The first time we think of ourselves as a group with a shared destiny is on a weekday morning in the middle of June. We stand in a line that is a kilometer long in a city that is still ours, in a time when we still use the metric system to understand distance. We stand patiently because the street is dotted with security guards who wear AK-47s on their backs. We stand quietly because we fear retribution if we make sounds. There is a system here and we know better than to question anything. Even those who habitually break lines and push others to get ahead and yell into their cell phones elsewhere are on their very best behavior today because we have reached the edge of our familiar childhood territories. At the US Consulate, located on a quiet, leafy street away from the chaos of our country, we are surrounded by armed soldiers and barricades. We are shy, reticent, uncertain. We are dressed in formal clothes: shirts with collars, ties, boots that have been polished to a shine, salwaar kameezes, black trousers, blouses with buttons down the front. Some of the others in the line have little children whose hair is combed and parted at the side this morning. They are the ones who can afford to go abroad for Christmas break. A few are elderly and probably retired, and looking forward to seeing their children and grandchildren once more. And us? We are the stars in our nation’s sky, destined for greatness. We are in our early to mid-twenties. We are the brightest of them all.
We do not mind waiting all day. The stakes have never been higher. The last few months have steadily built up to this date. We have collected documents, sought advice from those who have gone before us, made appointments, filled out forms, drawn money order drafts, and prepared answers to imaginary questions. The air in New Delhi/Chennai/Mumbai/Kolkata/Hyderabad is polluted/scalding/humid/wet/still and the sun is beginning to shine on tops of gulmohar trees. On the roof of the pristine white building an American flag keeps watch over us all.
We file one by one through the entrance into the small room where we deposit our cell phones before being frisked. Without our phones we feel detached from our loved ones, as if we are rehearsing how to leave them. We go through more rooms, getting fingerprinted on the way. We wait in new lines, sign forms, sit in upholstered chairs like an audience waiting for a play to start. We hold on to our numbers and wonder which of the counters we will get. We hope it is the one with the Indian agent because we expect him to be more sensitive to our needs.
We are a mixed bunch. Some of us are going to study English, history, or political science. We are progressive and modern and eat animals indiscriminately and support homosexuality even though we have never known anyone who is gay. Some of us are engineers whose fathers slaved as government employees in small towns so we could attend the Indian Institute of Technology. We have spent most of our lives memorizing textbooks. Some of us are computer scientists. We want to write code and work for Microsoft or Apple. We are the most confident ones today because we have been told the Americans need us. All of us strain our ears to hear the conversations at the different windows. We envy the continuing student who is simply renewing her visa and gets done in a few minutes. Not everyone is so fortunate. One man in his thirties gesticulates wildly to make his case. He wears a cream shirt, a brown striped tie, black boots. His hair is slicked back, and he holds a brown folder. The agent, a middle-aged white woman, stares at the computer screen in front of her as they speak. She never smiles. The man looks around the room, pleading with us to help. In his eyes is a look of desperation. We hear the words “project,” “company,” “cousin.” The agent shakes her head and mouths the word “sorry.” He continues to stand there, his mouth slightly open, even though she is not looking at him. The next number flashes on the screen over his head, and someone walks up, forcing him to move away. He leaves the room with his shoulders slouched. We are filled with dread. Even after he is gone, the scent of his despair lingers.
When our turn comes, we go up and talk through a window like customers at a bank. We tell the agents we intend to return to India upon completion of our degree. We give them our addresses in Cambridge/Ann Arbor/Gainesville/Clemson. We say some names with pride. Harvard. Columbia. MIT. We say others with less conviction, still haunted by our relatives’ skeptical looks when they discovered that we were not going to Harvard or Columbia or MIT. We present documents to demonstrate unbreakable ties to the homeland. We do whatever we can to indicate that we are not looking to sneak into their country and never come back. We belong here. More than the white agents do. We will miss home as much as they do. Of course we will be back. They are not sure, but we are. When they say they will keep our passports for a few days we want to laugh with relief but instead we just say Thank You. It is the first of many Thank Yous we will say to people from their country. We walk out with our backs erect, aware that everyone is staring at us as we leave. What we already suspected is confirmed. We are the blessed ones.
When we emerge into the street again, reunited with our cell phones, rush hour has passed and the sounds of traffic on a parallel street serve as a reminder that other people’s mundane lives are going to continue as usual. It is only we who have changed.
We spend the next two months in a frenzy. When our passports arrive we open them immediately to see our shiny new visas. We show them to the mailmen who delivered them and to our nieces and nephews. We exchange a hundred e-mails with school officials, professors, and other new graduate students. We find roommates and apartments online through the Indian Students’ Association. We buy sweaters and jackets for the coming winter. We pack coconut hair oil, rubber flip-flops, Himalayan black salt, mango pickle, fresh-ground garam masala, sandalwood paste, a copy of The Bhagavad Gita.
