(I’m)migrant: Interview with Shelley Ann Simon

Shelley Simon:

My official name is Shelley Ann Kattapurathu Simon. Here I just go by Shelley Simon or Shelley. I am

a junior and I’m a pre-engineering major here, which means I won’t be here my senior year.

Daniel Chen: Where will you be?

Shelley Simon:

It’s a three-two program, so I do three years here and two years at an engineering school. I just got

into Washington University in St. Louis.

Daniel Chen: Congrats.

Shelley Simon:

Thank you. If I stay three years there, I’ll get my masters, and now I’m waiting on Columbia to find

out whether or not I got in and I have to make my decision on which school I want to go to.

Daniel Chen: Which one would you prefer?

Shelley Simon:

I have no idea. Columbia sounds really cool, Ivy League and being in New York just sounds amazing.

But Wash U is also in a city and not like Greencastle. So both are really good schools and I just have to

sit down and figure it out.

Daniel Chen: I mean obviously I’m going to say Columbia because I’m from New York.

Shelley Simon:

That’s right. My brother goes to school in New York, and he says Columbia too.

Daniel Chen: Where does he go?

Shelley Simon: He goes to Cornell. So not New York City but upstate.

Daniel Chen: So how did you end up at DePauw then?

Shelley Simon:

To be honest, Grace Oczon. I went to high school with her. She was actually my brother’s friend

because they’re the same age. I met her through Indian dance––no I met her before that actually

because one of her really good friends is one of my good friends who is the same age as me. We were

both in Indian dance then I got to know her then, and that’s the first time I heard of the term Posse.

She came one time to practice, and I didn’t know what it was, so I was like “what do you mean? You

found a group of friends?” So that was the first time I heard of DePauw because I thought she said

DePaul for the longest time. Through her and through my counselor, I learned more about Posse, and I

applied to Posse my senior year, and I was actually a finalist for Cornell. I had also applied to DePauw

at that time and was talking to Grace at that time because I needed help with my interviews. She was

telling me about where Posse sends all your applications. I forgot what it’s called, but that thing. I

already applied and she told me Posse would help me out financially. It did help me out. Financially

this was the best. Everyone was talking about this feeling you get when you’re on campus, like you

belong here. I thought that was complete bullshit. Complete bullshit. Until I got here, I actually saw

myself going here. I guess it was also Grace and seeing my parents there. It helped. So financial aid and

that feeling brought me here. Do I regret it? Eh. I’m leaving.

Danel Chen: So you’re leaving at the end of this year?

Shelley Simon: Yes. It’s officially the decision.

Daniel Chen: So can you tell me a little about your parents? Where did they grow up/where are they from?

Shelley Simon:

My parents are from India and they grew up in a state of India called Kerala, which is the Southern

part of India. They’re from different areas. My mom is from a place called Karimkunnam which is near

the big city of Thodupuzha. My dad grew up in Manjoor which is near the big city of Kottayam. So

they’re like an hour or two apart by drive. They had an arranged marriage and got married.

Daniel Chen: What was that like? Do they ever talk about it?

Shelley Simon:

So this is going to get into religion a little bit. I’m Catholic. Under the Catholic Church there are

some number of rites, and one of them is the Eastern Rite. Under the Eastern Rite there is the Syro

Malabar Rite. And under that Rite there is this group called Knanaya. It’s a very endogomous group. To

be Knanaya both your parents have to be Knanaya, so you marry within the community. So for them to

get the arranged marriage they have to be Knanaya because it’s what they grew up in, and it’s what my

parents expect of me right now. So that’s how they got arranged. It’s not marrying your cousin, but you

have to make sure no blood gets mixed up.

Daniel Chen: I don’t know if this question makes sense, but how did they end up Catholic? 

