Kind and Thoughtful Chicagoans

On the second day of our one week trip to Chicago, Oishi’s glasses broke – the lenses were intact, but one of them popped out of the frame and I struggled to put it back in. She was getting very nervous because I had a lot planned for the trip – a four-day hop-on hop-off tour covering not only the important city attractions, but also the south, west and north neighborhoods; Chicago River Architecture boat tour; and the Blue Man Group Show. We were close to the Water Tower and dashed inside an eyeglass store named SEE, hoping to pay some money and get the glasses fixed so that they would last the duration of the trip.

“Can you please fix these glasses? We are vacationing here from New Jersey,” I said to one of the girls at the counter. I was going to offer some money but she did not give me a chance. After a few minutes she brought the glasses to Oishi. With a bright smile, Oishi exclaimed, “Mama these are perfect!” The girl smiled and said, “I am glad they are. Enjoy your vacation!” Oishi and I were so taken by her unassuming act of kindness that we ran to Macy’s, which was right next door, and bought a gift card for her. When we gave her the card, she looked incredulous, and Oishi whispered “Mama I don’t think they are used to it. I guess being kind is the only way for them.”

 

Right after we checked into our hotel at the Chicago Loop district, I discovered that I did not bring my makeup and brush. I whined a little and Oishi commented, “Gee Mama, I thought you forgot to bring your medicine.” But deep down, she wanted to do something about this. After her glasses were repaired, we were ready to take on the world, and I decided to buy makeup. I strolled into Sephora and Oishi said, “Mama, I will be nearby while you buy makeup,” and she left the store. After a few minutes, when I was almost done buying, she came back and said, “You don’t need to buy any makeup brushes because I got six of them for you.”

“What? How? Where did you get them?” were only some of the questions I started firing at her.

“Relax, Mama. I went to buy a face brush for you at bareMinerals but the price was more than I could afford. So the store lady asked whether I wanted to surprise you and gave me these free sample brushes.”

 

We were on our way to the Chicago O’Hare airport via the blue line and a bit melancholy, since it was the last couple of hours of a relaxed and wonderful vacation. Neither Oishi nor I was paying attention to the announcements in the train. At Western, the train stopped and a young girl, before getting down from the train, asked us, “Are you going to O’Hare?”

Oishi and I looked at each other and replied, “Yes.”

She smiled and said, “You have to get down here and take the bus and then the train again from Logan Square station. They are doing construction between Western and Logan Square.”

With a disbelieving look, we replied “Really?”

“Trust me. I am going to O’Hare too,” she said, and indicated for us to follow her.

Oishi sat down next to her in the train from Logan Square, and I asked her name. “Caitlin with a C. I am Irish.”

Within a few minutes, Oishi and Caitlin started talking as though they have known each other for a long time. I couldn’t help but take a picture of them. She stayed with us until we got to the airport and asked us whether we would be okay from there on. Oishi and I were touched by her caring attitude and decided to get her contact information. Hopefully they will stay in touch!

 

Besides Caitlin, there were many unnamed strangers who gave unsolicited directions upon watching two lost women holding an open map with nervous and wandering eyes. Help was right around the corner wherever we turned.

 

I highlighted only a few encounters with the kind and thoughtful Chicagoans during our seven-day trip to the city, while other countless considerate and selfless happenings made the trip an absolutely perfect vacation.

 

I cannot end this post without a hearty shout-out for the unequivocally entertaining Blue Man Group of Chicago.

Sample brushes - a memento from bareMinerals
Sample brushes – a memento from bareMinerals

 

Oishi & Caitlin on our way to O'Hare
Oishi & Caitlin on our way to O’Hare

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From Late walker to Leader

Oishi took her time to take her well-thought out first steps. As a first-time mother, my stomach clenched up in knots every time a well-intentioned person, including my mother, asked me, “Is she walking yet?” Every weekend when I called home I dreaded my mother’s inquisition on Oishi’s walking skills and her futile attempts to speed up the process. One of those weekends she plainly commented, “I don’t understand this. You started walking when you were eight and a half months old.” I was feeling helpless with every passing day and was desperately hoping that she’d be walking before first birthday. But she didn’t.

