Unexpected benevolence of Americans renews hope for international student
Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
It was a tricky situation, and I had almost given up hope. I was six months into living in the U.S., and I was desperately searching for a new temporary place to stay until my new apartment would be ready.
I had almost given up hope and had made up my mind to make due at a corner of the library when suddenly — the phone rang. “Abhijit? This is Walt Byerly. We had been thinking about you, and I called to tell you that you can come right over. We can make room for you as long as you wish to stay.”
Those words will be etched into my heart for a lifetime. Here was an elderly couple who had met me before for a total of three hours, and they were ready to extend out an invitation for me into their home.
It takes more than actual physical space in one’s heart to extend out an invitation like that to an almost stranger. They were in fact the family “assigned” to me by SMU as part of the “Friendship Program” to reach out and learn about the American Culture. That phone call alone taught me more than one lesson and not just about America either.
When I arrived in the U.S. as an international student, like with anything new, I was in a fast learning mode to understand the American culture and society. Just three days after I had arrived, I went to visit a friend in an affluent suburban neighborhood of Dallas.
I was taking a morning walk, and then, suddenly, was stopped by a police patrol. She wanted to know what I was doing there. Apparently, someone in the neighborhood thought seeing a strange young fellow walking around was suspicious. Then it hit me: in India, my bespectacled, well-toned appearance would project me as an educated middle-class collegiate. And I would have been the last person who would be “suspicious” in a suburban neighborhood.
But here in the U.S., I am a brown foreigner, and I would stick out like a sore thumb in any crowd. If I don’t watch it, I can appear to be extremely suspicious.
From that experience, to months later, when the Byerly family offered me to stay with them just out of sheer benevolence, I got a perspective of the American society in its raw form: bold and careful; receptive but selective. The famous British historian A.L. Basham in his book “The Wonder that was India” described the Indian Society as being fatalistic: accepting tragedies as well as glory with a characteristic resignation to a higher power, or nature, that they cannot control. The American society on the other hand has to be the diagonally opposite. America had left its mark everywhere around the globe.
It has fought, and fought bitterly sometimes to enforce modern democratic values in many dark pockets in the world. And that’s what makes it so fascinating to a new visitor: to understand more about a culture that is so much like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
The unexpected benevolence of strangers, the spurious suspicions of the pseudo elite and the constant watch by Big Brother. This gets more and more interesting every day.
Sunil is a graduate student in the Lyle School of Engineering.