We visit each of our relatives once, to be fed and to receive unsolicited advice about snow, mass shootings, and the danger of falling in love with white people. We see each of our friends once, to make a toast to our past and our future, and promise to stay in touch and disclose all details about our life, especially if we fall in love with white people. We make our mothers cook our favorite sambar/tandoori chicken/pav bhaji/fish curry. We assure our parents we will work hard, make them proud, call home every week, and wear our new jackets every time we go out. We spend hours perusing university websites, reading course descriptions, Googling popular attractions, bus routes, Indian grocery stores. We oscillate between excitement and terror.
In the days leading up to the departure, we walk around our cities, taking photographs of the buildings we have inhabited. Elementary school, high school, college, the office where we worked briefly after college while we studied for our GREs and TOEFLs. We visit the park behind our home, the club where our fathers play bridge on Sundays, the pool where we learned to swim, the used bookstores lining old streets, the cinema hall where we watched Hollywood movies and dreamed of going to America. We eat fried prawns and wonton soup behind the high walls of Chinatown, papri chaat and samosas from a street vendor, kulfi at the neighborhood sweet shop. We go to places we abhorred visiting, such as the post office, the fish market and the church/temple/mosque/gurudwara our families dragged us to on religious holidays. We make a trip to FabIndia and the Cottage Emporium to get small gifts for prospective friends we have not yet met. We buy miniature elephants carved out of marble, silk scarves, soaps made of saffron, and replicas of the Taj Mahal even though we have never actually seen the Taj Mahal because we know that is what Americans want.
On the last evening, we sneak out with our boyfriends/girlfriends for a walk along the streets where we grew up. Television sets flicker in every home we pass. Cars and taxis rush by with fathers and husbands returning from work after a long day. Wherever we are tonight in our country, it is nearing the end of the monsoon and the evening smells of wet earth. Raindrops trickle down our necks as we walk hand in hand in the growing darkness, hoping no one sees. We steal kisses behind abandoned buildings. Our lovers’ tongues grope wildly as if to search for reassurance. We hold their damp faces for a second to memorize them because the world, we know, is an infinitely large place where nothing is certain. They are staying, and we are leaving. They offer support or resistance, but it is we who make the choices.
That night, we stay up with our parents and siblings later than usual, watching cricket on TV, pretending nothing is going to change. Then we go to bed, where we stay awake for hours, staring up at the ceiling, watching the fan rotate. The rain slashes against the windows. We know every corner of our rooms. In the dark we see silhouettes of our desks and chairs, the gleam of mirrors, and the dark shapes on our walls that by day are posters of Sachin Tendulkar/Madonna/Aishwarya Rai/Brad Pitt. We know what lies inside our drawers. We remember old letters and greeting cards, hastily scribbled notes passed in class, ticket stubs from book fairs and movies and cricket matches. We think of all that we cannot carry with us. Childhood books with yellowing pages, yearly journals that record every teenage crush and heartbreak, stuffed animals, badminton rackets, guitars, our grandmothers’ emerald earrings. We think of all the times we hid in our rooms from whatever disappointment or humiliation we suffered. We lie in the dark, listening to the sounds of the street—a dog’s bark, the screech of car tires—and we memorize the contours of the room. Suddenly, there is no excitement or anticipation. There is only sorrow. But we know it is too late to stop the flow of our life’s journey. We cannot stop here. We are going to America.
We have never been outside our country until now. Our lives have been defined by borders on maps taught in geography class, even though some of those borders have shifted slightly like the shoreline after high tide. We arrive at airports accompanied by parents, grandparents, siblings, best friends, and suitcases so heavy they bulge at the seams. Airports across the country are on high security alert ahead of Independence Day, and we must part with our loved ones before entering. There are hugs and blessings, and reminders to “be good” against the odds posed by all the wicked temptations we are sure to encounter. A final wave, a glance back through the glass doors that slide shut behind us, something wedged inside the throat as the scene outside begins to blur, and then onward, as we are carried along by the crowd of people, through more doors and on and on and into the bright, cold lights of the departure lounge, into the sea of strangers, clutching tightly onto our bags and passports to keep from drowning.
