Bhavani Velu is the business development manager for Stat 9 Technologies in Cary. She is a third generation Singaporean who moved to Durham with her husband Praveen Nair in 1996.
MF: How did your family wind up in Singapore?
BV: My mother’s family came to Singapore from the Andhra Pradesh region of India during World War 2. My grandfather was a labor contractor who worked with the Japanese who had taken Singapore during the war. The Japanese and the Indians had good relations, for some reason. After Japan fell, many of the Japanese in Singapore even went to hide in Indian homes.
My father’s family was Tamil and they had moved to Malaysia. His family was wealthy, but they lost it after his father died. My grandmother liked to play mah jong too much. He found work as a truck driver and had worked his way up there.
My mother’s family sought a match for her, but there were very few Telugu-speaking families in Singapore-Malaysia. My grandfather put out a notice for an Indian groom who didn’t have to speak Telugu, but who was hard-working and willing to move to Singapore. My father brought his mother, his sister, and his niece to Singapore. My parents had five children. I’m the only girl and I have two older brothers and two younger brothers. Though, they spoke different Indian languages, my parents mostly spoke to one another in Tamil, as my mother learned Tamil in school. Modern Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. I was educated in English there.
My father got a multi-axle license in Singapore and was very successful as a truck driver. He was able to earn about $80,000 American per year there. I grew up in a very multi-cultural neighborhood. Our next door neighbors’ were Indian Muslims and Catholic Christians. The family across the street was Chinese. The families would greet one another in one another’s language and celebrate their holidays together. The common language spoken was Malay and English. For Diwali, we would prepare non-vegetarian dishes for our non-Indian neighbors. My parents would participate in midnight prayers at their Chinese neighbors’ home after their parent’s passed. We would attend festivals at Mosques and Christmas services at churches. One of my sister-in-laws is Catholic. Another is Portuguese-Chinese. I’ve always loved how freely we shared our celebrations and cultures in Singapore.
MF: How and when did you meet your husband?
BV: Praveen is from Mumbai and his descendants from Kerala, the southwestern tip of India. He was teaching IT in Singapore and was staying as a paid guest at my relative’s house. His native language is Malayalam and he wanted to enter a Tamil singing contest. I wound up teaching him Tamil, so he could participate. I was working as a journalist for Singapore’s Tamil newspaper. He proposed, but I told him—at first– that our two worlds were too far apart, but he won me over. He was the first man I’d met who was comfortable just being himself. He didn’t try to put on a show of wooing me. Still, neither of our families were happy about it.
BV: His family wanted him to marry an Indian from India. My mother wanted me to marry someone who would stay in Singapore. I had been proposed to by two Singapore-Chinese men before I met my husband and my mother actually would have preferred those matches. My father liked my husband, but he deferred to my mother, because he felt her family had given him everything he had. It sounds strange, but we were two generations removed from being in India. My family had visited India several times, but as tourists who stayed in hotels, etc. My mother actually thought they still expected widows to immolate themselves after their husband’s deaths and she was afraid of how I would be treated in India.
MF: Did you and your brothers have love matches?
BV: Yes, except for my younger brother who had an arranged marriage with an Indian woman. My brothers have all stayed in Singapore. I’m the only family member who came to America.
Praveen is something of a free thinker, part of why I fell in love with him: he wanted us to be friends and not dominant husband and subservient Hindu wife. He would tell me, “When we are married, I want us to call one another by our first names and not “chettan”: the traditional Keralite way for a wife to address her husband literally means “elder”.
He told his parents that he was going to marry me regardless. If they didn’t approve, we were simply going to move to America and not see them. He already had a job offer from Glaxo SmithKline. His parents gave in and my parents permitted me to go to Mumbai to meet his family. I got there on a Friday and my husband explained that we were going to be married on Saturday, because he had to start his job in North Carolina on Wednesday. He told me, “I’m not going to leave India without you being my wife.”
