Erie, Pennsylvania and the shakiest of starts

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[This is a series of weekly essays entitled Essays from an Immigrant Diary published every weekend for the length of the series in a chronological, memoir-style timeline.]

The scrawny, twenty-something Indian kid looked ill-at-ease heaving his hefty case to the door of the Greyhound that was taking me to my first major port-of-call in America. His discomfiture wasn’t aided by the scowl on the bespectacled, pink face of the pudgy bus driver.

“Is this bus going to Erie, Pennsylvania?” the kid asked, with a thick Delhi accent, heavily enunciating each letter, and speaking with a distinctly South Asian lilt.

“What?” came back the irritable response of the driver, who didn’t look like he had much patience for accented, brown-skinned foreigners even at the best of times.

“Um…” the kid stuttered, now a little fearful.

“Where the fuck are you going?” bellowed the driver.

The kid, like me, was new to this part of the world. But unlike me, it didn’t seem like he had grown up on a steady diet of American cultural exports. So he wasn’t able to get the driver’s accent right away.

“I’m sorry sir, could you repeat the question?” the kid asked, with a politeness and demeanor that screamed – I will do anything to assimilate into your society and make you like me!

“Oh, Christ…another one!” The driver muttered, angrily shaking his head to himself.

He then turned to face the kid, eyeballing him, and almost shouted, “Ok Apu. Where. You. Go. Huh? Where. You. Go.” presumably reasoning that raising the tone of his voice and making do without grammatical syntax would help the kid understand him better.

“Erie sir. Erie, Pennsylvania.” The kid replied hesitatingly, not realizing that his inability to drop his Indian accent and adopt an American one at a moment’s notice was infuriating the driver.

“Christ…just get in!” the driver deigned.

“But sir…my cases? I can’t bring them inside the bus. They’re too big.” The kid pleaded.

“I don’t care!” the driver shouted. “Just get in, I have a schedule to keep!”

“But,” the kid softly asserted, “the website said the driver would open the compartment at the bottom of the bus for the cases to be placed there.”

“Fuck!” exclaimed the driver, clearly upset at this timely reminder of his on-the-job duties.

He then huffed and puffed his way out of his seat, stepped out and opened the luggage compartment so the kid could heave his cases in. They both then entered the bus. The kid, now really flustered, took his seat and weakly looked around, hoping to find a sympathetic face but only getting scornful looks instead.

As the driver strapped himself in, he muttered to himself, but loud enough to elicit soft chuckles from some passengers, “This isn’t a fucking 7-11, you know.”

I wish I had said something to defend my ill-at-ease Indian brother. But I kept mum and weakly told myself that I didn’t really know what was going on. The fact that most of the passengers seemed to be angry at the kid didn’t help in undoing my cowardice.

We were soon on our way and the rest of the journey was uneventful enough, but I remained fitfully awake throughout the ride. I don’t know if I was bothered more by seeing such a racially-charged outburst this early on in my journey as an immigrant or by the fact that I did nothing to challenge it. Regardless, any hopes of getting some sleep were completely dashed.

I was on my way to grad school. My journey was to commence in the Spring of 2003 at a small Catholic university called Gannon University in the American heartland of Erie, PA. Till date I have never fully understood the rationale behind this decision of mine because I was planning on transferring to a much larger, well-known grad school in the fall anyway. I must have thought I’d get a taste of what small-town America had to offer.

And sure enough, I did.

I had flown in to DC, stayed with some Indian friends for a couple of days before taking the Greyhound to Erie, which still happened to be the largest town in its county. Thankfully my friends helped me find the bus and by the time it was ready to leave, I was able to stick my cases in the luggage compartment of the bus and find a window seat, without having to face the bile of the driver.

We finally made it to Erie and I was picked up at the bus station by another Indian grad student. His sole purpose for doing so seemed to be to rope me into staying in the three-bedroom house, which I agreed to under the assumption that there were likely to be very few options for me. He rented the house with three other Indian students, all from the same province in southern India, and speaking to each other in Telugu, the one south Indian language I didn’t know. He had been around the place for a while, so occupied one room, which he padlocked before leaving the house in the morning. The rest of us had to share the remaining two rooms, something I learnt of only after he had extracted a month’s rent out of me. I was stuck with a guy who personified sexism in its most ribald form and assumed that I would partake in it merely because I was a man.