We reluctantly pay for excess baggage, already counting in our heads the conversion rate from rupee to dollar that makes us feel impoverished. We answer questions at Customs like where we will live and what we will do for a living. We proudly exhibit our I-20s, which one day will become our OPTs, and then our H1Bs, and after that our EADs. Our passports are stamped and we move on to security. Some of us are lost already, still in our own country, but in unknown territory, not knowing which gate to use or what line to join or what papers to flourish. We try to follow instructions, stop, turn back, and then back again. Travellers who are more experienced and sophisticated stare at us. Officials sigh when they see us. “Is this your first time?” someone asks. We answer with our faces down, reluctant to admit to the obvious. We always knew it was a matter of shame not to travel to Niagara Falls or Disney World for annual holidays like the rich kids. There are those in the airport who have done that before, and are doing it now. They have visited relatives, aunts and uncles, cousins with accents. They have seen the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace. Their parents are influential, their luggage color-coordinated. But today we say the words history or psychology or computer science, and everyone turns to look at us with what we imagine is a mix of envy and awe.
By the time we board the plane it is after midnight, but even though our families are exhausted and in need of sleep, they have not yet left the airport. They stand outside, checking their watches and glancing skywards at all the airplanes rising overhead. We know they are still here but in the confusion of boarding, finding seats, cramming bags into cabins, and listening intently or pretending not to listen to the safety instructions, we almost forget them. Then the moment comes when the lights are turned off and the plane picks up speed and rises gently into the air. We hope our parents are looking up at us and pointing at our airplane and saying, “There, there they go, they are leaving us.” From our windows we see the dark, sweltering night outside. The cluster of houses descends below us. The streets we drive and walk on during the day look like threads crisscrossing each other like a labyrinth. How do people find their way out of it, we wonder. The familiar begins to look unfamiliar as we near the clouds, and even though it is beautiful from up here, we suffer a moment of panic. It is going, gone, vanished from sight, our city, our home, our Third World country that at times we have been so ashamed of, the smells, the sounds, the sights, we are taking off, we want to return, of course we do, we will be back, there is no doubt about it. India, we will be back.
The flight is like a vacuum. There is no emotion here except exhaustion. The need to sleep, the inability to sleep, the attempt to watch movies on a tiny screen, the cramps in the back and the swollen feet, the piercing shrieks of a toddler some rows ahead, the icy cold, the plastic forks, the bland chicken, the apple juice. We ask for white wine because we want to feel sophisticated. It is part of our new posture of living abroad.
To kill time, we read pages of a textbook assigned in one of our classes and it reminds us again that we are students. We watch a Hindi movie even though we avoided those all our lives because we might not get the chance again soon. We silently mouth the word Bollywood. We think about our past. How we celebrated Diwali with fireworks on the roof, and Holi with colors that were impossible to wash off, and Eid with goat biryani and semolina kheer, and Christmas with caroling and dancing in nightclubs. How we all skipped school to watch cricket every time India played Pakistan. How we spent Sunday mornings with our families, eating parathas for brunch and watching soaps on TV. How we dressed up in expensive saris/sherwanis/lehengas/suits to attend our cousins’ weddings, singing and laughing together. How we thought we would marry too, and have children, and live next door to our parents all our lives so we could take care of them when they grew old.
We twist in our seats, longing for a warm bed and a pillow, anywhere really, any country will do. But every now and then we stare at the map on the screen in front of us, at the dots marking different countries and at the image of the aircraft as it progresses ever so slowly westward across the world. We watch ourselves fly over the enemy country, leave Asia, pass Muscat and Amman, hover over Moscow and Vienna, and near our first stop.
When the plane is about to land at Charles de Gaul/Heathrow/Frankfurt International/Kloten, we peer outside in the pale light of dawn and see the sun emerge from behind white fluffy clouds. It is a new day, and this marks the beginning of our new lives. We descend in Europe. We are in the West.
We never leave the airport. But we don’t need to because the airport is the whole world. We go to the restrooms to brush our teeth next to strangers from other countries. We walk past figures lying down to nap on seats without arms. We wander through duty-free shops looking at blue Wedgewood plates, boxes of fois gras, liqueur chocolate shaped like bottles, designer handbags, and perfumes. We finger the price tags as if we are seriously contemplating making a purchase and then turn away slowly as if the products are not quite good enough for us. We pause in front of a café, contemplating a cup of cappuccino. It costs six Euros. That is equal to four hundred rupees. We decide against it.
Flights are announced nonstop as if at every moment someone is either arriving or taking off for some place in the world. We stare at the blue monitors to read the names of cities and try to identify the ones we know. It is like watching the Parade of Nations at the Olympics. Someone is going to Abu Dhabi. Someone has just arrived from Buenos Aires. There are so many people all over the world and they never stop traveling.
We do not know whether to feel excited or tired, and so we feel both. This is neither past home nor future home. Everything sold here from handbags to coffee costs too much. Where are we, what are we doing here? This is limbo like we have never known and never will again. We are passing through, airplanes that fly in the night. We will never be here again. We will be here again and again and again.
