're,' says something like, 'you're dark and you're a woman. Why don't you go fetch the coffee?' What would you do?" And I said, "Just what I'm going to do now." I walked out. And I was furious. And he called and asked me to come back. He said, he said, "That's exactly what we want to see, is that kind of..." And I said, "I'm sorry, it's just not the, it's not the place for me." So I became more aware of it, I think, later, but I definitely remember comments. I don't remember any specific instances, and it's interesting because most of the instances of racism have actually occurred more recently. And I don't know if that's because they've occurred more recently, or because I'm just much attuned to it now. But, you know, being denied a room because of my race, that's something that's happened recently versus when I first arrived. And part of that may be that Georgetown, I mean, Washington did have a lot of African Americans and -- not that that necessarily makes you more tolerant, but, but we weren't as visible, in a way.

<End Segment 17> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 18>

AI: Well, in fact, I wanted to ask you, when you were newly arrived at Georgetown and the U.S., I was wondering how much knowledge you had of the inequities in the United States, especially racial disparities and --

PJ: Very little.

AI: -- the history of racism, and whether that...

PJ: Yeah. Very, very little. And this is something that I would be too embarrassed really to say just about anywhere, but I think it's fair in the context of this that you have this. But I remember I was a Resident Assistant in my -- which meant I was kind of responsible for my whole floor. And somewhere in my consciousness I had heard something about the KKK. But I had no idea what the KKK was, literally none. And on this sign I put up about people needing to do something, I put something about the KKK on there. As, almost like, as in a police force or something. You know, that "they'll come after you," or something like that. And I remember, thank God somebody -- this must have been my second year in college -- somebody coming to me and saying, "Do you know what the KKK is?" And I said, "No. What is it?" And so I think the same way I was shocked by what people didn't know, I'm sure there were people who were shocked by what I didn't know. 'Cause I knew a lot of -- like I knew about the Japanese internment. I mean, it's interesting, I knew certain pieces of American history, but prejudice and -- I knew about the Civil Rights movement, so I knew about African Americans from the perspective of Martin Luther King and what had been achieved broadly for civil rights. But how do you know about that and not know about the KKK? I'm not sure. So I'm not sure what I was taught or what I absorbed. But I think I was very naive when I first came, and luckily, I became friends with somebody who was just steeped in issues of, particularly black/white racism and history and the Civil Rights movement, and worked with Curt Schmoke, had worked with Curt Schmoke, who was the mayor of Baltimore at the time, African American mayor of Baltimore, very highly renowned, kind of touted in the world of civil rights. And it was really, actually, thanks to Kevin that I, I think learned a lot very quickly about racism in this country, beyond kind of the bigger sort of historical pieces that were, that were there and that I think I got in some context. But you know, we learned more about world history than we did about U.S. history overseas. I mean, we learned little pieces about the U.S., but our history was actually world history. So we learned about the world wars, and we learned about all that kind of stuff, but, and that's the context in which I knew about the Japanese internment, but we didn't necessarily learn about the details of inner U.S. history.

AI: Right, of course not. In my mind, that would make logical sense.

PJ: Yeah.

AI: I did want to ask you a little bit more, if you could say a little bit more about the context in which you learned about the Japanese Americans during World War II, and that must have come in your world history in discussions of World War II?

PJ: Right, exactly. Yeah, that's... and it wasn't, like I said, it wasn't detailed, but we knew, you know, I think we were taught that right after World War II there had been this huge -- the way I remember is that there had been this huge backlash against Japanese Americans who lived, or Japanese, people of Japanese ancestry who lived in America, Japanese Americans. And so I'm pretty sure we were taught about internment camps, though now, of course, I'm trying to remember because we've done so much work, what I know from now and what I knew then. But I'm pretty sure we were taught that people were interned. And I remember that we were taught in the context of America as a democracy, and so that was one of the issues. We had a history, world history teacher named Mrs. Barber, Dorothy Barber, who was British, and she would... most of our time was spent on, on British history. [Laughs] But we did, when we talked about that, I remember she, one of... we had some kind of a question or something on the exam about the principles and the realities of democracy, and the Japanese internment was one of the things that we had studied in that context.

AI: That's so interesting to me, because, of course, as we know, there are so many people here in the United States who grew up going to school here in the United States who never hear about this aspect.

PJ: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I think we learned about the major historical pieces in American history. Like I said, we didn't get a lot of the detail, but we did... you know, I certainly knew about the Civil Rights movement, and I knew who Martin Luther King was. And I knew about the Japanese internment. I knew about the pilgrims, I mean, just kind of the big picture things, I think I knew about.

AI: Well, it sounds like you certainly knew a lot more about United States history than many people here know about any other country.

PJ: Or even this country, yeah. No, I think that's probably right. I think I, because of the work I do now, which is so steeped in anti-racism work, it's sometimes shocking to me how, how I feel like I knew so little about racism in this country.

<End Segment 18> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 19>

AI: Well, so I wanted to ask you also, how did you decide on your focus in college? You ended up majoring in both English and economics. How did that happen?

PJ: Right. [Laughs] Well, that happened because I was told in no uncertain terms by my father that I needed to get a degree in something that was gonna get me a good job, 'cause we had all these loans to pay. And so that was economics. That was really... and I have this very logical side, I like math and, you know, I'm good at math. And so economics was sort of like the thing that would get me a good job. And, but I hated it. And I just really did not like it, and my sophomore year of college I had this macroeconomics course that just, I just didn't like it. It was awful. And so I just decided that I was gonna major in English, and I called my father from a pay phone to tell him. And he, I mean, I just had to hold the phone out like this, 'cause he was so furious. And, "What are you going to do with English?" And the funny this is, my mother has a master's in English. But, you know, "Useless," and "it's not going to get you a job, it's not going to pay the bills." And I said, "Believe me," I said, "I am going to get an English major, but I will take care of myself, and you do not have to worry about paying anything. I will get the same job that I would have gotten with an economics major as an English major." And he said, "You, you better, because..." and this whole thing. And so then I just had enough credits that I could be an economics major, so I just decided to do both. And then, and then I had to prove to my dad that I was gonna do what I, the same thing. And so instead of, I went after the same job, which at that time was investment banking. It was the mid-1980s and it was the hot thing, and if you were really smart and you wanted to make money and you were, that's what you were supposed to go do. And so I had to show my dad that I was, of course, very smart and wanted to make money and was going to be able to pay off all these loans. [Laughs]

And so that's what I did. I interviewed for investment banking jobs. And basically, they would say, "Well, you have an English major and why would we hire you into investment banking?" And I would say, "Well, it's really the value of a liberal arts degree, that you can teach people a lot of things. You can teach them about financial statements and balance sheets and numbers," I said, "but you can't teach somebody in two years how to think, or how to write, or how to act. And that's what a liberal arts degree gives you, is that kind of integrated knowledge that allows you to..." So I got the job. [Laughs]

AI: That sounds like a very good promotional piece for a liberal education.

PJ: Absolutely. Well, at that time, they weren't really hiring people with liberal arts degrees. They were really focusing on people with economics or business degrees. And all my friends -- 'cause Georgetown had a business school where you could actually get an undergraduate degree in business. And that's what they all wanted to do, and so it was always kind of like, "How did you get that job, and you have a mast-, you have a degree in English." I have a degree in business, but I do believe that. It wasn't, I mean, I did say that, but I also believe that. I really see, through my life, how the ability to write and read and articulate is so critical. And I think it's so much of what we don't teach kids in the U.S. school system.

AI: Unfortunately.

PJ: Yeah.

<End Segment 19> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 20>

AI: Well, you were just mentioning people kind of laughingly saying, "How did you get that job?" But did you ever face serious questions as to, "How did you get this job?" Implying or perhaps even explicitly stating, "Oh, you must have been an affirmative action hire." Was that ever something that came up?

PJ: Only later. Not from my... there was one, there was one position, and I think it was at, it was one of the top investment banks, like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, or one of them. And somebody was, and this person who was actually a friend, a guy, came to me and said, "Well, you just got the job because you're a woman, and because you're, you're exotic." I think he used the word "exotic." And I was so shocked, and the only other time that had happened was, there was a youth leadership program that I had applied for, and they picked people from all around the country and then we went to Texas or something, I don't remember what it was, but, and it wasn't a long program, but it was a, I guess it was an honor. And I had the same thing happen there, where somebody -- at that time it wasn't somebody who was a friend, it was somebody I didn't know -- who came to me and said, "The only reason you got this is because you're, because you're -- " and same thing, it focused on both being a woman and being foreign. And so I, so I remember both of those comments, and I just remember thinking, "What's their problem?" I don't remember taking it personally at that time, whereas I did take the comment from the investment bank -- I mean, I was furious about that comment. And I think part of it is I just felt like I deserve it. And so I didn't, it didn't send me into a wave of trauma.

