This item is an audio file.

Parbatee Mohan and Dan Persaud Oral History Interview

Daniel Persaud, a musician, interviews his grandmother Parbatee Mohan, a seamstress from a village in Berbice, Guyana about emigrating, her expectations of life in the United States, working to build their American Dream and her recent visit to India. The interview took place in the enclave of "Little Guyana" in Richmond Hill, Queens. When the family left Guyana in 1986, they brought clothes, Guyanese food, family photos, a first aid manual and three volumes of Nelson's West Indian Readers, a grammar school primer. Persaud's grandfather can be heard in the background.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

Duration: 00:23:46

Date: June 26, 2020
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Gaiutra Bahadur
Location: New York, NY

Interviewee: Parbatee Mohan

Interviewer: Daniel Persaud

Transcriber: Alisha Cunzio

DP: (0:00)
Let's start at the beginning. In Guyana, where did you live?

PM: (0:05)
In the Courantyne.

DP: (0:07)
Courantyne? Yeah.

PM: (0:11)
The Courantyne is make up of lot of villages, and we live in number 6 of 7 village.

DP: (0:20)
There-- Who did you live there with? Who was there?

PM: (0:24)
I live with my parents.

DP: (0:28)
That's when-- right before you came? You lived there - with your parents?

PM: (0:37)
Oh no, you ask me where I was living before.

DP: (0:38)
Right before. Yeah, that's fine.

PM: (0:42)
Yeah, but I moved to Bloomfield village. From-- from Bloomfield village we left to America.

DP: (0:55)
Hmm, and who is in your house - at the time, before you came.

PM: (0:59)
Before I came, I was living in my house. I work really hard. We had built a foundation there. We had rice lands, cane farming, and that-- that's how we were supposed to live, but then we decided to come to America.

DP: (1:18)
So it was you. It was not--

PM: (1:20)
Me, my husband, and my three children.

DP: (1:24)
It was Shivan--

PM: (1:26)
It was…

DP: (1:27)
Shavani, Sanil?

PM: (1:28)
Sanita, Sanil, and Shivani.

DP: (1:33)
And what did you guys do for work? You guys were cane farming and-- What did you guys do for work?

PM: (1:41)
Oh, what when we came to America--

DP: (1:44)
Before. Like, when you were at the Bloomfield house.

PM: (1:48)
Oh. When I was at Bloomfield, my husband was a teacher. We had up a cane farming, so that is where we get most of our money. And I was a seamstress making clothes.

DP: (2:02)
You make clothes for the whole village?

PM: (2:03)
Yes, for the village-- for the villagers.

DP: (2:06)
And everybody knew you?

PM: (2:07)
Everybody knew me quite well, yes.

DP: (2:09)
Everybody knew everybody.

PM: (2:11)
Everybody knew everybody.

DP: (2:13)
What was the feeling? Like, were you happy there? Everyb-- everything?

PM: (2:17)
Oh, it was like-- We were very happy - very happy. We had everything, because it was hard work. I mean, like any other place, you work hard, you get what you want.

DP: (2:30)
Mm hmm. And then everybody knew him because he was the teacher.

PM: (2:36)
My husband was a teacher. He was teaching at the-- a couple of villages far from my house. And everybody knew him because he was a very good teacher.

DP: (2:49)

PM: (2:50)
He taught common entrance, and that's one level to high school. If you don't pass common entrance, you can never go to high school-- or school again. That's the end of your life. So it was a very, very interesting class that he was teaching, and was working very hard. He always have...about 99% passes.

DP: (3:25)
Wow. So he made sure. He cared about his students.

PM: (3:26)
Yeah, so he was a very good teacher.

DP: (3:31)
Okay, so what circumstances made you want to come to America? Like why?

PM: (3:37)
Well, Guyana is a third world country, and always America. We always hear of America. I came-- I was already set to live in Guyana, but for the kids, they're have no life there. You have to really work hard, and you have to have a lot of thing - to use the word rich - to be a rich person. So we decided to come for the kids - for education for the kids.