Shelley Simon:

Okay this is getting into the history of Knanayas This is what I remember from my religion class

under the Knanaya Church. In 345 AD, there was a merchant from Syria. So we actually believe were

from Syria. He was a merchant getting goods from India, specifically around Kerala. At that time,

Christians were being persecuted by Hindus, so they had requested this merchant to bring in more

Christians or a Bishop or someone of authority so they have someone to back them up essentially. When

he went back to Syria he told the Bishops of the Church about the situation. So they sent a bishop and

several families with this merchant back to Kerala. When they were sent, one of the rules was to marry

within the community. I want to say it was set that way so people would not convert to Hinduism to

make sure that Christianity was growing. So they set that rule, but ever since then, you have to stay

within the community to be part of the community. So if I trace back my history, we’ve been Catholic

for years.

Daniel Chen: So when did your parents move to America?

Shelley Simon: In 2001 we all moved to America.

Daniel Chen: So you grew up in India?

Shelley Simon:

No. My dad was in Kenya after he got his economics degree. He went to go teach there because his

uncle was there as well. In ’92, he came back and married my mom who had just finished her Masters in

Physics and she was a teacher as well. So they got married. Sometime before that, he moved to South

Africa. So when she came she was in South Africa. Then they had my brother in South Africa, and they

had me in South Africa. So we were in South Africa until 2001, and then we came here.

Daniel Chen: So is your citizenship South African?

Shelley Simon:

No. So it’s really complicated. In South Africa at that time, it was directly after the apartheid.

There were some rules with citizenship where if I was born there, I could claim it at the age of 18. To

make travelling easier, the Indian government allows you to claim your mother’s citizenship. So we

claimed Indian citizenship at that time to visit India easily. But I think my parents were hoping once we

turned 18 we would claim South African citizenship. But it was a curveball when they decided to move

to America. So I’m actually an Indian citizen born in South Africa, practically raised in America.

Daniel Chen: Okay. I love the way you just put that.

Shelley Simon: I’ve been saying that way too often.

Daniel Chen: So I’ve recently been reading about the apartheid. I don’t know that much about it, but what’s it like? From what I’ve read, it’s been conceptualized as this black versus white dichotomy, but they leave out everybody in between.

Shelley Simon:

If you were to ask me, to be honest, I don’t remember. I do remember getting off the plane at

O’Hare but I don’t remember boarding that plane. The only memories I have are recreated through

photos. I think I remember but I don’t actually remember. My parents know more about it. But from

what they say, their life was much easier in South Africa than it is here because when they came here

they had start from the bottom all over again. There my mom was teaching in a college and she was a

couple of years from tenure. In America they don’t actually respect teachers as much as they do there.

It was not exactly what my parents were used to. When we came here my mom was interviewed for

CPS and she was the one who got a job. But my dad, the visa they gave him, didn’t allow him to work.

They only allowed him to study and not work legally. So that was a bummer, but we had already moved

here. There’s not too much we could have done with that. In comparison South Africa was much easier.

But I haven’t exactly heard my parents talk a lot about race issues. But we also didn’t live in a big city.

We lived outside of Johannesburg. We lived in the North East Corner of South Africa. The people they

were more close to were Africans. They loved how kind they were. We were taken care by them. I

actually haven’t heard a lot of differences that way.

Daniel Chen: So what do your parents do here now?

Shelley Simon:

My mom is a teacher, a high school teacher. She teaches physics in Chicago. And my dad is a

respiratory therapist in Chicago as well.

Daniel Chen: I should have asked this before, but why did they come to America from South Africa?

Shelley Simon:

The reason my mom told me, I’ve asked this too, was for me and my brother’s education primarily.

At the same time that my parents got a visa to America, we got one to go to Australia. So it was like

which one do we go to. But people hired my mom in Chicago. So she came first and she decided to

move there because her brother lived there. Then my dad’s brother lived in Australia but I don’t think

they had a job lined up, so it was more about job security. They kind of weighed out the future of their

children and they decided American schools were more well known. And my brother and I would be

going at a relatively early age. So they decided America.

