Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Indian-Soviet friendship

in 1996, the vast majority of the international students at RIT came from the Indian subcontinent. there were some kids from China, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey, but most people I met right away were from India. Also, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka.
the heyday of the Indian-Soviet friendship had long passed, and I had not met a single Indian person in St. Petersburg growing up, but I did inherit the slogan of that era. "Hindi Russi bhai-bhai," I said to the Hindi speakers, without actually knowing what this means. to my Sri Lankan friend, I must've surely mentioned Prosper Mérimée's novella Colomba that, despite the similarity of its title to the capital city of Sri Lanka, Colombo, is actually set in Corsica. I had been a voracious but not an attentive reader.
luckily, my Indian brothers saw that I was even more confused than they were about finding myself in Rochester, and so for a while took me under their wing. I was invited to join them for meals at the student cafeteria, where Indian kids sat around a long table and discussed the inedible American food, the upcoming winter and how to survive it, the importance of separating lights from darks when doing the laundry, sneaking into Canada without a Canadian visa, etc. for my sake, and for the sake of the other international students who occasionally joined, the Indians stuck to English for a while. eventually, the conversation switched to Hindi, and I was left to ponder all I'd heard so far.
most of my new friends described themselves as being "homesick," and asked me if I were, too. they could not eat, they had trouble sleeping, they missed their mothers, they struggled in their classes where their instructors frequently refused to understand their brand of English. I, on the other hand, couldn't stop eating. having spent much of my childhood growing food, standing in lines for food, cooking food, i was beyond thrilled at finding myself at an all-you-can-eat buffet three times a day. before Rochester, I couldn't have imagined such thing existed. I couldn't get enough of whatever was being served. people didn't understand my English either, but i wasn't complaining. it was a foreign language to me that I had to learn from scratch. my friends had grown up speaking English and now had to conform to the slight but significant differences in usage.
soon enough my friends started to figure out life in America. they found places to buy spices and learned to cook. they treated me to vegetarian dishes that turned each pore of my body into a tear duct (i'd had no experience whatsoever with hot spices). they found the one movie theatre near RIT that once every couple of weeks had showings of Bollywood movies. they joined the Indian student groups and started playing cricket. I went to a couple of Bollywood movies and cricket matches, and then stopped -- but that's another story.
one of my best friends from that era was a kid from Sri Lanka. N. was a few years older, and his thoughtful questions about my parents and friends at home helped to guide me through what I didn't know how to recognize as homesickness and a form of depression. though eventually I figured out that Sri Lanka wasn't Corsica, and that it wasn't India either, I refused to listen when N. tried to describe his background to me. his family was Buddhist, and, armed with the vague second-hand knowledge of scientific Marxism, I insisted that all religion was a complete and total superstition, and so he should stop believing anything and start eating meat. we maintained an uneasy friendship by going out to watch sci fi movies and talking only about hypothetical faraway worlds and planets.

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