DP: (4:04)
So, it was mostly because they wanted to go.

PM: (4:08)
Yeah, because of that education for the kids. That's why we came.

DP: (4:11)
What kind of expectations did you have - for America? Like what did you--?

PM: (4:18)
Oh, we always say this - “America is a bed of roses.” But listen, when we came here we-- It was-- It was around Thanksgiving time. It was cold. We came with summer clothes--

DP: (4:35)
Wait, wait! We're gonna get there. We’re gonna get there. Hold on one second - we're gonna get there. Like, I'm still talking about-- You're still in Guyana, and you're still thinking, “We're about to go to America.” So what is America like? What did you think it was going to be?

PM: (4:52)
Oh yeah! Oh, we thought we will pick money. We thought money is all over the streets. I will pick money, and you do all these-- buy all these nice clothes, and all these nice food, and everything.

DP: (5:07)
So that-- you thought--

PM: (5:08)
That was the expectation we had.

DP: (5:10)
Nānā always told me that he thought the gold-- there was-- the streets were made with gold.

PM: (5:15)
Oh god. We thought so different of America.

DP: (5:22)
Yeah. But did you-- did you all have family here already?

PM: (5:27)
We had family here. Nānā had… Nānā had all his sisters and brothers, mother and father. I had one sister here. That's all my family.

DP: (5:43)
That was old Nani? She was here before you?

PM: (5:45)

DP: (5:46)
Oh, okay. And... who was-- So who came with you when you came on your flight?

PM: (5:54)
On my flight - the three kids, myself, and my husband.

DP: (6:01)
I heard this story that Kenny was there, too.

PM: (6:04)
Oh, that's later.

DP: (6:06)

PM: (6:06)
Yeah, yeah, later.

DP: (6:07)
Oh okay. So it was... just the three kids--

PM: (6:10)
Three and two - five. Five of us.

DP: (6:11)

PM: (6:11)
Five of us.

DP: (6:12)
Okay. And did everybody-- Did all three of those kids want to move to America?

PM: (6:19)
Yeah, we were very excited. We were very excited to move to America.

DP: (6:26)
Everybody just was like-- [overlap with Parbatee] They couldn’t wait to leave.

PM: (6:28)
Oh, we can't wait for the day to come over here.

DP: (6:32)
Wow. They didn't feel like, ‘oh they’re leaving their friends, they're leaving their home, they’re leaving’...?

PM: (6:40)
You are missing-- This is a common word. ‘America is a bed of roses’ where money is lavish, food is lavish. Everything is up to par. So you-- I think we are thinking, “Oh, we'll just go there and pick and eat.”

DP: (7:00)
Yeah, wow. What did you think you were gonna miss the most about Bloomfield?

PM: (7:05)
Ah, I didn't think of missing my home. I think I miss my family - my brothers and sisters.

DP: (7:17)
How many brothers and sisters you left behind?

PM: (7:19)
I left four brothers and three sisters.

DP: (7:23)
Wow… wow. And you came here, and Mahata Mamu was here already?

PM: (7:29)
No no - nobody. I am the first one.

DP: (7:31)
You’re the first one?

PM: (7:32)
I’m the first one that came from my family.

DP: (7:33)
And he's the last one?

PM: (7:35)
And he is the last one - and he's the eldest of all brother and sister.

DP: (7:39)

PM: (7:39)

DP: (7:40)
When you're in Guyana, what-- And you're there - and you have two days left - what were you packing in your bags?

PM: (7:49)
All the nice clothes. All the nice food that I know all my family in America misses - like nice-- like fish and shrimp and--

DP: (8:00)
You packed food? You could pack food in those--?

PM: (8:01)
Oh yeah, yeah! You fold a suitcase with all the delicious things that they will-- they used to love and miss.

DP: (8:12)
So you have food and clothes.

PM: (8:13)
We had food, and clothes, and every little thing that we think we'll need for for the week - until we find the money in the street and--

DP: (8:23)
You didn't bring nothing special? Like... like a book or something. Something to remember?

