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Seema Peterson: Forging her own path

If you have ever stood across the net from Seema Pahwa Peterson on a tennis court, you have encountered her innate sense of determination, her competitive spirit and her sheer joy for the game. You’ll see the same demeanor at the bridge table, or in her work. It’s no coincidence—Seema has been steadfast in following her own convictions, rejecting conventions and stereotypes to forge a path on her own terms, one rich in experience and enveloped by love.

Setting the stage

In 1947, the British government rescinded control of India, partitioning the country into two independent states as part of its exit plan. The region currently known as Pakistan was declared a Muslim state, which prompted what The New Yorker described as “one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction.”

“My family was Hindu,” explained Seema, “but both sets of my grandparents lived in what is now known as Pakistan. The Hindus who lived in that area either had to leave or convert. It was particularly hard for my dad’s side of the family because they were farmers and were forced to uproot and familiarize themselves with new and less fertile land.” Seema’s maternal grandparents were business people, so the transition was slightly easier. Both families settled within a few-hour radius of what is now New Delhi.

Education valued by both families

Seema’s father was the youngest of 12 children, the only sibling who went to college or even lived in a large city. Her maternal grandfather was a doctor of a traditional Indian medicine called Ayurveda. He was determined that his children receive an education, so Seema’s mother also went to college and trained to be a teacher.

“Of course, my parents had an arranged marriage because in their generation that was the way it worked.” The families connected through a mutual friend and eventually the young couple married and began their life together in Delhi.

“My mom was a teacher, and my dad was a physicist, so education was big from the very beginning. It was the way out of everything, poverty or whatever. All along they regularly impressed on me the need to study. I think that constant reiteration definitely fueled an independent streak in me.”

Seema attended a small engineering college, one of just 25 women in a class of 550 men. “A lot of kids lived at home while they went to college, but I went to a residential engineering school, a bit like going to boarding school here.” She recalled that the first few weeks were awkward and stressful. “There were so many men that you felt conspicuous everywhere you went. When you are 17 or 18, you don’t have that much confidence, so all of those sets of eyes watching made me very self-conscious at first.”

Something in my DNA

Seema said she grew up believing that “there is an easier path to a better life if you come to the US. You work hard, you play hard, you do well.” She explained that “all through my schooling I felt there were a lot of social restrictions. India was somewhat of a repressive society when I was growing up. Things have changed so much in the last 30-40 years, but at the time I just felt like, ‘go west, young woman.’ I’ve always been fiercely independent—it must be something in my DNA.”

She applied to graduate programs in the States despite the fact that her parents were reticent about their young daughter traveling to the US alone. “I wanted to come here, and I knew I needed a full ride because, when my parents finally realized that I was determined to go, they completely backed off from any financial support. They told me I needed to get married or find a different path.”

“I would joke with my dad that he had a problem any time I was assertive in other parts of my life outside of the classroom. I would look at my dad and say, ‘you taught me to be independent and be able to express my thoughts, but you only want to hear what I have to say about math or physics and nothing else.’ I don’t think my parents got what they bargained for with me,” she laughed.

Choosing a graduate school came down to economics. “I ended up at Michigan Tech, in the Upper Peninsula. They gave me a full ride plus an assistantship to cover expenses. I was also an Electrical Engineering undergrad, but realized that I wanted to be in software, not hardware.” It was a minor switch that was possible to do at Michigan Tech. Seema vividly recalled arriving in the US on September 1, 1982. “It was 70°. Everyone kept saying that it was such a nice day, but I was literally shivering. I went from the warmth of India to a place that is so cold that they measure snow in feet, not inches.”

Avoiding an arranged marriage, part 1

Seema said that living on a college campus gave her some freedoms that she would not have had if she remained at home. She also became very close to the 25 women in her class. “Five or six of those women are still the first people I think of calling when I have an issue or want to talk.” She admitted that living on campus also gave her an opportunity to date men, even though it was considered taboo at the time and her parents would not have approved. That experience helped solidify her intention to marry someone of her own choosing, when the time was right.

