In collaboration with FindingTheVoices.com
One fine day at work, she was asked if she would be interested to work as a nanny for an Indian doctor couple who were busy with their internship in New York City and to take care of their infant baby girl.. She then agreed to their sponsorship and work for this couple. And this was her how her journey to the States began in 1999. The doctor family then moved to Connecticut after completion of their internship and she accompanied them there. Being there at the new state triggered her to a new step of life. She met her husband there for first time. He proposed to her after few months of meeting her. She was in a fix and not yet ready. She wanted to know the opinion of her family back home. So she did not accept his proposal right away. He took her home phone number, rang up and talked with her sister and she interpreted his message to her mom and let them all know to the family about his proposal.
They got married in 2000. They had to have great adjustments in their lives in Connecticut as both of them came from different cultural backgrounds, society and traditions. They both had different food habits and customs too. She loved to eat rice and Manipuri dishes & fermented fish that he did not. And he ate mashed potatoes and lot of butter that she did not like. Her neighbors were Spanish and Portuguese speaking people and she had a hard time trying to communicate with them. Arguments over small matters rose between them as it was normal for intra racial couples such as them due to cultural differences. The best moments in their life was taking road trips together and visiting his home state in Vermont. He took her there to see his parents’ graves .Also they took trips up to the Hampton Beach & also to other beaches nearby in New Haven. He instilled in her the love for adventure road trips.
They had a son in august 2001. The incident of naming their son is still fresh in her memory. Her husband wanted a unique name so to have a good combination of both cultures. She suggested few biblical names but her husband did not want them as those were too common in western society, on the other hand the Kuki and Meitei names were difficult for him to pronounce. Finally when she suggested few Hindu names, he picked the three letter word, ‘Raj’ for their son’s name…easy to remember and pronounce. He even liked it better when he was told of its meaning.
As having come from a community oriented family, she felt so depressed and isolated in Connecticut living far away from her people .She requested him for a move to Tulsa city in Oklahoma, as there were people from her own home state of Manipur. He did not agree at first & was not ready to move. She was so disappointed and became more depressed. He had never travelled beyond his state of Vermont and Connecticut, so they were in dilemma.
Finally he got ready to move from the east coast to the mid west. They began their journey in the summer of 2003; after few hours of driving from Connecticut, they reached New Jersey. During this time he became so anxious and nervous. He was not in a position to continue to drive any further. He began to pop in sleeping pills to ease his anxiety and worries. She was in a dilemma as to whether to move forward or return back to Connecticut where they had already paid their rent and bills and left the house for good. She was with their little son 18 month old son and a step-son who was just 11 years old in the car. They decided to rest for the night in a motel. She then went to the motel owner who was a Gujarati and after having explained to him about her husband’s situation and his state of mind, she asked him to help out with the best and safest way to reach their destination under those trying circumstances. She told him that she did not know how to drive and also do not have a driver’s license yet. She only knew how to turn on the ignition key and drive forward only. She did not know how to change lanes on the highway but she told him that she was determined to go ahead and drive by any means. So she needed his help and guidance.
The motel owner was surprised and expressed his concerns about her not having a driving license. But he went ahead and highlighted the routes, the cities on the map they were to travel along and the ones they had to pass along the highway. He showed the interstate highway on the map which they had to drive and suggested to ask people in the gas station or any McDonald’s place for help and guidance.
The next morning she noticed her husband was in no position to do any driving. She then decided and took a major decision to drive the vehicle herself and continue the journey. They all had their breakfast the motel provided. She informed her husband that she was going to drive which made him all the more nervous and anxious. She felt scared at first but at that moment she had neither other choice nor any options available. So she was determined to lead to take up that step bravely in that situation under those circumstances. She drove for long hours and every 8 hours they pulled over and took rest whenever they came across McDonald’s store along the highway. They ate food there and asked people around to direct the way they had to proceed. Her husband was scared and nervous, talked about negative things to discourage her just to cover his own feelings of fear and anxiety. She drove in between heavy 18 wheeler trucks, which was really scary and uncomfortable. On the Interstate highway 70 west, without a driving license, she drove for 4 days from New Jersey to Oklahoma with great effort, steely reserve and nerves of steel, she managed to reach and it was her strength and positive attitude that empowered her and overcame her fears if so any. This was her first ever driving on a highway!!