PM: (8:28)
Oh yes. We picked up books that we like. We pick up… um… pictures that we wanted for memory. And things that we were very accustom to.

DP: (8:51)
Okay. So, you didn't think you would miss anything?

PM: (8:55) No.

DP: (8:56)
So how was the flight?

PM: (8:58)
It was scary, because we will never do accustom to plane. So it was a little scary, but we-- it-- altogether, we expected most of it that we had.

DP: (9:13)
So it was your first time on a plane - ever?

PM: (9:15)
First time-- No, it was not my first time on a plane. I went on vacation before.

DP: (9:23)
But the kids - it was their first?

PM: (9:25)
For the kids it was the first time, yes.

DP: (9:30)
Wow… And what-- Okay, so now you got off the flight. And when you see here-- When you got here, was it like you expected?

PM: (9:40)
We heard of cold, but when we reach the airport--

DP: (9:44)
What was it? When was it? It was wintertime when you came?

PM: (9:46)
It was wintertime. It was Thanksgiving Day, and we landed... by the time we pass immigration and ready to go out we were freezing. Immediately - immediately we think, “Oh my God, if it will be like this, we can’t stay here.” So family took to the airport, they took coats and hats and everything to make us feel a little comfortable until we reach home.

DP: (10:24)
Wow. What year was it?

PM: (10:29)
Six… 86? It was the year 86 - 1986. Yeah, 86.

DP: (10:35)
1986? That's when you came?

PM: (10:38)
That’s when we came.

DP: (10:40)
Thanksgiving Day, 1986.

PM: (10:42)
Thanksgiving Day, 1986.

DP: (10:45)
Wow. What did you see? And what-- Like what made your first impression in New York City? You know, you came here - like what did you see?

PM: (10:55)
Oh, the first impression we got was looking at the airport - looking at the bright lights. Oh, when we were in the plane, the first thing you look, you saw the lights and you said, “Hey, that's the city that never sleeps.” Yeah, that's the first thing you think of, because you always hear of the lights, and the cars, and the-- [cough in the background] It makes you, “Oh!” It was-- It makes us feel really good - makes us feel good for a moment. Until-- [laughs]

DP: (11:33)
Until you got outside and you feel that cold.

PM: (11:35)
Until we got outside. Yeah, I got cold.

DP: (11:38)
Was it what you thought it would be? When-- the bed of roses?

PM: (11:42)
No. No, we never think-- We were happy larks in my country. Isn't-- It was hard as ever. We didn't have a place to sleep, we didn't have a place to... [long pause] eat. It was very hard for us.

DP: (12:08)
So, where did you--

PM: (12:09)
We didn’t have clothes - coat, shoes, hat. We were walking in summer clothes in the heart of winter. It was really hard.

DP: (12:25)
So where did you live when you got here?

PM: (12:28)
We got separated - the kids move to somewhere else, I moved to somewhere else - and we live with family and friends.

DP: (12:39)
But everybody's still in the city?

PM: (12:40)
Everybody's still in the city - family, people that know us, people that know him as a teacher. They came to see us, and everybody give you a couple dollar, and that's-- Because those days, they don't allow you to bring too much money. You are allowed only a specific amount. So you cannot bring excess money. So we had nothing - we had nothing at all. We were not geared for the winter. We did not have a place to sleep. Not the-- not good food. Living with friends. Sleep anywhere - on the floor - anywhere.

DP: (13:27)
Wow. What was um-- Did you guys have jobs? Were you trying to get work?

PM: (13:32)
We try to get jobs after a couple of days - after we got our paper. The first thing you come here, you have to go apply for your paper - for your right. Yeah, so on up-- So we tried to do that. And because of the weather - we could not stand the weather outside - we stayed over a couple of days trying to get accustomed to the little cold, but it was hard. It was very hard for us.

DP: (14:06)
When did you get your first, you know, your own home where you all could stay together?

