life as an immigrant

Coming to America: Life as an Immigrant from India

Hello readers.

It’s been a year and a half since we started Money Saved is Money Earned, and in all that time I’ve been mostly behind the scenes.

I’m sorry you haven’t heard as much from me. It’s often been hard for me to put my thoughts into words.

I’ve also struggled with the idea of sharing more about my life other than the things that are strictly financial. The challenges I’ve faced throughout my life are another matter, and something very personal.

But despite being difficult for me, I’m finally at a place where I feel comfortable sharing my story.

Despite what most people would see now, and what many I’ve known thought they saw, I have faced many challenges throughout my life, both big and small.

Although it is difficult, I’ve decided to share my story in the hopes that knowing more about my life will give others hope for theirs, especially in terms of overcoming adversity and financial roadblocks.

I’m Sebastian, and I’m an immigrant from India.

Here is my story.

Growing Up in a Third World Country

I was born in the state of Kerala, India, and am the fourth of five children.

I am what is known as an Anglo-Indian, meaning a person born in India with both Indian and Portuguese ancestry.

My family and those like us were heavily favored by the British during their rule due to our European ancestry. This meant that families like mine were given better jobs and higher status.

My father was a supervisor at the Cochin Port Trust, earned a decent salary, and was well-respected. Like most Indian women, my mom stayed at home and kept house. My mom stayed at home doing the difficult work of taking care of children and household duties.

There were also other heavily favored higher-ranking Hindu casts who enjoyed better opportunities in education and employment like we did. Sadly, I witness inequality in the country in many ways.

Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to describe what life was like in India in the 50’s and 60’s, because it was very different from the world of today.  Understanding my background will also better help you understand where I’m coming from in terms of my views on finances and needs versus wants.

India was a third world country when I was growing up, which means we lived similarly to how life would have been in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s in the United States.

There was no television, no running water in the house, no refrigeration, and electricity was mostly available only to those close to the big cities. We made multiple trips to the market every day to buy food. We raised a cow and chickens for eggs and milk. My house got the first radio in the area when I was 8 years old.

We had an outhouse in the backyard and had to gather water from a pond or pump to shower with. Running water came to my house in 1974.

This was our way of life, and I never felt that I went without. In fact, we were much more fortunate than others.

Things were going well. I could play at the beach every day with my friends and eat fruit from the trees whenever I wanted.

Despite this more simple way of life, one area my parents did not skimp on was education. They insisted on and expected us to complete all years of primary school, continue on to college, and enter the white-collar workforce. Whether I liked it or not, this helped me be at the top of my class all the way through high school.

Things were going well, until one day they weren’t.

The Impact of Illness

How quickly things can change.

You hum along, and everything seems to be going your way, and then suddenly your world is turned upside-down.

For my family, this turning point happened when I was 9 and my father suffered a stroke.

Looking back, one of the things that hurts the most is that what afflicted my father could easily have been remedied today. Alas, medical knowledge wasn’t as advanced, and my father was told to quit riding his bike, exercise as little as possible, and was not advised to stop smoking.

This was the first in a series of strokes and began 2 long years of hardship for us.

As the only breadwinner, the loss of my father’s income was devastating. Combine that with the cost of medicine and things became very difficult.

There was no disability or assistance programs available, so we subsisted on what little money my mother could get selling milk, eggs, and the money we received from my oldest brother from his part-time job.

My oldest brother went to work, my second oldest went to higher studies, and my youngest was too young to help much. That left me and my older sister to help my mother and care for my father.

I was one of the primary caretakers, helping my father dress, eat, walk, and cleaning up after him as necessary.

Any food we had went first to my father and my baby brother, while the rest of us got what was left over. There were many days where I had only one meal, and I even passed out a few times from hunger.

Then, after a 2-year battle and multiple strokes, my father passed away.

I was 12 years old.

Trauma but no Treatment

Although our fortunes slowly improved, I was and forever will be impacted by the death of my father and the aftermath.

My older brother married and moved out, my second oldest came to America to go to college, my sister was married off by my mother, and I became man of the house at age 16.

My nights were filled with anxiety, and I wouldn’t sleep until the wee hours of the morning when I knew prowlers wouldn’t be out. I kept an iron bar next to me so I could protect myself, my mother, and my sister. I’m a light sleeper to this day.

The years between my father’s death and coming to America are a time of sadness for me.

My mother was too stressed trying to care for 3 younger children, and overcome by her own grief, to offer us much support. There was no therapy or counseling offered back then.  I often witnessed my mother’s tears of grief, even as I was struggling to deal with my own. I started declining in my performance at school.

Most importantly, I had no father to mentor me.

I have had to figure most things out for myself not having my father for guidance.

While my older brothers did help support the family and allowed me to access some opportunities, brothers are much different than fathers.

