Thursday, January 26, 2006

It's A Better Place Because Of Her

Moved By Her Immigrant Students’ Struggle

To Learn English, Quentine Acharya, Who Fell

In Love With America As

A 23-Year-Old Visitor, Asks:

Why Can’t We

Cut Them Some Slack?

Quentine Acharya

Interview by Michael Chacko Daniels
Editor & Publisher, New River Free Press International

Quentine (nee D’Souza) Acharya, a Silicon Valley English instructor who has now lived longer in America than in her native India, says in this month’s Career Visions for a Small Planet interview, “I would like to think I am a seamless blend of two cultures. I love America dearly. At the same time, I am spiritually attached to the Nagpur of my youth, a small town where roots went deep and strong.”

It can be challenging for her—as it must be for most anyone who has left her (or his) native soil and established new roots in a distant land—when memory and nostalgia tug from hidden places in the heart and she misses aspects of one country when she’s in the other.

Last year, Ms. Acharya provided the following concrete details of the seesawing nostalgia in an article titled Return from India that she wrote after a trip to India and her beloved Nagpur in 2004 []:

“Lovely to come back home to long, hot showers, clean kitchens, the welcoming voice of the U.S. Immigration at Chicago's O'Hare and last, but not least, fast Internet connections.

“It’s great to be home in the U. S., but the quiet suburban streets bereft of any sign of life make one long for the endless noise and variety of street scenes from my beloved India. At any time of day or night, there is hectic human activity.

“As early as 5 AM crows start their urgent cawing and flapping, and the other musical tones of bulbuls and mynahs (species of Indian birds) impinge on the morning air. Paper-wallahs (newspaper vendors) call out, bicyclists on squeaky wheels drop off milk, vegetables, fish, and all sorts of produce, each announcing their wares in a special, unique call.

“People literally buy, sell, trade, sleep, eat and camp out on any tiny little wedge of space in cities like Bombay or Kolkata. A piece of canvas, a tin roof, or a shred of tarpaulin is all that separates them from the elements. Fruits and vegetables piled on thelas (wooden carts on four wheels) look so tempting. Would one dare to eat them without a thorough wash? Snacks like samosas (triangular-shaped pastries with a spicy, savory vegetable filling) are rolled and deep fried in huge karais (iron pans similar to Chinese woks), steaming dekchis (pots) of sweet chai, flavored with a bit of ginger and elaichi (cardamom) are prepared on almost every street corner. No big regulations or zoning laws to stop anyone from setting up shop where or when he pleases. . . .”

“Once derisively referred to as a 'one-horse' town by our more sophisticated Bombay cousins, the Nagpur of my childhood and youth is no more. In its place is a huge, bustling city, with wide tree-lined boulevards, nicely paved sidewalks for pedestrian traffic, working traffic lights, women whizzing about on scooters and motor-bikes, and a general air of prosperity and progress.”

If anyone can successfully blend two cultures and their unique experiences, I believe it would be Quentine Acharya.

“Always connect!” appears to be her happy objective, a far more ambitious undertaking than that which is encapsulated in E. M. Forster’s famous phrase “Only connect!” in A Passage to India.

“Life, to me,” she explains in response to one of my Career Visions for a Small Planet questions, “consists of small moments of intense interaction with all I come in contact with.

“I am happiest when I am able to make a connection with a stranger on the street, in the grocery store, on an airplane, or anywhere else for that matter—not in any way a romantic connection, but one where one somehow, inexplicably, shares a delightful moment of insight or humorous understanding of a situation or dilemma.

“I truly believe, as trite as it may sound, that a smile is like a ‘skeleton key’—it can open any door and lead you anywhere you want to go. Just try smiling at the most curmudgeonly looking person you meet on the street and there is every chance this person will smile back at you.”

I first met Quentine in the summer of 1967 at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, where we were both enrolled in the master’s program in journalism.

