I work at the Tenement Museum, delving deep into the experiences of immigrants who arrived over a hundred years before me, and their stories have grounded me in this new place. By exploring their trials and tribulations I have been gifted with perspective of my own.
It is true that those who came before us were just people like ourselves, living in a different time, doing the best they could with what they had available. I remember walking down Broadway near Lincoln Center and feeling utterly lost and aimless in New York, no job, still waiting on my work permit, terrified at starting my life over again. Thinking about my friends and family that I had left behind in New Zealand. Frightened to jay walk, paranoid that some cop would arrest me for doing it. I also felt so challenged. At times I would want to curl up into a ball and just disappear. I didn’t want to start my life over again. I had to find the drive to start over.
Tenement Museum Educator Raj Varma
Even language was different for me in America. I grew up speaking not American English, but the Queen’s English (Like Colin Firth). For me, a “torch” is an instrument that you put batteries into that creates light. However, it caused a huge laugh at a Tenement Museum educator meeting when I mentioned that object; my colleagues pointed out that here they call it a flashlight. I think they envisioned me as a New Zealand version of Indiana Jones, wandering through the building with an ignited rag wrapped around a human femur. In New Zealand a “bench” is what Americans call a “countertop”. Biscuits vs. cookies, zebra crossings vs. crosswalks, entrees vs. appetizers vs. mains vs. entrees. I could go on. And on. And on.
On a more serious level, it took me years to be able to use the term “black” without feeling like I was going to offend somebody, and terms that are loaded here, like the “N” word, I used flippantly in New Zealand as a teenager. We never had a civil rights movement in New Zealand. The “N” word was more of a joke than a racial slur.
On my honeymoon, my wife and I went to the Finger Lakes district in Western New York and we hired a car. I ended up driving into incoming traffic on the highway. It was instinctual for me, I had to undo what I knew and adapt to the new way.
And when I think of immigrants at the Tenement each day, I can imagine how they would have felt upon their arrival in Manhattan. It’s conjecture that those feelings may have mirrored my own. Nobody will know how Bridget Moore felt in 1863 when she arrived in this new world. But I take heart in the belief that emotions are divine. We have felt them since before the ages and they make us human.
To know the struggles of those who have come before is a gift indeed. To feel emotionally connected with these souls is a validation for me. I share in their triumph and quietly gain confidence from the knowledge that if they did it, so can I. And for those who failed, those that died with dreams unfulfilled, I am reminded everyday of how lucky I am to enjoy the benefits of a nation made rich through the waves of immigrants that created it.
Rajeev Varma is a New Zealand-born Rajasthani/Punjabi actor who has worked extensively in theatre, film and television. He starred in New Zealand's prime time comedy, The Millen Baird Show and New Zealand's first Indo-Asian sketch comedy show, 1000 Apologies. He is one half of the comedy duo Those Indian Guys, with comedian Tarun Mohanbhai. His one-man show D’Arranged Marriage has been playing in Manhattan for almost two years. Rajeev currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his amazing and patient wife.