The stuff that, that got to me was much more, was much more under the surface. It was a way that women were treated in investment banking. It was a way that people of color -- I mean, there were very few people of color in investment banking. Very, very, very few. And I noticed that. And I also, just, people always think I'm about twenty-six, even now, I'm thirty-eight, and people think that I'm much younger than I, than I am. And I've always kind of looked the same. [Laughs] And so, when I was twenty, people thought I was really young, and how much younger can you be, really? But, you know, still, and so I would go into these rooms with older white men who were really powerful, had a lot of money, and I would sense that initial place, where they would kind of look at me like, "How are you supposed to do this job? You're a woman, and you're, you're not white." And it felt like a very exclusive club. I hated it. I hated investment banking, really.

<End Segment 20> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 21>

AI: Well, at that point that you were just going to enter investment banking, did you have some sense that that's the world that you were entering? That you, did you have some sense of the racial and the gender inequities and the kind of prejudices that you would be facing?

PJ: Not really. My sister had been investment banking and I was kind of following in her footsteps. She had done very well at Goldman Sachs and again, like I said, my sister is, you know, she just doesn't focus on that stuff at all, and so, in a way, I think we had this kind of modus operandi of, like, the way you were supposed to deal with that stuff was just not talk about it. And if you did, you were actually weaker for doing it. And it took me a while to realize that's not my process. I need to process it through, but it really did take me a while. And so, no, I didn't really have that sense. And then plus, I had this thing from my father of, "You can do anything." And so I've always believed, "Well, I can, why can't I do it?" And so I didn't really have that sense until I was in it, and then it was just really abundantly clear to me. But I almost think that the being a woman piece was stronger, even, than being a person of color until maybe later. I think, I think the time when I really experienced the most around being a person of color was, was actually when I was working for Physio-Control and I was based in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was a sales rep for medic, you know, doing medical equipment with a district that had never had a woman before, much less a person of color, and then would have to go into these tiny little towns in Indiana, where nobody had ever seen anybody who looked like me. And I got a lot of stuff then. But when I was in New York, there was enough kind of awareness of people of color in New York that that didn't seem to be the thing as much as it was being a woman.

AI: Well, and of course, New York City is a whole world in itself.

PJ: Exactly.

AI: With so many international influences, although they might not have been apparent within the corporation.

PJ: Within the corporation, but they were in the city, completely. And so I think people were, it just wasn't as much of an issue as some of the smaller towns where they had never seen anybody like me. And I remember, for example, having to go... I, I can't believe that they would let us do these things, but I represented this company that was in bankruptcy. I mean, I was all of twenty-one years old, and got a call one night that I had to go fly to West Virginia to some little tiny town to represent the shoe company called Craddock Terry in bankruptcy proceedings, and then I was gonna have to work with the senior management to figure out how we were gonna tell everybody that they had to be laid off. I mean, it was ridiculous. Anyway, I remember going to port in this small town in West Virginia, and then I remember people just looking at me like, "Who are you, and why would we..." and there it felt like the, being a person of color was a, was a big issue. But not in New York, really, as much.

AI: Well, in a place like that, like in West Virginia, do you think people understood anything about you, or do you think that they just perceived you as, as an African American, as a black person? Or that, that it didn't matter, it was just simply that you were not white?

PJ: I think, actually, I think they perceived very little about me. I think that they maybe thought that I wasn't an African America, but I must be close or related. [Laughs] I think, I mean, certainly in Indiana, people would say, "Where are you from?" And I'd say, "India." And they'd say, "Where in Indiana?" And I'd say, "No, no. Not Indiana, India." And they'd say, "Where is India?" And they'd say, "So, are you black?" And I'd say, "Well, yeah." You know? I mean, depending on how you look at it. [Laughs] "Blacker than you." So, so I would get those kinds of questions, and I think, I think people, I think people also didn't know how to interact with me once I opened my mouth, because here would come this American accent. And even today, people don't know how to, everybody thinks I'm born here. And I sometimes feel -- especially in the work I do, I have to establish my credentials as, as an immigrant. And no, I only got my citizenship two years ago. And people are just kind of stunned, and they say, "Oh, well, you were, you must have been born here." So I think it's very difficult for people to figure out what I am, and it throws them off. They don't know how to, they don't know how to deal with it, I think. 'Cause if you're a foreigner, then you shouldn't speak English well. And so, you know, you get all these things about, "Oh, but you speak English so well." And, "But, where's your accent?" Or, you know, just kind of all those silly questions that people ask.

<End Segment 21> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 22>

AI: Well, another, I wanted to ask you another aspect about life in a major corporation in New York City. You had mentioned in your writing, just very briefly about the corporate culture, and especially for people who don't have any sense of what that was like, could you describe a little bit about that?

PJ: Yeah. It was, you know, very glitzy buildings, so we worked right on 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas was right where our building was, right across from Radio City Music Hall, actually, just a couple blocks up. And the CBS towers and everything, and so just these fancy buildings, and we just had cubicles, but they were all kind of on high floors and so beautiful views, but it was really the lifestyle. It was like people spent -- and you know, we earned an inordinate amount of money for what we were... I mean, I earned then, at the age of twenty, what I earn now. [Laughs] So, so, and if I continued to work there, obviously my salary would be significantly different. But, you know, it was a huge amount of money at the time. Not quite what I earn now, but pretty close. And so it was just this lifestyle of, you took limousines everywhere and you talked in billions of dollars. And so people, I think you just lost the sense of value, and that was true when you ate, you know, at restaurants, and what you spent on meals and what you spent on dry cleaning. And the pace and the culture was, you know, that you stay up late and you work, and the person who's here until four in the morning and only gets two hours of sleep and is back at six o'clock, that's what you're striving for, and relationships don't really matter. And so the successful women that I saw had no relationships or broken relationships and no families, and there were only very few who were really senior women. The men, there was just sort of this "money is king" philosophy, which was ruling investment banking at the time. And in terms of the work, I saw very clearly the lack of values in doing the work, because we were buying and selling companies that really should probably never have been bought or sold, but the investment bankers got a lot of money out of it, and the principals often got a lot of money out of it. But what was of value out of that, where was the value added to the financial markets as a whole? And it was very hard for me to see where that was. So that was all part of the corporate culture.

The good things about it, very smart people, there were just some brilliant, brilliant people, brilliant thinkers. You had to be confident. I mean, I learned a lot about being in situations where I know nothing -- [laughs] -- but being able to somehow figure out what I'm supposed to do or what I'm supposed to say. And so it was great training for me as a young person, but there was no passion in it; it was soulless. It was, it was all just about money. That's really what it was about.

<End Segment 22> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 23>

AI: And so then what caused you, you know, you had, you were really dissatisfied. But what caused you then to take your, your next step? Was there a defining point, or...?

PJ: Well, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I was still under this whole thing of my father, and what I had promised my father and that I couldn't possibly go and give up business, because what else would I do? And so it was just a very logical -- I had two options: one was to stay as an associate in investment banking, which they sometimes would make an offer to stay on as an associate, and then you would still have to go back to business school at some point, but it was considered a big... and the other was to go to business school. It never occurred to me that I had other options besides those. [Laughs] And so I applied to business school and I, and I went, just really because I didn't know what else to do, and I knew I didn't want to do investment banking, but I thought... you know, I like the idea of business. I mean, I like management, I like the concepts of management and I love think-, like strategic thinking, and I love to kind of envision -- even then, I loved to envision sort of new projects, and figure out how you would get those done. And there was a portion of that in the business world that I really liked, and really that was all I knew. I didn't know any other worlds, either.

