“Where you headed?” asked the Immigration and Naturalization officer at Pier 88 in New York City’s West Side Harbor as he stamped my passport and handed it back to me.
“Norman, Oklahoma,” I replied meekly.
I had finally landed in America, the land of my dreams, after having spent over a year in planning and preparation and over a month in travel by two ships, two trains, and a ferry. I was 23 years old, stood five-feet four-inches tall, and weighed 99 pounds. I still had to complete the last leg of my journey: a three-day bus ride from New York City to Norman, Oklahoma, where I was to attend the University of Oklahoma for graduate studies in Electrical Engineering. This was 1963, and I had no idea of the real America except for what I had seen in movies, read in brochures or heard about from people who had been there. My mind was full of trepidation — I felt like I was going to a job interview in front of people who would talk fast in an incomprehensible accent. I was expecting to see a posh place with well-dressed men in suits and ladies in fancy dresses. Be brave, I said to myself.
Reality had hit me a few moments earlier when I had landed on a platform that appeared similar to a train station in India – one large stretch of hard floor about 100 feet wide and 1,000 feet long with a barrack-like building in the back. But the big difference was the absence of porters dressed in white dhoties (loin cloths) and red coats beseeching people to hire them to haul their luggage. Here, I had to do it myself. I was lucky I only had one small suitcase and a shoulder bag.
Those of us who had disembarked from the SS Breman were directed to head toward the passenger terminal to be processed by the customs and immigration officers. I was so engrossed in following these directions that I didn’t even look around to see if I could see the New York City skyline.
It was early January, the beginning of winter in America. The people around me appeared to be ordinary folks dressed in casual attire – men wore jeans or narrow plaid pants, sports shirts, knee-length winter jackets; some women wore a scarves wrapped around their heads. I wore an ankle-length brown topcoat that was custom-made at the B. N. Das tailors in Hyderabad, as suggested by my father. This was my first time wearing heavy winter clothes.
As I got closer to the customs area I noticed that there were two officers sitting side by side at adjoining tables. They were wearing normal clothes, not uniforms. Their winter jackets were draped around the arms of their chairs. From a seated position both did not appear to be very tall but looked well-nourished and strong. I guessed them to be in their early thirties. I had heard that people in America were jovial in nature. I hoped it was true of these officers — they looked happy doing their jobs. I spoke English well but was not sure if my accent would be understood. The officer sitting next to the one who stamped my passport looked at me, smiled and then looked at the first one and said, “Does he know he is going to be a scapegoat?”
He seemed pleased at the apparent joke, but I didn’t understand what it meant. Isn’t a scapegoat a person who is wrongly blamed for something he didn’t do? Was his remark addressed to me? I didn’t know how to react or what to say in response. What a way to begin life in a new country, I thought to myself. From his smile I thought he was making some snide remark about the South — I was aware of the prejudice against people of color after reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had come here from India to improve my chance for a better career and life. I was prepared to do whatever it took. Was I going to be successful? I had no clue. The immigration officer sure seemed skeptical. On the other hand, I may have heard his remark out of context. Maybe it was a continuation of a conversation they were having before. In that case there was nothing for me to worry about. I let it go and didn’t say anything. There was no point in getting aggravated. I had no choice but to face whatever came my way.
Before lining up to go to the bus station, I stopped at the men’s room. I was surprised to see it was old and not well-lit. There were tall urinals lined up against the wall with a common drain below at foot level. It looked as if many others had the same need as me. Every urinal was occupied with men waiting for their turn. A bunch of toilets with doors faced the urinals. The white tiles on the wall looked faded and yellowish. There was a towel holder on a wall, adjacent to a white sink with rust marks, with a metal cover and a hanging cloth that seemed to be wrapped around inside. One had to pull it to get a dry area of the cloth to wipe wet hands. I used my handkerchief instead. The men around me were not very tall and didn’t have pink or rose-colored skin as I had imagined. They were of all skin-colors and heights. Yes, I was now in America, but the mens room looked as if it could have been in Bombay (though it was a bit cleaner).
Before this trip, I had not traveled much outside of my hometown of Hyderabad. I had visited my uncle in Bombay a couple of times by train on summer vacations. He was always at the station to receive me. Here, I did not know a single person. I had informed the University of Oklahoma’s foreign students adviser of my arrival date, but I was not sure if he would receive me at the bus station in Norman. I had no idea what I would do upon reaching there. To paraphrase my aunt’s favorite expression, I told myself I will think about it when I reach there. Now was not the time to get nervous. I stepped out to start the last leg of my journey and begin my new life.
To read chapter 2 click here Chapter 2