Migrant Oral Histories
Project: Oral History Project
Interviewee: Penny Furgerson
Interviewer: Alyssa Scimeca
M: What country are you originally from? Tell me your story, your past, whatever you want.
P: I am from India. I was born and raised there so I came to Drake, came directly to Drake.
M: So you’re an alumni?
P: Yes. I was born in pre-partition India. Do you know what that means?
P: India was a colony, a British colony. It was a whole subcontinent and India had been striving for its independence since the turn of the 20th century, but they decided to wait and pursue (1:34?) til after the war. And uh…but when he did then (name?) felt that the Muslims would be represented in India (so he went to a separate state?), which really hurt a lot of people. And…and some people were not very happy with Gandhi because they feel that he should have never given to (name) but anyway we had two separate states. Now I’m saying that because I was born in Karachi, which is now Pakistan. And it bothers me and I found out that it bothers my brother too because on our passports it says Pakistan, and we’re not from Pakistan. And you, it’s kind of like if umm say you were born in Mexico and then it got colonized by the United States, okay? But you were born before it was so you claim you’re from Mexico but they’re gonna say you’re from the US. You know, it doesn’t mean much but just so you know the background.
P: So I was born in Karachi before it was partitioned and then we moved after partition to India because my parents didn’t believe in, wanted to be in a secular system. And we were forced to move but I wanted to stay. So for more than one reason we kinda feel like we moved to India, we wanted to be part. We moved in umm 48’. I was a child but I remember vividly being very angry with my parents for moving. Because I loved the school where we lived and in India people didn’t move around much at that point so you just knew you were going to graduate from that school and all your friends…and it isn’t the system like over here, you have a different middle school and a high school and you go all the way.
M: So one school your whole life?
P: Yes. So umm we moved to Bangalore which is now Silicon Valley but at that time it was a very… what is it called? (something) paradise and a lot of people used to retire there and we thought ohh.. this is a dead city! You go to sleep at 8:00 and we’re used to living right there where there is a lot of traffic going back and forth. And here we felt you could hear a leaf drop. I was upset I don’t know about my siblings but I got used to it because I could ride a bicycle then and I was independent. Anyway…so we moved again to Bombay. Which is kind of people compare to Chicago but I compare it more to New York. Its got that kind of a feel; cosmopolitan, a cultural scene.
M: So it was diverse?
P: Diverse, yea. And I loved it. So I went to school there and I even went to college in India. And umm I loved it, didn’t want to leave. I was part of the new India. Very patriotic. Nationalistic, I should say. Because we were the first generation coming out of college, you know to be part of the new India. Almost the first generation. And…but I was applying… I was in the sciences, I really enjoyed it. But I liked the arts too. And in India you could do both. I mean, almost everybody did both.
M: Yea, you can’t really do that here.
P: Yea, and I can’t really understand why not. I have..but it’s like, I know that in college in India I felt that I was very restricted because you had to make your choice in your sophomore year that you’re going to be in the sciences or liberal arts. I’m kind of glad my mom said why don’t you go on to the sciences because if you choose later to switch you can easily switch because if you’re in the liberal arts and want to switch into science you’ll be so far behind. And she was right and I’m really glad I did. And I was kind of even younger for Indians to be in college. I didn’t realize it.
M: How old were you?
P: I was 15. But most people are in college about 16 or so but a lot of that has changed and I don’t know the system now.
M: Yea I was 18 when I started college so 15 would be really young here.
P: Yea. So anyway, but all the professor were into the arts so, it worked good for me. So anyway, I was having a good time and things were good for me. Too good a time I think my parents…(laughs) They said what are you going to do? And I said oh I’ll eventually get married and they said we’re not talking about that. Anyways my mother and grandmother they said you have to have a profession. Don’t care you’re married or not you have to be very independent. So I grew up in a family that was very umm progressive and very forward thinking. So I always wanted to travel and I decided the only way I could see the world was if I went as a student and I could work or something. So I started applying for scholarships to the United States and when I was in college my counselor suggested that I go into pharmacy and I didn’t know anything about it. And I didn’t want to be a doctor. I felt like I was being pulled into being a doctor, in fact, I very strongly said no I am not. I was drawn to that but I was selfish with my time. And so I said no because you really have to have an education to go to med school. And so it was suggested to me pharmacy and I had no idea. My mother didn’t want me to be a nurse, she was a nurse and my grandmother was a physician.
M: Wow, a long line of medical professions.