What I remember most warmly about that hectic year is that, while our professors attempted to simulate, with every permitted pedagogical device known to them, the intense competitiveness and pressure-cooker atmosphere of an American newsroom, in order to weed out, military-style, those who couldn’t take the heat, Quentine instinctively came up with a healthy antidote: She invited a mix of “foreign” and native-born American students to her apartment, on several occasions, for collegial get-togethers with tasty, healthy Indian food as the glue.

I learned more from her application of this universal cultural practice than I did from those military-style teaching methods at Medill.

Almost four decades later, herself now an experienced college English instructor, who has worked on the frontlines of teaching immigrants and working people, I find she has a lot to teach us not only about connecting with strangers with a smile, but also the importance of adapting to a student’s individual learning style or learning disability.

“Many of my students are, in fact, impoverished, have made harrowing escapes from murderous political regimes, were orphaned or separated from their families under traumatic circumstances, and are barely eking out a living in the expensive Bay Area,” she writes.

“They are, however, hard-working, determined and committed to getting a basic college degree. All this while holding down jobs in fast-food or electronics assembly lines, looking after aged parents, sometimes having a small child or two to look after in-between class and work schedules.

“So why not cut them a little slack? Why stick to rigid and unbending grading policies that make no allowance for a student's individual learning style or learning disability?”

Silicon Valley is a better place because of this daughter of Nagpur.

A Quentine Acharya Data Bank

High School
St. Joseph's Convent
Nagpur, India

St. Francis de Sales College
Nagpur University

Other Schools
Hislop College
Nagpur University

Medill School of Journalism
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois

School of Education
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland

Teacher that influenced
Quentine Acharya the most

Rev. Victor Rocha
Professor of English Literature
St. Francis de Sales College
Nagpur, India

Father Victor opened the doors of my mind to the wonders of English Literature. We, his students, experienced the joy of the poems of Shelley and Keats, Coleridge, and many, many others. His recitations of passages from Othello, King Lear and other Shakespearean dramas in his vibrant, rolling voice brought those stories within our grasp. A memorable experience of my undergraduate college life was reading aloud Thomas Grey's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, recited amongst the gravestones of a tiny old cemetery on the grounds of our college. Since our literature classes had only a dozen or less students, Father Victor frequently convened them in the midst of nature, under the branches of an old tree or on an open patch of grass. What better way to imbibe poetry than while communing with nature? I still have my college "Autograph Book" in which Father Victor penned these lines some 40-odd years ago: "Be good sweet maid, let whoe'er will be clever; do noble deeds, not dream them all day long - And so make life, death and the vast forever, one grand sweet song". This favorite teacher of mine is now 77 years old, lives and works in a parish in the Pittsburgh area and still drives a car and travels to see his family in Goa every year. I can never quite forget his recitation of this line from the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

Books that influenced Quentine Acharya
The Yearling
Gone With the Wind
How Green Was My Valley
The Grapes of Wrath
O'Henry's Short Stories
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Letters from Prison (from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
to his daughter, Indira Gandhi)
Poetry Anthologies of
Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes

Favorite Philosopher
Because he believed that any ordinary person could, through introspection and spiritual reflection, attain wisdom and enlightenment. His philosophy is that one should strive for internal change, willingly and without external prods such as fear of punishment for sins, as in the Catholic faith, in which I was raised.

Favorite Singers & Musicians
Nat King Cole
for his velvety voice
Frank Sinatra
for his inimitable style and lush arrangements
Mohammed Rafi (Indian movie playback singer)
for his voice and lyrics that instantly transport me
to the lost romantic days of youth
The Beach Boys
for the sense of fun and freedom their music induces
indispensable for car trips
for his classic Spanish guitar pieces
Yo Yo Ma

Favorite Quotations

"Life is like a 10-speed bike -
most of us use only one or two gears"
- Charles Schulz

"The most remarkable thing about my
mother is that for thirty years she served
the family nothing but leftovers.
The original meal has never been found . . ."
- Calvin Trillin