Daniel Chen: Okay, so let’s talk about your neighborhood in Chicago. What’s that like?

Shelley Simon:

I live Mayfair. Which no one actually knows what that is. It’s on the border of Albany Park and

Jefferson Park. But I moved to that house in 2005. Before that, I lived in––actually I don’t know what

neighborhood that is. But I lived in a different part of Chicago. I think it was West Rogers Park. I feel

like a terrible Chicagoan. It’s nice. I don’t really know much about it. My brother’s and I high school was

close by to it. I don’t know my neighbors that well.

Daniel Chen: Why didn’t you spend much time outside? 

Shelley Simon:

So when both of your parents are teachers or former teachers, it’s not that they didn’t let us play outside

but their focus was more on education, on learning. Most of our time is spent doing HW. Me andmy brother were

always in advanced classes wherever we were. It’s usually the reason why we didn’t

spend that much time in the neighborhood.

Daniel Chen: Okay two things. How old is your brother, and what is your relationship like with him?

Shelley Simon:

My brother is 22. So he’s a senior in college. We have a really good relationship considering we’re

only a year apart. But I think it became really good in the past four years since he entered college and

left home. Me and him have been apart and we value each other more. If you know me, you know

definitely that he’s one of my role models and no one can say anything bad about my brother to me.

But he’s one of my best friends. He is my best friend. He knows everything about me. In the past four

years, I’ve finally grown to tell him everything about me.

Daniel Chen: So what’s it like between you and your parents?

Shelley Simon:

There are moments where I feel like I’m talking with my mom as mom, and then there are moments

where I feel like I’m talking with my mom as a teacher, which are two different things. My mom as a

teacher is more concerned about my academics and where I’m going. I understand her concerns and she

kind of threw everything that was going for her in South Africa for our education. I don’t blame her and

she’s really strict about that. But she’s understanding. But my mom as like my mom, I’m very close with

her. She’s hilarious and sassy. My dad on the other side––our relationship is weird. I see him more of as

a friend to me. In my traditional language I swear at my dad, and he’s okay with that. We will literally

punch each other.

Daniel Chen: What’s your traditional language really quickly?

Shelley Simon:

Malayalam. He was the youngest and I’m the youngest, so as a child he used to love making me cry,

which is weird for a father. He told me when I was three that I was adopted and let me believe it for

the longest time. He loves making fun of me. Because he made fun of me, and I always cried, my

defense was making fun of him back. So now we have a friendly banter. That’s how I see my

relationship with my dad. We don’t talk often when I’m in college. But he’s the one that always drives

me home and back to DePauw. During those car rides it’s usually the time I catch him up on everything.

My mom, on the other hand, has a strict policy about communication. We have to text her in the

morning, call her by evening and then FaceTime at least once on the weekends. She always needs to

know where we are and if we’re safe.

Daniel Chen: That’s awesome to hear. Have you ever forgotten to FaceTime your mom, or text her?

Shelley Simon: Yes.

Daniel Chen: How do you feel about that? I’m sure you get annoyed.

Shelley Simon:

It can seem very suffocating, but there are moments and days where I do look forward to talking to

my mom, especially since I’ve gotten to college, or over college. I’ve gotten more okay with it. Before I

felt like it was always my mom checking up on my academics. But ever since I’ve gotten to college, I

think I’ve learned a lot more about my mom over the phone when she tells me things. I realize she calls

me because she wants to tell me things. But it is suffocating when you have to hide something. Her

automatic reaction whenever I do something that’s not academic related is, “why are you doing it? It’s

not academic related. I don’t see the point.” That’s her first reaction, but then she’s like, “it’s good for

you.” But it takes time for her to get to that point where it’s good for you.

Daniel Chen: So how does she actually feel about you coming to DePauw?

