Meet Sai Lakshmi Balaji

Behind every great story, there is an inspiration that kicks it all off. The focus on these posts, personally, has been on education or lack thereof for new Americans. The story was inspired by Sai, a woman that works at Sam’s Club and was mentioned very early on in the first story. When I initially spoke with her, I had no idea how big of a piece she would have within the grand scheme of things. However, during our first meeting, she pointed out that a major problem with immigrants coming over to the U.S. was the lack of education they were getting in their home country or the fact that they were not getting proper education here, which led to dropping out of school. While some people can thrive and become successful without education, most need it and it is a very important aspect in ones life because it can lead to better opportunities and help build a stable future. 

Due to the fact that she pointed out that education was a real issue and gave the direction for the two previous stories, the spotlight is on her. Sai Lakshmi Balaji was born in April of 1976 in Chennai, India. For those who don’t know, Chennai is located in eastern India, right on the Bay of Bengal. She is over 8,000 miles from home and that is pretty scary because some people never leave their hometown for their entire life. Sai was very adamant in saying that education was huge for her back home. When asked about her childhood, she said that it’s the best part of one’s life and that her childhood was amazing just like any other kid. She touched on the education aspect in her response as well, “My parents gave me the best education in a very good school,” continuing on saying “They trained me in Indian classical music and dance. They also taught me how to play an instrument called Veena.” The Veena is a plucked string instrument that originated in ancient India. It was mainly used for Carnatic classical music and Hindustani classical music.

Sai and her family have been living in the U.S. for close to nine years. She met her husband in India and he happened to be a well-known family friend. Her husband was the main reason they made the move to Erie, Pa. He has a software job and had many clients located here in the U.S. when they were still living in India. He was offered a position here and it made it much easier t move just because it was the location of his clients.

As mentioned, Sai is very far from her home country. What tends to come with a big move like that is a difficult transition. She was forced to adapt and to learn new areas, find a new job, and basically live a completely different lifestyle compared to the one that she was living back home in India. She said the initial years of the move were very difficult. She missed her parents very much and her profession back home as a lecturer within a university. What helped her get over this was her role as a mom and a lot of chores at home to keep her busy.

When talking to her, you can tell that she is very well educated. Sai worked for 10 years in India. For those 10 years, she taught accounting at a university. What was astonishing is that she revealed that she had obtained not one, not two, but three degrees. To take it even further, all three degrees are Masters degrees. The degrees are in the fields of accounting, HR, and philosophy of commerce. What does hinder her is that those degrees are not helpful here in the U.S. and it was difficult for her to find different jobs. Once she applied at Sam’s Club and got the job as a cashier, she was very thankful. However, what made the transition less painful and essentially made it easier to adapt was the education she received in India and her husband’s job. There was no language barrier for her because she studied English in India. This is a huge advantage for her because cashiers are constantly interacting with people so being able to speak English is a must.

What was alarming was when she said that she had to be a stay at home mom for eight years due to the fact that that’s how long it took for her to get a working VISA. It just goes to show that moving to the U.S. from another country is a process, but it definitely should not take that long to get a working VISA.

Along with education, Sai went in depth about her religion and how that aspect of her life is difficult to adapt here in the U.S. There are no Hindu temples in Erie, therefore it’s a challenge to expose her kids to Hindu religion and culture. What does help out for her is that there are temples of that kind in Cleveland and Pittsburgh that her and her husband take their kids to once in a while.

Trying to gauge how different education was for her compared to her children was also a topic of discussion. Sai’s schooling was in India while her children’s schooling is here in the U.S. Her children attend public school. “There are a lot of differences in the education systems. There are many private schools in India and most parents prefer sending their children to good private schools which are expensive and also difficult to get admission,” Sai said. “In India, studies are more laborious because kids get tons of homework, a lot of writing activities, and too many tests. Here I find they are not loaded with as much homework and there is less written work to do.” However, she does like the fact that education here is more application oriented.

Sai also made it a point to talk about how she teaches values here as compared to India to her children. “Values like honesty, charity, and respect for elders are the same in every country and parents teach them to kids no matter where they live.” She made it clear that education is important, whether that’s here in the U.S. or back in India. Essentially all over the world, education is important and it helps for one to adapt no matter where they are.

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