On the benefits of learning a new language
(Excerpted from the archives of
A.Word.A.Day. at,
an online website for linguaphiles,
maintained and written by author Anu Garg)

"There are numerous material reasons to learn a new language. But the one I believe most crucial is this: once we speak the language of a people, it's much harder to hate them. And once they are no longer alien to us, it's much more difficult to drop bombs on them. King Charlemagne once said, 'To know another language is to have a second soul.' His words are still true in the twenty-first century. Learning a language is more than just learning words in the new language. It's also learning the culture of the people, understanding their dreams, their spirit, and their values. When you learn another language, you can see the world with a whole new set of eyes."
- Anu Garg

Published Works
Quentine Acharya - Return from India
by Quentine Acharya

Lifebuoy Soap and Naughty Boy Shoes -
The Life of Boarding-School Girls at
St. Joseph's Convent, Nagpur, India
by Quentine Acharya
has been accepted to be published
in The Way We Were,
an anthology of essays and memoirs
CTR (Calcutta Tiljallah Relief) Publishing
August 2006


New River Free Press International:

Tell us about yourself.

What makes you who you are?

QA For years, my unusual name sort of embarrassed me. With age, comes wisdom. Now I know better. I sure am happy I am not a Linda, Susan or Rachel. Quentine is a feminine version of Quentin, and for some reason, my parents, having hoped to finally have a son after four daughters, hit upon this scheme to alleviate their disappointment.

First of all, people will ask: "Is that an Indian name?" Next comes, "I've never heard that before". Though invariably they will add, "It's pretty". So I have finally come to terms with my name, and the fact that it is French and has nothing to do with my being born and raised in India.

All I know is that I am a woman approaching the age of 64 and very conscious that, in measurable terms, such as books published or mountains climbed, I have not achieved very much. However, I do believe that I have had a huge influence (for better or worse!)) on my children, my husband of 35 years, my four sisters, my extended family, students I have taught, and on my friends scattered about the world.

Life, to me, consists of small moments of intense interaction with all I come in contact with. I am happiest when I am able to make a connection with a stranger on the street, in the grocery store, on an airplane or anywhere else for that matter - not in any way a romantic connection, but one where one somehow, inexplicably, shares a delightful moment of insight or humorous understanding of a situation or dilemma.

I truly believe, as trite as it may sound, that a smile is like a "skeleton key" - it can open any door and lead you anywhere you want to go. Just try smiling at the most curmudgeonly looking person you meet on the street and there is every chance this person will smile back at you.

Having lived in America longer than I've lived in my native India, I would like to think I am a seamless blend of two cultures. I love America dearly. At the same time, I am spiritually attached to the Nagpur of my youth, a small town where roots went deep and strong.

A seminal influence on my life was my first visit to America in the summer of 1963. That is when my love affair with this country began. I came to Tarrytown, in Westchester County, New York as a member of a cultural exchange program called The Experiment in International Living.

This visit to America was to influence the rest of my life in ways I have yet to fathom.

I was about 23, thin as a reed, with a single, thick, long black braid hanging down my back, almost to my waist. Having endured my first ever airplane flight, and been ill all the way from New Delhi to New York, my large brown eyes looked even larger in my thin face.

After a very, very long flight to New York, the group of some 300 Experimenters from India were taken by bus to the Experiment headquarters in Putney, Vermont, where we lived in a lovely home that smelled of wood and polish, and was full of young men and women like myself, milling around, making new friends, and unable to sleep with the excitement of having come to America.

After our orientation, which lasted 3 days, and during which I was still unable to keep down a drop of food, my group of 9, officially known as Group "F", were driven by car to Tarrytown. Group "F" was made up of 6 young women and 3 young men.

Each student was placed with a different family in Tarrytown. That summer the host families would get together for wonderful picnics, cookouts, and trips to places like Playland in Rye, or into the city to see the Cloisters, New York's many wonderful museums, and Central Park.

