Activity 2: Interpreting Oral History - Tejinder Bal
What is Oral History?
While textbooks provide learners with concise overviews of historical topics, oral history interviews provide insights into the experiences of ordinary individuals who lived through historical events. As Linda Shope writes, “Oral history might be understood as a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record. Although the conversation takes the form of an interview, in which one person--the interviewer--asks questions of another person--variously referred to as the interviewee or narrator--oral history is, at its heart, a dialogue.”
Oral histories are valuable tools for providing insights into how ordinary people experienced the past and understanding the attitudes and perceptions that shaped people's lives. Sometimes narrators (interviewees) may get a date or fact wrong, but they still provide a glimpse into the spirit of a time and place. The first-hand accounts are especially valuable when we might be missing a perspective.
Below are excerpts from an interview with Tejinder Bal who immigrated to the U.S. from Punjab, India in 1969. Each excerpt is accompanied by questions that will help you think about the nature of oral history as well as the experiences of women who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. At this point, you won't know much about her story. The first activity asks you to make some guesses about her experience.
First, listen to this excerpt. A transcript is provided.
Abby: The reason you left the Bay area, was it job or housing?
Tejinder: Job and housing, you know. If you don’t have a job you don’t have a house. You can’t have a house when you don’t have a job. As I mentioned earlier, there was one thing that we always tried if we can get into a job in which we were trained, rather than go ahead and pick up any kind of job, so during that time my husband decided okay that’s all. We would go and live in Fresno and he would work on the farm for a while. So we lived there and it so happens that during the same time he used to offer a course in philosophy of education at U.C. Berkeley extension. That they got approved so they told him that he was needed in Berkeley during that summer to teach the course, so can you imagine, from working on the farm in Fresno to come back to the university and start teaching a course in the philosophy of education approved for credentials. So that’s the kind of fluctuation we had to do. So we came back to the Bay area, quickly rented a small apartment and he offered his course, because even when we were in Fresno he would study whatever he could in the evenings and continued it. So during that time that he was offering the course at U.C. Berkeley that was the time he was given this job in Stockton so that’s how right from Berkeley we moved to Stockton and of course when we came to Stockton we lived in an apartment and then from the apartment, again as I mentioned earlier, that both of us started working and I started substituting. So I would substitute for the public school, Stockton, Lincoln, wherever they called me, and in between also for the state in the Department of Youth Authority Center here. I don’t know if you know that we have three schools here. So in between three of them it kept us quite busy and the children were growing so the day I felt I couldn’t go to work I would say that I wasn’t available because my child is not feeling too good. So we lived in that apartment for about two years, a year and a half I think. Then we found out, it was again one of the lucky strokes, I should say that there was a house being auctioned by the county and we didn’t have so much resources to go ahead and apply for a new house or move into a new house. We weren’t ready for that kind of commitment so when we found out that this house was being auctioned I told my husband about it and we went to look at it. It was a house close to the University and was in a good neighborhood, but the house was in a very bad state because the person who owned the house had died and the state was going to be auctioning it. But the price was very reasonable and we knew that within whatever our means are at this time we would have no problem qualifying and get the house and then move into it. Then we could keep on working at it and improve it, 0f course we felt very bad because we didn’t want to do that because you want to live in a nice home if you can help it, but we decided that was better than going into a house that you can’t afford and you land up making a bigger mess. So we decided that we would do that, so we moved into that house and slowly, gradually the days that I didn’t have to go to work I would clean or polish or paint or whatever, so within five of six months we brought the house to a very good condition, the yard and everything. Then we lived in that house for a year. It was during that, while living in that house that I got my job and my husband got his regular job with the state so... (end of tape 1, side 2) ... It has three bedrooms.
- Based on the excerpt, what do you think about the educational background of Tejinder Bal and her husband?
- What do you think about the employment experiences of Bal and her husband? What kinds of work were they prepared for?
- What does the excerpt tell us about how immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s found work?
Here's some additional context:
The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 opened up new pathways for immigration for Indian immigrants who had been limited by strict 1920s quotas. Professionals, students, and family members found much easier access to migration. Many migrants were highly educated or came to the U.S. to attain advanced degrees and jobs. By the time of the episode described in the excerpt above, Tejinder Bal had earned a master’s degree in botany in India and an M.A. in science education at University of California, Berkeley. Her husband had a PhD in education from Berkeley as well.
Listen to her talk about education:
Abby: Did you ever disagree with your mother about things, or grandmother?
Tejinder: Yes, that’s what I said, you know, like when I had to even go to college, as I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of family members who just didn’t believe in any kind of higher education for girls. High school graduation was very good and that was enough, For a girl to go to college and to go ahead and get an M.A. degree I had to really sort of get down on my knees. And somehow I always wanted to be on my own, even if I didn’t need to be, but somehow I felt that that’s the only thing, if you have education in your hand then you can be on your own. That’s the only asset that you have.
Abby: You mean to be on your own in living or...
Tejinder: No, no, no. Like now I’m in America and I’m working full time and I have my own, you know, that kind of thing. Somehow to be dependent on somebody one hundred percent, like even if it’s your husband somehow, and that could very well be because of my background, you know, I have seen my mother do those things and I felt that I would like to be able to do that.
- What value did Tejinder Bal place on education?
- Why did she think education was important for women?
- Did her education immediately help her find a satisfying job?
Listen to Tejinder Bal talk about facing discrimination:
Abby: Were you discriminated against?
Tejinder: I wouldn’t say it in that sense, but I don’t know if it’s obvious, but all I can say is that there were some times that I felt that I was not given the opportunity to do that job or do that task because I looked different. Let’s put it this way. Or I spoke the language differently. There were one or two instance and without quoting that, you know, exactly they were, I did feel that this was the case. . . .
Abby: Have you ever felt discriminated against because of your background?
Tejinder: Yes, I’m afraid that is a very real reality, sure I have.
Abby: Do you know why this happens?
Tejinder: Yes, I think so. One of the things would be that some people unfortunately just cannot accept the idea that in America other people can live also and be part of America and be contributing to the American system. They find it very hard to believe this. And just because coming from that attitude they think that any person who speaks a little different or who looks a little different is inferior and I think again the reality of this is the way I rationalize this is that they just don’t know any better.
Abby: They’re not educated enough so...
Tejinder: Well, no I wouldn’t say that. It’s not limited only to uneducated people it’s very much prevalent even in educated people. I think that the way I would look at it is that is just in human nature. Some human beings will always just function that way that they feel they are much superior to anybody else.
- What forms of discrimination did Tejinder Bal face in the U.S.?
- Who or what do you think were the sources of that discrimination?
Beyond the Textbook
Oral history can help us understand stories that textbooks don't include. In this final activity, read the excerpt from the textbook and think about ways you would change it based on what you've learned from Tejinder Bal.
In his 2005 survey of recent immigrants, historian David Reimers writes, “Indians’ educational training and ability to speak English gave them a head start among immigrants. In the 1990 census, Indians topped the list for family income levels among immigrant groups. Family incomes were not the product of men alone. More than half of Indian women were working for pay, many in highly paid professions. Moreover, Asian Indians were not clustered in poverty-stricken immigrant ghettos.”
- Having listened to or read Tejinder Bal’s interview, how might you revise Reimers' statement? What does he seem to get right? What does he obscure?
- What kinds of work did women do? What factors went into their job or career choices?
- In what ways did gender frame women's immigration experiences?
- What elements of Bal's experience were unique for immigrants after 1965?