Move with an open mind

Interview with Shanthi Chandrasekhar by Honor Vallor

Honor: What is your background and where were you living before you came to the US? Describe what life was like before coming to the US. If you emigrated from your country of birth to another country prior to the US, please describe that experience.

Shanthi: I was born and brought up in India.  I got married there and lived in Bangalore, but moved to Singapore after my son was born. After a couple of years, we went back to India where my daughter was born and had stay back for a few extra months while my husband traveled to the US for a project. When we were getting ready to join my husband back in Singapore, we got the news that he needed to continue with his project in the US for a longer period and that we would all be moving there for a few months.

Life revolved around settling down in new places and handling children. It took me some time to get accustomed to the new climate. Having grown up in a very small cosmopolitan scientific community, I was used to various cultures and their similarities and differences within India. International relocation gave me exposure to new cultures, which was very interesting for me.

My family and I emigrated from India to Singapore before we came to the US. We had planned to move to Singapore as it was very close to India and my mother tongue, Tamil, happens to be one of the national languages there. Also, climate-wise it was close to the Indian climate. It was a melting pot, and I was exposed to many cultures I had not interacted with before. The public transport system was very good and so I was able to be independent. I was also introduced to international art and large libraries, which expanded my knowledge about art.

Honor: What made you choose to immigrate to the US? How old were you or what year did you arrive?
Shanthi: It was more of the turn of events that lead us to immigrate to the US. My husband’s job brought us here unexpectedly and what was supposed to be a short stay turned out to be a permanent one. I was 28 years old when we moved here in 1996.

Honor: What formal education / work experience did you have prior to coming to the US? Do you feel that you were able to transfer these skills to a life here?
Shanthi: I studied physics and psychology in college in India. I worked in the computer education field before I got married. When I had my children, I decided to be a stay-at-home-mom. Eventually I was hoping to enter the workforce in the US and use my skills here. Instead, I pursued my interest in the arts when my children started going to school. Now, as an artist, I use those skills in my artwork as most of my work is inspired by the sciences and philosophy. My experience as an instructor in India helped me become a teaching artist here.
Shanthi Chandraseker: Black Hole (colored pencil on paper)

Honor: As a previous art teacher with scientific training, I was especially interested to learn about your scientific background having influenced your art.  My college chemistry, physics, and neuropsychology sequences had also influenced my art several years ago.  Could you perhaps say a little more about the ways that your science has influenced your own art?
Shanthi: Having grown up in a scientific community in India, my fascination for science has continued and been the inspiration for most of my artwork. Being a visual learner, I needed drawings to help me understand abstract concepts and decided to work on projects that would enable other such learners. As a teaching artist, I combine the two disciplines to create residency programs for schools.  I design projects for my students that will integrate and reinforce the concepts in both disciplines and lead to holistic learning in the process.

Honor: What, if any, expectations did you have prior to arriving in the US?
Shanthi: My knowledge of the US was based on books and movies and my expectations were based on that. I wondered how I would understand the accent, as it was not always easy for me to follow the soundtracks in American movies. I had expected the entire country to be cold and freezing. As for people, I was used to different cultures in Singapore and was very well prepared to expect the differences. But other than that, I didn’t have time to even think about it or even shop for warm clothes as our move happened so quickly, in a matter of a few weeks.

Honor: How did your expectations of American life compare to its realities upon arrival?
Shanthi: Rochester, NY was a lot colder than anything I had expected. I had mentally tried to prepare myself for the cold climate, since I had a hard time dealing with the mild winters in southern India. We landed here at Rochester in the middle of a snowstorm and I experienced the shock of my life. Although I had my international driver’s license, I was nervous about driving, and the speed of the highways didn’t help to reassure me. Also, it was a lot harder to drive around in the snow. It was a nightmare and I avoided it as much as I could. Having grown up in India without a car, I always wondered why people had multiple cars in the US. But on coming here, I realized that the one car we had was not enough. I had to rely on friends to give my son rides to the school and the doctor’s office until we got our second car.