Soon we are airborne once more, and before dinner is finished we find our airplane on the map, suspended forever above the inky waters of the Atlantic. Sitting there in the dark, with knees huddled to chests and shoulders leaning against windows, we think about planes that have crashed over oceans and how the news could report our deaths the next day. Graduate students, it will say, on their way to join universities across the United States. We keep our eyes pinned on the seat belt sign, waiting for it to turn red. How ironic it would be to never land in America after all. We question humanity’s collective destiny and whether it was wise to learn how to fly. We long, in our half-asleep, cramped positions, for a simpler era when everyone stayed home with their families and childhood friends, when countries had borders for a reason. To keep us safe and at home where we belonged.
To kill time, we think about the future. How the roads will be shiny. How the air will smell clean and fragrant like fruit. How the lines will move swiftly. How we will never pay bribes or break the law. How our apartments will have carpets and dishwashers. How the American students and professors will be impressed with our knowledge about their country. How we will eat pancakes for breakfast.
It is nearly noon when we reach the western shores of the Atlantic. On the screen in front of us, the airplane makes its way inland. A curved line traces the route we have flown in the past ten hours. The map of the world stretches out flat, a rectangle of countries and oceans. India looks very far away and very small.
When we are about to land, we press our noses to the window. There below us, laid out like a toy land, is New York/Atlanta/Houston/Detroit/Chicago, the first city we will ever know in North America. Rooftops, trees, the blue shimmer of swimming pools, all rise up to meet us as if in greeting. Where we are does not really matter. What matters is that we have arrived. As the plane lands, we whisper to ourselves, Hello, America.
The line at immigration is two miles long. We stand for hours, inching forward ever so slowly. It reminds us of traffic jams back home. Every third person in the line ahead looks East Asian. Our hair is tangled up in knots and our legs threaten to buckle as we walk. We hold out our passports and documents, ready to show whoever might ask. Ahead of us, some of the counters are manned by grim-faced officials who never look around them. The rest are closed. We wonder if it wouldn’t be easier if they just opened them all. But maybe that is the point. Maybe it is not supposed to be easy.
There is a possibility that we will be turned back or withheld for questioning. We have heard such stories on the news. Those of us whose last names sound like Khan almost vomit from anxiety. But relatives have narrated anecdotes that make us all afraid. The consulate in India was just a hoop. This is the real thing. We stand in line for so long our feet grow numb and our backs ache. We try not to think of what lies ahead. The heavy bags to be collected, the hunt for a cab, the drive to a strange apartment, the civilities to be exchanged with the new roommate, the objects we must procure. Cell phone, computer, textbooks, driver’s license, social security number, American nickname. We try not to think of the semester ahead, the classes, the bills, or the winter. We focus on the girl standing in front of us in the line. Her hair is long, black, and so straight that we can see each strand and how it ends in a point. She is short and petite. Her Mandarin rushes forth at a rapid speed when she turns to speak to the boy in front of her. Her passport is dark red with a gold emblem. She clutches what looks like an I-20 in her other hand. It fills our hearts with fondness for in this moment our foreignness unites us. We get our papers ready, stand a bit straighter, rehearse our answers. Address, check. Teaching assistantship, check. Field of study, check. Will return home after completion of studies, check check check.
At the counter, we are fingerprinted again. Then the Customs official stamps our passports and says without once looking up, Welcome to America. In the end, it is so quick that we are surprised. What makes them so sure that we are neither terrorists nor illegal immigrants? We feel the first stirrings of disappointment. We try to smile to show camaraderie but the official has already moved on. He looks for the next person in line. We are a rubber stamp, a mug shot, a statistic. It takes a moment to realize that for months, no years, we prepared ourselves for this arrival, this entry, this beginning. Do you know what it took for us to get here, we want to say to the Customs official and to the hundreds in line behind us. But on each of their faces there is only a look of indifference.
We follow the swarms of people to the baggage claim area where thousands of bags have been deposited on the ground. When we are reunited with our VIP and Samsonite suitcases, we hug them because there is no one else to hug. And also because our pickles/photographs/pajamas have arrived safely. These are our only companions from back home. We wheel our carts towards the exit. Sunlight streams in through the windows. Families and friends greet each other with laughter and kisses. We are numb from the long journey. We glance at our watches. It is 2:30 in the morning in India and on our wrists. We will change the time zone tomorrow. Or next week. For now, we push through the crowds with our unwieldy carts, and keep walking.
When the glass door slides open, a rush of temperate air greets us. It is only autumn, but chilly enough for the jackets our wise mothers packed for us. We pause with our many bags and our pockets stuffed with boarding passes and documents and look upward at the midday sky. All around us cars stop and go. People walk by without glancing at us. We look around, trying to catch a final glimpse of each other, our fellow passengers, or those who stood behind us in Customs. But we have already begun to disintegrate. We move in different directions, scattering like seeds in the wind. We are stars that explode into a thousand little fragments.