And so I went off to business school, and then while I was at business school, I met this woman named Mary Houghton, who was the, one of the founders of the South ShoreBank in the south side of Chicago that was doing economic revitalization of the south end. And she, she became kind of a mentor to me. She said... because I said to her -- I took this class on economic development, and I thought, "Well, maybe this is a way to use my business skills for something that I believe in more." And she said, "Yeah, economic development is a great way to do that, and it's business, but you're applying it to something that matters kind of on the societal level." And so with her encouragement -- she introduced me to the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, because they were doing this very interesting reverse technology transfer, and it was the Good Faith Fund that Hilary Rodham Clinton was actually involved with in Arkansas. But ShoreBank was kind of heading up that project, and so she had, Mary and been to Bangladesh and she had met Muhammad Yunus and Muhammad had come here and gone to Arkansas. And so I heard about Microcredit back in the mid-80s, and was fascinated by the whole idea. I mean, just thought it was very, very cool.

And so that summer I applied to go, I basically found an internship in Thailand, and all my friends thought I was crazy, 'cause they were all going into investment banking and management consulting jobs where again, they were earning huge amounts of money, and I was gonna to go to Thailand and I was thrilled that basically my expenses were being paid, but I, I wasn't gonna get a salary or anything, and I was gonna be counting chickens along the borders of Laos and Cambodia -- [laughs] -- trying to figure out how rural economies would work. So that's what I did. I went to Thailand and I worked along the borders of Laos and Cambodia, and it was kind of my first introduction to doing international, quote "international development work."

And then came back from that very invigorated, but also saw a lot of things that aren't so great about the non-profit sector, but also still had, now had not just my college loans, but my graduate school kind of commitments that I needed to pay off. And so decided that when I graduated, I would try to find a job working for the side of business that had a heart. [Laughs] And... literally. And so I found this company that manufactured heart equipment, and Seattle had just been voted the number one city in the country to live in, and Physio was one of the top-ranked hundred best companies to work for in the country, Physio-Control, sold heart equipment. And so I decided to go work for Physio. And that program involved -- it was called a management development program, where you had to rotate through the different parts of the organization. So you had to spend some time in sales, and then some time in marketing, and some time in production, operations, that kind of thing. And then you would eventually be ready for kind of senior management of the company. And so you had to do this sales stint, and my sales stint in Cincinnati, Ohio. And that was quite something.

<End Segment 23> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 24>

AI: Well, before we get too much further, I just wanted to go back and ask a little bit more about -- and to mention that you weren't just at any business school, you were at Northwestern University, you were at the Kellogg School.

PJ: Right.

AI: Which was quite well-regarded as one of the top business schools. And so really, with that degree, you, you could have gone anywhere, almost. There were many, many options open to you.

PJ: Yeah.

AI: And so as you were looking at this, the Grameen Bank and the Microcredit lending approaches, I'm just wondering, what, was there anything else that you had considered that... you ended up at Physio, but before you, you went there, were there other choices that you had looked at?

PJ: Well, you know, it was tempting to go back into investment banking. I was, I was looking very seriously at management consulting. I had a class in business school taught by this professor that I really, really liked, called, I think it was, I think it was called organizational management or management strategy. And, you know, everything was by the case method, and so you would get a case of a company that was going through all these things, and then you'd have to figure out, "What would I do if I were the CEO?" And I really loved that piece of it; I loved that class. And so, kind of the whole piece of management strategy was really interesting to me. And then the other thing was marketing, and I was really interesting in marketing. And Kellogg was really known for its marketing. I think the year that I was there, the year I left, maybe, it was ranked the number one business school overall, but the marketing had been number one for several years, and so that was also something that was interesting. But you know, frankly, I looked at that, and there were all my, a lot of my friends were going to P&G, Procter & Gamble and some of the big marketing companies that were recruiting there. And I just thought, "I don't wanna, I don't wanna sell toothpaste." [Laughs] I mean, it just, just doesn't sound that appealing to me, though I have to say, I was always a sucker for Pringles, and one of my friends was the Pringles account manager -- [laughs] -- and I thought that would have been really great 'cause I would have had a lifetime supply of Pringles.

But it just wasn't... so I think probably the closest I was, was management consulting, if I was gonna go into something else. But it seemed like some of the same cutthroatness as investment banking. And I think I applied... the company that I -- I think I applied for a job at McKinsey, and I think I didn't get it, and I think I never applied anywhere else. And I wonder if I had gotten it, would I have gone there? I'm not sure, 'cause I... but anyway, it wasn't... so I think I had just applied to McKinsey and didn't apply anywhere else, and then didn't get McKinsey, and didn't go.

<End Segment 24> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 25>

AI: So that was 1990 that you got your MBA, and you joined Physio-Control. So tell a little bit about being out in the Midwest.

PJ: Oh, my gosh. Well, it was very complicated because the, all of the -- I never knew this, but sales for... sales is a very prestigious thing if it's in the high-end equipment, because it's all commission-based. So if you sell a piece of equipment, that's $10,000, so IBM and the medical companies are really like the top-ranked salespeople, and it's a very, it's, I guess it's got this own trajectory of getting to that level. So this was a new project, a new program for Physio, and all of a sudden, they were introducing MBAs who had no sales experience, had never sold a thing in their lives, into a very competitive sales environment. And the districts competed with each other. So individual sales reps competed within the district, and then the districts competed for kind of a national prize. And so my district was furious, because there had been a guy there named Gary who was like the quintessential Midwestern sales guy. He loved football, he loved steaks, he had good relationships with all the guys who ran the equipment departments, 'cause everybody, a lot of them were men. And Gary was being promoted to the D.C. office, I think, national sales, and then I was coming in to take his place. And there were all these people who had interviewed for the position, and then Tom, my district manager, was told, "This is who you're getting." And he was not happy, and the district had never had a woman, ever. It was actually under target. Gary's account was, which was, since it basically covered all of western Ohio and then all of eastern Indiana, was my territory. So the territory had been under target, and they were really looking for somebody who, who was gonna come in and do great things with it. And I was not what they envisioned at all.

And so I came in and it was very hard, because I was in Cincinnati. I had never lived in a -- I mean, the closest I had come was Chicago, which was a Midwestern town, but, you know, big. And so I'd never lived in a smaller town, and certainly never spent all this time with... my accounts included not just doctors and hospitals and nurses, but also all of the EMTs and the firefighters, because we had these automatic defibrillators that we were selling to... so it was kind of this range of people. And we had this big cart, so I had a, like a cart that... and I had this big Ford Aerostar van, blue van. And I would have to put all the equipment on the cart, and then you'd pull out the cart, and then it had these legs that would just click out from under it, and then you'd like take your cart and go through the hospital or wherever it was. And I had to learn all the products, which was easy. I mean, really, sales is just, it's not that difficult, and I liked the product. I mean, I liked the fact that it was heart saving. But it was boring; you just said the same thing over and over again to different people.

But because I'd come in and there was so much hostility, I was determined that I was gonna show them that, that they were wrong. And so I had to stay in long enough to, to do that. But I really hated it. I mean, it was long drives, it was boring, they gave me a new product line that was a, kind of a... it was called an STM monitor. It was a cardiac monitor that would monitor all twelve leads and could actually detect ischemia. And I got to work with this cardiologist from Duke to design kind of the marketing strategy for the product, because I was so bored with the other products, and I picked up the STM really quickly, and so they said, "Do you want to work with him?" And so I said, "Yes," and so that was, that was good. I joined the -- I became friends with the paramedics in downtown Cincinnati, and I would go with them on Friday nights on their, on their runs. And so Mike Uphus -- who was the lieutenant, the, kind of the chief of that unit, the downtown unit -- and I became friends. Very unlikely friendship, but I really liked Mike, and Mike really liked me, and I felt like if I was gonna sell my product well, I should know how people used it. And so I would go out, and I found that fascinating. And he would teach me, I mean, he taught me a few things like how to run a needle, line in and things like that that were, just kind of kept me engaged.

But, you know, I would go into these small towns, and it was all these firefighters, and I, and they didn't want to have anything to do with me. I was a woman, I was black in their eyes, and they just didn't want to have anything to do with me. But it would change, because I would -- then what would happen is I'd start talking about being out with the medics, and then they'd say, "Oh, you went out with the medics?" And then I'd do really dramatic things like throw the defibrillator across the room, because -- and they had taught us that in sales training, too, but that's one of the things that they care about, is that this thing gets dropped all the time. And so it was just, and so by the end, it would be okay.