Most of the mothers stayed home in those days and had time for hospitality, hosting potluck suppers, swim parties, baking cookies and brownies for us visitors, and taking us on shopping trips and excursions.

Our trips into New York were filled with excitement. New York in the early sixties was not a place filled with immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, so a bevy of young women in brightly colored clothes and long hair really stood out. People would stop us on the streets to talk and comment on our flowing silk saris and our long braids.

The stunning architectural gems of New York, such as the Chrysler Building, the Guggenheim, the Empire State Building, St. Patrick's Cathedral and the posh stores and galleries on Fifth Avenue were a fantastic backdrop for our immersion into American culture.

"West Side Story" was playing on Broadway and we were taken to see it. Other highlights were going to the Peppermint Lounge, the place where Chubby Checker got famous, and attending a live performance of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

My host family, the Slifkins, lived in a beautiful home in Tarrytown overlooking the Hudson River. I had never been in a home that was so beautiful and smelled so good. I had never seen a kitchen that was so inviting with its breakfast nook and green and white plates on the walls.

The living room was done up in blue silk, had a grand piano, and huge picture windows with a view of the Tappan Zee bridge and the Hudson River. On the landing, halfway up the stairs, was a huge casement window with a wide seat, just perfect for curling up with a book.

Morrie Slifkin was a Superior Court Judge in New York State and Roz a homemaker. I could never get over the fact that Morrie woke up and made the coffee early in the morning every single day, fixed his own breakfast and drove himself to work. A judge in India would have had servants running around bringing him trays of "bed-tea" and polishing his shoes, and a chauffeur to drive him to the courts.

"The girls", as Roz referred to her daughters Barbara and Susan, were away at summer camp. The whole concept intrigued me. Why, I wondered, would anyone ever want to leave such a lovely home and go away to camp?

Later, Susan and Barbara came back from camp and getting to know them and all their friends was a great experience. They peppered us with questions about India. We would stay up half the night chatting, snacking, and learning about the American way of life. The girls always wanted to know whether we were allowed to have boyfriends in India and whether we would all have arranged marriages when we went back. At night they would take us out to local cafes to hear folk music or to sample a food which we had never tasted but which we immediately fell in love with: pizza.

After Tarrytown, our group traveled by Greyhound bus to Michigan where we stayed in dorms with students attending summer school at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. What an experience to live in an American dorm, eat at a cafeteria, go bowling and go out with American students to the local joints. I had never been to a drive-in movie (referred to as "passion pits") or indulged in "brown cow" root- beer floats at an A. & W. stand.

Students we met had never talked to or met anyone from India. They would invariably ask if India was filled with snakes, tigers, and elephants and what was the significance of the red dot worn on the forehead by most Indian women. We would stay up late eating popcorn and ice cream and exchanging notes on our favorite American singers and movie stars.

Dating (or the lack thereof) was always a hot topic of conversation. Our roommates on campus could never understand how most of us would go back to India and eventually submit to arranged marriages.

Well, in my case, I did go back to India but I never did have an arranged marriage. In 1966 I realized my dream of returning to America. I was admitted as a graduate student to the Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois where I earned a master's degree in Journalism. A year and a half later I met and married my husband of 35 years, a young scientist from Calcutta, India, also a student at Northwestern University.

It's been over 40 years since my American "Experiment." I love this country for all the doors it has opened for me, for the wonderful personal freedoms I have enjoyed, for the opportunities to grow and develop and live amongst people who respect each other. The Experiment changed my life and, I have no doubt, bound many families and cultures together. It was a program of the sixties that, along with service programs like the Peace Corps, had a tremendous impact on the lives of innumerable people like myself.


New River Free Press International:

What was your vision of

society that brought you

to the work you do?


QA I spent many wonderful years being a full-time homemaker and mother to my three children in their growing-up years. It was an experience I would not exchange for any other. All the fun with the other Moms (and occasionally Dads) in the Colesville Presbyterian cooperative nursery school in Silver Spring, Maryland, fixing snacks and bag lunches, making "Stone Soup," helping cut and paste craft projects, field trips to the pumpkin patch or the museums, were not to be missed.

