Coming to America – Part 1

The Captain’s voice crackled over as the mild din in the aircraft subsided. I settled back in my seat and heaved a sigh of relief. My search for the holy grail had commenced without any major problems. The goodbyes still echoed in my mind and the images from the past few months swam before my eyes, myriad images in the kaleidoscope of my mind. Frantic journeys to the bank, patient sittings at the typewriter, zillions of photocopies, frequent trips to the post office, hurried consultations with friends, bumpy scooter rides, precious coffee breaks. Then, the trip to the Consulate armed with documents and the treasured I-20. Long queue, students making petty conversation trying not to show their anxiety. A counter visa! A stamp on the passport, open sesame to El-Dorado!

The joyful trip back home. Frantic shopping, thick jackets, blue jeans, t-shirts, suit and oh
yes, the pressure cooker, the desi bachelor’s faithful companion! Farewell dinners, lunches, breakfasts and promises to return home soon. No, I have not received financial aid yet… oh sure, I could take that belt for your son… and the wallet, medicines, pajamas… umbrella? Sorry, I’m afraid you would have to send it with somebody else! Oh sure, I’m going to return home soon. No, I’m not getting married right now. What was that? Oh sure, I won’t get married abroad. Aids? Yes I know about it, I’ll be careful!
 
Smoke swirled around me. I had not been able to secure a seat in the non-smoking section. They
looked like European travelers. They must be, they spoke a tongue I could not understand. After all, I
should know after having aced my TOEFL and GRE.  I stretched my legs a little more and lapsed into a reverie. Barely out of school, wet behind the ears, I had done well in school, distinctions all through,
above average scores in my GRE and TOEFL. A project at IISc, decent recommendations, what more could I ask for? The world lay at my feet. My I-20 said that I would be sponsoring my study myself. I was not fortunate enough to receive any financial aid. The cognoscenti nodded their heads solemnly. We told you, you should have studied harder and got into one of those IITs. My son works for Intel, he had a 4.0. He went with full funding. He bought a Nissan Sentra as soon as he landed. Oh yes, that’s his photograph there with his wife and son. You should get married before you get your green card. What, no funding? Ah well you see, my son was from IIT Madras. Tch! Tch! Don’t worry, you might get some funding if you are lucky, but it is easier if you are from an IIT you know. Well, I would show them! After all, I was starting life anew there. Your past didn’t matter. You didn’t have to worry about nepotism, the local politician would not be able to deny you a seat by wangling one for his nephew over you. Your talents were recognized, you could choose your courses and yes, they paid you for your work! Everything was not hunky dory though. Just a couple of months ago, a student had been shot working at a gas station. Woeful stories of students returning home without funding, of students working illegally to meet expenses, but hey, what the hell, that always happens to the other guy!
 
No thanks, I will not have any alcohol. It’s my first flight and I’m afraid that I may fall sick. I’ll
have some coke though. Food? non-vegetarian please, by choice! They said the food there was
inexpensive. Chicken – cheaper than vegetables! Could it be true? My eyes had popped when somebody had shown me the size of an apple with both palms encompassing enough space between them to hold my head. No wonder they produced such big athletes! Frankfurt,  I was changing aircraft there. I got off the plane. Oh, there was that girl who had boarded the plane at Bombay. She was definitely heading there too. She wore blue jeans and a stylish blue blazer. She looked lost. Just as I did. She was sticking to a family though. Should I? Shouldn’t I? No, I’ll not talk to her! Jesus, you are too shy! You will never survive there. The women there are so open and look at you! You blush if a girl looks at you for more than a second! I took a look at myself again.  My cousin’s coat which he had worn on his trip there, he had received funding. Maybe some of his luck would rub off on me. Oh well, it was a little tight and my passport and traveler’s cheques popped out each time I bent over, so that was why I was carrying that leather bag slung over my shoulders. It carried all my documents. If not for the coat you could have sworn I was a bus conductor. A terrycot pant and my well-worn, soiled power-jogger sneakers. I hung around near the Delta counter. I was terrified of getting lost in the airport.

We had boarded the aircraft again. I was seated next to a young guy. He was engrossed in the book he was reading, a Walkman strapped to his belt. I peeked at the cassettes he had casually placed at his side. Pink Floyd, Phil Collins, just another day in paradise.  Umm, I’ll have whatever he is
having. Grape-fruit juice? Sure! l am game! The turkey was bland. My mother could do wonders with
it. The captain seemed to be very efficient. His voice floated every now and then enlightening us on our geographic whereabouts. I drifted in and out of sleep. I had hardly slept the last week, so busy was I 
preparing for my departure that I had lost out on sleep. The day prior to my departure,  my uncle had toasted me with a Chivas Regal. My first taste of whiskey, I didn’t like it much. Give me the Indian beer any day. A gift too – $21! A princely sum of money! May it multiply in the near future, he said. It lay tucked in the coat pocket. Damn! I should start carrying a wallet. I got talking to him as the plane lazily circled over Atlanta. His name was John and he was a student at New Mexico. I hope you like your stay here, he said. I hoped fervently too! The stewardess was passing out forms for us to fill before we landed. For immigration purposes, she explained. I patiently read and re-read the form before I filled it out. The touchdown was perfect. My first step!! There were two queues. One
for citizens and residents and the other for… aliens! The lady seemed friendly. The purpose stated, she seemed satisfied and she vaguely motioned me towards the baggage claim area. The citizens were being accorded a very warm welcome. It almost seemed as if the immigration officers were very pleased to have their countrymen home again. The image of a harried, sullen constable at the Bombay airport flashed discordantly in my mind.
 