P: So umm and pharmacy was just a new profession in India. As being in college you had what they call compounders because they made their own medicines, you know mixtures and they had a technician do it. So anyway I applied to all the schools that offered scholarships and had pharmacy and Drake was one of them. But the side to it…it’s very long winded…my story.
M: That’s fine!
P: I think I’m one of those lucky people who were at the right place at the right time type of things. That was the first year that India had started their tourist bureau. And they were interviewing college students because they thought that they wanted people who would be knowledgeable, supposedly. And who could kind of really tell, give the spirit of the coming of age of India, which I was all for. So I applied for it and I got it. And I was one of the, actually the youngest of the group. And the director had a very paternal attitude to me. So because we didn’t have buses we had a taxi. It was very intimate with your group that they were taking, so maybe 3 or 4 people and he always made sure I had an older couple or something like that.
M: Because you were the youngest?
P: We just kind of got to be friends…I don’t know, he just seemed to be that way. Anyway one of my tourists was the Blanks from Des Moines who own the Blank Zoo and all that. I didn’t know who they were and they just didn’t want to do the usual thing and umm… he was a firm distributor so I took him to some places they really wanted to go to and we kind of, I guess had a friendship. But they came back, she wrote to me and I, you know, followed up. And then she said she had a friend that was coming to Bombay, would I be available. So we said well we won’t let you go through the tourist group we’ll greet her as a (13:58?). And so I think that was what…so when I applied for scholarships my advisor told me if there is anybody you know that would be good to give a reference. And so I wrote to them and said do you mind if I give your name? I had no clue who they were. So she said oh yea, we would love to! And still nothing registered with me, you know? And I said oh my god. And uhh..well I got a scholarship at Drake, full tuition scholarship but it wasn’t for room and board so I said I can’t afford to come. And the following year Michigan Ann Arbor had a scholarship that was a full ride and it even had a (15:03?). But my parents wanted me to be in Des Moines because they met the Blanks’. And the Blanks said oh no no we’ll help you with your…and I said if I could just get the first year then I’ll figure out how to pay for it. So they said no no we won’t leave you (15:31?). So my parents said you gotta go and I didn’t want to go, I was gonna use that as a reason not to come here. And I literally felt that I was thrown on the boat. So that’s how I arrived at Drake. I wasn’t one of the rich Indians now that you see come. And I was glad. I did go visit Ann Arbor, Michigan, I had a chance to go there and that was because of my dance. I found that I got to travel in the United States because of my dance background. And it was a neat school and I really would’ve liked to have been there.
M: Yea, Ann Arbor, Michigan is really nice.
P: Yea it was Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a really good scholarship but I don’t regret it. But I at the time I wondered, what my life would’ve been like if I had gone there. And I can’t complain what turned out. So, anyway it’s a very winding road that I ended up at Drake. And I loved being in pharmacy but I was always, I guess my roots from my family background has always been in social justice and civil duties. My parents were always involved in the arts but they also, my mother and grandmother used to man a clinic, they were with the Red Cross. And they had a free clinic. And then I used to accompany them so it was, you know, how kids grew with their parents. So I mean I kind of continued that in my own way.
M: I personally would love to know more about your dance background.
P: Oh, okay. Yea, I always danced. And my parents were very much into the arts, my father and my mother. And we always, when we went to concerts and things and because India at the time didn’t have hotels and stuff like that so we entertained in our home. And they always took us to all the concerts and things like that, it’s not like over here where little kids can go, and teachers came to our home because dance was not encouraged. You have to remember I kind of grew up in the cusp of colonialism and independent India and also I’m of the Christian faith, I was born, I mean, that’s another story. But, and people always thought if you were that that you were very Anglo and we were very much into the arts and dance especially, the British had looked at Indian dance as not being a good thing to do.
M: So dance was frowned upon in India during the time?
