Erin Knauer and Chandran Kaimal participated in the Digital Life History Project at Colgate University. Here is Erin’s moving account of the strong inter-generational and cross-cultural friendship that emerged from this project. You can see the digital story they made together (honoring Chandran’s immigrant experiences) here.
When I first met Chandran, I saw a kind little old man, who seemed a bit shy and willing but embarrassed to open up to me. He couldn’t really fathom why I was interested in hearing his story. During graduation he touched on this, saying that he had resigned/expected no surprises to come in his old age, that he would not develop such a close relationship since he had formed them all when younger. And this ended up not being the case with our close friendship, which has broadened to include my family.
Our first conversation consisted of a broad overview of his life, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I was. I think the real reason behind this is that I am the daughter of a Colombian immigrant who came to this country with nothing, and eventually, with hard work, made something of herself- a rags to riches kind of story. So I felt we immediately had this base connection, something by which he could understand me, in terms of my identity, (cultural), much better then anyone else I know.
I’ve listened to all my mom’s stories my entire life (occasionally unwillingly), and I love them. Chandran’s stories were very similar in many regards. He told me about his continuous struggles to assimilate, the sacrifice of leaving your family behind for your own prosperity/path, and about his close bond to his children and what he carried from his culture and traditions to them.
From the first session, we talked for hours, finding more similarities in his and my Mother’s stories, comparing their experiences living the American life/dream, and how they raised their children. He could truly understand my perspective on things, my sense of belonging to no place or culture, calling three separate countries home, feeling like an outsider amongst ‘my own’ people, and he could see how that lead me to study anthropology.
The more I talked with him, the more I wanted to see him and spend time with him, since he was an escape from school and gave me guidance. In this way he took on a grandfather role, and he considers me one of his granddaughters. This resulted in a kind of mutual helping and counseling, where he helped me de-stress and begin to believe in myself, and I helped by listening and, on a few occasions, giving him my perspective on something that troubled him. And we usually did all this talking over dinner, which made it even more special and made it feel more like I was coming home when I walked through their door.
In the following semesters we made it a point to meet at least once each time, so we could catch up and he could hear about how I was doing with school. I really wanted him to meet my family, especially my mom, and so the last night I spent at Hamilton before heading home, Chandran and his wife Lorraine invited my parents and I to their house for dinner. My mom and Chandran traded stories over what I had told each about the other, which was quite fun to hear. They also compared their immigrant stories and exchanged perspectives they developed through living as Americans and having families here.
I asked Chandran if he would come to my graduation, for which he most graciously agreed, and so when I came back in May, I came back early and stayed stayed at his house. That gave us a little time to catch up, and in the evening my parents and sister arrived and we enjoyed another wonderful dinner. My sister also hit it off with him and she now corresponds with him, in regards to cooking Indian food. And so our family bond grows!
I look to Chandran as a comforting, kind, and understanding figure who I can talk to about anything. My grandparents died when I was little, so he has replaced/represents them in my eyes. I love the wisdom he imparts so willingly to me, and that fatherly love he has bestowed on me, and I’m so thankful I was lucky enough to receive it.
I hope this answers your questions and please let me know if you have any more. Sorry I made this so long, but I feel this is the least I can write to give an honest description of our relationship. I will keep in touch and let you know how things work out for me. Until then, please continue those life history interviews, because us students need to slow down and listen to the wise from time to time!