Aarti Shahani Family

The Shahanis came to Queens—from India, by way of Casablanca—in the 1980s. They were undocumented for a few unsteady years and then, with the arrival of their green cards, they thought they’d made it. This is the story of how they did, and didn’t; the unforeseen obstacles that propelled them into years of disillusionment and heartbreak; and the strength of a family determined to stay together.

Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares follows the lives of Aarti, the precocious scholarship kid at one of Manhattan’s most elite prep schools, and her dad, the shopkeeper who mistakenly sells watches and calculators to the notorious Cali drug cartel. Together, the two represent the extremes that coexist in our country, even within a single family, and a truth about immigrants that gets lost in the headlines. It isn’t a matter of good or evil; it’s complicated.

Ultimately, Here We Are is a coming-of-age story, a love letter from an outspoken modern daughter to her soft-spoken Old World father. She never expected they’d become best friends.

Keep reading for an excerpt from Here We Are.

Being a girl was not all downside. It afforded me freedom in a key way: because my father did not expect me to have a career, he did not pressure me to follow in his footsteps. My visits to his store were infrequent. Even though he could use a lot more help, he didn’t pressure me that way.

That meant when I turned sixteen, legal working age, I could forge my own path. With help from Brearley, I set out to get the summer job of my dreams.

The Fred F. French Building is an art deco skyscraper on Fifth Avenue.

The entryway is dipped in gold: revolving doors, mailbox, elevators, radiators—every corner is like an Indian bride’s neck. I was here for my first job interview. It wasn’t for manual labor—cleaning floors or serving food (though Mom, who’d done that work, would have been very proud). It was a job that came with a desk, a computer, and a view. I hit the gold button for the 22nd floor.

“Welcome to Squadron, Ellenoff, how may I help you?” the receptionist greeted me. She was black, the only dark face I spotted besides mine. This place was the adult version of Brearley, with even fewer people of color.

“I’m here to see Elliot Sagor,” I said, unsure if I was supposed to hand her my résumé. She nodded for me to have a seat in the waiting area.

“I’m here for a job.” I offered this detail she didn’t ask for.

A jolly-looking man with a bounce in his step and a towering yet soft physique arrived in minutes. He was not handsome. He was clean-cut with a functional face—his long nose tempered by full cheeks and a mop of thick silver hair.

Mr. Sagor reached out his hand to shake mine. “Firm,” he said of my grip. “Good.”

I liked him. He affirmed me.

He was the husband of my English teacher. She taught my class on American literature and often brought homemade scones and jam for us to munch on while we dissected Faulkner.

That was Brearley: a top-notch teacher with top-notch pastries. I didn’t care much for Faulkner. Stream of consciousness seemed like one of those elitist ploys to call something “art” because it was incomprehensible. But I loved Mrs. Sagor’s orange scones.

When she asked in class if anyone wanted a summer job that paid twelve dollars an hour, my hand was the sole one to shoot up. That was a lot of money—nearly triple the minimum wage at the time. Only at Brearley would no one else jump at it.

“You’re my wife’s student,” Mr. Sagor seemed to remind himself, and then he flattered me a bit more. “She says you’re a very good student. Very hardworking.”

I panicked. Would he quiz me on The Sound and the Fury? I wasn’t prepared.

“Can you type and write shorthand?” he asked.

“I’m a very fast typer. We have a computer at home, so I’ve practiced a lot.” I spoke quickly, as if there were a timer running and the speed of my mouth was a proxy for my typing. Dad bought us a computer and, while he didn’t use it, enjoyed watching us master it. I wasn’t sure what “shorthand” was—if it was a specific way of taking notes—so I hoped that line of questioning would go away. It did.

“When did you start at Brearley?” Mr. Sagor asked me.

“In ninth grade.”

“That’s pretty late, isn’t it? Don’t most of the girls start in kindergarten or first?”

“Yes. I was in public school before, in Queens. I came in through a scholarship program.” As soon as that detail left my mouth, I wanted to shoot myself. This is not the food stamp office; it’s a job. If he knows I don’t come from money, he’ll know he can pay me less.

I was being paranoid. Mr. Sagor hired me on the spot and didn’t try to nickel and dime me. In fact, he added that when I worked overtime, the hourly rate would go up 50 percent to eighteen dollars an hour. I was floored. By my estimate, I would be making more in my first job than

Uncle Ratan’s son made. He worked at the store.

The only hard edge in this softball interview came at the end. My soon-to-be boss asked that I come to work wearing “appropriate attire.”

We both tried not to look at my V-neck leotard from Bang Bang.

I was so eager to share the news with Dad, I nearly took the R train to 28th Street. The store was minutes away. But Dad would not have approved of my top either. So I went home to throw on a sweatshirt and wait. It had been so many years since I was excited for Dad to come home. I felt like a little kid again.

The second he walked in, I blurted out, “I got the job!”

My announcement did not disrupt his routine: remove shoes, hang coat, stand before the poster of Guru Nanak, do Jai bhabha with the dog.

“Hah.” He kissed my forehead when he and Wrinkle were done praying. “Tell me.” I recapped each detail: my English teacher, the golden skyscraper, my firm grip, and, finally, the bombshell of details. “Twelve dollars an hour. Eighteen overtime.”

“HAH?” His eyes widened.

“Yes! That’s my starting wage.” It was a slight embellishment. I wasn’t sure if or when it would go up.

“Do they provide lunch?” Dad asked, searching for facts to make this implausible dollar figure more plausible.

“No, Dad.” I shook my head. “Professional offices don’t do that.” I was now briefing him on the professional world.

Hah, doll,” he said. “It is very good. God bless you. Always.”

I was speaking to him in his religion. To call Dad a “workaholic” would be to put in anemic, clinical terms a phenomenon rooted in his spirit. “Work is worship.” That’s not what Dad said, at least not out loud.

It was the mantra on his keychain, always in his pocket, a heavy bronze medallion with the Lord Vishnu and his four hands etched in—Dad’s reminder that through labor a universe is born.

This night, Dad didn’t show excitement. He showed focus. His eyes were with me, not somewhere faraway like they usually were. On her first attempt, his baby girl shattered a ceiling in America that he could not reach in his first several years of trying.

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  • Aarti Shahani
    Aarti Shahani

    Aarti Namdev Shahani is the author of memoir Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares. She is a correspondent for NPR based in Silicon Valley, covering the largest companies on earth. Her reporting has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Her activism was honored by the Union Square Awards and Legal Aid Society. She received a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, with generous support from the university and the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. She completed her bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago. She was among the youngest recipients of the Charles H. Revson Fellowship at Columbia University and is an alumna of A Better Chance, Inc. Shahani grew up in Flushing, Queens―in one of the most diverse zip codes in the country―and believes every American should visit her hometown to understand what makes America great.

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