Skip to navigationSkip to content

You can get to the heart of America by reading the observations made by immigrants on their first day in the country

Reuters/Joe Penny
By Neha Thirani Bagri
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If you immigrate, you will always remember your first day in your new country—no matter if it was 40 days or 40 years ago.

The First Days Project, which launched in 2013, collects the stories of immigrants and refugees about their first impressions of the US when they first arrived in the country—the recollections go back all the way to 1948. This long archive reveals some fascinating historical patterns, and the descriptions of the country, seen through their fresh eyes, are revealing.

Here are some of their stories, lightly editing in some cases for clarity:

Sharmista Bhattacherjya, an immigrant who migrated from Kolkata, India at the age of 22 and arrived in Boston in 1970:

I was excited to see the airport covered with snow. My first impression was that it looked like a fairy tale.
I felt a sense of freedom, though there was both fear and joy in the back of my mind. We had never seen so much snow. My husband and others started a snowball fight, and it was so much fun that I pretty soon forgot that I was there all alone and leaving all my friends and relatives in India behind.
In the morning we went to buy some boots and coats and gloves at Boston’s Filene’s Basement. That was a big store, and I didn’t know my size. After some trials, I bought a red coat, snow boots, gloves, and hats, and I looked like a perfect Memsaheb [posh lady].

Ellen Nemiroff, an immigrant from London who arrived in New York in 1948 at the age of five:

I came to New York when I was five years old with my parents. I was born in England, in London, and my parents decided they would move to New York because of all the stories they heard about the streets being lined with gold. They were very, very excited about opportunities that they would have in America that they didn’t have in England.
I remember looking at the streets and I was very disappointed because they were not lined with gold. They were kind of dirty, and they had garbage on them. But, at the time, it bothered me, but then I realized that it really didn’t matter.

Roopa Gurm, an immigrant from New Delhi who arrived in Cleveland in 1996 at the age of 29:

One thing that really surprised me about America, though, is that Americans are much bigger than Europeans and Asians. I remember thinking on multiple occasions that: “Oh my god, the people are so big here!” I had never seen such big people in my life before moving here—so big that they all seemed huge in the corridors of the apartment building.
On a similar note, the food portions in America seemed so big too; the pizzas, sodas, anything we ordered—it was all oversized. I remember that once a month, my husband would order a meat lover’s pizza and a jumbo coke from Pizza Hut, a $20 deal. It was amazing to buy such a massive portion of food for just $20. My husband jokes that he remembers eating that pizza one week and thinking: “My god, I LOVE AMERICA.” Funnily enough, when we went back to Pizza Hut to try the meat lover’s pizza again twenty years later, we didn’t find it to be all that delicious.

Koteeswaran Giripalpillai, an immigrant from Bangalore, India, who arrived in Detroit in 2005 at the age of 60:

I gathered my bags and went to the arrivals area. There I saw—Anandhi, Jayanth, Akash, and Ashika all waiting eagerly to see me. Akash was the first to come hug me with a big smile. The family escorted me to their car. This was the first time I had seen a driver seat on the left side of the car. As we drove off, we immediately reached a six-[lane]-wide road. This was so new to me. My apartment’s street couldn’t fit a tempo-van [a large German-manufactured passenger van common in Bangalore]. I was amazed at the speed that these vehicles were traveling. Jayanth quickly made the conversion and told me we are traveling 130 km/h. Most vehicles in India could not reach this speed.

Surendra Chirra, an immigrant from Madras, India who arrived in Queens, New York in 1991 at the age of 27:

One of the first places I went to in the US was the local mall to buy some essentials. I was very impressed, as there were no malls in India at the time. I got some night dresses and a rice cooker. I remember that I always converted to Indian rupees, and was sometimes shocked at how expensive everything was. I took me almost a year to lose that converting mentality. Some of the things you cannot avoid buying, so you just buy it.
I was not too surprised by the people in America, because I worked for an international company in India with many foreigners. However strangers in America were friendlier. People here generally make you feel at home. In India generally people don’t smile at you if they don’t know you. People say hello and smile here. In the first few days I also had American beer from a can, which was different for me and also Taco Bell. I’ve never had a taco before but I enjoyed it.

Joshua Nguyen arrived in Boise, Idaho from Saigon, Vietnam on July 3, 1975 at the age of 10:

And the next day there was this big celebration And I’m thinking, “Hey, wow, look at that, fireworks for us. They really want us here.” And I didn’t know until later, when somebody told me that was Fourth of July and they did that every year. So it kind of busted my bubble.
Later that year, we were at the church family’s home, and they told us, “Okay! Let’s get ready! You’re gonna dress up.” And I was like, “I don’t have a costume.” So they grabbed me a sheet, threw it over my head. I was like, wow, how strange is this. They have no idea who I am now with the sheet over my head, but yet they give me candy. This is great, so I spent all night, up until midnight, ringing on everybody’s doors, getting all these candies. I was sick the next day.

Karim Shamsi-Basha arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, from Damascus, Syria in 1986 at the age of 18:

Knoxville was very aired out, very spacious, front yards, backyards. We don’t have that in Damascus. In Damascus, you smell the meat being cooked, you smell jasmine on the sidewalk, you smell herbs and spices. Here, it was less smelly. Here, people are more private, so they don’t advertise what they have via smell, or via anything else, really.
So when I first came, the guy I lived with said, “Where you from?” I said, “Damascus, Syria.” And he said, “Oh! Like in the Road to Damascus?” I didn’t know what to say, so I just brushed it off.
Later on, I went down to the lobby, the guy at the checkout, he says, “Where you from?” I said, “Damascus.” And he said, “Oh! As in the Road to Damascus!” I thought, “What is with these people?” And he said, “No, no, like from the Bible, the Road to Damascus!”
“I’m a Muslim,” I said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So, I go to look up the Road to Damascus in the Bible. And after I understood what they were asking about, and I understood it was in the Bible, I thought, they’re associating me with something that is very dear to your heart. I like that.

Rahel Afeworki, an immigrant from Gedaref, Sudan, arrived in Atlanta in 1991 at the age of nine:

My first day in America, my family’s sponsor came and picked us up in a small car. I remember surprisingly my whole family fitting in it and as soon as I got in the car seeing the large buildings. That was absolutely shocking to me because I had never seen that before.
Then we came to a neighborhood that was another building after building, noticing there was a lot of Eritrean families that lived in the same neighborhood. The sponsor had provided the home for us and I remember the first meal I had was top ramen and it was the most disgusting meal I had ever had and just being sick from it for a couple days just getting use to the American food.
I don’t remember that much because I was so young but I do remember waking up every Saturday morning so I could just watch Tom and Jerry with my brother.

Desire S., an immigrant who arrived in Seattle from Ajijic, Mexico at the age of 16 in 2012:

So it was at night and then it was raining. That was the first time that I was just like I miss the weather already because in Mexico it’s just so nice, it’s sunny and warm and then I got here and I was just like it’s freezing, I’m going to die.
I remember my first PE class one kid came up to me and was like where are you from and I was like “oh Mexico” and he was just like “oh so you know how to jump fences?”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.