Upon landing in California, an eighteen-year-old from Mumbai is prepared to be Mr. Popular. But he quickly learns that he's cared about all the wrong things.
After a month, I drop out of Mumbai University. There is no particular reason, more of an aimless slide. Having told my parents that I’d try India before deciding about going abroad, I now accept an offer from Claremont McKenna—an American College comprised of words I mispronounce, the ‘Mck’ coming out as the ‘muck’ of muck and slime, rather than the ‘mec’ of McDonalds. The fee transfer is a family event. The four of us walk to the bank, each clutching assigned documents. Fifty thousand dollars—a sum so new, so gigantic, that the clerk who processes the transaction and I both roll our eyes. Once it’s paid, Claremont begins sending me emails: housing form, dining form, health form, orientation package. I reply vaguely, and then go about preparations in a daze, as if buying clothes and packing suitcases for someone else.
Then there is the matter of goodbyes. I am expected to throw a farewell party, and I do. The formality done, I provide my friends with a false (early) departure date so as to have a few weeks to myself. Not that anyone is harassing me. Lying and laying low just seem like the thing to do. The situation with my family is more difficult (though of course I myself don’t realize this just yet.) My older sister Shirya is giving up on me. I didn’t write to her from boarding school. It’s unlikely that I will from the States. My mother, who blindly loves me, finds this period especially hard. We spend a lot of time together: at the passport office, at the American consulate, in line outside the American consulate, at shopping malls, at foreign exchange bureaus and, of course, in the car—but our interaction is dead. She might as well be a chauffeur. My father claims to “know what was going on in [my] head,” because he is my father. Whether he really does, (I hope he doesn’t) or is given to psychoanalyzing, or has just taken it upon himself to keep things together, I don’t know. But he, more than the others, excuses my crankiness and lets me be.
As the date of departure approaches, I go further adrift, smoking openly in the building lobby, skipping meals without explanation, and even walking out on my grandparents when they arrive for a farewell visit. I listen to music until my head aches.
On the final morning I wake up crying, not sure if it’s because of a dream, or reality. My tears trigger a family meltdown. My mother starts crying: Why won’t you tell us what is wrong? Why won’t you talk! My sister starts crying: Stop being so selfish! You aren’t the only one affected by this. My father doesn’t know what to do; the traffic is bad and we must reach the airport four hours early.
Only he and I will be traveling. So my mother cries again at the airport. This time she sheds tears of happiness, pride. Her irrational renewal of faith strikes me as a parting consolation. But it is not enough; I remain gloomy on the flight. At mealtimes, my father cautiously offers me his dessert, his soft drink–things little children are fond of. The innocence of his gesture pains me, temporarily opening a window of clarity in my mind. But the light is blinding; I shut it out.
At the Mumbai airport, there are thousands of Indians. At LAX, there are hundreds. But the latter number seems like more. Just landing on American soil makes me hyper-aware of all the saris, burqas, pagdis and brown skin on and around me. Brown skin—a concept I have never considered before. An Indian student from Claremont picks us up at LAX. She talks about orientation as we drive past endless cycles of strip malls, storage lots and fast food restaurants (indeed, America is unimpressive so far). The plan is this: I am to go on a two-day “wilderness camp” and then return to campus for a week of residential, logistic, academic (and most importantly–alcoholic–she slyly adds, when my father is out of ear-shot) orientation. But first my father and I have a last night together.
Jetlag hits me at the hotel. I fall asleep, four hours later waking up to my father Skyping home. Shriya and my mother are worried. How is he going to cope in America? Did he at least talk to you on the flight? My father reassures them. He talks about how good Claremont’s students seem, how nice the weather is here, how excited I am about the wilderness camp. This is a good opportunity to reassure my mother, but instead I go back to sleep. Later, my father wakes me up for dinner, having located an Indian restaurant. I announce that I just want to sleep peacefully, that I didn’t cross continents to eat my native food, and that he should leave me alone. Hurt, he does.
Late at night, a nightmare wakes me up. I find my father asleep beside me, and on the table, naan and sabji, along with my favorite dessert. In the fold of the Styrofoam box, I can now see it: the dimly-lit restaurant, ostentatiously wallpapered, red-table clothed, turban-waitered; and near a window, Dad sitting alone. Coupled with late-night honesty, the despair of this image overcomes me. I cry in the bathroom.