This was one of the moments in my life when nicotine started becoming my best friend.

Thus ensconced in these trying dwellings, I made my way the next day to the Environmental Science Department of my school. I figured that even if I were to transfer to a better university, it still made sense to schmooze my professor. In the few days I had been in the States, I had only really interacted with Indians – my friends in DC, and my new housemates. I wondered if my interactions with white folk would result in sitcomesque scenarios like the ones I had seen in Friends or Seinfeld. I could have used a laugh track in my life right about then.

I walked past the giant Jesus statue in front of the main building of the campus, and entered through the revolving doors. The very first sight that greeted me in my quest for higher education in the land of milk and honey was a gargantuan, nausea-inducing poster with drawings showing a human fetus being ripped apart and extricated out of a womb, limb from bloody limb. Thankfully my breakfast that morning had consisted of nothing more than coffee and a cigarette.

As I stood for a second staring at the poster, trying to prevent my gag-reflex, I was handed a brochure for a group called Students For Life by a fresh-faced, blond-haired boy who flashed a beautiful smile, no doubt happy that the poster had piqued my interest.

While handing me the brochure, he asked me, “Do you believe in killing babies?”

“Um…I, uh…do I what?” I stuttered, wondering if this was a trick question of sorts.

“Do you know that babies across the world are killed?”

“You mean, like, from war and famine?”

“That too…but I’m talking about abortion.” he clarified. “Do you know how many babies are killed because of abortion?”

“Um…not sure.”

He turned his head and called to one of his friends at the Students For Life booth.

“Candice, can you get me the stats flyer?”

A fresh-faced, red-haired girl with an equally beatific smile walked over and stood next to the fresh-faced, blond-haired boy, handing me a flyer.

“You see,” she started without so much as a moment’s hesitation, “more babies are killed due to abortion, then all the wars and famines and violence across the world.”

“I…uh, I find that hard to believe.” I weakly stammered.

“It’s right here in the flyer.” she replied with a little indignation, stabbing at the flyer with a delicately manicured fingernail.

“Ok…well, thanks…but I…”

“Everyone has their doubts at the beginning, but the facts speak for themselves.” the girl said commandingly.

“Are you a follower of Him?” the boy then asked without batting an eyelid.

“Um…who?” I hesitatingly asked.

“Him…who else? Our lord Jesus Christ.” he stated, as if I was missing out on the nectar of life itself.

“Uh…no, not really.” I uttered hesitatingly.

“Well…see, that’s the problem.” the boy said with emphatic realization. “I think you should become a Christian…it’s the only way.”

“Ok, uh…I’ll think about it…but I have to run now to meet my professor.”

They both flashed beautiful smiles, and nodded, letting me know that they’re open to talking with me at any time.

“Just come by the Students For Life office on the third floor…we love having newcomers.” the boy said, shaking my hand cheerfully.

I was very confused. Did they just insult me and somehow make me still like them?

I shook myself out of my reverie and made my way to the Environmental Sciences department where I was scheduled to meet with my professor. I received a few more smiles from other Students For Life volunteers as I walked through the main hallway. I smiled back at them, hesitantly wondering how those kids were able to project such piety while creeping me the fuck out at the same time.

I sauntered into Professor Richards’ office where I found him perusing my mediocre grade sheets from Bangalore University. I was an average student during my Bachelors degree, but had done surprisingly well in the GRE which made a couple of decent graduate schools accept my candidacy for a Masters – but all for the Fall 2003 semester. This university was the only one that I got into for the Spring semester so I thought I’d sample it before moving on to one of the other schools. Professor Richards didn’t know that of course.

“Dr. Richards,” I said, cheerfully extending my hand, “I’m Sriram, your new student.”

He smiled broadly and stood up.

“Well, it is a real pleasure to meet you.” he warmly said, shaking my hand rigorously. “I look forward to a great year with you.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate you meeting with me.”

“I was just taking a look at your file here.” he said, pointing to an off-white file on the table. “It looks like your degree is in mechanical engineering. What prompted you to come into environmental science?”

