Social Distancing – An Immigrant Perspective

MSU alumna Rohini Desai Mulchandani shares her perspective on social distancing as an American immigrant.

Rohini Desai Mulchandani, PhD, was born in India and in 1964 received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in physics from the University of Mumbai, India. She obtained her master’s degree in food science and technology from Michigan State University in 1966, and in 1969, her doctorate in dairy technology from The Ohio State University. Mulchandani worked in the Ross Laboratories division of Abbott Laboratories (now Abbott Nutrition International) in Columbus, Ohio for nearly 25 years. She developed and/or commercialized 10 “Forta” Nutritional Supplement Mixes, three complete liquid Medical Nutritionals and holds three patents. Upon retiring, she created Arjay Gourmet Foods LTD in March 1998. Rohini went from food science expert to “chutney lady,” creating 13 versions award-winning chutneys and seasonings. She has received numerous awards and has been featured on the PBS program “New Americans Short Stories.” Throughout her professional career, Mulchandani has made tremendous contributions to the food science and product development industry.

In addition, Mulchandani has been a generous donor, not only to MSU, but also to The Ohio State University, The Wilds and the Columbus Zoo. So much so that in 2019 an Asian one-horned rhino calf at the Columbus Zoo was named in her honor. “Rohini” (a name of Indian origin meaning “star” or “constellation”) was born on August 24. The female calf was also born on (human) Rohini’s mother’s birthday, making the honor even more special.

The following alumni column was written and submitted by Mulchandani.

Today is Saturday, April 18, 2020. Exactly a month ago, I ate my last meal in the “socially distanced” company of a fellow resident, Karen Carpenter, in the Legacy Dining Room. Then, the iron curtain of self-isolation descended upon us all, and life as we had known it here at the Friendship Village of Dublin, came to a grinding halt. Meals were delivered to us instead, twice a day, communication became more electronic than face-to-face, and interaction was a wave from a distance, or a few words exchanged in passing, in a hallway or out of doors in good weather. Entertainment was internalized to within our apartments and became more solitary in nature, especially for those of us who are single. News reports are now increasingly focusing on how this new “pandemic” lifestyle is impacting the “mental” well-being of Americans, especially those experiencing undue economic strain as well. (I guess, we “retirees,” are fortunate in that regard). I seem to have “settled in” quite easily, psychologically speaking; isolation has not been isolating so far, and I seem unconcerned about how long “this” will last. I wondered why? Then, it dawned on me. An immigrant to the USA, I have been through “this” before, though not in a “pandemic” mode!

In 1964, I boarded a plane and flew into the wild blue yonder to a distant land. One day I was “here” and the next, I was “there.” The change was (equally) sudden. In doing so, the people and places, so familiar until then, became “socially distanced” and my “Indian” life a memory, a virtual reality of sorts. For seven years thereafter, I did not see, hear or talk to my parents, siblings and friends in India. Letters were our only means of communication. Those seven years of sustaining myself emotionally, psychologically in the “new world” taught me that connectedness has more than one layer to it. Physical interactions are vital, but we can survive without them. I had to. A sense of connectedness at the mental level, I realized, was more important. Loneliness is a state of mind. Happy memories, a joyful mental engagement with one’s present circumstance(s), whatever its nature, is more helpful in paving the way to a successful survival. No going “stir crazy.” In the ‘60s, I delved into a “merge” mode with my new American life on the “Spartan campus;” now in 2020, it is a different routine of activities at home (some old, some new) from a month ago. My international trips have all been cancelled for this year, but I found another way to cruise the world, international movies on Netflix! While my physical travels gave me a bird’s eye view of life in a foreign land through its monuments, museums, vistas and food, the movies have taken me inside the lives of the natives in various countries, and provided a sense of virtual interaction at a more human level. I accidentally clicked on a Korean TV drama, instead of a movie, and found them to be engaging. How engaging? I have spent 10 years in college and never burned the midnight oil; it was always early to bed and early to rise. Not anymore. Last week, I binge watched one of those dramas, 18 episodes most of them 1.5 hours long, from start to finish with very short breaks, and learned in the process, that I can stay up all night and most of the next day without sleeping. A new “pandemic” milestone for me!

The days have turned into weeks, and the weeks into months of self-isolation and, as I said before, I don’t seem to be concerned about, “how long will it last”? I have been there before, seven years’ worth of it. My story will have a familiar ring for all immigrants, everywhere. Social distancing and self-isolation from one’s “norm” were a prerequisite to the “new normal” we sought to better our lives. The only difference? We chose the former, but not the latter. The earlier experience taught us that we can survive isolation, for we did. We will this time, as well. So, “natives,” hang in there. This, too, shall pass. Our collective “new normal” is just around the bend and at the low point of the descending COVID-19 hospitalization curve! 

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