Her friends in Oklahoma were surprised on her strength and they never believed that she would make it. She shed tears of relief when they reached there but not a single drop of tear rolled down during the journey. She had steely reserve and nerves of steel. When they were in Connecticut, her husband used to drop her back and forth to her work place. At that time she worked in a day care centre and she completely relied on him for transportation as she did not know how to drive yet. Once when he was hospitalized, she was called back to work place, in that situation she rode her step-son’s bicycle for 3 hours uphill via the back roads to reach the school in time. This would normally take 20 minutes’ drive by a car to that place.
When they reached Oklahoma, she got a job as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant for about a year and it was her first experience. She never complained about having had to work when her husband had backaches and other medical problems. She had to leave her little son with her husband when she went to work even though he was not at all able to care for him due to his constant backache and him taking pain medications. After a year, she joined nearby a Mc Donald Restaurant and worked for few months. In the meantime she managed to get her nursing assistant license from the Tulsa technical center. On the other hand her son was in a daycare still too young to be left without his mother for hours. She had no choice but had to work to survive.
Since 2004, she has been working as a nursing assistant; taking care of old people and she really loved it.
The new environment in Oklahoma was unpleasant to her husband and that anxiety compelled him to drink and he never mingled with the people around. When she talked with the Kuki people, he was angry assuming that they were talking ill matter about him and all her assurance and efforts to convince him were in vain. Her good time with the new community turned into a sour rough patch to their family relations. He began to have more drinking problems and refused any help from anyone. He became a totally different person when he drank but was his sweet self when not. It made it a hard and difficult situation for her to do anything as she did and tried her best to keep him out of control. It became increasingly evident to her that his abusing his pain medications was not for the good of anyone in the family. Her stepson did not want to live with his dad no more and asked to live with his relatives in Vermont after her husband signed off on the court papers for him.
He felt so much inferiority complex too as his wife was working and he was out of work due to his bad back and on pain medication. When he became more abusive, she could not take it anymore. She took the hard decision to live separate from him. She had always wanted to be together but she made it and wanted him to realize what he lost. She ran away with her little kid on her back to her church friends for help at night. They helped her find an apartment for her in a rough neighborhood in south Peoria as no other options left.
Photo Credit : Courtesy of Shanti Thokchom and Finding the Voices
She went to work and kept her little son in a day care. Her church friends helped to drop and pick her and her little son up from home and work & day care. They took out time to teach her to drive 2-3 times a week. Even though she lived separate from her husband, she used to cook food for him as she knew what he liked and left it at his door, to show how much she still cared and had concerns for him. She was able to get her driving license in no time but her husband was more worried when she got it. It was his way of being in control. It took away the chance to do that. Many times, he used to call and asked her to forgive him and to let him transport her to and from work but she was not ready for that .She wanted him to get help for his addiction and realize his great loss of his family. She worked double shifts i.e. 16 hours on weekends so that she could be with her son during the week.
In 2008, she lost her husband in an accident at his apartment. On that unfortunate day, he never called her up. She got worried as she was so used to his calling her up many times at her work place. She made calls to his phone but it all went into voice mail. She reported to the apartment leasing office to find out that if everything was okay with him as he never called her up that day. They cited privacy laws and would not give out any information. She got a very bad feeling and a gut feeling of something being not right with him. She then called up his relatives to inquire if anything happened to him and to contact the leasing office. She would not know what happened to him as she was still at work and her son was in the day care. His relatives insisted on the apartment office folks to go and check on him .They broke open his door and found out that he had instantly died due to his head and neck injuries due to the fall from the stairs. She was shocked and numbed by his death. She did not wish him to die this way!! She was filled with guilt over his death thinking of how much he would have been in pain and no one to there to help him!! Only after she saw the medical examiner’s report, she felt relieved to know it was an instant death due to the hemorrhage and severe trauma to his head and neck!!
Journey of a hard working and brave Nursing Assistant – Shanti Thokchom – Part 1.1
Original Podcast is available at Finding the Voices by Monica Ingudam Episode 24