Honor: What have you accomplished since coming to the US that you feel, both personally and professionally, makes your tale of immigration a success story?
Shanthi: Professionally, I have established myself as an artist in the DC area. I started out by exhibiting my artwork and teaching art in a local community center. Recently, I have started to incorporate physics and psychology in my artwork and have been exhibiting my work to a wider audience. I have won county and state awards and have been conducting workshops in Indian traditional drawings and presenting Indian art to diverse audiences. The Maryland State Arts Council awarded me the Master-Apprentice Award to teach my daughter the traditional Indian art form of Kolam drawing, and the Maryland State Arts Council has documented the artwork. They also awarded me an Individual Artist award for my works on paper. In addition, the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery has awarded me grants to support my work. Currently, I am also the exhibits director at a local community center. On a personal level, I have been able to pursue and share my love for the arts.

Honor: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Shanthi: Not really, other than wearing some warmer clothes while landing in a snowstorm.

Honor: Is there anything you think needs to change in the US, or that you think is great about the US but you’d like to see more of it?
Shanthi: The US is a wonderful melting pot of various cultures, and its resources and possibilities are vast. The public libraries are wonderful! However, given all of these resources, the education system could be more balanced with a little more focus on holistic learning styles rather than test-taking skills. It would be nice to have a little more emphasis on science at the elementary school level. Also, there has been a decline in the arts in schools in order to focus more on academics.  Nonetheless, I feel there should be a balance in order to nurture curiosity and creativity.
Shanthi Chandrasekar: Asymptotic Journeys– Worm Hole (sculpture- thread, brass rings and wood)

Honor: Would you recommend immigration to the US and if so, why?
Shanthi: I would recommend immigration if someone is seeking what the US has to offer.

Honor: What advice would you give to new immigrants and future immigrants to the US?
Shanthi: Bring warm clothes and an open mind.

Honor: Please describe your experiences with the US in three words / three short sentences: One for the past (when you first arrived); two for the present (where you are now); three for the future (where you’d like to be, what you’d like to see and/or see others accomplish).

Shanthi: 1. Shocking firsthand experience of a snowstorm. 2. Love taking pictures of the snow. 3. Would like to share my experiences with others and help them move forward.

Honor: Is there anything we haven’t already asked you, or anything not discussed that you’d like to add?

Shanthi: Now driving has become part of my everyday routine, irrespective of the weather. I love raking leaves during fall and shoveling snow during winter. My friends love it when I wear my saris to opening receptions and bring Indian snacks along; we all cherish both our similarities and our differences.

Honor: In conclusion, maybe you might have a few recommendations.  What are you grateful for?

Shanthi: I am grateful to all those friends who patiently helped me and made me feel at home in a new country. I am grateful for all the new opportunities life has given me and the experiences, which have made me a better person. Moving to this country has made me learn more about my culture and I am very grateful for that.

Honor: Could you name two or three people who helped you in your journey to success?
Shanthi: A number of people have helped me both personally and professionally along my journey and I am grateful to all of them for helping me find my way. I am grateful to my husband, Chandrasekar for taking me to different places and creating all these new experiences and opportunities for me. I am grateful to my children for patiently teaching me the American accent and letting me volunteer in their schools and experience the schools here. In my professional growth as an artist, there have been a number of people who helped me along the way and I am very grateful to all of them.  Among those who encouraged me, three people in particular have been extremely supportive when I needed it:
Kathryn Bevier, an artist from Rochester, NY painted with me.
Michaele Harrington, an artist and teacher from MD gave me my first award in this country and guided me into the art world.
Carrie Trybulec, Director of the Gandhi Memorial Center, MD believed in me and supported my endeavors.

Honor:  And finally, if you got a chance would you like to mentor a new immigrant?
Shanthi: Yes, I would like to help make the process smoother for someone.

Honor: Thank you so much Shanthi for a wonderfully detailed interview that is also so inspirational for potential as well as current immigrants to the US.

Honor Vallor, 26 March 2015

Honor Vallor
Honor emigrated from England to the United States in the nineteen sixties. She has visited and lived in several countries including the British Isles, Spain, and Morocco. She has an M.A. in English from Portland State University and is a career educator as well as contracted writer. She serves on several academic committees including the Professional Ethics Committee for the Marylhurst University Chapter of the Association of American University Professors. In addition, she offers workshops for non-profit centers and public libraries.


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