My American Life — Stories of Hope
I am distressed about the news from the US that continues to widen racial divides by forcing people to take sides, subscribe to stereotypes, and propagate hate.
In my years in the US, I met many wonderful people who expanded my world view, influenced me in small and not-so-small ways, and inspired me to be the best version of myself.
In an attempt to dispel the enveloping gloom, for the next few days, I will share vignettes of my life in the US where my life was enriched by many people who made my life easy or interesting or just plain fun. They were very different from me; they looked different, they spoke differently, and certainly our lives had very little in common. But we made a connection, sometimes fleeting, sometimes enduring.
Post #1: Language coach
As a Ph.D. student in Baltimore, between classes, I enjoyed hanging out with the admins in the department, Linda and Rhonda. In the years before personal computers and printers became commonplace, they helped type up recommendation letters, helped us apply for grants, and made travel arrangements.
Linda, the expert on all things local, welcomed every student with a smile, happy to share a book or restaurant recommendation. Dressed impeccably in long skirts and chunky jewelry with her short hair set in perfect curls, I looked forward to our regular chats.
“Thank you for lending me Waiting to Exhale and Like Water for Chocolate. I loved them both,” I exclaimed as I returned her books, grateful to have read novels that I might otherwise not have come across. Our mutual love for reading had been the focus of many conversations.
“It’s not ‘vaiting’, it’s ‘waiting’. Say it again.” Linda was my informal language coach who helped me sound out words so that I could feel more confident about oral presentations which were an integral part of the school curriculum.
“W” has a rounded ‘o’ sound, Make an ‘O’ with your lips. Like this.” Linda demonstrated the phonetic difference between the letter W with its soft sound and the letter V that required a sharp sound made with lips pressed close together. I tried it a few times before getting the hang of it.
Linda had questions for me too. When she asked whether Indian weddings always included elephants, or if my bindi was a tattoo, I responded truthfully. We talked about growing up in families with limited resources, relationships with our parents, and plans for the future. The differences in our individual lives paled in the presence of our common interests and ambitions for a better life.
It wasn’t just academic focus that made my years as a student life so vibrant and memorable. Thank you, Linda.
Post # 2: It’s OK, honey!
I used to take the MARC commuter train that ran from Washington DC to Camden station in Baltimore. Having recently arrived from Bombay, I was not surprised by the rundown neighborhood of Camden Yards. I walked for fifteen minutes to reach the school of pharmacy. It’s location at the intersection of N. Pine Street, W. Baltimore Street and Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard provided a good view of downtown Baltimore that housed the graduate schools of dentistry, medicine and nursing.
I often wore a cotton salwar kameez to school paired with practical (read ugly) Rockport sneakers and a blue Jansport backpack. I was comfortable with my outfit, and quite unaware that with my red bindi, glass bangles, and a matching scarf that trailed unevenly around my shoulders, I must have looked like a hitchhiker from another world.
One day after a set of disappointing experiments in the lab, I stopped at the vending machine in the school lobby. My forehead was throbbing with a headache caused by hunger. I inserted quarters for a bag of Lays chips. But the bag rolled and stopped at the edge of the shelf, just short of taking the plunge. Out of coins and with no strength to kick the machine, I walked dejectedly to Camden station and got on my train.
Unlike the crowded local trains of Bombay, this train was luxurious. Air-conditioned, spacious, and with hardly any people on board, I could sit wherever I wanted. I always picked a window seat and relished the view of verdant countryside alternating with junkyards. The conductor, dressed impeccably in a formal suit, would amiably walk around. That evening, I fell asleep and missed my stop.
I woke up just as the train was pulling out of Greenbelt station. I stood up, pointed to the platform that was rapidly fading from view with tears streaming down my face.
“Hello young lady. Why are you crying?” The elderly gentleman conductor came up to me, concerned.
“I missed my stop,” I pointed out.
“It’s OK, honey, you can get home from the next station.” His words were kind and reassuring. He stood beside me as I continued to look outside like a lost child, half-hoping he would stop the train and let me walk back.
In an era before cell phones, I would have to use the pay phone to call for my ride when I got off. There were practical difficulties to get home from the next station. But I could not share all that with the kind man who waited with me and helped me get off when the train stopped.
In retrospect, it was OK. He was right.
I didn’t sleep on the train again. But I will always remember the first time a tall concerned stranger had called me ‘honey’ and consoled me at a vulnerable moment.
How do I repay his kindness?
Originally published at https://www.ranjanirao.com on June 09, 2020.