Shelley Simon:

I’m the baby, so that was hard. She didn’t cry to my surprise because she cried for my brother. I

think I was mad she didn’t cry for me. But she’s doing good relatively. DePauw is not far from Chicago.

It’s only four hours. Because of our breaks, we’re always home at least once a month, especially if

you’re from Chicago. You can go home really easily. She didn’t miss me that much but I think Spring

Semester Freshman year, you only get spring break. I think that’s when she started realizing that’s when

I’m not going to be home. So what she did was she came to visit with my dad.

Daniel Chen: What was that like? What did you do?

Shelley Simon:

So they stayed at the hotel, not the Inn at DePauw; there was no room. I think there were a lot of

prospies that weekend. They stayed at the College Inn, but they wanted me to stay with them, so I

stayed with them there. But it felt weird because we’re so close to campus, but we’re not at the same

time. I took them to the Den. I was wondering if they wanted to eat at a fancy place, but they said “No.

I want to eat what you eat.” They loved it. I was just hoping they wouldn’t get food poisoning or

anything from the Den. Then we came back to the room and we didn’t do much. I was telling my dad

about Frat parties. My dad was like, “let’s go to one” I said, “really?” And he was like “yeah, let’s go!” I

was like, “wait, are you really okay with that?” And he was like “yeah…” He was actually down for

going. And I asked him “what are we going to do about your ID?” He said, “just say I’m an older college

student or something.” I’m like “that’s really weird, but okay, I don’t have anything to do. I’ll show you a

Frat party.” But my mom said, “No. You’re not going.” She was like “nobody is leaving this room.” It was

good to see my parents even though it was really short. I guess I missed them when I finally saw them.

Daniel Chen: Do you speak to your parents in English?

Shelley Simon: A mix of both.

Daniel Chen: What would you say you speak more of? Or maybe it’s 50-50?

Shelley Simon: It’s 70-30. 70 Malayalam 30 English.

Daniel Chen: Are there certain issues you would prefer to speak in English?

Shelley Simon:

I actually learned my native language weirdly when I came to America. Most of the language I

learned, I learned through TV because we got TV in our native language when we came to America. My

parents really appreciated that. That was another reason my parents came to America. The people

that were here were Keralaites. There were Indians in South Africa but there weren’t a lot of people

from Kerala. Outside of Kerala, Chicago has the largest Knanaya community. So I have a ton of family

there, and they really wanted that. I learned the language in America and everyone is surprised that I

speak really fluently––without an accent. I don’t know if you have this, but for some people, when they

speak, you can tell they were from America.

Daniel Chen: Yeah, people say that to me all the time when I speak Chinese. 

Shelley Simon:

So my brother has that accent, but I don’t have that accent. I don’t know how he got it, but the

issue that my parents had was that I learned TV language, which is really informal, and I use that with

elders. But I’ve been working on it, and they’ve been teaching me. Ever since I came to college, I feel

like I’m losing my fluency because I don’t speak it anymore. Whenever I talk to them, I try to speak

fluently with them. And now when I do, I feel like there are moments where I’m lagging on the words

that I should know. But if I don’t know the word, I’m going to speak in English. I’ll put it in there. My

mom is fine with that. She usually speaks back in her native language unless she’s serious. Then she

usually speaks English.

Daniel Chen: I have so many things to ask you, and I know we’re jumping around here, but it’s all theseinterrelated things. One thing leads to another. Back to your family though, how would youcharacterize your mom and dad’s views. We kind of talked about this. Your dad supports the model minority myth and your mom tried to shut it down. Would you say they’re polar opposites on that end? 

Shelley Simon:

My mom has been working so long in a system that has shown her white privilege, she’s finally

voicing it. She’s really tired of it. My dad hasn’t worked that long to see it and because he gets angry at

everything, he can’t actually pinpoint what it is right now. I think a part of him right now is like, “I’ve

only worked for this many years.” When we do explain it to him, he doesn’t disagree. He’s just like,

“yeah, I guess so. Okay. Cool.”So I wouldn’t say that they’re polar opposites in that sense. But I think

my mom has more experience in it. She’s experienced it more.