For the briefest of moments, I contemplated telling him the truth, which was that it seemed to be the area where I had the best chance of maybe shifting over to a more social-sciences-oriented field of study, while still standing a decent chance of landing a good job. But I decided against it in the hope that feigning interest in the field would endear me to him.

“Well, I just have a longstanding interest in environmental issues,” I bullshitted, “so I wanted to make the shift in grad school.”

“And what prompted these interests?”

“Um, well…I checked out a local chemical engineering plant near Bangalore, the city where I grew up, and found that the effluents were running into the local water bodies and polluting it.” I replied. “Did a little activism around it. It prompted me to think about how to work in engineering from an environmentalist’s point of view.”

I had done no such thing, but I figured I’d play up the eager-beaver card to score some brownie points. I only had a scholarship and no job. My student visa limited me to working twenty hours on campus while forbidding any off-campus work, so rather than cleaning toilets for crappy pay, I thought I would ass-kiss my way into a research assistantship for a semester.

“That’s quite something!” Dr. Richards said. “I’m glad to see such a passion for the subject. Most international students who come here just want to get a job.”

I continued the charade, my lips still vacuum-sealed on his rear end, “You’re absolutely right Dr. Richards. It is unfortunate that more students don’t study for the sake of learning rather than just integration in the job market. I’ve always found it incredulous considering how rich the subject is.”

“That’s a great attitude you have there, um, uh…how do you pronounce your name again?”

“Oh, you can just call me Sri…Sri as in Sri Lanka.”

“Oh, are you from Sri Lanka? I thought you were from India.”

“I am…uh, it just helps for folks to pronounce my nickname right.”

There was a pause in the conversation where he gave a sagely nod, following which I tried my hand again at weaseling my way into a part-time gig with him.

“Yeah, so anyway, I’m just really excited to try and contribute to the department…you know, help with research…anything.” I ventured.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, that’s great, that’s great…” he said absent-mindedly, his mind now elsewhere.

“I’m great with literature reviews and am comfortable with statistical analysis. Also I should have no problem with learning any new software…” I continued eagerly.

“Hmm, hmm, good to know…yes.” he said, completely unaware of my enthusiasm.

I dropped a few more hints, to which he replied with similar disinterest, alternating between staring at the wall in deep thought and glancing at my file. There was another pause as I waited with a little anticipation at the possibility of working with him.

He then asked, breaking out of his temporary daydream, “So, tell me…what’s the population like out there in India?”

I was looking at him expectantly until then and was a little crestfallen now. I also had a tough time not rolling my eyes. Not again with the population thing. What was it with Westerners and their Malthusian fascination for India’s population?

“It’s about a billion now.” I replied, waiting for the inevitable.

“A billion!” he exclaimed. “Wow, so you guys must be, like, standing shoulder to shoulder huh? Like, literally pushing each other into the ocean.”

I wondered whether I ought to tell my, allegedly PhD-holding, Environmental Studies Professor that we did none of that, that it was the seventh largest country in the world, and that India had more arable land than any other country, actually producing way more food for the population than needed, but that income inequality, corruption, and distribution were the real problems. Things that I learnt in high school.

I thought better of it though.

“You’re right Dr. Richards, a growing population is a really huge problem.” I said, now in a more metronomic voice, any hopes of a research assistantship fast disappearing. I resigned myself mentally to flipping burgers or maintaining the lawn, which would have been probably half the wages.

“Yeah,” he said, happy at being validated, “in fact the bible talks about how the harbinger of mankind’s death will be war, plague, and famine. Countries with huge populations really exemplify that.”

“No doubt.” I said, nodding unenthusiastically, and making to get up.

He continued, “And I’m an atheist for crying out loud…no religion for me, thank you very much…but it’s amazing how some of those prophecies can be eerily true.”

And thus having heard his enthusiastic and strangely theological take on the subject of over-population, I politely took my leave of Dr. Richards after shaking his hand again. I think he felt like we bonded.

My next stop was the International Students Orientation that afternoon. By now, I was a little jaded, so was hesitant at the prospect of having yet another weird experience. But I figured that it would be a simple orientation so decided to go anyway to get the logistical details of being an international student at Gannon University.