* * *
The next morning we part at campus. My father promises to purchase my necessities over the next two days. I myself haven’t felt this excited in months.
There is another brown person in my camping group—a Hispanic-Filipino girl. It’s pretty ridiculous that I mistake her for being Indian at first. A few of the (white) girls are extremely attractive. All the boys are bigger than me. But this doesn’t matter. I have always been confident. We play icebreakers—two truths and a lie—and I’m up first:
I hate Coldplay.
Monkeys broke into my dormitory in boarding school.
My family owns two sacred cows.
I wait for laughter, but it’s silence that greets me. Strange concept, an accent—it exists only in relation to something else. But now is not the time for self-pity. I repeat myself, slowly and clearly. This time they understand. Guesses pour in, and laughs as well. But I am still chilled by the initial silence. I no longer want to be the center of attraction.
* * *
After breakfast, we leave for our camp location, Mammoth Lakes.
Most of the kids seem sensible. I sit next to Kat—a girl from San Francisco, and David—a boy from Seattle—on the lakeshore.
“So how did you hear about Claremont in India?” Kat asks.
“There’s the amazing thing called the Internet. You must check it out!” I reply. “It does cool things, like connect the world…”
“But seriously” David says, through laughter, “it’s a little random. Most Americans haven’t heard of this place.”
“Ya, man—I guess it was random. But I’m here now.”
“And how did you learn English so well?” Kat asks.
Kat is extremely nice. And I know this is a perfectly normal question. It is a question I would ask someone from Peru, or Saudi Arabia, or even France. In fact, she probably means it as a compliment. Still, it gets to me. It sounds like a euphemism for “you have an accent.” In fact, she’s probably been thinking about my accent for a while now. My jokes are probably rolling through her head. Funny Indian boy. Perhaps my English is not as good as I assume. Better to lie than to create unnecessary conflict, I figure. “I grew up speaking Tamil, my mother tongue. But in India everyone learns English from first standard—I mean first grade. My parents speak English as well. And Hindi also, which is to India what Spanish is to South America.”
They are impressed, and the conversation veers towards safer, shallower places.
Late in the afternoon, we swim in the lake. I am aroused as the girls change into bikinis. This is natural, I tell myself. But natural or not, the bikinis undermine my confidence, making me edgy. Can’t be caught staring. But then again, mustn’t conspicuously avoid. When spoken to, I rave about the scenery to prove erotic disinterest.
But it is too much, and in fifteen minutes I leave for the comfort of dry land and male conversation.
At night, stories are told around a bonfire. I am more comfortable now. Someone has carried a travel guitar, and (laughing at what an American cliché this is) I perform a duet with David. We play “Pink Moon”—David singing, me strumming. Everyone’s impressed, and for the first time in weeks I feel carefree.
Hours later, I am the only one awake, and must extinguish the fire. But there’s no rush. This is my first night alone in America. I can sit amongst the pine trees and canvas tents and think about how college might turn out well after all.
I’m dreaming about Kat when she wakes me up.
“Hey. Pruh-baat. Sorry to wake you up, but I don’t think it’s safe to sleep outside,” she whispers, nudging my shoulder. “And we should put the fire out.”
I have fallen asleep on a log.
“Fuck, I mean shit. Sorry. And thanks. Just dozed off.”
“Haha. I noticed. You must be jetlagged huh?”
“A little. Is everybody else asleep?”
“Ya, I woke up to pee and saw the fire still going. So I came over.”
I sit up, and feeling our odd physical proximity, gather myself.
“Thanks a lot. It would have been very embarrassing to wake up outside…So, what did you think of today?” I ask.
“Ya. I mean, like, it’s the first day of college and all.”
“Oh. It was cool. Exciting to finally meet other students you know. Plus I really like the outdoors. You seemed really comfortable, huh? I mean, being from a different country and all—you’ve adjusted so quickly.”
The compliment pleases me. “Haha, it’s not really a big deal.”
“I don’t know. I’d be really nervous about going abroad.”
There are only friendly intentions on both sides. But as we begin to learn about each other—she about my school-life in India, I about her school-life in California—I begin to form my own interpretations of the situation. Kat’s a girl. An attractive, white girl. (And I’m a charming boy, aren’t I?) Kat did wake me up and sit next to me. In the afternoon, we chatted at the lake. And didn’t she call my cheating ex-girlfriend a bitch? And isn’t she single? Perhaps things in America happen as fast as television claims. Perhaps an erotic rebound is exactly what she’s looking for. After taking these thoughts to their respective conclusions, I decide, with what I believe is devilish smoothness, to show Kat what I tell her is an Indian ritual of friendship.
