Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Pramila Jaypal Interview II
Narrator: Pramila Jaypal
Interviewer: Alice Ito
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: June 1, 2004
Densho ID: denshovh-jpramila-02-0001

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AI: Today is June 1, 2004, and we're continuing with the second session with Pramila Jayapal. I'm Alice Ito with Densho here in Seattle, and on videography is Dana Hoshide. So, Pramila, thanks for returning for another session.

PJ: Sure.

AI: And as I had mentioned, we wanted to pick up a little bit where we had left off in the first session, but go back just a little bit into 1999 and 2000. And at that time, you were in Seattle at that time?

PJ: Yeah.

AI: With your son?

PJ: Uh-huh. I had just come back from India in '97, so I had been here since then, yeah.

AI: And what were you doing at that time for your work?

PJ: Well, I think my, my book came out in March of 2000 and I think in '99 -- it's hard for me to remember exactly the date -- but around sometime in '99 I started doing consulting work for the Annie E. Casey Foundation on their Making Connections initiative and their work in White Center, which was primarily with immigrants and refugees. And part of that project was actually to interview, I think I interviewed something like over sixty people about their experiences of coming to the United States and kind of what they were looking for in order to strengthen their families, what would it take in order to strengthen their families. And it was an amazing experience for me because I really had not done any work with immigrants and refugees here in this country. That was really the first time. So I was working on that and listening to people's stories about why they came to the United States and how they felt. A lot of it was so timely, I guess, for me, because coming back in '97, in some ways it felt like I was coming to the United States all over again. You know, some of the same feelings of just being out of place or, or trying to figure out, I mean, very vivid memories of... you know, going to a gas station, and by then they had actually introduced the card readers at the gas station, which they didn't have before. And I remember just being so stunned by that, and realizing that you could go through an entire day without ever seeing anybody, and have to, after having come from two years of a village experience, it was very isolating. And that was a lot of what the new immigrants that I was talking to were also talking about, how difficult it was to get around and obviously for them there were all kinds of language issues as well, and other issues.

So I was doing that and I was also completing my book, and I was also involved in helping to get going a South Asian non-profit organization called Chaya, which had been established before, and it had a board before, but they had never really had any money. It was for domestic violence issues for South Asian women, and there are a lot of domestic violence agencies that work on issues for other communities, but the South Asian community is this huge community that really didn't have that resource at all. And so I got on the, I became the chair of the board and then we applied for our first grant and actually were able to hire our first executive director, started out as project manager, and then she turned into an executive director. So that was also happening. So I was also getting very connected with my own community, which was the South Asian community, that I really had never been connected with, 'cause I was always traveling. So I was connected with India and I was connected with other communities around the world, but not, not really the immigrant community here and not my specific immigrant community.

AI: Well, can you say a little bit about that? Some of the things that you learned as you were working with Chaya and the things you learned about the immigrant South Asian community here in the Pacific Northwest.

PJ: Well, it's all connected also, I think, to what I found out during my book tour. So it, I don't know when some of these things occurred to me. But first of all, the South Asian community here is huge. It's the fastest growing immigrant community in the United States right now. And -- other than the Latino community -- and I think it actually rivals the Filipino American community in terms of numbers overall. And when I wrote the book, I was kind of under the impression that I was writing this personal story. And I kept saying to my editor, "Is this gonna be interesting to anybody?" You know, sort of, like I've said to you in various ways. [Laughs] But what I realized both through writing the book, and through doing the work with Chaya, and through the White Center work, is that there are so many common experiences that immigrants share, in spite of the differences in how we might have come, or why we might have come, or even our ability to acculturate or not acculturate, there are these similar experiences of, "How do we fit in?" "What is our place in this society?" "What does it mean about our place in whatever society we came from?" So the two are very related and it's part of -- I think I might have mentioned this in the last set, round of interviews that we did -- but you know, in taking citizenship, the issues that come up are really the issues that we're dealing with from the moment that, not just the moment we get here really, but the moment we make the decision to leave our countries and to come to another country. And so I think I saw a lot of that duality of feeling. I wouldn't call it ambivalence, but duality of feeling, and the constant tensions that we're under to come up with an identity that represents who we are and not necessarily the identity that other people ascribe to us. And so I found that consistently with the White Center interviews. People struggle with their desire to create a life that looks like what they want their life to look like in the context of this culture. Because the culture, this culture, necessarily negates things that they would consider critically important at home. So, human connection was a big piece of that. And I talked a lot about that in my book. It was the experience I had in India, and so when I came back and realized that these interviews in some way were this continuation that I never expected, of this journey that I had started to go on while I was in India, I think, was pretty phenomenal for me.

The Chaya work was a little bit different because it was focused around domestic violence, but it was an opportunity for me to see also how far I've come from my roots of wanting to create community here. And how my community is very diverse, but there is something very different about being with people who are from the same culture that you're from, that is so grounding in a way, and there's so much that doesn't ever need to be said. You know, it's like -- I've not been married for fifty years, but it's what I imagine a fifty-year marriage would be like. [Laughs] You know, that you just know things without ever having to say them. And I think that that's part of what we all are looking for, and part of the problem, actually, to bring us to the current day, part of the problem with how Americans view immigrants. You know, kind of the dominant American culture because there's a, there's a character that's ascribed to, to, quote, "the immigrant." And it's not the immigrant that we were searching for in the Statute of Liberty. It really is something very different that's threatening to the American self-identity. So, I know I packed a lot in there, but I think they're all actually connected.

AI: I think so, too.

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