But I would go into these situations where I'd have to do training for firefighters, and everybody would stand up and sing "God Bless America" and "Pledge Allegiance to the Flag," and I wasn't singing. Or they'd say grace and I wasn't saying grace. And so there'd be like this muttering, and then a lot of comments about, "Well, why do you look -- " you know, "How come, where're you from, and how come you look that way?" "So, what do they do in India? Y'all have showers over there?" I mean, just kind of amazing stuff. But there were some really good-hearted people, too, and I think that so much of it is ignorance. I mean, so much is just, you just don't know, and you have these preconceptions and, just like I do. I mean, I realized all the preconceptions I have about the Midwest and small towns and what people look like. And a lot of them weren't, weren't necessarily true. So I think both ways, it was a huge learning opportunity for me, but it was also very difficult.

And my boss, I remember once, he sat down with me for an evaluation, I think it was maybe six months into the job, and I was beating all the numbers before, and he said, "Well, you're doing a really good job, but there's something I have to talk to you about." And I said, I said, "What's that?" And he said, "Well, I just really think you need to dress differently." And I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, you just wear such bright colors, and, you know, you just need to look more professional." And I said, "I wear suits, I wear dresses, I never dress inappropriately." I said, "I'm not, why should I wear black and brown?" And he said, "Well, you know, that's what they're used to, and that's what the guys do." And I said, "Well, I'm not a guy." I said, "It doesn't seem to be affecting my sales." And I said, you know, that's, I think that's, I think I can sue you for that. He said, "Well, that's not what I meant." But, you know, it was that kind of thing, and felt constantly like I was sort of battling uphill. But it was really important to me to just show that I could do it, not for me, but for them to be able to see that... you know, and it was hard for the guys, 'cause I beat them, and they didn't like that.

AI: So just in the act of really proving them wrong, it didn't necessarily decrease their hostility at some level.

PJ: No, but I think it did increase their understanding that it wasn't just white men that could do the job. But it then created all these other tensions.

AI: My goodness.

PJ: [Laughs]

<End Segment 25> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 26>

AI: And Pramila, when, just before our break, we had left you still in Cincinnati, Ohio, and you were on the point of leaving your work there and making a change.

PJ: Yeah. Well, I just, I had to stay long enough to show I could do it, and then, and then I was really ready to leave. And I had always wanted to come to Seattle, and so my, my partner at the time, we were gonna get married that fall, and the wedding was gonna be -- actually, we were gonna get married the next year, and the wedding was supposed to be in New York, I think in May. And it was getting really big, there were a lot of people who were coming in, it was turning into Alan's parents' wedding, and so we said, "Well, let's quit our jobs and move back to Seattle, and then let's just get married in November, in Seattle." And we already had the place booked in New York and everybody was aware. So that's what we did. We moved to Seattle in September of 2001, and really with the intent of kind of taking some time to figure out what we wanted to do, because we were both -- he had a very similar background, we met in graduate school, and we both felt like we wanted to do something that we felt passionately about. We didn't know what that was, but we were very convinced that that's what we wanted to do. And so we moved to Seattle in September, and we literally got married in November, and we only had a hundred people at our wedding, which was what we wanted.

And, and then we took off backpacking, we went to West Africa and East Africa and then a couple of months in India. So we spent about three and a half months or four months traveling. And it was an amazing, amazing experience, you know, I think really, just being able to go, and it was his first time to India, though he had traveled in other places before, he had traveled in Africa, Latin America. But we just traveled through India, and I met -- I wrote about this in my book -- I met all these people that were phenomenal activists who were doing really great work in their villages and with very little resources, but just with the resources of soul and heart and passion, and I just decided that that's what I wanted to do. I wasn't quite sure how I was gonna do it, but that's what I wanted to do.

AI: Well, so then, I did want to ask you about, as you were traveling that time, whether, whether you were in places long enough to illicit reactions from people. And to you individually, as someone who now in some ways, acted and sounded like an American, although you weren't, you were not an American citizen, and also that you were in a relationship, an interracial relationship.

PJ: Right. Yes, I mean, that was huge everywhere, because in Africa, Alan was the novelty and... both in a good way and a bad way. And so I had to get both of those. I couldn't kind of blend in the way I wanted to, and the way I would have probably if he hadn't been there, but at the same time, there were a lot of things that, "benefits" that accrue to white people, and everything from people being interested and wanting you to go and stay in their houses or whatever, that gave me a whole different experience. And I think I noticed right away the difference. But I had noticed it before, 'cause Alan actually came to visit in Thailand as well, when I was working in Thailand. And I noticed the way in which people treat white people differently in other countries, and it's this love/hate relationship, because there's a lot of tension towards Americans, but there's also this kind of, if you're American, then everybody wants your attention and you can do no wrong. And you don't have to speak the language, whereas, of course, if you come to America, you have to speak English. So it's almost like no matter where you are in the world, there's benefits that go with being, with being white. And as you know, in other countries, it's considered favorable to be lighter-skinned, or to be white. So I noticed all of that, traveling with him. But... yeah.

AI: Right. So that, that became part of your experience, that, which you come back to again later on.

PJ: Yeah.

<End Segment 26> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 27>

AI: But at, so anyway, at this point, then you both returned to Seattle. And then how did you get involved with the, your next position, which was the Fund for Technology Transfer?

PJ: Right. Well, the only international -- so I came back, just completely energized, like, "This is what I want to do with my life, I want to work in international -- " at that time, I, I said international development. Now, I think I don't want to work in development at all, I want to work in social justice. So my, my sophistication, I think, about what I really want has changed as I've gone through these experiences. But international development at that time, the only organization that was doing it here was PATH, which is the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, and it was working in primarily the health field, manufacturing, designing, manufacturing, distributing, working with very basic technologies that could change health. And it started really working on reproductive issues and then has, has grown, and now it's really the arm, the operating arm for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's work internationally with HIV and AIDS and polio and all of those diseases. And so they had a very interesting division called... I think it was called technology... no, technology and management, anyway, it was kind of the business division of PATH's products. And so basically, it was social marketing, so it took products that were distributed, or that were made for a health purpose, and then figured out all the aspects around distribution and things like that, and I started working in that program. And there was another woman there, who was my boss, named Sarah Tifft, who had a master's in public management from Yale, and so had -- it was this, it was the business-ey area of PATH. And there was a fund there called the Fund for Technology Transfer, that was basically not really utilized, we had gotten this money from the Ford Foundation to make loans, and it was a way of work that was similar to Grameen but not really, but all of that information that I had around Grameen and how it worked came in handy. And so they really didn't have a position, but they created a position for me. And actually, what's interesting is they actually interviewed both Alan and I, and they wanted to hire both of us, and they could only hire one. And they ended up hiring me, though it was very, very close. And I almost think they might have asked us what to do and Alan might have said, "Well, you take it," kind of thing. [Laughs] But, we've always had these very parallel experiences, but anyway, that's how that came about.

And so that, I initially wasn't managing the fund, I was just working on a number of different social marketing projects, which was everything from social marketing of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV in Indonesia, to towards the end I did a one-month training in Vietnam for the Ministry of Public Health, on social marketing, and the concepts of social marketing in the context of AIDS again. But then took over the Loan Fund, and we went from having, I think, $1.5 million to having about six million dollars that we were lending out to socially responsible projects in different countries, which were clinics, we had a clinic in the Gambia rural clinic, we had a manufacturer in Mexico that was manufacturing this once-a-month injectable contraceptive called Cyclofem, we had this Vietnam social marketing project. So a lot of different things. It was really interesting, I got to travel a lot, I got to go back to India a lot. I worked on the Safe Birth Kit that was in Nepal, actually, and it was just, you know, the incidence of neonatal and maternal tetanus is very, very high, and huge, huge amount of morbidity and mortality from both of those things. And so this was just a very simple birth kit that the traditional midwives could use that had a clean needle and clean thread, and just very basic stuff. It was a huge success and the World Health Organization ended up adopting that model of traditional birth kits throughout the world, and replicating it in Africa and other places.

<End Segment 27> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 28>

AI: Well, so this was in the early '90s, and during this time, you were doing some site visiting. You were actually, as you were mentioning, traveling through these countries and visiting the sites where some of these products were being used, where the projects were underway, and where you had funded some programs. But this was also a time of a lot of conflict in, in most of these areas, and I'm wondering, did any of the political conflicts or the violence actually, and wars affect you in any way while you were traveling?