We stand facing with our hands on each other’s shoulders, and instead of proceeding to the next fictional step, I stretch out and kiss her.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she says, stumbling backwards.
“It’s just part of the ritual” I reply, trying to smile.
“Yeah? I don’t think so!”
“No really, I—”
“And it’s not funny”
But she’s already walking back to her tent. Too shocked to digest what I’ve done, I put out the fire and go to bed.
* * *
All morning, I hysterically await the storm. But it doesn’t come. There is no “quick word” with an orientation leader, no condescension from other girls. Kat avoids me, but no one else has changed. It seems she isn’t going to tell anyone.
On the drive back, I sit alone, feigning sleep.
* * *
My father and I have three last hours together, me still worried about the incident and deflecting his questions. No—you can’t make friends in two days. Teenagers are the same everywhere, Dad. No, I’m fine, just tired from the traveling.
We visit my dormitory: a pale brown motel that does not impress me. My suitcases have been moved into the room (a single) and are unpacked—I would have done it myself! On my desk, a new MacBook is charging. For this I am thankful, and say so.
“Do you need anything else?” my father asks, “we can still quickly go to the college shop.”
“No, I have a card, I can buy whatever I need,” I reply, opening the laptop.
“You checked everything? Stationary, clothes, water bottle, cosmetics—anything you want, we can get now.”
“Check one last time, Raja. For my sake. Check the drawers. Suppose I’ve forgotten something.”
“I’ll be OK, Dad. Treat me like an adult.”
This disheartens him, but I don’t see it.
We go for a walk around campus, past buildings of different sizes and architectural styles, past football fields, tennis courts, lawns and hundreds of cars covered in college paraphernalia. The sky is vivid and pink. But most strikingly, it’s empty.
My father loves trees. He loves recognizing them, planting them, sitting under them. Since childhood, I have tried and failed to share this appreciation. Unsurprisingly, this walk, too, involves the usual botanical discourse, my father masking disappointment with laughter, as one after the other I fail to recognize oaks, jacarandas, sycamores and even limes. But the process is familiar, comforting. It slowly turns my restlessness into melancholy.
Some of the college buildings are lovely: gothic pillars, high marble roofs, swanky toilets, fountains. I imagine myself walking around with books, with friends.
We visit the library, so large it has anything we could want. “I wish I studied here,” my father says, smiling. There is only an hour left now, and after sharing an ice cream in the café (my father discovering exciting new American flavors) we sit on the library steps to watch the sunset.
After a few awkward moments, the lecture arrives. “It’s going to be very difficult for your mom and I to have you so far away from home. In India we could call you anytime, but from now we can’t even imagine what’s happening in your life. I’ve at least spoken to some professors and students here. Your mom, though, doesn’t know anything. Today she asked me if it was snowing. I know it’s natural to be worried about coming to a new country. Very natural. And for a while it will be tough also. Adjustment takes time. But listen: We are sure that you will be great. And the thing is, no matter what, you are great in our eyes, OK? No matter what you do and what you become, we will be proud of you. We are already proud of you … Now you’ll say I’m lecturing, so I’ll stop. Let me just say two last things. One: Take care of your health. This is a new climate, and you have to be doubly careful. And two: Enjoy yourself. Academics are important, but that is not everything. You are in a new country, and that is also part of your education. Be happy, OK? Do what you enjoy. Your happiness is all we want, all we care about.”
We are looking at the sunset. I want to say something honest and meaningful, to apologize for everything that’s happened and assure him that I will improve as a son, that this has just been a bad period. All my other problems seem distant and trivial now. After all, what matters more than family? But just as I find the right words, Kat and her parents appear near the stairs. Citing a toilet emergency, I rush inside the library, and come out five minutes later. The urge to talk has now deserted me, and the final goodbye becomes a formality.
At night, I find a gift-wrapped vinyl player in my drawer. I call, but my father has already boarded the flight.
* * *
Luke Howard was born on an Air Force base somewhere in Utah and now he makes comics in Vermont. Along the way he got an MFA from the Center for Cartoon Studies.