PM: (14:14)
We took an apartment after two weeks with the help of friends and family. They help us and give us a couple dollar - everybody comes in - and that's how we took our first apartment. And we we all have jobs. We all went out for - no matter how little it was - but we all had little jobs.

DP: (14:37)
So all the kids and everybody?

PM: (14:39)
All the kids and all of us had little jobs.

DP: (14:45)
Wow. And so the bed of roses - it was not the same.

PM: (14:51)
It was not even the same even after so long. It is still hard. We are still working - toiling out.

DP: (14:59)
That apartment - where was it?

PM: (15:02)
177 Irving Avenue. That is in-- that was in Brooklyn.

DP: (15:05)

PM: (15:07)
That was in Brooklyn, yes.

DP: (15:08)
And then when did you get that house?

PM: (15:10)
When we got that apartment we kind of feel a little bit more at ease. We start working. We start-- The kids start going to school.

DP: (15:21)
Oh, how was that? When the kids start going to school.

PM: (15:27)
Sunita - who was the eldest - she was already working back home. So she had an experience of working. She got a job in the bank, and she went start college - that was the first thing we tried to do. My son - who was one year older-- younger than Sunita - he got a job and did not go to school for the first couple months. Later, he went-- he started go to college, and he kept his job going. And Shivani - who was the little one - she went to school-- high school right away.

DP: (16:07)
Wow. And that was Jamaica High School?

PM: (16:11)
That was Jamaica High school.

DP: (16:13)
Even though you guys are still living in Brooklyn?

PM: (16:15)
Still living in Brooklyn.

DP: (16:17)
Wow. And then you started a life from there.

PM: (16:21)
Yeah, we start-- We start working and start saving every dime.

DP: (16:26)
You were still a seamstress? You were still-?

PM: (16:28)
No, no, I was working as a clerk in a store.

DP: (16:34)
And Nānā was - what was Nānā doing?

PM: (16:36)
Nānā was working two jobs. Sanil was working two jobs. And I was working all the late hours we have. We make up our money so fast to buy our first house.

DP: (16:54)
Wow. And where was that first house? What year did you get that first house?

PM: (16:57)
We bought our first house in 88. It was one year after.

DP: (17:01)
Wow, you guys worked hard.

PM: (17:03)
We work hard. And we had our first house, and then everybody went to college - everybody was going to college full time. College full time, school… um…

DP: (17:17)
Did you have other Guyanese-Americans in the community?

PM: (17:22)
Yeah, yeah. We had lot-- By then, we find a lot of friends, and family, and… yeah.

DP: (17:31)
So you started to get--

PM: (17:32)
And life become a different-- start to change.

DP: (17:35)
Did you-- You start-- When you started making friends and everything, was it like a cultural thing that you had to go through? Like, what was the culture difference from Guyana to here?

PM: (17:46)
From Guyana to here-- We didn't even have the time to go out to meet people, even. We still live the same kind of life until later. We become more-- we start going around, see how people live and everything like that. That's how we-- our life start changing.

DP: (18:12)
You have just like-- Like, I know Nānā loves the western movies and everything. Was that from Guyana or was that from here?

PM: (18:21)
No, the western movie was from Guyana.

DP: (18:23)
Oh, so...

PM: (18:23)
He always-- they used to go. We never have television home, but they used to go to the theater - to the movie theater.

DP: (18:30)
So what do you-- What kind of stuff did you guys do for fun? Or you just worked all the time?

PM: (18:35)
Oh no! We have lot of fun. We go to the beach, we work--

DP: (18:41)
In New York City?

PM: (18:42)
--in the yard.

DP: (18:43)
All in New York City?

PM: (18:44)
All in New York City. Oh, fun. Did we have fun? We worked a couple-- first couple of years very hard.

DP: (18:56)
Yeah. Wow.

PM: (18:57)
And then, after then, we… Oh, after we bought the first house, and then then the next year, we bought another house.

DP: (19:11)

PM: (19:13)
And then the next year we bought another house!

DP: (19:15)
You just kept going.

