The Irish Times recently featured our Associate Partner Ramakrishnan Ramanathan as part of their ongoing series about immigrant experiences in Ireland. We have republished the interview below. You can see the original article here.
When Ramakrishnan Ramanathan arrived in Ireland in 2007 he did not experience culture shock. He grew up in Mumbai and then spent his teenage years in a small town in Uganda, which had already taught him how to adjust to a foreign country.
Ramanathan was 14 when his parents decided to leave India to find work in Africa. He joined them for two years but returned to India after finishing school. His parents, who now live in Kenya and are Kenyan citizens, have spent 22 years living abroad. “We come from a fairly modest family back in India, so the move was purely financial. My dad worked in the sugar industry in Uganda but then moved to Kenya to work with a travel company, and my mum worked as a teacher.
“Moving to Africa was a massive culture shock. When you’re 14, you’re young and impressionable and suddenly you’re meeting people who look so different to you. The articulation of how they spoke and how they interacted was completely different.”
Learning about Irish customs and traditions was another challenge for Ramanathan. The weather was a shock. “I had been promised a bright, shining Dublin by the guys who recruited me but I arrived in May to a place where it was pissing rain with cold weather.”
Ramanathan distinctly remembers the taxi driver who explained in detail the unpredictable nature of Irish weather on the car journey into Dublin city centre. “Talking about the weather is a very Irish thing. Nowhere else have I seen the weather as such a passionate topic of conversation.”
He was struck by the lack of skyscrapers in his new Irish home. “It reminded me of some Indian movies with really low buildings. Where I come from in Mumbai it’s colourful but chaotic. But when you come to Ireland it is so beautiful, the streets are lined with trees.”
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He had been married only four months when he was offered a job in financial services in Dublin. He and his wife, Suchi, had met less than half a year before the wedding through an arranged marriage organised by their parents. She followed him to Dublin in the summer of 2007 and found a job as an underwriter with a consulting firm.
A struggle to fit in
The couple enjoyed their work but struggled to fit in with their Irish colleagues. “I arrived in Ireland with none of the usual social networks that come from playing GAA, rugby or even hockey. The first task was to learn the peculiarities of the host language, a serious undertaking, even for one who thought he’d grown up speaking English. The language of ‘craic’ and ‘muppet’ was a world away from my own.
“When I lived in India I knew everybody and I was in the thick of things. But when I came to Ireland, I didn’t know anybody I could relate to for the first year or so. A lot of things in Ireland revolve around the pub or the church. I go to the pub once a month but the church is totally out of context. Even going to a funeral, I don’t know when to stand or sit. I’d go to the pub, hold a drink and look around like a complete tool because I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Having worked his way up the professional ladder in India, Ramanathan had to start from scratch in Ireland. “I found myself on one of the lower rungs of Irish society. This was very uncomfortable and provided an incredible motivation to do whatever it took to succeed.”
He also discovered that for most Irish people, Indian people were all the same. It didn’t matter that he had grown up in nation of more than a billion people; a country where people speak a variety languages, subscribe to a number of religions and often look very different.
“In India people are divided by region, religion and caste. Obviously the caste system has broken down over the years but it still exists in some rural areas and people will always ask your surname in India to get an idea of your caste. When I came to Ireland nobody cared about this, and rightly so. Nobody gives a damn here that I’m a Brahmin, which is top of the roost back home. Indians are Indians here. Ireland is a great equaliser. You need to get rid of your prejudices, and Ireland did that for me.”
Ramanathan and his wife now have twin daughters called Maya and Meera. Raising a family in a foreign country without the support of grandparents has been difficult for the couple.
“Having twins was never part of the plan; we were only supposed to have one child. That was a surprise. With my extended family over 5,000 miles away, calling mammy over when the girls have a bit of a cold or a tummy bug was not a real option; local solutions were needed. My work was absolutely fantastic about the kids and I don’t think I would have experienced that outside Ireland. People are genuinely supportive here.”
Suchi considered returning to India to be with her parents for the first few months of motherhood but eventually decided to stay in Ireland with her husband. “I wanted to bond with my daughters but it did mean facing extra pressures at work and at home. It meant I had to burn the candle at both ends.”
Ramanathan looks forward to watching his daughters grow up as young Irish women “wearing proudly the Irish green and Dublin jerseys” and hopes they will face fewer challenges than their parents. “I grew up in a very insular south Indian community with a straight-laced way of thinking. They will have to contend with a number of other challenges but race, creed, culture and origin will, I believe, not be among them.”
Ramanathan and his wife are now Irish citizens and have bought a house in Dublin. Asked if he plans to stay here in the long term, he says yes without a moment’s hesitation. “Will I retire here? Absolutely. I don’t have this type of deep connection anywhere else in the world. I’ve laid down my roots in Ireland.”