Coming to America – Part 3

Hari was at the station to pick me up.  Wait there were three others.  Brief, quick introductions – Bipin, Vish and Manish.  Bipin and Hari, my new roommates, walked home in the rain, while I settled myself at the rear of Manish’s 2 door sedan with my luggage.  A very short drive and I found myself making my way up a couple of rickety stairs and entering a trailer home.  It looked a lot different from my cousin’s spacious house.  Wooden walls, cramped, much like a matchbox.  There had been a huge influx of international students into Clemson and there was a housing shortage.  A trailer would have to do.

My first home in the US

Vish had been my cousin’s friend in Bombay.  I had met Hari once briefly in Bangalore.  Vish offered me a cigarette which I politely refused. I thought I spotted a gleam in Bipin’s and Hari’s eyes.  Vish asked me a question in Hindi, I answered in English.  I saw a distinct gleam in Bipin’s eyes.  Somebody struggled with the door.  The door opened to reveal the third occupant of the house, I would be the fourth.  Girish, blue Lee jeans, sneakers, a check-patterned shirt and a blue backpack.  He said that he had been at the library.  I was psyched, classes had started already.  It took me some time to fall asleep that night.  Hari’s snoring in the neighboring room didn’t help much.

I was to meet Vish at the school at 9:30 in the morning.  Hari and Bipin had classes earlier in the morning.  “It’s simple”, said Hari, “just follow the main road till to get to school”.  I must not have looked convinced.  Girish offered to show me the way.  He woke up at 9:30 and it was 10:30 when we met Vish at school.  Vish took me through the process of registration.  I registered for three courses.  I seemed to like two of them, the third was a necessary evil, a core course.

Office of Admissions – Sikes Hall, Clemson

It had been close to a week now at Clemson.  A beautiful school, sprawling campus, excellent labs, polite people.  I liked it.  I did not have a job yet, a campus job.  In fact, none of my roommates did.  Bipin and Girish had already been in the US for a semester now, both having transferred from Utah.  Girish, in particular, was a veteran of several past jobs at his previous University.  I would be awakened every day at 7:30 am by the smoke alarm.  Hari lived up to the English pronunciation of his name.  It was a 30-minute walk to the school from home, Hari would do it under 20 minutes. The omelets would get burned though.  Hari would be doing something else while the omelets assumed different shades of gray or turned black depending on his degree of lateness.  The smoke alarm would go off too when Girish smoked. Eventually (and in retrospect, rather foolishly), we disconnected the smoke alarm and I started sleeping more peacefully.  Well, almost.  I would be awakened every day now at 8 am by a lady who would ask for roommates who seemingly lived here. The names would vary – Garish, Jaresh, Jeeresh, Grashy and eventually she would give up and ask for G-I-R-I-S-H.  His last name did not help and I could imagine the poor lady balking at the prospect of pronouncing his last name.

Girish, in one of his misguided fits of enthusiasm, had signed up for every introductory computer science course.  Needless to say, they were all free and he was an ace programmer from Tata-Unisys India.  Waking up reasonably early in the morning was not his cup of tea and I had to cook up excuses for him every day.  He is at school, he is sick.  The lady was persistent though, she seemed to be appreciative of anyone in pursuit of higher knowledge.  Eventually, one of the names stuck and we started calling Girish – Grashy and he never showed for a single class.  Along the way, Hari celebrated his birthday in a new country.   All along, I got the impression that I was being treated like a nun who had lost her way into a strip joint.  It was almost after a couple of weeks when Hari and I were walking to school and we happened to spy a particularly attractive girl.  I must have murmured some words of appreciation.  Hari turned towards me with a look of a man who has seen the light and wants to share it with the world.  “You are a chu—ya like us man!” he exclaimed,  The news was shared at the dinner table that night and I found walls crumbling.  It turns out that Hari had painted a rather holier-than-thou picture of me.  I could not blame him though, he was basing his opinion on me based on a single meeting and from news garnered from other friends.


The site of the omelet burning!

Grashy returned home one night to announce that he had found a job.  It was at the dining hall.  He muttered that the job was hard but it paid.  We decided to celebrate with a beer that weekend.  At the local Winn Dixie, we carefully scoured all the available brands, compared the per unit prices and then selected the cheapest beer – Milwaukee’s Best.  Corona looked forbiddingly expensive.  Hari decided to chill the beer and placed in the freezer.  When we got to drinking the beer and finally opened the cans, we found that the beer had frozen.  The solution seemed obvious, we heated some water on the stove and placed the cans in the boiling water.  We never quite learned from our earlier mistake and it was lukewarm, flat beer that we drank that night.

Fountains of Knowledge – R.M. Cooper library at Clemson

Hari found a job too, he was to deliver subs at the East Campus store. No car, he had to walk to the dorms on the other side of the campus.  I had been rather complacent, I had to get moving.  Academics was another story.  Two of my courses looked manageable, the third, I felt like a caveman attending one of Einstein’s lectures.  I grappled with problems that I did not understand and arrived at solutions that turned out to be absurd.  Nobody had told me that the academics would be tough.  I had always been told that the academics would be a cakewalk.  People on their visits home talked about the cars, the food and the women.  Nobody talked about the long, frustrating hours.  I just had to hang in there.  I realized to my chagrin, that in some subjects, my undergraduate classes had not really prepared me for the advanced courses that I had to take here.

I made my rounds around the University.  I started out with my department, other departments, dining halls, library, really anywhere that I could find a campus job.  My visa restrictions allowed me to work 20 hours a week, albeit only on campus.  After a few frustrating days of running around, I found a job at the East Campus store.  I would be working at the Taco Bell.  I started work on a Monday morning.  I was assigned the position of a steamer.  Three hours later, I walked out jaded.  It had been the first day at my job.  Bean burritos, beef burritos, soft tacos, hard tacos, chicken tacos, combo burritos.  1 1/2 oz chicken, 3 oz beans, 1 oz red sauce, soft shells, no, not the blue wrapper, the other one.  No matter,  I had a job now.  It paid me the minimum wage – $4.25 an hour.   I could pay my rent and eat.  There was now just the small matter of graduating, finding a real job and repaying my loan.  My version of the American dream had begun.

This was written in 1994 as an unemployed grad in Detroit.  This is the final post of a 3 post series.  You can find the first two posts here:

Coming to America: Part 1
Coming to America: Part 2

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