PM: (19:16)
Ah, yeah. [indistinct talking with someone in the background] Yeah. And we start…

DP: (19:25)

PM: (19:26)
Research, traveling, and the childrens finish college.

DP: (19:29)
Where was the first country you went to after?

PM: (19:31)
First college-- the first country we went to was Paris.

DP: (19:35)
Paris, France?

PM: (19:35)
The first country we went to Paris.

DP: (19:37)
And you brought everybody?

PM: (19:39)
Everybody. Everybody went to Paris the first. London, and then Paris. Yeah. And there we went a couple times to Paris. Daniel, [unclear]... yes.

DP: (19:53)
When I was in the womb. When I was-- when mom was pregnant with me, right? That's when you guys went to Paris?

PM: (20:01)
No, no. Um… [Nānā speaking] Oh, it was Paris when… when um...

Nānā: (20:06)
[unclear] Egypt.

PM: (20:07)
No, no, I think we went to...

Nānā: (20:08)

PM: (20:09)
Germany? Egypt? Egypt?

DP: (20:11)
It was Egypt.

PM: (20:13)
Okay. Right, it was Egypt. So--

DP: (20:17)
So you started-- you started having fun eventually.

PM: (20:20)
Oh yes! We-- Well, listen, by then we had money, everybody finished-- everybody was finishing college, everybody start living a little better life, and then Sunita wanted to buy her first house. And we start to live our dream. [Nānā speaking in the background]

DP: (20:45)

PM: (20:45)
Yeah, we start living our dream. We start travel-- Traveling was something that we all love and wanted to. With hard work everybody-- We went-- we went traveling around the world.

DP: (21:00)
What's your favorite country that you've been to?

PM: (21:04)
India is my favorite country that I really enjoy.

DP: (21:09)
Tell us about your time in India.

PM: (21:11)

DP: (21:12)
Tell us about your time in India. You went recently too, right? [louder] You went recently too, right?

PM: (21:18)
Yeah, yeah.

DP: (21:18)
Last year.

PM: (21:21)
India is a very populated country, and everybody have a different lifestyle. Very poor, very rich. People live in the street, people sleep in the playground, you will see-- Things that really pull my attention is - if you see-- if you look in the ball field or in the playground, you'll see a blanket wrap up, or a blanket there - somebody is lying there - wrapping up and lying there.

DP: (22:02)

PM: (22:03)
And in India kids have kids.

DP: (22:08)
Kids have kids?

PM: (22:09)
Because it-- Kids have kids. Children have hair that is so full of dirt, and their skin is so black with sand - it's a sandy country. Very, very poor. And the people who is rich, they are very rich, and they're living like king.

DP: (22:33)
Hmm. So why do you liking so much if you’ve seen that?

PM: (22:36)
Listen, you have everything you think of. So much nice clothes, so much nice food. The buisiness... People-- everybody's-- There is job for everybody, but poverty is there because it's too much people, and if you're lazy, you can't make out nowhere.

DP: (23:00)
But you know-- you know the truth of that, because you came from the same thing.

PM: (23:05)
I know. I know, right.

DP: (23:06)
You came. You did it. [Nānā speaking in the background] Alright, so I mean, would you-- do you ever find yourself missing Guyana? Do you ever want to go back?

PM: (23:17)
I like to go back once in a while to see my family, to see the things I left there, but for after so long… I built more here than over there, so I-- it's--

DP: (23:35)
So New York City is your home.

PM: (23:36)
New York City is my home.

DP: (23:39)
That's great. Thank you.

PM: (23:43)
New York City is my home.

Collection: Gaiutra Bahadur Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-07-20 (created); 2020-12-02 (modified)

* This digital object may not be sold or redistributed, copied or distributed as a photograph, electronic file, or any other media without express written consent from the copyright holder and the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA). The user is responsible for all issues of copyright. If you are the rightful copyright holder of this item and its use online constitutes an infringement of your copyright, please contact us by email at to discuss its removal from the archive.