You from India, Pakistan man? The huge customs officer asks me. India. You carrying any masala or
spices? I untied the rope which my father had insisted on tying around my suitcase. A samsonite,  remnant of my neighbor’s trip to the US in the eighties. I had to grapple with my jacket
before I could extricate it from my bag. A leather jacket followed. Where are you heading to, man? Baton Rouge! You won’t be needing those. It hardly gets cold there. He seemed to be satisfied with the packing of my masalas. Radioactive uranium could not have been more safely packed. Somebody, the story goes, had been quarantined for carrying fruit. He waved me through. I battled bravely with my jackets before I managed to get the zipper across. I left the rope bound loosely.
 
The surging mass of humanity seemed to engulf me as I turned around after checking in my bags. I trudged with my handbag towards the Marta station. I saw her again as I got off at my concourse. I screwed up enough courage to walk up to her. Uh you uh, studying here too? ? She looked at me, then looked up and down again. Perhaps the vision of a stowaway flashed across her mind. She seemed to shake the image off as she shook her head and flashed me a radiant smile. Yes, I am what about you? I nodded my head. We walked along. My bag was heavy. It was heavy enough to have gone into the hold with the rest of my bags. The strap cut into my shoulders. The meager 15 Ib dumbells back home had not prepared me for this. Where are you studying, I asked her. UT Austin, she replied. UT Austin, that’s where my cousin was headed to. A great school. I must have looked wistful. Are you funded? I asked her. Oh yes, a fellowship. The bag dug a little deeper. My jaw dropped. The few quarters in my pocket mocked at me in a jangled melody. I congratulated her. She was on a Ph.D. program. I consoled myself. A Polite conversation ensued. It turned
out that she played table tennis at a club near my grandparents’ house. We both agreed it was a nice
area. We had reached my terminal. Number 65, which is yours? I asked her. Oh, we passed it already, number 31 she replied. I had two more hours for my flight but the strap digging into my shoulder dispelled any notions of chivalry that I harbored. I took leave of her. She seemed so confident as she turned around and strode purposefully back towards her counter. A fellowship, some people seemed to have all the luck! I dug into my pocket and fished out my diary which contained my cousin’s telephone number in Atlanta. The instructions seemed easy enough. A voice at the other end of the line informed me that she and her husband were not at home and assured me that they would get back to me if I left a number and a brief message. My first encounter with an answering machine. I babbled that I had arrived from India and was in Atlanta for a stop-over.
 

There was another Indian in the plane as I entered. His eyes lit up as he saw me. He blocked the
aisle and hollered a Hi to me. I waved back. He seemed actually happy to see me. Are you going to LSU too? he asked me. Are you funded? What department? Who is picking you up? The crowd was getting restive. Being blocked by aliens in the aisle of a plane speaking a seemingly vague dialect of English is probably not very well appreciated by the regular traveler just waiting to get home to his family. He seemed reassured when I told him that I would talk to him at Baton Rouge. The flight was uneventful. The food was a far cry from what I had been served in the international sector. The plane touched down at Baton Rouge and I was out reclaiming my baggage. My new found acquaintance was carrying a single bag. What happened to the rest, I asked him. It’s been lost in transit, he muttered. My cousin was there to pick me. He didn’t seem to recognize me until I waved out to him. I wouldn’t blame him, I had put on close to 24 Ibs since he had last seen me. We scrambled into a University vehicle which his friend had borrowed and left the airport. He pointed out sights to me as we drove down. Cars were whizzing by. There seemed to be 
something wrong. No honking, no pedestrians! Oh, we are incidentally doing close to a 100 kmph, my cousin told me, I was impressed!

His apartment seemed neat. Three bedrooms, neat stereo system. Wow, a CD player! No furniture. Cassettes and CDs neatly stacked. “My love is like a red, red rose” said a small picture on the wall. It’s my ex-roomy’s, he informed me. Disappointed at the lack of any saucy stories, I made my way to the bathroom. He lent me a Dial soap and a towel. His friends had gathered for dinner. There were close to 12 guys. Somebody had cooked pulao. A paper plate was handed out to me and I helped myself to some rice. It wasn’t too bad. The light switch looked different.  In fact,  it switched on when you moved it up and off when you moved it down. The language seemed to be slightly different. I could hear “awesome” every now and then and the chef nodded with every “awesome”. The phone rang. It was my uncle asking me whether I had reached safely. I was carried away. How does everything look, he asked? “Awesome” I replied. Good luck, he said, I hope you get your M.S. soon. My quest for the holy grail had begun, in the United States of America.

 

This was written when I was an unemployed grad in Detroit in October 1994.

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8 comments on “Coming to America – Part 1

  1. Vikram

    Awesome , took me straight bk in time , and now how the years hv flown as I realize my son is just about to travel a similar path

  2. Sugandhi

    Ha! The memories of landing in AMERICA.
    Thanks for starting the blog Rajesh. You have a gift in telling the experiences.

  3. Anu Kumar

    Beautiful write up, Rajesh!! Loved reading it again… online this time!

  4. Asha Shenoy

    Very well written! Keep writing, I enjoy reading your memoirs!

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