Daniel Chen: How would you characterize your experience versus their experience college wise.

Shelley Simon:

They both went to college in India. My mom has only been to college in India, but my dad actually

became a respiratory therapist here. So he actually experienced college here. We didn’t really talk a

lot about it. He did talk a lot about how hard it was being old and going back to college. But what I do

know from my mom is about her housing. She said it was hard because the food was terrible, and she’ll

say “you guys have many options”, stuff like that. But I’m like, “the food is still terrible!” For her

Master’s program, she went to a men’s college that was across the street from her college. I think at

the time, that there weren’t many women pursuing a Masters. There were only a handful of people in

her Master’s class but she still had to go to this college, so she always talks about that. She doesn’t

really talk a lot about her experience, but more about her professors and people that she remembers.

But this past summer, when we went to India and she had a reunion and that was the first time for her

Bachelors physics class. And I think that was the first time I saw my mom as a college student. Before it

was like, “yeah sure whatever.” Just seeing her with her old classmates and friends was a different

environment. It was really interesting to see. Everyone was saying how much my mom has changed

physically. They say I look just like her. So seeing that was different. My dad actually doesn’t talk a lot

about his college experience. I just know his best friend from college, but he doesn’t talk a lot about

his academics. The way I understand it is that he wasn’t as strong academically. My mom came from a

strong academic background. Both of her parents were well-known teachers. My dad, his parents were

farmers. That’s a different scenario for him. He didn’t have the same help that my mom had. He doesn’t

talk about his education that much. So I don’t know that much about his.

Daniel Chen: Do you feel like there’s a disconnect there when he doesn’t talk about his education?

Shelley Simon:

Well not really. Now that you bring it up, I’m thinking, maybe there are moments where I should ask

him how it was. But he talks about his elementary school more and the hardships he went through at

that time so I know more about that. But my dad is a complete jokester. Everyone thinks he’s hilarious.

He jokes about everything, so whenever he does say anything about his hardships he always laughs

about it after because he likes keeping it lighthearted. He’s not really big on talking about it. Randomly

he would say, “I really wanted to buy school lunch.I just took lunch from home.” I’m like, “I’m dying to

take lunch from home!” It’s just little moments like that.

Daniel Chen: So on food. What’s food like growing up?

Shelley Simon:

It’s mainly South Indian food. This is my opinion, and a lot of people in my family have this opinion:

my mom is an amazing cook. So I grew up with that. My mom is really daring to try new things and

make new things. So she would learn from other people, or learn dishes on her own. She used to have

her own recipe book for herself. She would make everything. She’s a very hands-on person, and she

tries to do everything herself, which is something I’m striving towards. Because we grew up in South

Africa and because of the culture, they loved trying new types of food. They were really big on that. I

grew up eating all kinds of food, mainly Keralian food. They made sure that I had a whole

taste palette.

Daniel Chen: I have a bunch of things that I want to talk about, but what do you want people to know? What do you want them to get out of your story? 

Shelley Simon:

So I’m still not a US Citizen here. We just got our Green Card in September. A lot of people have

this concept of coming to America. It’s great and education and everything is great. But I think one of

the hardest things our family had to go through is when our mom sacrificed so much to get here, but

then because we’re still immigrants due to the immigration system itself, it barred us from a lot of

opportunities even when we got to college.

Daniel Chen: Like what?

Shelley Simon:

Before I got my Green Card, I was in limbo I want to say. It was the transition period of applying to

get your Green Card and getting your Green Card, and that limbo took forever. It made it really hard to

travel if we wanted to go back to India. It was hard on my parents because they had parents and family

there. They were getting sick, and it was hard to travel back. You have to spend thousands of dollars

on travel documents that allow us to come back to America even though we’re not illegal. We’re legal.

