After sitting in an aluminum tube for roughly fifteen 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 even I hadn’t seen.
An hour earlier, I’d 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 that I’d 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’d expected, a glowing blonde in an upbeat blue 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 needn’t operate a “great” aircraft on this sector, I mused.
Unburdened, after seeing my cargo off, trundle away along the conveyor 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 seat belt.
On board, it was a simple affair. The captain, a charming Midwesterner, popped out his head from behind the cockpit partition and welcomed us with a warm smile.
The blades of the twin engines of the turboprop fired up and the Beechcraft-1900D took off with a palpable rattle. The aircraft can carry up to nineteen 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’m surprised at your mastery of the American language.”
I could tell she was surprised.
She couldn’t tell that I was—as well. But I managed to suppress it and mumbled a gracious response instead.
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’d studied English as her first language—not second.
What I didn’t know, at that point, was that she was only familiar with a slim spectrum of Indians in the U.S., a demographic of software ninjas, not equally talented in soft skills—or, more accurately, those not proficient in the popular American lexicon, complete with its idioms, inflection, and accent.
She couldn’t be faulted for her perspective, for 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.
This 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 miniature water-tank, an athletic field must have slid into the frame when I wasn’t looking. Ninety minutes had already elapsed. We’d touched down.
As the plane decelerated to a standstill, my mind whirred with a nameless expectation. As the pilot disarmed the entrance, a stream of 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 adviser had come to receive me as she’d 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?”
“Well, the school official is here,” I said, before I was cut off, politely.
“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 place.
I shouldn’t drive off with a stranger, I mulled, even though she’s inordinately gracious and polite.
“I think it’s best I get dropped off at a local motel, first. Perhaps you could fetch me, after I’ve washed up?” I requested.
As I freshened up at the Comfort Inn and got dressed for dinner that evening, with my new friend, I searched my mind for a reason as to why she took to me.
Was it my un-Indian accent?