And it was indeed a simple orientation. Ms. Christy, the international student advisor, and Professor Senturk, the professorial chair of the International Students Centre, oriented us from the podium as the rest of us, numbering over a hundred, sat in one of the auditoriums of the students’ union building. Ms. Christy went through the motions of telling us, via PowerPoint, the paperwork we needed to complete, the visa regulations, how to navigate the internal employment system since we could only work 20 hours a week on campus (which was repeated multiple times), how to enroll in classes, and the culture of the campus town we were in, as well as a couple of slides on American Culture (which I thought to be rather condensed to fit in two slides, and included a bullet-point on American foods, graphically supported by cartoon drawings of, I kid you not, a pizza slice, a greasy burger, and a side of fries). Professor Senturk would chime in with his thick Turkish accent every now and then.

This all seemed normal enough, albeit a little tedious. But just as we were getting ready to leave, Professor Senturk whispered something into Ms. Christy’s ear, whereupon she asked us to be seated for just a few more minutes.

“There are just a couple more things I would like to remind everyone here about.” she explained, in a tone that now curiously shifted to the false-politeness of a prison warden addressing her inmates for the first time.

“It’s not much,” she assured us with a smile that would have frozen the Sahara, “but it’s just that in order to ensure we don’t receive complaints from other students, we ask that you please try to speak in English as much as possible, especially when you’re in public places. Um…really, it’s for your own good, you know.”

There were some annoyed murmurs that went around, but no one really had the courage to challenge an authority figure in a new land.

“No real biggie,” she continued nonchalantly, “it’s just that our American students sometimes feel like you all are talking about them when they hear strange languages being spoken.”

Apparently the office for international students was just as much for American students to complain about perceived behavioral problems of the internationals, as it was for supporting international students.

I briefly considered walking up to the podium and shouting some choice expletives in Hindi or Tamil at her and the stoic Professor Senturk. But there was no point getting all riled up and likely kicked out and deported.

“Oh, and one more thing.” she chirped.

What now?

“It’s a good idea to take showers regularly, in fact on a daily basis, to ensure that there aren’t any…um…body odor problems.” she continued in the same grating tone.

There was another pause in the auditorium, with a few more irritated mumblings, but nothing said out loud in protest.

This statement by her was a profound learning moment for me, one that I will never forget. It took me a second, but I realized that there was much to be gleaned from her brief instructions on daily ablutions. Not with regards to hygiene, but rather with the way stereotypes were fashioned.

Now, I’m sure that there was a percentage of the international student population in the US that had issues with body odor. I’m equally certain that a similar percentage of Americans dealt with those issues as well. The difference was that we were being lectured on hygiene en masse. The specific issue of body odor was actually immaterial, I realized. It could have been replaced with any other perceived flaw in an individual from a minority community, which would have been extrapolated to represent that community at large.

I also realized that I was now a member of such a community, and that I best get used to a variety of stereotypes as travelling buddies.

I nevertheless instinctively sniffed my armpits in the hope that my Old Spice deodorant was still working its magic.

Then with a little titter and wave of her hand, she continued, “We think nothing of it here, we take it for granted in fact, because water supply is not a problem in America. So you should avail of that opportunity.”

She ended with a flashing smile and a cheery tone.

Thank you all sooo much for coming here. I’m sure you all will have a wonderful time in our fine establishment.”

This couldn’t be it, I said to myself as I sauntered out of the auditorium. This simply could not be all that America had to offer. Friends and Seinfeld had told me otherwise. Where were the lovable rogues, quirky charmers, and merry pranksters that populated those representations of American society? Where were the funny plotlines, punchy dialogues, and ultimately happy endings that characterized those stories?

I suppose I deserved it for allowing myself to be lulled into a sense of comfort by the polished storylines of prime time sitcoms.

I trudged back home after a day where I’d seen a giant poster of a torn fetus, was asked to convert to Christianity, got a short primer on the population-explosion of India from someone who’d never been there, and was advised to take regular showers while speaking English, only to ironically find the rest of my evening occupied by the raucous conversations of my four Telugu housemates speaking to each other incessantly in the one south Indian language I didn’t understand. This was followed by an hour before bed where my bunkmate eagerly expounded on his desire to visit a bonafide American strip club.

If there was karmic justice for any past misdeeds I had committed, this seemed to be it.

[Next up: Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King]

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