“My parents actually thought they could set me up and get me married off before I left for grad school,” Seema recalled. “School started in September…that was in May! They were certain they could find someone for me quickly.” While she flatly refused, it was her maternal grandfather who ultimately came to her rescue. He convinced her parents that Seema needed to find her own path and to get educated. “He really supported me.”

Choosing a different path

While Seema could have attended graduate school anywhere in the world, only one option stood out. “Remember that I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s. During that period there were just two superpowers, Russia and America. I always thought of the US as ‘the melting pot.’ That term stuck with me and I was determined to be part of it.” Seema added that, “A lot of my friends say that they never think of me as an immigrant. I think one of the reasons for that is because my thinking lines up with the American way—I am adventure-seeking, independent, an ‘if you tell me what NOT to do, I will do it’ kind of person. When I first came to this country, I had no desire to go back to India or do Indian things and eat Indian food. I wanted to be an American.”

Landing her first job

After spending two years in graduate school, Seema chose not to enter the PhD program in Michigan “because it was just too cold there.”

“Even though my parents thought I was just coming to the U.S. for a Master’s degree, I felt pretty confident that I would find a job and not go back to India, so I started applying for jobs here.” Seema explained that the process for staying in the US as a student was a bit easier than it is today. “You had to find a company that was willing to sponsor you for a green card. In the US there was a skilled labor path that allowed a company to hire a foreigner when they were unable to find an equally qualified American to do the job. Because I had done so much work in such a narrow field, it was easier to prove that I was uniquely qualified for that skillset.” Seema accepted a job with Data General, at that time headquartered in Westborough.

Avoiding an arranged marriage, part 2

Seema said that Data General had hired a number of college graduates when she arrived, so she was part of a large group of new employees who worked and socialized together. Many started out as friends, and some friendships eventually developed into something more.

“Dating was not part of the culture in India,” Seema explained, “but if dating is not part of the culture, how do you meet someone you know you want to marry? The idea behind arranged marriage is that if there is a lot of commonality in heritage, family values and backgrounds, the likelihood that you will have a successful marriage is high. I do have a lot of friends with arranged marriages who are still together after 30 years.”

“It’s just a very different way of thinking. The individualism in American society is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to explain to non-Americans how we feel, just as it’s difficult for Indians to explain to Americans how they are content to choose their partner from a newspaper ad. In the end, you can’t fully understand it, but clearly it works.” She added, “When I started dating, though, I did not limit myself to dating only Indian men. Whomever I liked the best was going to be the guy I chose.”

While Seema finished grad school and moved to Boston, her parents responded to matrimonial ads on her behalf, then sent her profiles they received about prospective grooms. “There was often a month’s delay before I got their letters, and they expected me to pick someone then try to set up a meeting in the U.S. My American roommates loved to open the letters, pore over them and pick out the ones they thought were the best fit for me.”

“Somewhere along the way,” Seema continued, “Eric [Peterson] and I started dating, and I finally realized that I had to tell my parents. I honestly don’t know how they reacted. I think they had probably figured out that I was seeing someone and just not bold enough to tell them. Perhaps they knew all along that I was way too independent to go with someone from the advertisements.”

A new marriage and family

Seema introduced Eric to her parents in summer 1991 while her parents visited the US. Initially she introduced him as just a friend. But after the couple was engaged in 1992, Seema took Eric to India to meet her extended family. “My parents arranged a huge engagement celebration, probably because they knew we would get married in the US. Eric’s mother arranged a traditional Western-style wedding here.” Seema made a point that she received her green card while working at Data General, not simply as the new wife of an American citizen. “Even though I could have applied after we got married, I decided to stick with the original plan. So it was a true marriage, not one just for a green card!”

“When we first got married, we fixed up a house that Eric bought in Hudson, sold it and used the money we made for a down payment on a house in Westford.” The couple lived there for nine years, and had two daughters, Kaitlyn and Kelsey, during that time. “Westford schools were struggling a bit, and we would often drive through Carlisle instead of taking the highway because it was such a beautiful town. We knew we would find something here when it came time to make a move.”

