What role does culture play in how we experience anxiety? In this series, women of diverse backgrounds weigh in.

At 69 years old, Dr. Saroja Kurubarahalli hasn’t given up her career as a radiation oncologist practicing in the Chicago metropolitan area. Though she has also come a long way from her childhood in Bangalore, she hasn’t forgotten the road that led her here.

Saroja’s mother passed away when she was young, so her father was the greatest influence in her life and that of her four siblings. She calls him a “self-made person”—the first in his family to get an education. He in turn wanted each of his children to earn a degree. That was a stark contrast to the expectation—her mother, for example, went to school through eighth grade. “That level at that time was a pretty good education actually,” Saroja says. “The standard of education was so different in those days. So my father wanted everyone to be educated, girls or boys, it did not matter.”

Despite the fact that she had no role models, she says, she knew from the time she was in grade school that she wanted to be a doctor. While her father worried that she wouldn’t pass her entrance exams into medical school—the sons of some of his friends couldn’t make the grade—she steadily jumped that hurdle, and all of the ones that followed. Saroja was the first female physician in the Uppara minority group she belonged to. As a pediatrician, she provided much-needed medical care to her community until she moved to the United States.

The adjustment to the US was bewildering. She was used to the British English she had learned back home, and she didn’t understand American slang. “I spoke fast and people had difficulties understanding me,” she recalls. She had just as much difficulty understanding them.

The challenge was not just linguistic, but cultural too. Saroja was surprised to discover everything from American dating culture and the phenomenon of teen pregnancy, to the casual rapport between professors and students. “Even though I spent so many years in this country, even today, my mentor, the chairman of the department, I still call them by their last name.”

Western clothing was one of the hardest things for her to adopt. “All the girls who came from South India wore saris to work in Cook County, so I continued to do the same thing. If I had gone to a different state where there were no Indians or only a few or the hospitals had a dress code, I probably would’ve changed right over night,” she says. “Only in the early 80s [did] I started wearing pants. Unless something is forced on me, I don’t change that quickly.”

All the same, she says, she never felt isolated or discriminated against. There was a large Indian community in Chicago and at the hospital. “When I came to this country, I was never alone,” she says. “I got absorbed by the group.”

She also enjoyed a level of independence and safety she didn’t believe she would have had in India, where many of the women she graduated with gave up the jobs in underprivileged communities out of fear for their safety. “There are not enough facilities and not enough protection to practice there,” Saroja says. Instead they moved to big cities to work in private practice, living with their parents or husbands—or, like Saroja, found their way to the States.

Saroja was also eager to leave India because the caste system affected her personally. “If you don’t belong to the proper caste to get a proper education or a proper job, everything is a hindrance,” she says. “The degree of discrimination is much higher in India. Either you had to have political or financial influence or you had to belong to the proper community. People like me who had no political influence, no financial strength—the only thing I had was education—I would not have survived in India.”

All and all, Saroja says, she hasn’t experience a lot of anxiety since moving to the US all those years ago.

“The bottom line is, I’m just kind of happy, I feel good about living in this country, that’s all I can tell you.”


Featured image: San Tsuki