PJ: Well, yeah, I mean, in, in kind of just in terms of the deals that we were doing, we had, I mean, we would have coups breaking out in countries. I mean, we funded this project in Sierra Leone, which never got off the ground because there was a coup. And luckily, we hadn't transferred the money -- [laughs] -- but, you know, that was a constant sort of -- just from a practical standpoint. But I think, just in terms of my overall perception of the world, it was this whole new thing because now I was running this project, and it was integrally tied to politics, and it was so exciting to me that I was finally doing something that wasn't separated from my desire to be kind of involved in the world. And it was really the first time that I got to do that. The world economy, or the world political situation or whatever, was not tangential, but it was central. So I think that's how I remember it the most. In terms of my safety, there were always those kinds of issues, where you didn't know. Could you, could you go to Sierra Leone? Was it safe? Should you not go, you know, to wherever? Brazil, was it safe to go travel -- and, you know, as a woman, young, pretty young woman, to go traveling around on your own in countries that you don't know, I guess some people would think of that as scary. But I wrote an essay called, in a collection called, "A Woman Alone," that was about women doing solo travel. And the editor had called me to ask if I would write a piece, and I said, "Yes," and I fully thought -- and she fully thought -- that I would write about some of these experiences. You know, kind of going to some country and traveling on my own. And actually, what I ended up writing about was, after I ended up getting divorced, a trip that I made to the Wallawas, to Eastern Oregon, and how much I hate to drive in the snow, and this long trip, and kind of the emotional journey of what you go through in a situation like that. Because, in some ways, that felt more foreign to me than the physical journey of going to a new country. I was raised with that sense of adventure and that sense of, kind of exploration as being a part of it. And so the job felt perfect in that way.

AI: Well, it sounds like it was an exciting time, and a lot of exciting places, and to be able to introduce things that you could see were making a tangible difference.

PJ: Yeah, that was really wonderful. I think the thing that was hard about it was that the development world has just as much classism, racism, bureaucracy as the... maybe not as much, but you have different expectations, and so it feels like as much as a for-profit world. And I think that's eventually what had me leave; I stayed there until 1995 and then I really felt like I wanted to go. There were just too many people that were involved in that world who were making policies and programs for people living in villages, and they never had visited those villages, or had any idea of the culture or what the situation was. It just felt so hypocritical to me that I was becoming a part of that, part of that system. And the higher I moved, I was also one of the only women of color, I was one of the few international people in senior management, everybody else was white, which felt very -- so I went through a big struggle within the organization around diversity and expanding diversity within the organization, and it just felt like it was time for me to move on.

<End Segment 28> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 29>

AI: Well, in fact, I think I remember one of the things that you mentioned in your book was the feeling of feeling like an outsider, and it sounds like you've... an outsider in almost every situation that you found yourself. An outsider within the organization itself, an outsider when you went to visit in other countries, an outsider when you saw, at a village level, something being done with one of the programs.

PJ: Yeah. You know, sometimes I think that I have this... I don't know whether to call it a curse or a benefit, but part of it is that I'm not necessarily perceived as an outsider as much as I feel like an outsider. So it always has been very difficult for me to see that I'm "acceptable" as a person of color, as a woman of color, because I can, if I want, "speak the right language." And I'm putting all of that in quotes, but I can do the old boy network thing, I mean, I have a lot of contacts that I can bring up and raise if I want to. And it's actually a struggle for me, often, to... sometimes I will go the other way, and do exactly not that, because I don't like that I can do that. Because I can be acceptable so easily, you know, 'cause I've had the right education, and I've, I'm articulate, I can speak, and all of those things that make me -- I don't have an accent, all of those things that kind of make me "acceptable" are sometimes feel like nemesis, you know, my nemesis, because I have to speak so loudly for the pieces of me that aren't as visible. So I think that was true at PATH, too. I was kind of a golden child there, and then I created all this trouble with diversity and -- [laughs] -- questioning, even though I was in the "accepted elite," people would say, "Well, why, why are you complaining? You're here, you're the president's favorite and you're, you're doing all these things and you're leading this and you get this and you get that." And I said, "Yeah, but it's not for me. It's, what about everybody else? What about, what if I wasn't like this?" And so that was always very hard to explain, and so yes, outsider, insider, I don't know which one I am, really, 'cause I don't really like feeling like the insider, either, because I think, to me, it gets to issues of power and access, and who has, who has that power or access, and what do you have to do get it. And I feel that often in the work I do now.

<End Segment 29> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 30>

AI: Well, so then, as you were saying a little while ago, you felt it was time to move on. And how, when and how did you start thinking about going to India, going back to India, and how did that come about?

PJ: Well, I also wanted to go and write. I have always, the English literature thing, I pushed it to the background 'cause of my dad, and, but I, I won a children's writing competition when I was young, when I was seven, seven years old, I think, and the silver medal that Indra Gandhi was gonna present to me. And we were living in India and we were too poor for me to fly back. I remember being just devastated that I couldn't go and get this medal, but I've always had that thing of wanting to write, and so it was just this feeling that I wanted to, I wanted to go back to India, because I was working in all these countries -- and I was working in India as well -- but I kept thinking, "Why am I working in Africa when I don't even really understand India? And that's my home, and if I'm gonna make a contribution somewhere, maybe that's, maybe I need to go back and explore that first." And so that was there, and then all of the stuff around the, just the hierarchy within the development sector and feeling like I was getting to a more and more senior level, and just felt like I was becoming a little too much like everybody I was seeing around me, and I didn't want that. So, and then personally, having gone through this, I just felt like I needed to go back and figure out who was it and what was India in my life, and all of those things that sound almost trite but are so central to the human existence in this day and age when migration is at the highest level that it's ever been in this, in the world. And I think all of us have it, and maybe we think about that struggle in different ways, but it's more and more an issue, I think. And it was very central to me, and working in those countries made me think about it more and more. Like, who am I, and how do I fit and there, the insider/outsider thing, am I an insider or am I an outsider? I would go back to India, and I didn't speak the language. Hindi, I worked mostly in the north, and I didn't speak Hindi.

And so I just felt like I had to go back, and I heard from a friend of mine about this fabulous fellowship where you get to spend two years doing whatever you want. [Laughs] And obviously, you don't get paid for it, but your, all your expenses are paid and everything is paid, and it was like being paid, really, because you could do whatever you wanted for two years, and have a venue to get that kind of discovery out through your writing. So it was called the Institute, Institute of Current World Affairs, and I met a fabulously, fabulous woman named Carol Rose who had gotten the fellowship the year before, who had gone to Pakistan to do women's issues, and she had been a writer for the New York Times and then she ended up at Harvard Law School. Very bright woman, very articulate, capable, and she just said -- 'cause I was going through this thing about, well, I'm not going to save any money, and this is another -- my parents were, "What are you... you gave up the investment banking and then you went to Thailand," I mean, they were just beside themselves. They were finally like, "Okay, now she has a respectable job, she's the director of something." [Laughs] "And now she's gonna do what?" So I applied for this two-year fellowship to go to India to write about societal issues, but my essay was very much about the personal and the professional coming together, and about my belief that they shouldn't be so separate, and that they really needed to be, for me, very integrated, and I didn't know what that looked like, but... so that was my proposal. Modern Indian society, I made it as broad as I possibly could, so that I would have lots of leeway to do whatever I wanted. And the fellowship was literally completely free-flowing. Two years, you go wherever you want, the only requirement is that you have to write once a month, an article that gets published by the institute, and sent out to a wide network of people who were involved in international issues and international affairs. And a lot of them, kind of old-school State Department folks, but a lot of others as well. And so I proposed going and living mainly in the north, because it was the poorest area, and it's called an immersion fellowship. So you're supposed to immerse yourself in the issue or the culture and the language and everything.

So I learned Hindi, which was fabulous. I mean, I think if there's one thing that has given me my sense of connection to the country, in a way, it's being able to speak a language, because you know how quickly you feel out of a country when you go and you can't speak the language, but you look the same. And so I learned to speak Hindi, and I spent two wildly varied years doing all kinds of things. Looking at women's issues, child labor, globalization, the impact of globalization on modern, on traditional Indian society, and then looking at myself and figuring out, this was really, the title of my book, it was a pilgrimage to figure out who I really was.

<End Segment 30> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 31>

AI: Well, it's... as we had talked about briefly before we started the interview, it's really impossible to discuss all the things that you already wrote about in your book. When you, when you left, that was, the date was April 20, 1995, and you wrote how you first went back to see your parents and some of your relatives, and that you spent some time in Kerala.

PJ: Right.

AI: And I was wondering, had you been back very much before that, to visit?