P: Yes, frowned upon. And my parents (wanted to nurture that? 19:48). They thought that you knew your roots and you know. And umm so I grew up with that strong thinking and my sister danced, we learned music, I mean that was part of our life. And when I…when we moved to Bombay there was (20:23?) and I had to wait because I was not in school in time and so my sister could go and they felt I wasn’t quite ready, but I sat and watched her all the time so I was ready. And they finally let me take the classes and I jumped in and they immediately put me in my sister’s class. I thought, I could’ve been doing this! And they held me back (laughs). And then in college they just started an academy for the cultural arts because they didn’t have something because it was just at the time India was recognizing its roots. So I was lucky. And they had a… this very well known choreographer in India come in to do a ballet. We called ballets of a sweeter dance. So I went ahead because I was just (told to see it? 21:40) and I went there and I ended up being cast in the ballet. And so that was very exciting to me, in fact I think that really put the seed into me. Because they had a piece that I could’ve done a solo, it was a classical dance piece but then they had another short piece, which was to be the evil demon. And she said, I could see you doing that. Would you like to do that? Or you could do the solo. And I said I would like to do the evil thing because it was so out of character. So I did that and then it was such fun! It was just a minute long but it’s still very vivid in my mind. And I learned a lot because she had me as both a very happy village girl and I’d make an exit and come on as the demon. So that’s how I learned the magic of theatre because they had me in two costumes, my mother was in the wings and as soon as I came out they would rip everything off, pull my hair out! And I really think that that’s what sparked my love for theatre, dance, the whole thing. So anyway I got to be in that and then when I applied I mentioned that I had a dance background and that’ why Ann Arbor was going to give me a scholarship because they wanted someone to bring a cultural background.
M: You would’ve been able to dance at Michigan?
P: Yea. And so, actually I never danced at Drake. But I danced around (laughs). I kind of got involved in the city and the Wiley House and at that time it was kind of segregated and I kind of wanted to see… I don’t know, I just…got out of the campus. And I did some things there and met some people and then got involved doing some things. And then they had what’s now the International (24:30) and they would do all kinds of dances and I could pick up any kind of dance. And that I think is just because my parents would listen to all kind of music, so I was familiar. And so, if they needed someone for Mexican folklore or whatever I could do it. And I would try to bring people in and teach them something and that’s when somebody told me, she said, ahh you’re able to do all this dance, too bad you can’t be in our (25:10?) dance. And I thought, why not? And then it dawned on me, she’s looking at the face so I really felt that it’s universal, the arts. You shouldn’t draw a line. So anyway, from there and then at Drake, because I had classical dance background, which only a few people did at that time, I was called to be at various…when the word got around there’s somebody here and then another association would say, hey. So I was called to Chicago to be in the Midwest Indian Student Association, which to me was a trip to Chicago! And so I danced over there and someone saw me and put me in a play.
M: Wow, you must’ve been really good.
P: No. I think there just weren’t enough people around (laughs). Then he called me when I was at Drake and he said, I’d like to use you in a play and I said he had the wrong person. I have never acted in my life. I’ve done some dance, so I said, there were other people, so he said, no it’s you. I called him and asked him and he described what I did. So he convinced me and he was at (Illinois college? 27:03) and I ended up dancing and acting in the play. And they took the play to New York.
M: Did you go with them to New York?
P: Yes. Yea, so I said, it’s one of those things just being at the right place at the right time. Yea so I did get to New York and now we do full circle because it’s about 50, 60 years I have to think, but I’m getting ready to do the play again. Of course I won’t be in it but umm I just felt the timing is right. It’s based on an Indian legend and it’s kind of like Romeo and Juliet. And it’s by (? 27:58) and everybody knows about (28:01?) but here, they don’t. So we’re gonna do it and it’s going to be very cast in music and very global. So that’s the vision, so if you see it…(laughs).
M: Yea I’ll have to go see it now.
P: Yea we’re going to start working it in June.
M: So how did you come to own your own dance studio?
P: Oh I don’t own it, it’s a non-profit. It’s a community based, we founded it because I met my husband when I was going to Drake and in fact, before I even went to do the play, and I remember us talking about it. We got married and started having kids and we settled in Des Moines and we wanted something more for them and nothing was really around. And for boys its always been sports, you know?
P: So we kept looking and we couldn’t find and I did not realize it because I’ve never been in the commercial side of, I mean I was kind of (29:45?) And I didn’t know that the dance studios didn’t accept students of color at the time. And dance is expensive so we said we’re gonna find something, create something that’s accessible to everybody. And especially to the inner city; those that couldn’t. And we kept going to meetings and people were talking about stuff and then we looked at each other and said we’re tired of meetings, let’s just do it. We don’t even know, they kept looking for grants, and we said we don’t even know if people are interested. So we started a community center and announced it on (? 30:45) show, which was an afternoon TVshow about the city. I didn’t think anybody watched it but apparently they did. And we had about 30 people show up and I told my husband, I said I don’t even know Indian dance and why would somebody want to learn what I do. And he said if you don’t do it who else is going to do it? So I said, well they’re fools. I’ve never taught. I’ve been a dancer and I enjoy doing that but I don’t know anything about teaching. I did a short stint of teaching to some teachers who wanted me to teach them classical Indian dance in about ten lessons so they could turn around and do it and I thought, they’re crazy! And they were paying me good money, for me it was good money at the time and…but you wouldn’t think of teaching somebody ballet in ten lessons. So I quit. So anyway, we started and I had some modern dance. So when we started we were going to be more of a communal, cross culture thing because I got to know some teachers and I said if everybody would teach one class a week it will be much easier. And so different people helped at first but then they didn’t continue so…we were left with the bags so then we decided we should just go ahead and make it formal. So my husband and I just found the dance company thinking it would only last a year. And it’s still going! Every time I say, oh this is it. And then something happens. So its always been part of our life.