I took my first trip to India with Oishi right after her first birthday. After a torturous twenty-hour plane journey and another four-hour train journey, when my mother saw Oishi after eight months (she was here for Oishi’s birth), she took Oishi from me, both thrilled to see us and worried that she still was not walking yet, and handed her to my limitlessly patient Baba, my father. She said, “I want to see her walking before she leaves India in three weeks.”

Baba held her two little hands every day and walked for hours in our home. However, one day Baba asked me, “Mamoni, why does she not want to walk when I hold her hands? She only walks when she can grab my index fingers. Otherwise she just sits down until she can do that.” I smiled and told Baba, “I think, she likes to be in control.” A couple of days before leaving, I was able to videotape Oishi’s first steps towards Baba, while Ma was screaming with joy in the background.

Last weekend, Oishi, petrified of public speaking, gave her Girl Scout Gold Award acceptance speech in an auditorium full of adults and children. She did not waver. She did not falter. She stood tall in front of more than a hundred people and gave her impeccable speech. Every intonation was perfect and rose to a level that left me and many others in awe. She spoke like a passionate leader.

While she uttered the last words, “Thank you,” the baby picture of Oishi directing my Baba about how she wants to take her first steps on this world crossed my mind and I thought with a grin, “I should have known!”

Oishi’s Girl Scout Gold Award Acceptance speech

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Oishi’s Junior PROM

I was coming out of the Oxford Valley Mall in Pennsylvania last weekend, when I saw a teenager window shopping through a row of exquisite dresses. She pointed to one dress at a time and said, “Not this, maybe this, definitely not, yes, yes, and maybe this.”

Her mom gave her a light hug and said, “Let’s go inside and check.” They were probably shopping for Prom.

I couldn’t help but notice how happy both the mom and daughter looked and found it difficult to veer my mind away from Oishi’s Prom experience.

Oishi initially did not want to go to Prom but declared one day that she wants to. “It is going to be in an aquarium. So I think I will have fun” was her reply when I frowned at her change of heart.

A day before the Prom, she declared again “I will wear jeans and T-shirt instead of dress.” “I will be lot more comfortable that way” was her simple answer to my concerned look.

When I went to pick Oishi up from her school after the Prom around 1 am, she was bursting with jubilance and talked incessantly about her relaxed, fun time at the Prom. “I am so glad I didn’t wear a dress. I couldn’t have danced as much as I have today, mama.” Then she added, “But mama, many kids were staring at me and one of them asked why I wasn’t wearing a dress.”

Oishi is a pianist and has recitals throughout the year in New Jersey and New York for which I bought her numerous dresses. But she chose to exercise her freedom of choice by not wearing a motion-limiting dress to the Prom.

The stares and questions were expected and understandable. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was all because we are seasoned to think in a certain way and frown upon any deviation from the norm.

Nonetheless both my daughter, dressed in jeans, and her friends, dressed in beautiful sparkly dresses, had a wonderful time at their long-awaited Junior Prom.

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Do we really need Mother’s Day?

“Mama, don’t come home from work before 4:50 PM,” Oishi texted me last Friday.
I texted back, “Okay,” and murmured to myself, “What is she up to now? Hope I will find the home in one piece.”

I came home when I was ordered to, but she did not allow me into the kitchen. Instead, I was ordered again to go to my bedroom upstairs.

After about half an hour, Oishi brought a plate full of delectable-looking and mouth-watering stuffed mushrooms. I was starving after the whole day, and the presentation was intensely appetizing. So, the plate was empty in seconds.

Embarrassed, I asked, “Why, mama?”
She simply shrugged and said, “Just wanted to make something special for you before going to Baba’s house.”

Oishi rarely cooks. Her cooking has been limited to heating soup and making omelet. Until recently, she was quite afraid of the stove. So I didn’t want her to cook on the stovetop when I was not around. Not only did she find a recipe which didn’t need a stove, only an oven, but she managed with whatever ingredients I had at home, and improvised and substituted some of them with her own ideas.

It was brilliant and delicious, but above all, it was a product of selfless love and thoughtfulness.

Stuffed Mushrooms
Stuffed Mushrooms

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2013 At a Glance

As 2013 was winding down, I asked myself “Did the year go by fast or slow?” In trying to answer this simple question, I decided to jot down some thoughts which touched me, affected me or meant something to me in 2013.

