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Saturday, November 12, 2016

FLTA Diaries: The Landing

The flight across the Atlantic was long. I was on a German flight, drinking German beer, eating German cuisine, and turning all that into Indian poo and pee. There were only so many movies I could watch on the trot, and after a while, I found myself parked next to the loo with a beer can in hand and striking conversations with a few others who had given up on the comfort of their seats. I still hadn't forgotten the near fiasco that had nearly kept me from flying to the US, but instead of focusing on what I would have done and how I would have been on my way back to India, I was looking forward - to the times that lay ahead, wondering what they would bring along. I wasn't exactly full of enthusiasm, but more full of hope - that everything would progress according to plan, both in the US and back at home, and I knew I had done nearly all that I could have - The dogs had been vaccinated and bathed, there were two lads helping out at home, walking them, feeding them; so that my parents didn't have to trouble themselves a lot. My dad was on his way home from Chennai, where I had personally taken him to meet his aunts before I had to fly to Delhi to catch my flight. I had also managed to squeeze in a little farewell party where I met a few close friends before I left, had sent a request to the universe to send only good karma. Life of course had other plans, but that is for another discussion in another chapter.

So there I was on the flight, at the back where there was some space for passengers to walk around and stretch their legs. I struck a few random conversations, all while sipping on the free cans of beer and running in and out of the toilet every now and then. I spoke to a lady who was going back to her children after three months, and who was convinced that Jesus was on the same plane as we were in, a couple of young lads on their way to New Zealand for a year, and even a fellow Fulbrighter on a different teaching fellowship, traveling with his wife and kids. Thus were spent the 12-odd hours from Frankfurt to Chicago. There were no chills down the spine as I landed in the USA. I was a little excited about the uncertainty of what lay ahead, but I was more or less focused on getting past customs and on with my travel plans to start with. I had written to my supervisor at the University of Hawaii asking if it would be okay to miss the orientation week on campus so I could travel around a bit on the mainland before I get 'stuck on the island'. I don't think she was very pleased with my choice of words, but she very kindly acquiesced. However, for now, I was just keen on transferring to the next flight to East Lansing, where my orientation was to take place. I had to wait a few hours, and I didn't really have any dollars on me as I'd found out that encashing the traveler's cheques was cheaper if done at a bank after I opened my university bank account. I did manage to exchange some rupees I had to have a burger or a sandwich, I can't remember now, but since I had eaten and drunk well on the flight, I wasn't really very hungry.

It had been two years since I had quit my full-time job, and I was well into my journey of trying to lead a minimalistic lifestyle. In the last two years, I had manage to shrink my 3 BHK lifestyle to an 80 litre backpack, two tennis racquets and a guitar. I had a small list of things I wished to buy - like portable speakers and an electronic shaver I could trim my hair with, since going to a barber, I had heard, quite expensive anywhere in the US. These and an additional pair of jeans to go with the pair I was wearing - the only pair I had got with me; so while I did spend some time looking around the duty-free shops, I was mainly just killing time, and waiting to get out of Chicago and into East Lansing so that I could take in my first breath of non-airport American air. It was about an hour and a half before the flight when they made an announcement that they had overbooked the flight and that if anyone was wiling to take a later flight that day, they would be given a voucher of $150 that could be claimed against any Delta flight in the next 6 months. In India, people would have dropped their bags and run; there would have been chaos, and a few people would have been socked in the face, trampled over and maybe even seriously injured in the ensuing rush. I definitely wasn't expecting that kind of panic here, but surely someone was interested? None of the passengers waiting there seemed to care. I remembered the slide in the module on American Culture we used to train on in the BPO industry years ago at IBM, that spoke about Americans planning their vacations way in advance, and how time was something of a commodity for them, and for a lot of them, waiting for that next flight just wasn't worth the money the airline was willing to pay. Was this America's welcome gift for me? Was this to be an omen of the times to come in the USA, where things would just fall into place miraculously all the time? Was this going to be a dream journey where things magically fell into place every time? Or was this like a little carrot to draw me deeper, like the free parking some casinos offer in some big cities, as long as you spend some time in there, until you realize that paid parking on the street would have been a better idea.