I really don't think that even the most professional and well-paid au pair can ever replace the presence of a mother or father in the life of a young child. Parents these days are so stressed out from jobs, fast-track careers and over-programming their kids' after-school activities that they simply don't make the time to prepare home-cooked meals, read books with their children or take trips to the library.

Simple pleasures have given way to expensive meals at restaurants, and occasional trips and vacations to exotic places like Hawaii or Aruba. In our day, we never heard of seniors in high school being given outrageously expensive trips to island resorts as a reward for graduating from high school. Doing well in school and completing your studies was just simply your duty, and expected of you!

I became an English instructor in a community college in East San Jose a few years after my family relocated to Northern California. I was completing a faculty diversity internship program and was asked to take up a teaching assignment for a teacher who had fallen ill.

My experiences as a teacher had a tremendous influence in shaping my outlook on life. I loved the interaction with young college students and feel I learned as much, if not more, from them, as they learned from me.

I began to realize early on that students in a community college come from all walks of life, from all age groups and with all sorts of prior experiences, many of which are not the norm for an All-American high school graduate.

Many of my students are, in fact, impoverished, have made harrowing escapes from murderous political regimes, were orphaned or separated from their families under traumatic circumstances, and are barely eking out a living in the expensive Bay Area. They are, however, hard working, determined and committed to getting a basic college degree. All this while holding down jobs in fast-food or electronics assembly lines, looking after aged parents, sometimes having a small child or two to look after in between class and work schedules.

So why not cut them a little slack? Why stick to rigid and unbending grading policies that make no allowance for a student's individual learning style or learning handicap? I found myself at odds with others in faculty or administrative positions who showed a remarkable lack of empathy on this score.

As a teacher, though I tried to set high standards, I certainly did not want to place roadblocks on my students' paths to success. Learning the English language, with all its capriciousness and inconsistencies, is hard enough for English-speaking students. Why expect students from Vietnam, Cambodia, and China to turn in grammar-perfect papers?

Instead try to understand their viewpoint, their efforts to express themselves. I truly believe that compassion and a supportive classroom environment go a long way towards student success as the ultimate outcome.

My vision of society is that the world is shrinking and we in America are all getting closer, culturally as well as economically, to the person who lives 10,000 miles away. It’s time we accept this fact. We must hold onto our values, but at the same time adopt the good values from other cultures, other milieus, or at least begin to understand them.


New River Free Press International:

What do you think we

should remember as we remake

the world through the work we do?


QA The world is changing so fast that we have to be constantly prepared to adjust to change: in the workplace, in our schools and educational institutions, in every aspect of our daily life. While it is nice to reminisce about our past lives and romanticize our "perfect" childhoods, we must try to understand the problems that parents and children face today. And we must find comfort in our own place in the world, yet continue to be agents of change.

Always try to see the world through the prism of the other person's prior life experiences. For example, if your students have had traumatic experiences escaping from Vietnam in the seventies, or from the Khmer Rouge massacres, understand that these experiences will color the way they function here today.

By relentlessly pushing our American pop culture further and further into the remote corners of the globe, we will end up having a homogeneous world culture robbed of any nuances.

Globalization may be great, but I am saddened when I see ugly bright yellow McDonald's arches in the midst of Paris or London, Beijing or Bombay. And to know that Wal-Mart will soon become the shopping mode of choice for millions of Chinese. Gone will be the unique fresh fruit, vegetable, and seafood markets where ducks and hams hang from metal hooks and haggling and human interaction make for a lively interplay. Can we stop the tide of Americanization into Outer Mongolia?


New River Free Press International:

Has your vision changed

as you have participated

in the remaking of the world?


QA I have become more compassionate in understanding people and want to educate myself further about why and how people function in all sorts of situations. However, I am often disappointed to find that many immigrants today come to America for the sole purpose of making money.