I published my first book – a memoir about the journey of a small-town Indian immigrant woman from her childhood in an unknown town of India named Hindustan Cables Limited to the here and now. This ought to have been a very happy moment for me, but I was ambivalent. On one hand, I was thrilled and proud to have traveled this unknown path of ‘writing a memoir’ rarely traveled by other Indian immigrant women before. On the other hand, I was nervous and apprehensive about the reactions of people around me precisely for the reason I felt proud of myself.  The Indian immigrant community is a fairly private community, and it is incredibly difficult and uncomfortable to talk about our failures and pains (the memoir had a few of them) openly. So I did not expect anyone to read, let alone buy the book. However, many of my friends surprised me by buying several copies of the book and distributing it to other people, an act of unconditional love and kindness.

I took a long-awaited trip to India with my daughter after I became a single mother more than a year ago. Single motherhood was an unknown and terrifying concept to my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My mother did not have the courage to share her pain with any of her sisters until I landed in India this summer. I spent every minute of my ten-day trip shopping, dining, visiting family members, and even visiting my engineering college for the first time since I graduated two decades ago. At the airport, my parents gave me a teary farewell, but I knew they were more peaceful and courageous than when I first landed there.

Oishi started teaching math to the inner-city kids at Trenton this September as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project. She teaches 5th and 6th graders at Urban Promise in a church setting. What started out mostly as a project for Oishi is morphing into a passion for teaching math. She had always enjoyed peer-tutoring or solving puzzles with my friends. But I see and hear a different Oishi when she shares her teaching stories with me. A more mature, responsible and passionate person. Hopefully, this is the beginning of something new and lasting in her life.

Now that Oishi is a junior in high school , we started visiting colleges. Every college visit was a mini-vacation for us when we got up early in the morning, ate breakfast outside, listened to the admissions officers talking the best about their colleges, participated in a tour given by an enthusiastic college student and finally wondering “Is this college right for us?” During these trips, I was acutely aware of the diminishing number of days Oishi will be home before she heads out to college and there were tears – both from joy of watching her grow into this smart, compassionate young lady and from the sadness of not being able to see her almost every day when she goes off to college.

Amidst all these, I heard about great losses in our community – kids losing both their parents one month apart and parents losing their child in car accident. The impacts of losses are amplified in small immigrant communities presumably because we do not have extended family support. But I witnessed an extremely compassionate community who came together during these trying times and offered unprecedented help to the affected family members. The message of hope was delivered when we least expected it.

Last but definitely not the least, I learned Thai cooking from a Thai chef. More than learning, I enjoyed cooking Thai food for 40 people in my home.  Thai Basil chicken, Cauliflower green curry, Pad Thai, Pineapple fried rice and Tom Yum Goong soup were a few of the dishes served to the guests. I will leave the readers with the thought of the wonderful aroma of Thai food augmented by lime leaves, basil leaves, Galangal and Lemongrass!

What better way to end a year than a beautiful, thoughtful and loving gift from Oishi. She collected Swagbucks Rewards points to get an Amazon gift card, which she used to get a turquoise jewelry set.

In the end, I declared that 2013 sped past me. While I learnt and grew throughout, I still have much more to learn and accomplish and eagerly look forward to a new year.

HOPE ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE in 2014 and beyond… – Oishi and Sharmistha

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Turquoise jewelry from Oishi
Turquoise jewelry from Oishi

Pad-Thai again…

This Independence Day was memorable to Oishi and me not just because we saw the beautiful fireworks at Thompson park of Monroe township but also since we had a fabulous dinner with Pad-Thai in the same park (Fireworks and Pad-Thai). Kind and wonderful, Chef Phensri cooked a special veg Pad-Thai for Oishi even when she knew Oishi was the only customer asking for the vegetarian version of the dish. While Chef Phensri was cooking for Oishi, I found out that she teaches Thai cooking in Old Bridge. I got her number and enrolled in her class for an October session.

I had tried my hand at Thai cooking, specifically Pad-Thai, using YouTube and other cooking sites, only to be prove that it is probably not my forte. But when Chef Phensri cooked in front of me at the Thompson Park, it seemed easy, and I decided to give Thai cooking one last chance.