PJ: I had. I had gone back a lot. At least once a year, really, we'd go back and visit. And then while I was working at PATH, I went back a lot; sometimes I would go back a couple of times a year for my work. But it's very different, you know, my parents live in a fairly affluent section of Bangalore, and we travel a certain way when I'm traveling with them. Lot of times I would go just to visit them, and I wouldn't really travel around. I've seen more of India in some ways than they have. And so it was very, very different, and my father, in particular, had such a hard time -- both of them, my mother as well, they were so worried. They said, "What, why are you doing this? It's dangerous and why don't you just stay with us in Bangalore?" And I would say, "No, that's not the point." And so they were very concerned about the idea -- I actually had the resources from the fellowship to live fairly well, and I think I lived well compared to the people that I was working with. But compared to what my parents wanted for me or what I could have done, of course, I was living in this tiny little apartment that had no hot water, and I went through that when I wrote about the birth of my son. Just, I mean, living in villages a lot, but that was the whole point, and I still feel like I actually didn't immerse myself as fully as I could have. But it was, it was really a phenomenal experience, and I think that there were many ways I could have done that, but this was something that... I was trying very hard to replicate what life in a village would be like, or life, sort of, in a small town would be like, knowing that I always had the resources to get out, which immediately fundamentally changes the experience. But that's what I was trying to, to do, is just to understand, from a work perspective, but also from my own perspective, all of the issues around classism and caste and Indian society and the things that I had really struggled with around women's issues and how women are portrayed and how Indian women are portrayed. I just felt like I wanted to have a chance to look at all of that without working in it, 'cause work makes you focus, and I wanted to be disparate in what I did.

<End Segment 31> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 32>

AI: I, from my reading of the book, I certainly got a sense that there was a huge impact on you, all the village experiences, and the experience that you're contrasting with the urban experience, even within India. That there's a huge, huge gap now between the urban lives that people live, and those who are outside in the village and countryside, and that the, the shift in values that come, you spoke quite a bit about that.

PJ: Right. That was a, that was probably the biggest thing that I saw, and it's the biggest thing that's made me look at and question globalization and... I mean, what was funny is that it was, I didn't have a background in globalization at all before I went. And I also was not involved in any of the kind of new-age spiritual movements here before I went. But going there and really seeing a way in which people lived their lives in connection with the rest of the world, very central concept of Buddhism, or any of these other... I'm going to say traditional cultures in India, it's -- or Africa, I saw it in Africa, too. It was so wonderful, and then to see sort of the loss -- and it's not like it's a romantic, I mean, I struggled with this the whole way through the book, and people would say, "You're being romantic," and, "You're romanticizing everything." And I know that you can do that, and it's not that I think that everything old is wonderful. The caste system is a really horrific system. There's lots of discrimination and prejudice and dowry deaths and all kinds of things that occur because of the, because of traditional life. But there is a centrality of the human experience that we've lost, I think, in the modern world. And I think it's the center of a lot of the problems in the West. And so I think seeing how traditional life worked, it was like I got to see these extremes. I got to see what life was like here -- which wasn't all perfect -- but there were many really amazing things about it, and then I got to see varying pieces of the continuum towards "progress," and question what we really call progress, and whether that's really what we're striving for or not.

And I was also very actively involved, towards the last part of my fellowship, with people who were, whose families and who were themselves very involved in the 'Quit India' movement and getting the British out. And so it was a lot of kind of anti-Western sentiment, and I think partly through hearing their perspectives of sort of how -- and it was also the time when McDonald's had just come in, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so there was all this -- and Coca Cola, so there was all this backlash against U.S. corporations and against globalization going on at that time. It was a fascinating time in India. In 1991, India's economy was opened up and liberalized, which meant that all this investment was able to come in, and so it was just a, kind of a perfect moment to be looking at what happens when you "open up," quote, "open up" a country, and the effect of a dominant culture through media. It was phenomenal to me how 98 percent of villages had access to television, and how quickly that changed everything. And Richard Critchfield has this book called -- well, he's got two books called -- he was a famous anthropologist and journalist, and one book called Villagers and one book called Villages. And in there, he writes about how technology can affect change more quickly than any political ideology. So if you look at how long it took for Communism or Marxism or any -ism to affect social and political change, and you look at technology, and you look at the introduction of farm-, modern farming tools and how dramatically that changed entire societies, and how they functioned and what they valued, it's pretty, it was pretty fascinating. So I looked at a lot of that in India. I think I was really kind of obsessed with a lot of those issues during my time there.

<End Segment 32> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.

<Begin Segment 33>

AI: Well, I was also struck by, you had mentioned about the notion of progress, and that -- I thought you really described and analyzed quite clearly how the emphasis on the Western notion of progress and the, and economic progress in particular, emphasizes material gains and then de-emphasized the value of any other kind of progress, spiritual progress, social equity progress, any other kind of progresses then de-valued.

PJ: Right.

AI: And that really struck me quite a bit.

PJ: Yeah. That's, I mean, I've always, I've always felt that, and now, recently, a lot of the U.N. indices on a country's well-being have been changed to try to incorporate some of that learning. Because what we've seen is tremendous economic progress in the West, for example, and depression, childhood depression, not just adult depression, but... dissatisfaction, people seeking the spiritual. I mean, it's, a lot of the movie stars go to India. I mean, I always, I just found it so fascinating that people would go to India for spiritual learning. I mean, it was the center of spiritual understanding and learning, but it was considered an absolute backwards country. And how, how can that be? And so I thought a lot about, "Well, why is it that some of the world's greatest spiritual leaders have come from India?" And that maybe part of that is actually because there is so much poverty, and there is so much angst, that you are forced -- I talk about this in the book, too -- you are forced to confront those issues constantly. And in doing so, it takes you to a different level of analysis than if everything is going smoothly.

And so sometimes I think that... it's the same thing, I was thinking about this the other day with some of the current events happening in Iraq and the torture of Iraqi prisoners, and, and war and the concept of war. And what if we took war off the table as an option? As Gandhi did, as Nelson Mandela did, as Martin Luther King did. What if you just take it off the table? Maybe that's what actually spurs the creativity of other solutions for your current problem. And I think about that in India as well. That if the material, if there's so much material poverty, maybe it actually pushes you to look at other richness, and to look at where those strengths are, and, and maybe people force themselves to do that, because you have to in order to survive. So I think that there's just so much awareness of the self, and the self's role relative to others, that just doesn't make it into American thinking or Western consciousness, because we're so, it's such a luxurious land. It's the land of plenty and people aren't forced to do that, to look at that.

AI: Right.

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<Begin Segment 34>

AI: And there are so many things I wish we could talk about, but one other area that I did want to ask about was -- I don't know how to pronounce it, but it was the movement that... Swadhyaya?

PJ: Swadhyaya, yeah.

AI: That you wrote about, because I was so interested to see the connections that you drew in how faith and social change could influence each other and reinforce each other in a way that -- in a movement that also crossed this, the gap between the urban and the village, the rural.

PJ: Yeah. That was, it's a fascinating movement, and I'll give a little postscript at the end that is troubling to me about what's going on with the movement. But when I started learning about Swadhyaya, I was uncomfortable because I have this Western notion that religion, you can't talk about religion. And in India, spirituality is talked about all the time. Everything is according to God's wishes, and depends on what the Lord will bring, or depends on what our goddess says, and, and it's just kind of interspersed in there. But it's not necessarily religious in the context of going to a church every Sunday, or if you are not doing this, then you are bad, that kind of exclusive religion, though there's plenty of places in India where that's true as well. So looking at social change, it never occurred to me that you could have sort of a crossover between spiritual belief and... sort of acceptable spiritual belief and social change, 'cause they're kept so separate, and we want them to be separate here so much. And even there, I understand why we want them to be separate. So Swadhyaya is this movement that really came out of this one man's vision of the world, when he read the Bhagavad Gita, and realized that there was this connection, there were these beautiful lessons in the Gita about how if each of us were really connected to each other and felt that we were sisters in the eyes of God, or some spiritual being, that we would then feel a responsibility to each other. And if you look at a lot of what I think has happened in the last several decades, maybe century, is a break, is a breakdown of the social contract. That "I'm really not responsible for anybody except myself." So Swadhyaya is sort of, if you were to take the exact opposite of that, and it's how responsible we are for each other.

