After sitting in a packed aluminum tube for about fourteen hours, non-stop, I was gleeful simply to be stretching my legs. Dog-tired, I milled about in the cavernous concourse, looking for the check-in counter of Great Lakes Airlines. I was to catch a domestic connection to Brookings, South Dakota, a town whose photograph I had not even seen.
An hour earlier, I had landed at the Minneapolis airport after a long, inter-continental flight from New Delhi. Either I was too early, or it was a woefully understaffed carrier, but no ticket agent was around to assist.
I was strolling desultorily, red-eyed, with a tower of luggage, when I spotted a middle-aged woman, in a grey suit, tugging a black carry-on, in a businesslike stride. She eyed the vacant booth, a sign, which I read to mean that we were both flying to the same destination.
It must have been the number of my suitcases that startled her, I suppose, for she spoke. A light conversation ensued. Before a definitive question could form on her lips, I offered a justification for my rather oversized footprint.
“I just flew in from India. I’m a grad student, headed to South Dakota State,” I croaked.
“Oh, that’s wonderful. What’re you going to study?” she beamed.
“Journalism,” I put in.
“You’re going to love the campus, if you can get used to our freezing winters.”
“I understand it gets brutally cold in these parts. But I’m excited just the same.”
Time flies when one is chitchatting. Sooner than I had expected, a glowing blonde in an upbeat airline uniform materialized.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” she crooned, as she took her position behind her station. “Let us get you checked in. And, you’ll be on your way.”
There were only two women boarding—us. Certainly, Great Lakes Airlines need not operate a “great” aircraft on this sector, I mused.
Unburdened, after seeing my cargo trundle away along the conveyer belt, I bounced down the gate, alongside my fellow flyer, till we came to its edge, from where we then descended a short flight of stairs onto the tarmac.
A little distance away groaned a toyish plane, cute, but somewhat wonky. To get a sharper contour of its outline, I squinted. I was trotting, next, up the steps of a retractable ladder. I bent my head slightly at the lightweight door, slid away inside its tiny cabin, and fastened my seatbelt.
Onboard, it was a simple affair. The captain, a charming Midwesterner, popped out his head from behind the cockpit partition, and welcomed us with warm smile. The blades of the twin engines of the turboprop fired up, and the Beachcraft 1900 took off with a palpable rattle. The aircraft can carry up to 19 passengers, who sit on either side of a single, narrow aisle. That day, it had a ludicrously light payload.
Somewhere in the blue, cloudless skies over eastern Minnesota, my co-passenger squealed, “I am surprised at your mastery of the American language.”
I could tell she was.
She could not tell that I was—as well. But, I managed to suppress it and mumbled a gracious response.
What had taken me aback was what I took, at that moment, to be her ignorance of the world outside of the American Midwest.
“Of course, I know English,” I retorted mentally. My fluency, vocabulary, knowledge of the rules of grammar, I believed, were only befitting one who had studied English as her first language—not second.
I did not know, however, at that point, that she was only familiar with a slim spectrum of Indians in the United States, a demographic of software ninjas, not equally talented in soft skills. Or, more precisely, in the popular American lexicon, complete with its idioms, inflection, and accent.
What does that say? That the heartland frowns on outsiders? Less that, than that I was an outlier, a deviation from the pattern.
In the rural Midwest, the archetypal South Asian student is one who goes to school to train for a future career in either hammering out codes in a windowless room, crunching numbers furiously in a corner cubicle, or hunching over complex circuit boards. It was a stereotype shared by everyone from the local sheriff to the local Wal-Mart cashier.
We were now cruising over great, monotonous stretches of geometric fields, alternate rectangles of brown, green, and beige. I craned my neck out the opposite, starboard window, to see if there was a change in scenery. None.
The terrain was still very, very flat. A smooth rotunda, a sticklike water tank, a matchbox football field, must have slid into the frame, when I was inattentive. Ninety minutes had elapsed—already—and we had touched down.
As the plane decelerated to a standstill, my mind whirred with a nameless expectation. As the pilot disarmed the entrance, an intoxicatingly pure air rushed up my nostrils. I thanked him and his deputy for the lovely ride.
Waiting, in the sparse arrival area, was a solitary figure, whose circular eyeglasses accentuated her stern roundness. The university foreign student advisor had come to receive me, as she had promised. Eager to make her acquaintance, I hobbled toward her, with a cramped toe.
We shook hands. And, as I did that, did I appear to forget my in-flight companion? If I did, it must have been because I was jet-lagged.
She glided over and asked, “So do you know where to go?”
“Um, yes, the school official is here,” I said, before I was cut off, politely.
“I think you should come home with me,” she suggested in a tone that sounded like a command.
Even before I could react effectively, she was hefting my six bags onto the trunk of her parked Chevy Impala. And, we pulled away, en route to her home. I should not drive off with a stranger, I mulled, even though she is inordinately gracious and polite.
“I think its best I get dropped off at a local motel, first. Perhaps, you could fetch me, after I’ve washed up?” I requested.
Freshening up at the Comfort Inn, getting dressed for dinner, later that evening, at her residence, I searched my mind for a reason as to why she took to me. Was it my un-Indian accent?