On the first Saturday of October, I and another student named, Tom, gathered around in Chef Phensri’s cozy kitchen. We cooked the famous Tom Yum Goong soup with lemon grass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, chicken and veggies. The heavenly aroma made it irresistible, and we devoured it in a few minutes. Pad-Thai was the next item to be cooked. I noticed that Chef Phensri soaked the noodles in water and never boiled them. She also mixed the sauce ahead of time with the right ingredients in perfect proportions instead of pouring the sauce ingredients from the bottles while cooking. These were the two major differences from my recipe, and I thought, “Can it really make such a big difference?” It did. The end result was delicious, yet the method was simple and easy to follow. We also cooked basil chicken, chicken green curry and fried rice. I could only eat a spoonful of each recipe. But Chef Phensri, the kind woman that she is, packed my food in boxes for dinner.

Since then, I have tried all the recipes I cooked on that day including some more, and each time Oishi has said, “This is the best dinner I have ever had!” Wanting to push the envelope a little further, I decided to cook Thai food for around 40 people I have invited for Oish’s 16th birthday in December. I guess I will have to write another post with comments from my guests!

A special thanks to Chef Phensri of Fantastic-Thai.

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Thai Cooking certificate

College visit on the first day of college

Last Saturday, we woke up at 4 am and started from home towards Poughkeepsie, New York at 5:15 when the sun was still wrapped in a dark grey blanket. Our destination was Vassar College, a small liberal arts college in the midst of the Catskill mountains. Oishi, a junior, was excited about visiting colleges but anticipative about going far away from home and getting lost in big city colleges. To ease her into the process of college selection, we chose a small college not too far from home.

I thought the information session would be at 8:30 am, followed by a campus tour. But when we reached there, we found out the first tour was at 9:30 am followed by an information session at 12 pm. Since it was a very nice day, we walked around a bit and finally rolled into the admissions office, full of anticipation for the tour.

A bubbly and enthusiastic junior gave an informative tour of the campus. It was great to see Oishi taking notes and asking questions while walking. After the information session, we had lunch at the school and started towards home.

On my way back, I suddenly realized how smooth the college visit process was for the both of us and couldn’t help but compare this day with the first few days of my college life since the first time I truly visited a college (besides the admission day) was the day I started college in India. Coming from a very small town with one nameless road for public transport, when I started college in Kolkata, a behemoth compared to my hometown Hindustan Cables Limited, I was overwhelmed by the number of buses, routes and roads. Since I lived in a ladies hostel that was far away from the college, Baba showed me bus#33, a double-decker, which would take me from the college to my ladies hostel and back. He and I did a practice ride from the college to the hostel. Then he left for my hometown and I was left alone in a big city to find my way. In a couple of months, when Baba came to visit me, I told him that I have discovered three more bus routes back and forth from my college. He looked at me and said “I knew you would.”

So, last week when I told my parents that we were going to visit a college, they asked in chorus, “You have already selected her college? But she is only in 11th grade!” I said “No, Ma, I am taking her for a visit to see whether the college and its surroundings would be a good fit for her. Nothing has been selected yet.” There was a complete silence and I understood how difficult it was for them to understand the college selection process more than two decades later in a foreign country.

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We live in a better world today

I like technology. No, let me rephrase. I love technology. Not simply using it, but creating it. Being a technologist gives me the rare opportunity of giving life to new ideas. And I cherish that.

I love that it provides a continuous source of learning which emerges from endless curiosity. I love that it makes our lives easier and more comfortable. I love that when boredom from doing the same work so much as glances at me, a new technology emerges and I sit up straight with new energy. A couple of months ago, I got access to a new suite of software at work and I texted Oishi, “Oh my God, mama! You wouldn’t believe what kind of software I have access to now.” She wrote back, “Gee, mama! You are such a geek!”

Everyone knows that microwaves, cell phones, washing machines and dishwashers, all gifts of technology, are great additions to our everyday life. But that’s not the only reason I think technology has made the world a better place to live in. We live in a superior world because we like to share and technology has made sharing a universal event.

Recently, while looking for online tutorials, I found a website, http://www.coursera.org, which is an organization where many universities come together to teach online courses for free. Yes, for free. I signed up for a course, being taught by Vanderbilt University professors, which will be extremely beneficial for my work.

The act of giving, not just to friends and family but to people unbeknownst to us, makes life more meaningful for us and gives us a higher purpose. And technology unequivocally makes it cooler!