Living as an American

Seema explained that there were a few key people in her life who helped her assimilate to American culture, introducing her to things like sports, pop culture, movies and even simple cuisine like spaghetti with meat sauce. “Sometimes they would make brutal fun of my Indian accent, so little by little I worked to change it. Does that mean I gave up some of my Indian heritage? I don’t know, but they were relentless, so I had to do something about it.”

She recalled that Data General had a number of after-work programs for employees including activities like softball, volleyball and ski club. “I didn’t know any sports, but I would go along for social reasons and eventually picked them up. I really loved American sports, especially football and baseball, and I even bought into a share of Red Sox season tickets so I could go to games.” Seema reflected that, “Girls didn’t do sports in India when I was growing up, but if I had grown up here, I definitely would have played sports in high school.”

Seema became an American citizen in 1999, a decision that she did not take lightly. She had to renounce her Indian citizenship to do so, since remaining an Indian citizen created problems when trying to travel as a family. “I really studied for the citizenship test, but when I showed up to take it, they only asked me a couple of questions since I was already married to an American. I desperately wanted to show them what I knew, like ‘who was the 22nd President, or who was his Vice President?’”

Reviving her Indian culture

While Seema truly thinks of herself as American in many regards, she has not lost sight of her Indian heritage. “I came back to my Indian culture because my kids were curious about it, and I wanted to introduce them to it. Kaitlyn became enamored with Indian culture in her early college years and has been ever since. In fact, she now goes by Aysha which is her Indian middle name that we gave her at birth.” (Kelsey’s Indian name is Mira.) Seema said her daughters asked so many questions that she took out books from the library so they could do research together. “And then there was food…there’s always the food.”

In 2018, Seema took a group of Carlisle friends to India to give them a personal tour of her homeland. “Dale Ryder, Timm Brandhorst and Sharyl Stropkay have always wanted me to take them to India. It was a great way to reconnect with my home country on a different level after so many years,” she noted. “It’s also wonderful to go back with Eric or the girls now because they see things with such different perspectives.”

Night and day differences

When asked what her life might be like if she had she not emigrated to the US, Seema responded, “night and day. I don’t really have many comparison data points, though, because the women that I was close to in college all live in the US now. I can’t look at their lives and see what my life would have been like if I had stayed in India.”

She does have a few cousins and high school friends who still live in India. “Intellectually, I don’t think it’s that different. They are doing some cool work and raising families. India is still a very patriarchal society, and there definitely are double standards for men and women in what they can do. Traditionally sons were more desirable than daughters, and I remember thinking how lucky I was that the girls were born in the US.”

What Americans could learn from Indian culture

Seema’s father, Des Raj Pahwa, passed away prematurely in 2002, and her mother lives in India with Seema’s younger brother. “She is someone people should really write about,” Seema quipped. Ved Kumari Pahwa worked in education for 38 years, serving as a teacher, then as a high school principal until she retired. After a debilitating stroke in 2000, Mrs. Pahwa trained herself to become left-handed after a lifetime of being right-handed. Mrs. Pahwa is also a self-published poet, and according to an interview in Delhiware, is hoping to have poems she wrote during the pandemic typed soon.

“My biggest concern as we get older is that Americans tend to ship off our elderly to retirement communities. In India, it is traditional to keep families together. Even now, although they might move away for periods of time, children care for their parents later in life. It’s always part of your planning that elderly parents will come live with you.”

“I feel like youth give so much energy to everyone, and when grandparents are involved in helping to raise grandchildren, it keeps grandparents young and engaged. I cringe at the thought that I will end up in a nursing home someday. We’ll see,” she giggled.

Carlisle is home

Seema said that when she moved to Carlisle, she finally felt at home. “This is the first time that I felt like I’ve found my people.” She appreciates that Carlisle is so receptive to different cultures and ideas, and has developed rich and lasting friendships that embrace many different traditions.

“Will I ever leave? Probably not. I have really close friends from different parts of my life, but Carlisle is different. I have gotten so much love from the people in this town, but it’s even more than that—I feel love from this place.”

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