They still have this whole system. That was hard. Then going to college, in the Common App, they ask

if you’re a citizen or not. I can’t write that I’m a foreign student and I can’t write that I’m a citizen. So it

was a like, where am I kind of thing? I think they finally changed it. I’m not sure. But it’s literally limbo

in that sense. I think it kicked hard for my parents when my brother was applying to colleges. My

brother is super smart. I think he’s a genius. I’ve never said that to him. The high school that we went

to was the number one high school in Illinois. It was ranked in the US top ten or something. And he was

the valedictorian of that school. He had one of the highest GPAs the school had ever seen. He had

really good ACT scores. Everything was in his favor. He was prime candidate for all the schools

essentially, but because of this, he didn’t get into a lot of schools that he should have been accepted

to. That hit hard for my mom considering everything she had sacrificed was for our education.

Financial aid was even worse. Financial aid didn’t even know where to put us. They ended up telling us

really late about his financial aid package. They told us that he wouldn’t get his FAFSA for first

semester. So my parents had to pay for all of that out of pocket. My dad was still in school at that

time. So my mom had to pay for my dad. She had to pay for my brother and I was still in High School.

So all this burden fell on her shoulders. That was really hard and another reason I wanted to go to a

school that gave me a lot of money. I didn’t want to rely a lot on financial aid that much. I feel like

that’s why I look up to my parents and brother the most, they went through a lot that first year. So

when it came with me, they were prepared. They have been through every battle already. They knew

what they were up against. I wasn’t as smart as my brother, but when I did apply to other schools and

didn’t get it, it was hard for me to distinguish whether it was because of me or my immigration status.

My parents said “it’s fine.” I think that was a hard moment, hiding that from my parents because I didn’t

want them to be disappointed all over again. I didn’t want them to know I was disappointed, so I

pretended it was fine. I kind of just want that message. The US immigration system needs to step up

their game. I’ve lived in America for fifteen years, which is the majority of my life here. But I’ve never

been identified as American. But I’ve lived most of my life here. I’ve grown up to the customs and

schools and everything, so it’s not something new. So not getting that recognition is really hard.

Thankfully we finally got our Green Card, but now we just have to wait five years or so for our

citizenship or something along those lines. I was talking with Kainat yesterday, talking about her

article, which was really good. It was pages long though. I read the whole thing though. I hope mine

isn’t that long, but now that I think about it, it probably will be. She was asking me if I was always

comfortable being Desi, which is the term we use for people who are Indian and Pakistan and around

that region. And I said, “yes.” She asked, “why?” I started to think about it and it finally occurred to me

that even though I’ve lived most of my life in America, I’ve never been identified as American. Even

though I was born in South Africa, I don’t remember anything about South Africa. So the only thing that

I have is my Indian citizenship and my parents raising me in the Indian culture. That’s the only thing

that I can cling on to and identify with. So when someone asks me who I am, I’m say Indian. I feel like I

would not have been as embracing of my Indian culture if I grew up in South Africa or the Immigration

System here somehow worked differently. But who knows?

Daniel Chen: Last question: what would you change about the world?

Shelley Simon:

That’s not a simple question. That’s hard. There are so many things that I want to change. I think as a

person, my goal has always been to change someone’s life, but not take credit for it. I want to do

something that helps someone. I don’ know what that would be like. I don’t know if that’s talking

to someone. I don’t know if it’s spending time with someone. I don’t know if it’s creating

something that does that. But I do want that. That’s the one thing I want out of my life. To change the world…I

think apart of me wishes people would stop and think and stand in another person’s shoes to understand

things. I try to keep my faith in everyone no matter what you’ve done. Try to step in someone else’s

shoes and get their perspective. You don’t know everyone’s story. Talk to people. Don’t hold

assumptions about people. Talk to them. I feel like that’s one thing that I want changed.

Author: Kereem Vidal

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