M: Dance has?
P: And it hasn’t been dance. Dance is what I know, but I usually do…because we ended up having music workshops too; we have jazz and dance workshops. So now we do a lot of other things and we’re getting ready to do plays. Well after Lee died…umm…Lee is my husband. Lee never wanted to have a studio with building. He wanted to go to community centers or wherever people gathered and then offered. And then we started doing after school programs before after school programs even started officially. –I should have a remote…I do I think on my phone. I’ll have to figure out how it works.- Umm what happened was we…when we started getting the students we wanted more than once a week classes. So I went to the schools and said, can we use the school? They said, no we don’t have them open after school. And I said, what a waste, you don’t want the kids on the street. And there’s always this negative . Let’s give them something positive. So then they let us use the inner city schools. So that’s how we started and then later when all the after school programs began, we couldn’t get in. We had to compete with everybody else and then I kind of got tired. We always had to use this thing for some school program over the other. So that’s when I started looking for space to do something. So one thing leads to another, leads to another and every time I think we’ll stop it gets bigger. So that’s….but I always practiced pharmacy. This was like a hobby.
M: So after you graduated from school did you get into pharmacy right away? That’s been your career and dance was just a hobby?
P: I just looked them as both equal. I couldn’t do one without the other. And I miss pharmacy. I’m still interested in it but I wouldn’t practice it. I’m interested in the healthcare and all the new things going on.
M: What were the biggest changes that you saw moving here from India?
P: Well…it’s different for me than it would be for some others because of my family background. But I didn’t think I had a different family background from anybody else. I guess I became more aware of it when I was here. I was surprised when I came to Drake and I went into pharmacy that so many people questioned me, why pharmacy? We’ve only three women in pharmacy in the whole university and it kind of surprised me. Well and I was used to being the only like outcast. I was a misfit all my life. I never fit into anybody’s mold, so I never thought anything about it. And there were no people…there were about three people of color. Most of them pharmacy. There were not many people of color at Drake, period.
M: Yea, their still aren’t many.
P: Well, to me there’s a lot! Because when I went to Drake we were about thirty students…international students. But we called them foreign students at the time. And so I didn’t question so much about why women weren’t in pharmacy and why women weren’t in medicine on different fields because I grew up with that it was taken for granted. Using gender to hold you back. And I feel like the men in our family were very liberated and including my husband. My grandpa…my father’s father, my grandmother went to medical school after she was married and had three kids.
M: That is impressive.
P: And she went to school and I didn’t realize all this until after I came here because she was a doctor, but she’s my grandma. And she graduated in 1915. Yea because she came and lived with us and we went to see Dr. Shivago? And she was with us and things were going on the screen and she was saying, oh that’s the year I graduated! (laughs). I said, you lived in the olden days! It was really funny. I mean I began to look at her differently and how what she must’ve gone through. And she drove a car. I mean all the things that she did and umm so…you don’t let something hold you back. ????
M: I can’t imagine doing that.
P: No I can’t imagine doing that. I can’t imagine myself going to pharmacy school being married too! I was having a hard enough time! I was working so much because I worked at the dining room to cover my meals and at the dorm to cover my room. And then on the weekend for the pharmacy so I had some pocket money. So that to me is really… the fact that we consider ourselves to be so out there and progressive in the United States…we’re talking like, ooo wow, have a woman for president, have a woman for governor! Well India had, all the third world countries had women in leading roles. That was (?41:44) she was Prime Minister and I think Sri Lanka had a woman and even Pakistan had a woman leader. And she got assassinated but…
M: Yea, the thought of having a woman as president here is such a big deal.
