Not an experienced traveler at the time, even I could tell that PANAM Airlines was in trouble. The old aircraft shuddered like a dilapidated bus, the seat cushion was lumpy, and a dead fly came with my lunch. The year was 1984, and, Fulbright scholarship in hand, I was on my way to Washington DC to begin graduate studies.
We arrived at what I later learned was Dulles airport. After clearing immigration and customs, I asked a bystander for the bus to the American University, and he pointed to a vehicle idling nearby. Two heavy suitcases in hand, I boarded and inquired from the Black, female driver if the bus was going to the university. Unable to make head or tale of her response, I repeated the question and again did not comprehend her reply. Confused and embarrassed – how could I not understand the language I had spoken most of my life – I took a chance and boarded the bus.
It took me to National airport, not far from downtown DC. Not wanting to take another risk, I took a taxi. The driver was talkative and I quickly got the gist of his life story. He was from Afghanistan and had fled home when the Soviets invaded. Having held a high position in Afghanistan’s central bank, and now reduced to driving a taxi, he complained about the roaches that infested his cramped apartment and the high cost of healthcare in America, which he couldn’t afford.
The American University was deserted when we got there. The new semester had begun a few days back, but it was Labor Day, a public holiday. Tired, confused and demoralized, I was in despair; I didn’t expect my first day in the USA to be like this. The driver understood my plight – another stranger in a strange land – told me not to worry, and drove me to a motel, promising to return the next morning. I did not expect to see him again.
But, to my relief, he was there the next morning. The empty campus of the previous day was now a hive of activity, students greeting friends and rushing to lectures. I eventually found the director in charge of international students, who helped me with the paperwork, but what I needed most was a place to stay, to unpack and rest.
All campus dorms had filled up, except for a large room to be shared with five others. Each floor had corridor-style rooms with shared bathrooms, a small kitchen, and a lounge. I saw some female students around, and was told it was a co-ed dorm, where male and female students lived on the same floor. Coming from a country where campus dorms were strictly segregated according to gender, I found this arrangement astonishing.
Except for one, my roommates were freshmen (first year undergraduates), perhaps away from home and parental eyes for the first time, and out to make the most of that freedom. About half my age, they were energetic and fun loving, fascinated to have a foreigner among them.
Being perhaps the largest room on the floor, ours became the place where students hung out, where the lights burned all night, the only phone rang round the clock, and visitors dropped in at all hours of the day and night. Down the hallway, the sound of doors swinging open and banging shut, the pitter-patter of running feet, and the giggles and high pitched shrieks of young women, pervaded the night.
One roommate turned out to be the president of the university’s gay and lesbian students’ association. He perhaps had the busiest social life, greeting a stream of visitors, and making or receiving endless phone calls. Strangely, he slept on a mattress on the floor, his clothes, books, and other items strewn around. Some mornings, two or three young women would be asleep on the floor around him. Another roommate told me they were lesbians, who felt safer with him than having to walk back to their dorms after partying late.
Growing up in Ceylon in the 1960s, I had been up to my ears in American culture, lifestyles, and politics. My father had bought me a subscription to the Readers’ Digest when I was 12, and I was also reading Free World, a magazine distributed by the US Information Agency. I listened to the Voice of America regularly, and American pop and country music were popular on Radio Ceylon. I took courses in American literature for my first degree. I thought I knew America.
But, nothing had prepared me for this. I couldn’t sleep for ten days. The jet lag may have played a part, but the constant noise and the lights burning all night turned my life into a nightmare. I began to fall asleep at lectures and feared a physical and nervous breakdown. So I returned to the director in charge of international students, asking for help.
Within a few days, he found me an apartment at an off campus location, on Wisconsin Avenue, a 15-minute walk from campus. It was in an affluent, leafy neighborhood. I couldn’t afford the rent but managed to find a roommate. We shopped for the basic furniture – two beds, a table, and two chairs – at a nearby Salvation Army thrift store. That first night in the apartment, I had the best sleep since arriving in the USA.
Americans were a minority in my courses, and the international students came from Bangladesh, Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Syria, Togo, and Zimbabwe. Some were Fulbrighters. My best friend, not a classmate, was from the Ivory Coast.
My roommate, from Kerala, turned out to be a good cook, and our apartment soon became the meeting place for my classmates. We had parties and pot luck meals, and I got to taste cuisine from around the world.
As the fall season turned to winter, the leaves turned a myriad of colors – from yellow to red and to brown – and fluttered to the ground. Soon, the trees stood bare. One night, standing at the window of my seventh floor apartment, I saw a magical sight that remains imprinted in my memory: Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, brightly lit, bathed in moonlight.