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Mitra Kalita, Journalist

My parents immigrated here in the 70s. I was born in Brooklyn, and then we moved to Massepequa, Long Island in 1978. Massepequa is a fairly blue collar town--that's where Jerry Seinfeld is from. It's very Italian and Jewish. I wouldn't say we encountered any blatant discrimination, but my brother and I were often asked exactly what kind of Indian we were, what tribe were we from. There was very little understanding of where India was or what being Indian really meant.

Seven years later, my family moved to Puerto Rico when my father's company transferred him to oversee a project. For three years we lived in Puerto Rico, which was a very warm culture. It was a great chance for my brothers and I to realize that we weren't just Indian and we weren't just American, but that we were really citizens of a much bigger world. I think living in Puerto Rico had a lot do to with why I got into journalism.

In 1988, we moved to West Windsor, New Jersey, right outside of Princeton. That's where I went to middle school and high school. After living in Puerto Rico, my parents wanted us to be in a diverse environment that had a good high school. West Windsor is maybe 15-20% Asian. So, here was an environment where we saw other Indian kids for the first time in school.

I think Puerto Rico piqued my interest in learning about other people and learning about other cultures. Moving around as a kid forces you to be a little bit more extroverted. I joined the school newspaper as a way to make friends. When we were in New Jersey, I took journalism as an elective because I thought it would be fun. When I was looking through my piles of papers from Puerto Rico, I discovered that I actually made a newspaper when I was eleven. When my father wanted to move us back to the mainland, I protested his decision by making a newspaper. Early on, I must have known that journalism could somehow give me a voice. I was trying to tell my parents something. It was a young girl's version of what journalism can do, that it can effect change. In that case, we ended up moving, but I would like to think that the things we write get people to think differently, in some cases, get people to act. And that's very important to my identity as an Asian American.

When I knew I wanted to be a journalist, I couldn't name another Indian in the profession--having that precedent is usually critical to receiving support from South Asian parents. However, my parents didn't dwell on that. Instead their message to us was always pick what you're going to do and then you should try to do it really well. They weren't necessarily focused on science, math and engineering, although when I was in high school and I got bad grades in those subjects, I was in big trouble because those were seen as really stable fields.

What I really appreciate about my parents is that they saw journalism as much more than a hobby. When I was a senior in high school, I got an internship at the Wall Street Journal Classroom Edition. I didn't have my driver's license yet, so a couple times my father took me to work and waited in the car while I did a three or four hour shift. In those days, he never said to me, "I'm really proud of you. It's great that you got an internship at the Wall Street Journal. You should pursue this!" He never said anything like that, but implicitly, by his waiting in the car, he showed such support for the crazy things I was doing. I think that's very much an Asian parent reaction.

S. Mitra Kalita is a general assignment reporter at The Washington Post. She is also the author of SUBURBAN SAHIBS: THREE IMMIGRANT FAMILIES AND THEIR PASSAGE FROM INDIA TO AMERICA (Rutgers University Press, 2003 and Penguin-India, 2004). In her previous position, she was a business reporter for New York City's Newsday, covering immigration and the economy. In the months following 9/11, she reported on the backlash faced by Arabs and South Asians in New York area. Mitra earned her BA in history and journalism from Rutgers University and a Master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Mitra is the recipient of many awards, including being named Young Journalist of the Year by the New York State Associated Press Association.

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