While I contemplated this, however, I realized that I had forgotten one thing on that PPT - a certain disclaimer that lay in one of the last few slides, "There is no such thing as one 'American Culture'". There are individuals in the US from every frikkin' country and ethnicity, as well as tourists and scholars like me who bring their own set of values to the counter, and this is exactly what I found in front of me as I went to tell the lady from the airline that I would be willing to take the next flight - a Mexican lady beat me to it. Ah, the Mexicans! It brought images of Donald Trump in front of my yes, for some reason, and I wished at that point that I had been a bit more Indian, a bit sooner. It wasn't long before I was on that flight as scheduled - a much smaller flight than the trans-Atlantic flight that had got me into Chicago. I landed in East Lansing not too late in the night, and the welcoming staff from MSU was there with sign-boards that tread 'FLTAs' waiting for us. There was Prof. Matt from MSU, and a curly haired Moroccan lad named Mustafa. I also met a bunch of other FLTAs from some other countries who had been on the same flightas me, and we introduced ourselves to each other - a couple of Japanese FLTAs, some from the middle-east, one from Vietnam, some from Europe. I saw that not a lot of them spoke very much right then, and I realized they hadn't really come across my brand of humour before, which I then decided to give a bit of a 'rest'. We reached the Marriott at night, where they checked us in and gave us our registration forms, our pre-paid cards and our welcome kits. The other three Indian FLTAs who had the same venue for the orientation had taken a different flight and had already reached earlier that evening - three ladies who had their own storm brewing between them. We met briefly, where we exchanged stories of our journey from New Delhi, where I told them how I was nearly deported back to India, and a couple of others told I me I was very lucky indeed, for there was a Japanese FLTA who had misplaced the same form as I had, who had to be sent back from an airport in China.

As I went upstairs to take my luggage to the room before I stepped out for dinner, They had informed me at the reception that my room-mate had already checked in. I remembered the excel sheets they had sent us a few months ago so that we knew who our roommates at the orientation were going to be. I remembered that I hadn't been too excited to have read that I was to get an Iraqi room-mate, and I deliberately pictured a fat Sheikh with a flowing white robe and headgear and a thick beard smiling at me when I entered, and I tried to summon the little Arabic that I had learnt in my earlier visits to Egypt. When I did walk in, however, I met Abbas. Abbas was a clean-shaven guy wearing a shirt and jeans who was bent over double trying to do something with two huge-ass suit cases filled with things, and he was busy trying to either find something or put something back into them when I walked in. The FLTAs I had met at the airport had not quite appreciated my sense of humour, so I decided to take it easy on the Iraqi guy, for God knows what might end up offending him, right?. I did show of a little Arabic to him though, upon which we started speaking about my time in Egypt. I asked him what Iraq was like, hoping to hear something about how the US had destroyed their economy and their society, but what I heard made me laugh out loud, for he said with the sweetest smile yet with a lot of passion in his voice, "Maybe we are doing well despite all the shits around our daily life!". He continued, with a smile, "We are suffering from the accumulation of years of dictatorship, wars and religion that has made people crazy, sectarian, biased and hateful, but we still have good and aware people who we rely on to get our country back.. we are fighting to survive despite all of these shitty things." We knew right then that we would get along very well. Abbas would end up saying the funniest of things at the weirdest of moments. For example, when I met Abbas later at the mid-year conference, we were in the same group for one activity, where they had asked us how we dealt with students who whispered in class. Abbas stood up and said, "First, I will say "Please!""... there was a long pause, and everyone turned to look at him. "If they don't stop, I will go and slap them". The whole room erupted in laughter. I had suggested during our discussion that he say "I will throw my shoe at them", but considering that 'throwing a shoe' has the worst possible connotations in the Arab world, and remembering what had happened to George Bush at that press conference in Iraq in 2008, he probably thought it wise to restrict his humour to slapping. I also heard about him in the semester that followed, while speaking to a Russian FLTA who was very emoitional over the phone, because he had told her that Hitler was great. When I discussed this incident with him later though, we discovered that this was a result of a communication gap. To Milya, the word 'great' brought images of Hitler being 'great man', meaning someone who had done a lot of good to humankind, and someone who had brought about prosperity and inspiration. What Abbas meant, however, was that when he saw documentaries of World War II, he saw the number of places on the map that Hitler had managed to occupy. To him, what Hitler had managed to accomplish was exceptional, which is why he had called Hitler's achievements 'great' in the sense of 'prolific', although he agreed that Hitler was a complete lunatic and a man condemnable beyond excuse.

I don't remember if I had left my pre-paid card in my room or if I couldn't activate it that night, but I was out of cash and that night's dinner was not included in the orientation programme. So we had to either order at the hotel and pay for it while checking out, or go out and eat at a few places they had recommended. I had reached the USA with the single-minded intention of spending as little as possible on food and accommodation and as much as I could on good beer and more travel. So when the various groups of FLTAs went their way in groups based on their preferences, a few of us went to the nearest 7/11, where I got myself a cheap sandwich, for the following day's breakfast was a part of the orientation programme. However, my Indian Debit Card wasn't working, which I later found out was because international transactions were blocked as a 'safety feature' offered by the bank, and I had no cash. Luckily, Berkay, the Turkish FLTA, offered to pay for my sandwich, and we agreed that I would buy him two beers in return on the following day. Thus was spent my first day in the United States of America. The next three days of orientation had a lot of activities and interactions in store for us, and I was excited about meeting people from all these countries I had never been to, and to hear from the experts on language teaching from MSU and other leading universities who had been especially invited for this programme, and I was eagerly looking forward to a warm shower, the cozy Marriott bed, the breakfast in the morning and everything else that was to follow.