MF: It sounds like the plot of a Bollywood movie.
BV: Our friends kid us about that. Fortunately, Keralite weddings are very simple and fast, maybe ten minutes tops.
MF: So, no elephants?
BV: nothing like that.
MF: Did your parents come for the wedding?
BV: No. Since it was a ‘fast marriage’. My father gave his blessing over the phone, but my mother was still hoping it wouldn’t work out. She didn’t speak to me for three years after the wedding.
After my husband flew to America, I stayed with my in-laws in Mumbai for two weeks. I’d only been to India as a tourist. Keralite customs were totally different. His parents woke up at five every morning and finished breakfast by 6:30. I was expected to wear full saris. In Singapore, the buses would actually stop at the bus stop. In India, you’re expected to run after them. To get me to cross the street in traffic there, my in-laws had to have me close my eyes while they took my hand and guided me across.
MF: So, you started your married life in North Carolina.
BV: Believe it or not, we couldn’t get used to how rural it seemed here. Because of the movies, I thought everything in America was office buildings in skyscrapers. Everything in the Triangle was trees. All the business closed by nine. We were used to spending the evening with friends then going with them to the Hawker Centre for curry buns or char kway teow after midnight.
Neither of us knew how to drive and they told us the buses here could be dangerous. My husband’s Indian colleagues would pick him up in our apartment complex and drive him to and from work. We would walk to the Food Lion to shop for groceries and carry the groceries in sacks over our backs.
Four months in, my husband got his license. We went to a fast food drive thru and my husband asked for chili sauce with his chicken sandwich. The gave him a cup of chili, the kind with beans and meat. Our first non-Indian friend in America was Praveen’s driving instructor, Jerry. He’d come to the door, smell our food, and comment on the aroma. We invited him in for chicken curry. Jerry taught most of the Indian people we knew how to drive.
MF: What was the Indian community in the Triangle like in 1996?
BV: First, we were active in a group of about 45 who’d come here from Singapore/Malaysia. (After Britain’s Asian colonies won their independence after World War 2, Malaysia and Singapore were a single country for 15 years. A Malay nationalist movement that stressed Malay/Muslim identity led to Singapore’s independence in 1965). For about 6 years, we would meet at the predecessor of the Rasa-Malaysian restaurant in Chapel Hill now run by Simon and Winnie Leong for Chinese New Year, Christmas, and other occasions.
Because I came on an H4 Visa, family of an H1 visa holder, I couldn’t work during my first few years here, so I got involved with local community groups. One of the strange things was that this was that the Indians we met in the Triangle were some of the first Indians from India, whom I’d ever gotten to know well. I was surprised by how the local Indian communities tended to separate along ethnic lines. There were Gujarati, Telugu, Kerala, Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi, Kannada, etc. groups that maintained separate identities.
I helped to organize a talent show that brought all the groups together and David Price, the congressman from the fourth district, was kind enough to attend. He mentioned that up to then, he hadn’t realized that the Indians in the Triangle were anything other than Gujarati.
In the meantime, my husband and I became friends with his work supervisors and their families who were African-American and British. We also came to like the fact that this area is not as rushy as Singapore or Mumbai.
MF: I take it there were other significant events in your first years here.
RV: We had a son, Pranav, in 1997.
MF: That’s significant.
RV: Our first few years here, Praveen and I often talked about someday returning to Singapore, but Pranav was born and raised in North Carolina. He was a Public forum debater and a sprinter at Cary Academy. He’s now a sophomore at UNC Charlotte in their automotive engineering and motorsports program.
MF: He’s not studying to be a doctor, lawyer, or IT professional?
RV: We’ve always encouraged our son to do what speaks to him. When Pranav was just over a year, my uncle came to visit for a conference and we walked to Toys ’R’ us, so he could buy Pranav a toy. He insisted that Pranav do the choosing; Pranav went right up to big red toy car.
After Praveen did his duty of building his parents a home in India, we bought our first house in Durham.