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The question still lingers…

Being an immigrant is challenging at many levels, but most of all emotionally. My daughter and I came back from our every-two-year trip to India about a week ago, but I am still not back into the rhythm of life here. Typically, I call my parents once or twice a week but this past week I have called them almost everyday as though hearing their voice and their stories of how much they miss me would transport me in the midst of their loving life. The two weeks, from their eager wait at the airport to see our faces after a long gap to their teary drop-off the day we left, were gone in the blink of an eye.

Eighteen years ago, when I left India in search of a better future, it made sense because India was barely present in the economical map of the world. However, a lot has changed with the roads, buildings, cars and restaurants. The growth of infrastructure, malls, air-conditioned cars, hotels and restaurants has been astounding. Even more astonishing is the spending power of people despite the fact that the prices have multiplied several times over the last few years. I found myself converting the cost of most items into US dollars and muttering, “Really? How do people afford such an expensive lifestyle?”

The question that immediately followed in my mind was, “Are my friends who never left India better off today with their family around them?” After much thought and careful consideration, I answered, “no.” I do not live here because of the cars, homes, malls and highways. I thrive here because I have the freedom to dream the impossible.

But who knows? Even this might change in the foreseeable future, and that’s when my daughter’s dream of living in India might be a reality. “Mama, India is very cozy” was her unflinching answer when I asked her why she wanted to live in India; her reply is a natural reaction for a kid who is smothered with love, care and attention by her grandparents and family members during her stay in India.

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DSC_0943Oishi on a rickshaw ( a tricycle as a means of transportation)

DSC_1002 Celebrating Independence Day (15th August) in Kolkata

Fireworks and Pad Thai

Since Oishi likes to see fireworks, I researched 4th of July fireworks in the nearby towns and found Monroe to be a pragmatic choice; it was not too far from home and Oishi liked the activities – sand art, pony ride and petting zoo. Oishi was also excited about eating out, while I tried to hide my dearth of enthusiasm for eating french fries and hot dogs . I was not despondent but not elated either.

I parked my car in the event parking lot of Thompson Park and unexpectedly and excitedly found myself standing in a bus queue to be transported to the actual event site. It reminded me of my visit to Disney World, where tram cars took us from the parking lot to the park entrance. I thought, “This is a good start. But what about food? Maybe, just maybe, they will have some spicy Asian food…”

In the hot summer afternoon, when the mercury touched 90°F and above, we got down from the bus in front of a large picnic area with clean picnic tables spread out on luscious green grass underneath big trees. I told Oishi, “This looks shady and cool. We will eat here.” We spotted a lake little far away and an artificial beach in front of the lake where a DJ and a group of people, adults included, were entertaining a crowd of people on a gallery around the beach, while a lake breeze tried its best to keep everyone cool. Oishi said, “Mama, this is awesome!”

Being food lovers, we turned our attention towards the food stalls. Oishi’s choice was limited because she became a vegetarian more than a year ago. We saw funnel cakes and french fries, even spicy french fries, and decided to go for the spicy french fries. No sooner had we started walking towards the spicy french fries stall than Oishi looked at me with enlarged eyes and said, “Oh my god, mama, they have Thai food here!” We dashed to the stall, only to find that there were no vegetarian options. Crestfallen, we began leaving the stall, when the chef, who was cooking a few feet away, approached us and offered to make vegetable Pad-Thai for Oishi. Pad Thai is Thai flat rice noodles made with egg, vegetables, peanuts, and soy sauce. It is scrumptious. We were ecstatic and thankful toward the chef. I ordered chicken Pad Thai and Oishi ordered the vegetarian version of the same. To top it off, I found out that the chef teaches Thai cooking class in Spotswood, NJ. I took her card and decided to take her class in the fall.

There was no petting zoo or pony ride due to the heat, but there was sand art. Oishi filled a little monkey with layers of hot pink, red, dark blue, orange,  pink, aqua, yellow and purple sand.

After all of that, it was finally time for what we came for. We sat in the gallery and watched the burst of colors illuminate the night sky, while songs like ‘God Bless America’ played in the background.

After the fireworks, when I just started to reminisce about the wonderful day, Oishi asked “Mama, can we have a funnel cake now?” So we bought a cake to share at home before we called it a night.

BELATED HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!!!

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