And it started out of this man kind of looking and studying all the religions in the world, and feeling like, wait a second, we have something in our heritage that we need to bring back, and that people need to understand. So he started doing teachings on the Gita and he started with a very small, kind of educated group of urban wealthy folks in Bombay, and said that part of what we needed to do was reconnect. Part of what had happened was this loss of connection between individuals, and one of the places where you saw that the most is the urban and the rural. And so he sent people out on what he called bhakti pheris, which were devotional visits, where they would go every year. They would take their own time, vacation, and go walking -- they would not use any vehicles, so they'd have to walk days with just what they needed. They weren't allowed to take anything from the visitors, because in India we have this tradition of politicians coming and taking things in order to get votes. And just establish a relationship, a connection. And that was it; there was no other instruction. And this went on, and it took ten years, twelve years, just for people to start to trust that that is all that was involved. And that the basic concepts were concepts of sisterhood or brotherhood in God, sort of, God was very prominent there, I don't want to make it sound like it wasn't, but I dealt with that by sort of replacing that with a spiritual being or presence, when I was thinking about whether this could apply in other places.

But it was remarkable. There were social experiments taken on, not in the name of social justice, not in the name of kind of development, but just in the name of "this is what we should do if we're a community linked under God," that were, that changed everything. It changed economic indicators, changed the ways in which people related to each other across caste and gender, turned dry wastelands into green fields. I mean, it was really, it was kind of, it was just phenomenal. This is a movement that's taking place in a hundred thousand villages across India, and the United Nations termed it one of the world's greatest movements, I think, in 1998 or something. Didn't take any money from funders, everything was funded through the individuals' hard work and hard labor.

So one example is in the fishing villages of Gujarat -- I think I write about this in the book -- there's a lot of inequity, and income inequity, because it's all based on the fishing harvest. And so what they did is they -- and a village becomes Swadhyaya village when over 90 percent of the people kind of are part of this bhakti pheri and part of the basic concepts of Swadhyaya. But they donate their labor to build a communal craft, fishing craft, and then each family gives one person to go out and fish on that craft for communal good. And then the fish that are caught are deemed as prasad, which is when you give something to the gods and it's blessed, and it comes back to you, it's called prasad. And so that is called the prasad. Belongs to, it's really Gandhi's idea of communal property, but it belongs to the community. It's sold in the market, and the proceeds are then distributed to those who are in need, but nobody knows who gets it. Except the, there's like two people, I think, who actually distribute the money, or I don't know exactly... I forget now, I'd have to go back and look. But because it's trying to take away the concept of giver, the giver and the receiver, and the unequalness that happens when you're getting something, you feel like you're inferior, and if you're giving -- you know this from the funding world -- you know if you're giving, somehow you're superior. And so it was trying to take away that inequity and just say that everybody's entitled to basic human dignity.

So this is one example, and actually has been tracked by social scientists who said, "This can't be. How could this be?" [Laughs] "Of course, we have to study it and make sure that the results are..." And they found phenomenal things. And so, so much of it is just about this human connection under God. That's all it was about, is this fundamental idea that if I am a child of God and you're a child of God, that means we're connected, and that means I'm responsible for you. And that what I do has to affect your life in a positive way. Overcame caste barriers and all kinds of things.

The disturbing postscript is I actually just got an e-mail message last week, the founder of the movement died, and there was a lot of speculation about what would happen when he died, and he died a couple of years ago. And some of the original people who started the movement with him were the people that I talked to and went on, and saw, went to Swadhyaya villages with, and apparently his daughter took over, she was always thought to be the one that would take over. And this e-mail -- I have no idea if it's true -- but, talks about how she has taken, destroyed the movement and taken it over and tried to use it for financial gain, and all that kind of thing, and started taking money from outside funders. And so all of the things that you always worry about with any kind of movement, I don't know, like I said, if it's true, but certainly it offers to me the possibility of what we can do if we just go back to the basics of human relationship.

AI: Well, I'm so glad we had a chance to discuss it just a little bit, if only to, well, to encourage other people, I think, to be aware of, that this is a movement that, as you had mentioned, is not very well-known in relationship to the power that it has.

PJ: Yeah, yeah. It's phenomenal.

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<Begin Segment 35>

AI: Well, I'm... the other, toward the end of your experience in India, of course, that you wrote about, that was also very powerful and was very moving to me as I read it, was about the birth of your child. And not to ask you to go into detail, but maybe if there's something you'd like to tell about that experience, and the change that, the shift that you made in going through that, and then eventually returning to the United States.

PJ: Well, I think I'd spent this time sort of trying to be, trying to figure out what was Indian and what was Western, and this whole idea of letting go of things and not controlling them. I mean, the, a big part of the Indian experience is just not being in control, and kind of understanding that you're not in control. Which is all well and good until you really are not in control. And so I think part of what I went through with my son's birth, and he was born very, very early, just under twenty-seven weeks -- he weighed one pound fourteen ounces, we didn't think he was going to live -- we had to go from the village to Bombay. It was an unbelievable experience, very traumatic, and so I think one piece of it was seeing myself all of a sudden, in India, on the tail end of this two-year exploration of kind of the Indian parts of myself, and really putting forward how I felt we needed to operate as a society and how we do need to let go of control, being put into a situation where the only thing I wanted was control over my son's health, and whether he was gonna live or die, and what could I do that was gonna make a difference. And, and all of a sudden, spirituality and all of those things were not enough. And they were all I had, in a way. And so that was one piece of it, I think, that was incredibly compelling to me. And then the other piece was that I had struggled the whole time; as I said, I lived very simply compared to what I could have done, but really it was quite luxurious compared to what most people in India have. And then here I was in a situ-, but I had really tried, I mean, I had tried very hard to sort of minimize what I was living on. But here I was in a situation where I wanted the best care for my son, and I was gonna get it, and I had the resources to get it. And there were hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people, hundreds of millions of people who didn't have access to any health care at all. And I was in this situation where we spent what's considered a fortune for the best care that we could possibly get in India. We had the top doctors, the top hospital, which are all nothing compared to what we have in the United States, but I had access to that, and other people didn't. And there were babies like my son that were dying all the time, because -- and so it was just very confronting.

And then there was all the physical piece of being lost. We had to fly to Bombay, it was, we had nowhere to live, for a month and a half my son was in the NICU, and the conditions there are completely different from the hospitals here. They didn't have basic equipment in some cases, but they had a lot of the basic heart equipment, the things that kept him alive, but what they did have is this unbelievable care, personal care from the physician. And I'm going through some things, I've gone through some things with my son in terms of his health here, where he has very good doctors, but nobody would take care of him, I don't think, the way that his physician took care of him in India, and took care of us. And so again, it was that individual relationship kind of coming right back up, sort of this modern technology versus individual connection. And he, I'm still in touch with him, in fact, my son and I just went and visited him just last September in Bombay, stayed with him, and went to see, I took my son to see the hospital he was born in, and it was really an amazing experience. And I'll never forget, for all the things that didn't happen, and all the technological worries that we had, I'll never forget his role in kind of keeping us sane and keeping my son alive.

And so sometimes I think, "Would I rather have had that happen in India or here?" And I think, ultimately, I come to here, because the technology is so incredible. But it's not an easy decision for me. And in some ways, it really epitomizes how I feel about my choice to be in the United States. It's, I think I'm happy that I'm here, and I understand all of the incredible opportunities that I have here, but there are some really fundamental pieces that I miss from India, and I don't think you get here.

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<Begin Segment 36>

AI: Well, also, I was struck by something that happened while you were in the midst of this health crisis with your newborn son, that you were informed that you were in danger of losing your U.S. permanent resident status if you did not immediately return to the United States while your son was struggling for life.