BV: There’s a joke that Indians here meet and ask “What part of Cary do you live in?” Because of the way I grew up in Singapore, we wanted a diverse neighborhood. We love having neighbors who are white, African-American, East Asian, etc.
When Pranav started at Duke School, there was a new boy in his class from Kenya and Pranav made a point of drawing him out and befriending him. The boy’s parents said he might not have made it through the first month there, if it hadn’t been for Pranav. At Cary Academy, Pranav’s “squad” of five close friends are white, Asian Indian, Mexican, African-American, half-Chinese. We’re proud of him for that. Here’s the funny thing. Pranav dated a variety of girls when he was in high school, but at some point he decided that he preferred to be with someone Hindu, because of the customs and the food. When he comes home, he goes to temple on Saturday and Sunday mornings on his own initiative.
MF: So, he’s kept with Hindu tradition, except maybe for the dating?
BV: Yes, that’s not part of Hindu tradition. We still tell and encourage him to keep an open mind about whomever he might want to spend his life with. We’ve told him that God is universal.
MF: How often do you go back to Singapore and India.
BV: Every year or so. We usually take three weeks, one week in Singapore and two in India. It’s a lot to pack in. Pravan has always loved the trips there. He’s especially amused when I break into Singlish (a variant of British English that includes Mandarin, Hokkien, Tamil, and Malay terms) with my old school friends.
My friends there ask me how we can prefer the U.S.? They all have maids, the schools are great, it’s safer, Singapore’s food is maybe the best in the world. It’s funny, but having to drive my son to and from school here became our way of talking about things and bonding. In Singapore, he would have been on the metro by himself. In some ways, we found ourselves suited to American culture.
MF: Is there something that would surprise people about your lives?
BV: My husband is part of a singing group, G-razz, made up of five male singers all from Kerala. They do fundraisers, public, private events, weddings, anniversaries, graduation parties. I help manage the group. My son is also very musical. He plays the piano. He won the YAA top award two years in a row. My uncle encouraged him to play different kinds of music, so he could be heard by many types of people.
I’m also a big soccer fan. As a journalist in Singapore, I used to cover the national team which had a caucasian goalie, a Muslim fullback, Indian midfielder and a Chinese forward.
One other thing, I eat with chopsticks (Indians traditionally do not use utensils) and when I shop at Grand Asia, the checkers sometimes are surprised to see me buying bok choy, Chinese style noodles, Tofu, sambal, ‘Chinese wheat Curllers”
and other East Asian foods. They’re even more surprised when I tell them that I grew up eating these things. It may also surprise some people that Hindus in Kerala, where Praveen is from, eat beef.
MF: Now that your son is in college, what do you do now?
BV: I’ve always been active in the community. I wrote for an Indian Magazine and the INDY weekly’s annual magazine in the Triangle and was a licensed insurance agent. In 2014, I became the business development manager for Stat9 Technologies in Cary, a company that provides IT services for other businesses. The owners and most of the employees there are Indian immigrants and I serve as first contact for the clients.
MF: Are you naturalized?
BV: Praveen is and Pranav, of course, was born here. I prefer to keep my Singaporean citizenship, butI think of North Carolina as my next closest home. In North Carolina, you have the freedom to explore your options and let your heart flow freely. I became a mom and wife here. My husband and I made careers here. It’s allowed us to live our lives, make our mistakes, and fix them. We love the diversity of Durham and are proud to live here.
MF: So, will you be coming to this year’s Dragon Boat Festival?
BV: Funny you mention that. Praveen was saying they have a similar kind of rowing race in Kerala known as Vallam Kali. They’re called “snake boats.”
MF: Mmmm…. Dragons vs. Snakes this September, kind of like the next sequel to The Fast and The Furious? We need to send you registration information.
Do you have a story to tell? We’re looking for personal stories and family stories for any Asians living with ties to the Triangle. If you have a story to tell, contact us!