P: Right. So yea, I’ve seen a lot of radical changes. Who would’ve dreamt that we would’ve had a black president? And just a lot of things have changed but at the same time it’s like…and I have a feeling…maybe that’s all over. I don’t know. But I feel like people want to put you into a box. And I have trouble with that. Because I want to do some things in dance that combine the sciences. They’re talking about STEM so I’m now an advocate of putting an A and calling in STEAM, and there is now. A real strong advocate in the arts because the arts combine science. I’m using it all the time! And so when I’m teaching dance I’m saying you can’t really bend and make this angle if you don’t bend this leg. And I said that’s an acute angle! So anyway… but that’s where I’m at because really the lighting, everything! But even choreographing dance. But…well I think the whole world is changing too. Well I think that you guys are so lucky because of the Internet. I couldn’t do without it and I can’t imagine…I mean I talk to my nieces, great nieces and nephews in India. And I remember that first phone call I made to India that was given to me as a present by the Blanks. It cost like 20 dollars a minute or something. And you had to arrange to make that long distance call and you could hear the person in London and then at Cairo and they’d say, okay we’ll connect you to Bombay and all I could hear was my father say hello hello?
M: So leaving your family must have been really difficult.
P: It was. I didn’t want to leave. I think they felt I was too comfortable. And I know it was hard on my family. My parents were very protective, I was the youngest and umm…but they had to be very brave.
M: I’m from Colorado and even making the transition to Drake was really hard for me because it’s so difficult being away from your family. But it’s good. You have to adjust and it forces you to be independent.
P: Yea. And it was good for me. I mean the minute I…I literally got on a boat. (laughs). I know people laugh and they say, really?! And I could feel when it pulled away you know? But I was lucky that on the boat there were a bunch of students and we just bonded and we were all different nationalities. Then we found out we were in the…I don’t know what they call it…the tourist class and there was first class. And so they used to have music and dances and of course the first class had it really good. Well some of the first class people got to know us and they would invite us! So we partied. I was really…when I went to London I got to be in (47:30…) the first time India was represented at the Enbora? International Festival. And my sister was in it and I went to watch her and the director said “why are you sitting”? He said “do you…do you dance?” And I said I’m studying. And he said “well get on the floor!” I was so scared. So I got on the floor and I got to be in that company. And I was late getting here so I got to dance with the…yea, just all of my life that’s been going on.
M: That’s so cool! I danced for a little when I was younger up until about middle school. I loved it but I also played soccer and that kind of took over my life. But I still love to dance!
P: Well I mean you could’ve been the other way too. It just depends where you are and my kids umm…the one son, the middle son decided that he was going to show that he was not really a nerd but nerds can play football too. And he’s the last one that should’ve gone into football but he did. And umm but he just did it a year. And he played band so we’d be running with him getting him sandwiches so he could just his, you know, uniform. And my granddaughter is now dancing with us and I thought, she’s in high school, and I thought, “okay, when she gets to high school she’s going to stop dance” but she’s still going. And she’s into Indian classical dance too. But since we do it all she gets to do everything.
M: That’s always good.
P: Yea. I didn’t think that she would continue with the Indian classical dance.
M: You must have been a big influence on her.
P: I think it was the other people. I bring teachers in. We bring guest artists in and we’re going to have one this summer. She’s from India. But I brought also from Catherine Dunham’s studio umm it’s in East St. Louis but I wanted to teach afro rhythms and so…
P: And I studied a little bit of ballet and jazz. But their weren’t enough people doing the afro so we went down there. So I like to mix it up.
M: Well I’m really glad I got assigned to you. Your story is so interesting.
P: I’ve just been lucky…I find it difficult to think of myself as migrant because I didn’t come to stay. It was temporary. I was going back.
M: Why did you decide to stay?
M: So was your husband from here originally?
P: Yea. He’s African American and he was from Iowa. Waterloo, Iowa. He wanted to leave. Neither of us were ready for marriage. We kept convincing each other that we had other things to do. He had a whole thing figured out, I had a whole thing figured out. And we figured we’d meet up sometime maybe. We were good friends.
M: That’s how is starts usually.
P: And we never lived in the same city until we got married.
M: So he didn’t go to Drake?
P: No he was at Iowa State. But as soon as we met, that next semester he moved to University of Iowa. And he was from Waterloo, and then he was undecided what he wanted to do. And then he dropped out and went into business with himself, which that’s another whole story. Then African Americans, if they’re educated, they either went into becoming a doctor, lawyer, whatever else. And you didn’t go into business for yourself because there was no support system. Yea he studied electrical engineering.