still-02Amita Nayyar

Interview and Profile by Tara Bhattacharyya

Video Recording by Tara Bhattacharyya

Interview conducted on 4/23/09, Camp Hill, PA

Amita Nayyar was born in New Delhi, the capital of India. In the late 60s, Amita’s father came home one day with a U.S. visa, which he won in a lottery, entitling him to emigrate to the United States. That moment changed Amita’s life., bringing her to the US by age 8. She grew up on Long Island, New York, and later went to college and medical school. She is now a practicing psychiatrist, living with her husband and two sons in Camp Hill. PA.

Her father, a professor in Shakespearian literature, came to America to study for his Ph.D. Amita’s father came to New York City with only $18 in his pocket. Not knowing anyone in New York or having place to stay, Amita’s father resorted to the Y, and could only afford to spend $1 a day on pizza and a soda. Six months later, Amita’s mother came to America, followed by Amita and her brother arriving later, in 1972. The first few years in New York City, there were no Indian grocery stores. Amita remembers a middle-eastern store where her mother would often buy imported goods to prepare imitation Indian meals. At the time, Amita’s family did not have the luxury of having Indian grocery stores to purchase Indian products to prepare meals or to watch Bollywoodd films from home; they instead had to improvise with other ethnic stores to maintain their culture.


For Amita, America was a country she could never have imagined, from the journey on the plane to America, to her first time at a grocery store. She still recalls her plane trip from India, thinking that she was flying over vast fields of snow, not realizing that the plane had climbed above the clouds. She remembers her first visits to American grocery stores, being overwhelmed with so many items on the shelves and the quantities one could purchase, a significant contrast to India of her early childhood where staples, such as milk, were rationed. At the same time, other aspects of her experience were not that different. In India, she had attended a Catholic school, and after arrival in New York, her parents once again sent her to Catholic school. Since Amita came to America at a young age, Amita assimilated easily to American culture, and she learned how to balance her two identities.


Amita explains how she would be American during the week at school and with her friends; however, once the weekend came she connected with her Indian culture. At school, she and her brother were the only Indian children. As she progressed to high school on Long Island, she recalls that she was probably among two or three Indians in a graduating class of 600.

Meanwhile, Amita’s parents developed a large group of Indian friends, mainly Punjabis, and would often go over to each other’s homes and enjoy home cooked Indian meals. Amita’s mother would often search for Bollywood films in select movie theaters during the weekend and “would travel an hour and a half just to go see a Hindi movie, and the possibilities of samosas, because you know they were not available. I remember my parents making samosas at home. They would have a party and make 20o samosas. It’s not like today when you can go to Oak Tree Road (Edison, NJ) or Jackson Heights (Queens, NY) and get anything you want.”

Although Amita is a Hindu, she and her family did not attend temple in America when she was growing up.

“[We] weren’t very ritualistic with religion, we didn’t go to temple; they didn’t do it back home. And I think the culture just kind of gets infused in your system, you know it wasn’t something that was forced on us, I think we kind of just lived a certain way.”

After college, Amita lived in India for five years, attending medical school there. She recalls, “I went there as an Indian and came back an American. I realized there that I’m just not that Indian… I went through this phase of being a person without a country because I wasn’t really Indian and didn’t feel 100% American.”

Throughout Amita’s home today, there are elements of India, from the deities to the Indian tapestries hung on her walls. Amita explains that the importance of her Indian culture is being family oriented. There is an emphasis on having family meals and being with each other during the weekends. Amita’s parents still live in New York, and often visit Amita and her family, giving lessons on Hinduism to her children and teaching them Hindi and Punjabi. However, Amita does not want to pressure her children in learning these languages, but instead wants them to be aware of their heritage and the family values. Aside from having the family close, Amita states her “Indian-ness” creeps in when it comes to education. Amita and her husband place importance on their children’s present and future education. They currently send their sons to Catholic school, and talk with them about attending college in the future. However, Amita states that she does not pressure her children into becoming doctors and lawyers, like many Indian parents are famous for doing. Instead she wants her children to succeed in a career they are happy in, whether it is being a professional football player or a musician.

When asked how she identifies herself, Amita immediately states she is a New Yorker, “Because that’s what my identity is and that’s where my formative years were. And I think that living New York had a huge influence on who I am.” Amita continues to connect to her Indian culture from teaching her children Indian values to the meals she prepares. Like most second-generation children, Amita is always balancing her cultural identities, switching between her “Indian-ness” and “American-ness,” “My heritage is also American now,” she notes. Amita’s experience as a young immigrant allows her to feel equally comfortable in both her Indian and American identities.