My mother kept on me to complete my studies and finish college, but without guidance I was late applying and had to take the only major left (majors were first come first served).

As a result, instead of studying physics, biology, or chemistry like I wanted, I ended up with economics.

I struggled to find a job coming out of college and dealt with what I now know was depression.

I was pretty listless, and spent many days at the beach listening to the waves.

Finally, a little light at the end of the tunnel.

Coming to America

After a 2-year application process I was granted a Visa to come to the United States.

My older brother and my uncle were already here.

I arrived in Portland, Oregon on May 29th, 1979 with $15 in my pocket and began attending Portland State University.

Although I lived with my older brother, he had a young family and was more focused on their well-being than mine. In exchange for my room I was mindful to help his family out by cooking, babysitting, washing the cars, doing yardwork, and anything else my brother asked me to do.

After about a year I moved out.

I was very lonely my first few years in the US. My mother was far away in India, my brother was busy with his family, and I didn’t know anyone or anything about my new country.

At first, I didn’t much like Portland.

It was cold, the food was bland, and I wasn’t always treated well.

I went from being in the privileged class in India to being second-class in America. My accent and brown skin (I look more Hispanic than Indian) made me stick out like a sore thumb.

I had to work extra hard to get a decent grade on assignments while peers who had done inferior work received better grades. This was true both at school and at work.

I also had to work very hard to survive. I had two part-time jobs in addition to my full-time studies, and weekends were reserved for homework. I didn’t have much of a social life.

Eventually I was offered a job with the City of Portland Parks and Recreation cleaning the parks. It was menial labor, but I welcomed a chance to make some money.

Then, my big break.

You Actually Have a Brain?

My first office job at the City of Portland was through a work study program from Portland State University.

When that grant expired, I had to find a job to survive. I took what was available. When you are hungry and need a place to live, you must take what you get.

I joined as a temporary maintenance worker with the City of Portland. One day I had the courage to approach one of the senior supervisors and said “Hey, I am going to college. I will graduate in a year or so. I have an accounting and business background, most importantly, I am a quick learner and hard worker.”

He brushed me off at that time.

By God’s grace he ended up needing someone to do budgeting and scheduling work to manage a crew of almost 100. One day I was walking along in the parks in my work jeans when the senior supervisor showed up and asked me to report to his office the following Monday.

That was my first opportunity to perform some professional level of work. I will tell you, getting a chance to prove what you are capable of was THE most difficult part for me as an immigrant with brown skin and an accent. Once I had my foot in the door my hard work paid off.

But my problems weren’t over even then.

I once had my desk thrown out of my office by a racist manager. Luckily, my boss stuck up for me and I continued to work there with no fear.

Luckily for me, I often did not recognize the racism for what it was. I was too busy looking for the next step to get ahead.

After ten years at this job, I landed a job as a Financial Analyst with another department. My career started flourishing by having generous bosses who mentored and helped me to grow.

I spent the next 24 years with that department, which gave me an opportunity to work with many big utility and telecom companies as well as with many elected officials in various cities. It was a very rewarding career and I was able to retire early as a Senior Financial Analyst.

Finally, I have to say that the adversities and challenges I faced were the true character-building components in my life.

I also cannot end this chapter without thanking those people who helped me throughout my life, then and now. I also want to thank my co-blogger who inspired me to write this and for those of you reading this.

It is a part of my healing process.

Moral of the Story

The rest, as they say, is history.

I enjoyed a 30-year career with the City of Portland and retired 6 years ago as a Senior Financial Analyst.

I wouldn’t say my life has gone exactly how I wanted it to, but I made the best out of what I had and am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish.

Although I came to this country a step-behind most I didn’t give up. Many doors were closed to me because of my accent and skin color, but I kept walking until I found the open one.

Of course, I could have gone farther had I had a mentor, been born here, come from a wealthier family, or been white, but none of those things were within my control.

What was within my control was my work ethic, my passion, my education, and my persistent nature.

It doesn’t really matter where you start or where you end up, what matters is the effort you put into becoming the best you can be, if not for you, then for your children and grandchildren.

Focus on making yourself better, for that is really all you can control.

I’m Sebastian, and I’m an immigrant from India.

It’s not how much money you make, but how well you manage your money. Fiscal discipline is the key.

I raised three kids, put them through college, have owned income properties, travel to India regularly, and am early-retired, all without a 6-figure salary.

And it all started with $15 and a dream.

Talk about Money Saved.



3 thoughts on “Coming to America: Life as an Immigrant from India”

  1. What a great read. I’m so glad you shared your story. I really appreciate your focus on what you control, and your acknowledgement of how access to other things could have accelerated your journey. Thanks for writing now to help others.

  2. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your story. Amazing how you didn’t give up even though life gave you a really rough start and you weren’t born to the privileges’ many of us enjoy. Thank you for letting us read about your life.

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