There is very little interest in learning about why America is such a great country and what historical events shaped this into a great country. People do not care to educate themselves about the core values that once defined America and made it a world leader.

This is partly due to the fact that America has become so culturally diverse and is now a crazy, patchwork quilt of numerous heterogeneous groups, living side-by-side, but encased in individual sheaths of cultural and religious practices. Multiculturism's end result has been that we who come here from other countries somewhat ironically seek to recreate our Little Indias and our Little Taiwans in the midst of America.

On another front, the establishment of the Internet has been the single most defining event in the last decade. Its impact on human lives can barely be fathomed. We will live to see the most fascinating changes in human interaction because of the Internet.

But while the onslaught of technology has been a marvelous thing, we must keep in mind that people still need to develop good socializing and networking skills. Reading, both for pleasure as well as for knowledge, has largely fallen by the wayside. Most young people never pick up a daily newspaper or read an in-depth article on a current affair or issue. Many college students today lack imagination and a "world-view". When you have not opened your mind to literature or history, how can you be a good writer or interpreter of world affairs?

Lack of reading stumps the growth of the intellect, fosters ignorance of world affairs, and results in poor writing skills.


New River Free Press International:

What challenges do you

perceive in achieving your

vision of society?


QA Maintaining a personal sense of identity in the wake of cultural homogenization will be a huge challenge especially in traditional societies like India and China that have recently opened the floodgates to commerce and a free-market economy. It’s great that everyone in the world will have access to previously unattainable luxuries such as automobiles and computers - but where is this leading to?


New River Free Press International:

What needs to be done

to overcome these challenges?

QA Education is the key. Education leads to the ability to critically analyze events and situations. And continuing education for all age groups is what will keep the world fresh and young.


New River Free Press International:

What pointers would you give

young people of the 9/11 generation

as they work in public service assignments?

QA Remember that there are generations of people before you who lived with great political uncertainty and the constant threat of violence. We in America, have been somewhat insulated until now, living lives of relative peace and personal safety. But we should not let the events of 9/11 change the hard-won principles of democracy and freedom on which this country was built.

As far as work in the public service arena, or any other endeavor is concerned, remember that the old-timers had it right - pay attention to the old-fashioned core values, such as neatness, punctuality, hard work, honesty.

Always act with class. Using foul language and vulgarities denigrates no one but yourself. Show kindness to those around you. It costs you nothing but builds up goodwill. Be generous, spontaneous and offer assistance to those who need it most - the young, the old, the disabled, and the penurious. ‘

Isn't there an old saying: "Cast your bread upon the waters and it shall come back to you?"


New River Free Press International:

What personal lessons

have you learned from the

devastation caused by

the Asian Tsunami?


QA Don't hold on too dearly to your earthly possessions - they are meaningless should nature unleash its awesome power on you.


New River Free Press International:

What personal lessons have

you learned from the

post-Hurricane Katrina

tragedies in New Orleans?


QA That one should never feel complacent about one's station (and status) in life. Enjoy what you have, and be grateful to God for what has been given to you. At the same time, share some of your good fortune with those less fortunate around you. "No man is an island" as the saying goes. We are here on Earth to bind ourselves to each other, or else life has no meaning.


Viju Naik, Sherry Buhariwala,
Usha Rai, and Quentine Acharya
at Sherry's Annual Birthday Bash
during Quentine's 2004 visit and college reunion at
her hometown,
Nagpur, India. All of them were
English Lit majors at St. Francis de Sales College


About the Editor: San Franciscan Michael Chacko Daniels, formerly a community worker and clown, and now a re-emerging writer and editor, grew up in Bombay. Books: Writers Workshop, Kolkata: Split in Two (1971, 2004), Anything Out of Place Is Dirt (1971, 2004), and That Damn Romantic Fool (1972, 2005). Read all about his Indian and American journey at

All views expressed in the interview are those of the interviewee
and not those of the editor or this website.

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