PJ: Yeah, that was unbelievable. I've had all kinds of issues with immigration over the years, and I think it forms the basis of why I get so angry about the immigration system now, and the work I do. But that's right; I was, I had a green card from the United States, and so I had to -- and I had been eligible for citizenship for a long time, but had never chosen to take it. And, but under a green card, you have to come back and visit once a year, and so I was due, my year was gonna be up. And that's why we were coming back to the States, actually, we had timed it perfectly, but the best laid plans... and so then my son was born, and he was literally hanging on. We had no idea whether he would make it minute to minute, much less day to day. And the U.S. embassy told me that, that I would have to fly back to the United States, and I just had to touch down in U.S., on U.S. soil, and then I could fly back. But I had to touch down long enough to get a visa, and then leave. And I said, "I can't. I have my airline tickets, here they are, I have documentation from my doctor, I can show you, I can get a letter from my previous landlord, landlady that says I was leaving because I had to go back to the States. Everything about intention is there," and I've lived in the United States for, at that time, I guess fourteen years or something. Eighteen years. And, "I'm not intending to break to law, but my child is about to die, and I'm not gonna leave." And they said, "Fine, then if you do, then you lose your green card." And I said, "But then we have to bring, as soon as he's able to fly, we need to take him back to the States and his father is American and he has a U.S. passport, but are you saying that I wouldn't be able to go back with my son?" And they said, "Yes. You would, you could wait in India while we re-process your application, and you could be sponsored again as a spouse to come in." And I said, "But that sometimes takes five or ten years, because there's all kinds of quotas." And they said, "Yeah, we know." And I said, "So while my son is sick, I would have to be here in India," and they said, "Yes." And we actually had pictures, we had to take pictures of, of him on tubes and he was literally this big, to take to show to the U.S. embassy and they all said, "No." And then we had to, we basically had to go through contacts in the United States, through the institute that had contacts with the State Department, and they finally agreed to give me a visa to re-enter the country, but I would have to go back to zero in terms of my qualification for citizenship. So I would have to wait another three years before I was eligible to apply. So it basically took away all the time that I had been here, but at least it got me back into the country.

AI: What a horrendous experience.

PJ: It was.

AI: On top of everything that you had already gone through with your son.

PJ: Right. We also didn't have a place to live, and so we were renting out a room in this -- [laughs] -- apartment of a, kind of mad guy, his wife was terminally ill and he was her sole caretaker, and there were rats in the kitchen, and just, it was quite a, quite a time.

AI: Well, then it was shortly after that, not too much longer, about mid-1997 that your son was well enough to travel, and the three of you returned to the U.S.

PJ: Yeah. It was, he actually, we should have waited a little bit longer. The doctors wanted us to wait a little bit longer, but he had developed a form of hydroencephalitis, so he had water in his brain. And we just, after thinking through all of the risks and positives, we just decided we were gonna come back to the States. And so we traveled with him, he was less than four pounds, he was tiny, and it was very nerve-wracking, 'cause they didn't really know what, going up, what that kind of air pressure would do to young babies, and the airline didn't want to take him.

So anyway, we got to the United States, and I had to stand in this line. It was like I was coming back for the first time, 'cause I didn't have a green card now, I had this thing that allowed me to get in. But everybody else went through, and then there we were in this line, a bunch of foreigners, and my husband at the time was, had stood in line with us, with this sick baby, standing there for hours, until finally this guy from immigration -- there was nobody serving our counter, so it was just this static line, and this guy from INS walked by and said, "Somebody take care of the aliens." And I realized, "Oh yes, that's what they call us in this country. Lovely, lovely phrase, 'the aliens.'" So yeah, that was reentry. And then reentry was also just so different from life in villages in India where there were people all the time. So it really felt like I was coming through all over again, but from a, this time from a not so much of the wide-eyed amazement of, "Oh my gosh, this is America," but with a sick child and just feeling so isolated and alone in this culture. And being able to contrast very clearly what I had experienced there and what I experienced here, both the good and the bad of both.

AI: What a vivid contrast.

PJ: Yeah. I think our first visit back was to Children's Hospital, after we got back, our first visit -- you know, we got in late one night, and the very next morning we had an appointment with a neurosurgeon at Children's. And I just remember walking into Children's -- and I went there the other day with my son and was reminded of this -- it's just beautiful. Like the fish, the whale section and the giraffe section, and all these murals everywhere, and just, I mean, it just reminded me of the excess, and we were in the best hospital probably available in India. And when I went back and visited last September, I just remembered how it's the best hospital and it is so minimal -- [laughs] -- compared to what we have here.

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<Begin Segment 37>

AI: Well, so starting to bring this more up toward the present, you, you did resettle here in Seattle, and eventually your son's health improved, thankfully. And in the meantime, you were starting to -- you were readjusting to being back here, and then, and doing some writing. You were taking the articles that you had written during your travel, and forming them into a book.

PJ: Right.

AI: Tell me a little bit about how that process of readjusting and also preparing for the book.

PJ: Well, it was hard. You know, it was the first time in my life that I had not worked. I felt very isolated, I think I was going through a lot of postpartum depression, and I knew that I couldn't do the work I was doing before, 'cause it involved travel, and I couldn't travel. My son was still very, very sick. And so I decided I was gonna write this book. 'Cause I had all this material, and I knew nothing about writing a book, and so I went to Elliott Bay, and I got a book called, How to Write a Book. [Laughs] Or How to Publish a Book, or something like that. How to Write a Book Proposal, that's what it was. How to Write a Book Proposal. And so I thought, well, I can do this, it's like marketing. [Laughs] And so I did all this research and I went to Seal Press, which is a women's, independent women's press, which I was really interested in publishing with, kind of an independent press, and never thought that anything -- I went, actually, because the editor was a friend of a friend, and she had just agreed to just talk to me about the process. And, but I really didn't think -- they had published some pretty well-known writers, including Barbara Kingsolver and some other, you know, so I just didn't think that I was gonna -- so I went and said, "I've got this list of kind of smaller presses, and do you know of any others to approach?" And Faith looked at me and said, "Well, why aren't you talking to us?" And I said, "Well, are you interested?" [Laughs] "I've never published anything before, and I've never really... I don't know." And she said, "Well, could I see some of the stuff? 'Cause I'm really interested." And so I sent her some of my articles, and she loved them. She called me about a month later and she said, "We'd really like to publish the book." And I said, "Oh." And she said, "Well, have you sent it anywhere else?" And I said, "No, I was just getting ready to do that." And she said, "Well, how do you feel about not sending it anywhere and just signing a contract with us?" And I, I said, "Great." [Laughs] Didn't ask about an advance, didn't ask, you know, didn't, nothing. I mean, I was just so thrilled that they were gonna publish my book. And they did a great job, they really did a great job. But about forty percent of the book is kind of the stuff I had written with a lot of changes, and then the rest of it is either new or just changed so dramatically that it's really not what it was before. [Laughs]

AI: Well, it must have been a great feeling of satisfaction to see it finally come out, which, it was 2000?

PJ: It was published in hardcover in March of 2000 and then in paperback the next year. And it's still out in paperback and it's actually being used in some college courses now, anthropology and world affairs and cross-cultural affairs and things like that.

AI: Well, I'm, I'm so glad personally that it was published. I got a lot out of reading it myself.

PJ: Thank you.

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<Begin Segment 38>

AI: And I've, then, also during this process of getting your book out -- and, of course, your son was growing up, and you have, going through some family changes -- but also, you decided that you were going to apply for U.S. citizenship. You didn't, when you came back and you had lost the years of credit that you had previously, what, what was it that finally decided you to go through it?

PJ: It was fear of being separated from my son. It was actually two things. It was fear of being separated from my son, and wanting to vote. And I just felt like I had been paying taxes -- you know, people talk about immigrants -- but I actually paid social security taxes for the whole time that I was here, and I didn't get any benefits out of that. And I saw that the environment, since 1996 on the Immigration, Welfare Reform Act, which also reformed immigration so dramatically, that the environment was tenser, and more and more tense for immigrants. And I just really feared that something would happen where my son and I would be separated, and I wasn't gonna let that happen. And so I applied for citizenship as soon as I was eligible. And it was touchy because I was applying as a spouse, but my husband at the time and I had actually separated. And the interviewer asked about our status, and I told him honestly, and he... we weren't divorced, we were just newly separated. And it wasn't clear that we wouldn't get back together at that time, but they could have denied us. But he was, I got very lucky, 'cause a lot of INS officials, I think, wouldn't have been so understanding. But, so, yeah.

So I applied for citizenship and realized that it was much more moving to me, the ceremony, than I had ever expected. I was, got very emotional and teary, on many counts. One, that they ask you to renounce your, any other allegiance to any other country, which I felt I couldn't do, because how do you renounce, emotionally, how do you renounce an allegiance to the country that you grew up in, or that you're connected to, or that your parents live in? Which certainly doesn't mean that I don't love America, but, so I just sort of kept my mouth quiet through that piece, because I just don't think it's a realistic request to say, "You have to renounce any emotional -- " in fact, I think they say "emotional tie." I don't know how you can do that. But on the other side, very moving for me to see kind of the other people who were there, and what it meant to them to get U.S. citizenship, and really what it meant to me as well. And acknowledging the debt that I owed to this country in terms of the opportunities I had been given here. So a little of everything, again, kind of the mix of feelings and emotions that always comes into play in something like that.

<End Segment 38> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.