Many people have no idea how I spent my student years in American universities.
Few ever asked. People who I left back in India — relatives, friends, teachers, colleagues, neighbors and their friends who were an integral, routine part of my life — never really wanted to know how life was like over my first ten years in this country. I guess, they all thought America was all golden with money trees to shake, and I was having a swell time.
Nobody knew, or ever cared to know, about the struggles that my little family and I went through. Some of them gossiped that I did a terribly selfish thing to escape India for my own pleasure, leaving my own family and my wife’s family behind. They said when these folks needed us the most, we had deserted them. These gossip mongers never wrote a letter to us, let alone call, to know how we were doing. They imagined everything, nevertheless. And delivered their judgement.
Some of them also said it was a fluke for me to get into an American university with a full scholarship. They questioned what kind of political connection I made through the communist regime in West Bengal, to get accepted to a capitalist country, with a valid immigration, visa, and all.
I’m not making it up. Some actually said I got into an American school only through political connections, and that too, from then Marxist government in Bengal.
The first two years, or two and a half, were probably the most difficult. I came to USA by myself, and one year later, my wife arrived. American universities pay very little to foreign students, if they every pay, and the work they work you is hard. The requirement was that I had to work for twenty hours each week to teach undergrad students, or help the professors with their research, for a very small amount of money.
I remember at Illinois State University where I was first accepted with a teaching assistantship, they paid me $380 per month (with a ten percent tax deducted), an amount that is practically impossible to live on. The student’s spouse is legally forbidden from working anywhere. You would be deported if you did. The apartment rent — one small room shared with a roommate — cost $140. Mrs. Harrison, our old landlady, forbade us to lock our doors. Our rooms didn’t have locks or bolts. She surmised we would otherwise be doing drugs, or bringing in women. Then, food, clothes, books, transportation, phone charges, etc. I also had to call India from time to time, which cost a lot back in those pre-Internet days. To make some extra money, I started working in the student dorm cafetaria, which was minimum wage at $3.25 an hour.
But that was only a small part of the struggle. The real struggle was mental. Emotional. It was an excruciating isolation, with no friends, no relatives, nobody I could relate to. On top of it, some Americans who came to know me would frequently ask questions such as, “You’re from Calcutta? Calcutta is very poor, right? But Mother Teresa is trying to help you. Do you have doctors or hospitals back there? Why aren’t you a Christian?” And more.
Well, the Christianity question was more abundant when we moved down to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where I did my Ph.D. in plant biology. Church people came to our door on Sunday morning, and asked us why we did not go out to prayers. If we were not Christian, then what were we? Hindu? What was it? Pagan? Did Hindus believe in Jesus Christ? If not, why not? And more.
But even at Illinois State University, there was every effort to bring me to church. Lisa Schmidt, an American girl I became good friends with, took me to her church and Bible school a number of times. It was a difficult experience to sit through alien religious teachings and sermons, although I must say, nobody ever forced me to convert, or anything like it. People were nice. Lisa was very nice, even though her boyfriend Brian was a wrestler…on the ISU Redbirds team.
(And in Calcutta, I studied at Scottish Church School, and read the Bible cover to cover…with awe. For whatever its worth, I also visited Bethlehem and Nazareth…and returned to America with a hair-raising experience.)
The weather near Chicago was harsh, with feet of snow and ice piling up almost every day for five to six months of winter. We had no car; therefore, even to do groceries, we had to depend on somebody to give us a ride to the supermarket. But I couldn’t cook; so before my wife came to join me, either a roommate would cook, and I would help him to chop potatoes and onions, and do dishes.
My English-speaking abilities were poor. That was another essential thing to learn from scratch: in about a week after I landed in America, I started teaching biology to undergraduate American students. Mitosis and meiosis, with meiosis pronounced differently from what I had learned in India. I learned that the pronunciation of Jose was H-o-z-a-y, and Sean was S-h-aw-n. I learned that you could call Marjorie Marj, and Elizabeth Liz. Heather would be pronounced Hay-thar. Some of these students were friendly, helpful and warm; yet some others were arrogant snobs, and laughed hearing my Indian accent. They didn’t want to sit through my class, and complained to the professor that my tests were too hard.
And the first year of my American life in a remote, midwestern university, I had to make sure I did well in my own studies and tests; otherwise the school would kick me out. I had to quickly learn how to use the personal computer; I had never seen one before. Biology I learned in India was easy; here it was hard. There, it was mostly memorizing; here it was critical thinking. With no tutorial help, in extreme alienation, you feel miserable. It became daunting, intimidating, and frightening.
I became sick very soon, and was hospitalized.
(to be continued.)