The first time I saw snow was in Philadelphia when I was a freshman in college, an international student from Bangladesh. I was staying with my father’s friend’s family for the Thanksgiving holiday, sharing a room with their daughter Bina, who was my age.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Look, it’s snowing!” she said when we awoke on Thanksgiving morning.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤIt was a quiet sighting with none of the loud validations that accompany such experiences. I walked to Bina’s bedroom window on the second floor and watched the white flakes falling softly. Bina was beautiful. She had skin the color of milk and honey, rose spots on her cheeks, and long reddish curls that were possibly permed. She wore green glasses. I imagine her room being pink, floral—feminine—with masses of pillows on the bed, and a soft, white, sinking mattress. I was obese, having already gained my freshman twenty eating cafeteria food at Penn. Bina was half White and half Bengali. I didn’t know it, then, but had she been born of two Bengali parents, she would still have been as foreign to me as I was to her.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI had visited the family before. My father’s friend Anwar Uncle (all my father’s friends were uncles to me) and his wife Margaret had received me at the airport when I first arrived in August and brought me to their house. They were the ones who had driven me to campus during move-in, waited in the long line of cars beside the tree-lined streets full of parents, grandparents, and students in shorts with boxes in their arms. Margaret was my only friend in the house, the only one who took an interest in me and explained things about America to me. She was a kind, generous woman, with pale brown hair, wisps of it escaping from her bun, and sharp blue eyes. Her skirts were long and flowing. Her books lay strewn on the tables and floors of every room in the house, and any remark on any of the titles or a chance sighting of me picking one up would lead to long philosophical conversations.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤOn the first day I had visited them, Margaret cooked bland chickpeas and garden vegetables with no spices. Other Bengali guests had been invited to lunch, including some relatives of Anwar Uncle and a Bengali graduate student at Drexel. We ate in the kitchen overlooking the garden. I liked Margaret’s food, but I remember her saying to one of the other Bengali guests at the table that “Anwar complained” that the food was tasteless. It was an old-fashioned house, a cottage—the kind of house that is fast disappearing in well-to-do neighborhoods across America—with the bare minimum number of small rooms crammed with interesting things. I must have stayed several days that first time because I remember long hours and masses of experiences. Anwar Uncle showed me his garden, which appeared bright and smart in the fall sun, a remarkable American accomplishment. Everything was in sharp focus. The house was full of books. I remember picking up one or the other in my solitude and reading it through to the end. I remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and a book by a man who did children’s comedy. I observed everything with interest and delight: the football game that my uncle watched through the weekend, the long lines of guests to the house, the two younger boys, John and Tommy, who chatted with me and brought me their comic books and school journals as little offerings, and the older boy Alan, who hung around in the shadows watching the game, looking forlorn and depressed, seemingly neglected by his father. I also remember watching the movie Addams Family Values, in particular the scene of the Thanksgiving play, with its obscure American humor, which completely escaped me.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBina and I, although close in age, were not friends. On that first visit, as on all others, we skirted around one another, never finding common ground. I had plenty of contact with her. I accompanied her and her mother to shopping trips to buy new clothes and school supplies for the fall. I remember standing in the stationary aisle with Margaret as Bina walked off to buy her brand of shampoo. Margaret complained to me that Bina only bought the most expensive shampoo for her highlighted hair.I remember accompanying all the children to their dentist for their annual teeth cleaning. When Bina came out, she said that the hygienist who had cleaned her teeth had hurt her badly, but she was sweet, so Bina hadn’t given her a hard time about it. Had the hygienist been a b-, Bina said, she would have let her have it. I listened intently to Bina’s summing up of the world. All of these things, dentists, fall shopping, and special shampoos for color-treated hair, were new to me, as were Bina’s worldly negotiations with daily American life.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤOne evening, a boy named Mark came to take Bina on a date. He was tall and lanky, with pale skin and brown hair. Margaret and I sat cooped together in the drawing room to give them privacy. Bina took Mark around the house, standing in front of the paintings that Margaret had brought over from Bangladesh, commenting on each. There was a painting on the stairs of a boat on water and several of rural scenes and farmers on the walls of the hallway. Margaret told me that all the paintings were originals. Anwar Uncle was a great lover of Bangladeshi art, and had bought several paintings while they had lived in Bangladesh in the first few years of their marriage. The date was a secret between mother and daughter. Margaret said that Anwar Uncle didn’t believe in dating. In his view, people fell in love only to get married. But Margaret wanted Bina to have a good time, be young, enjoy life. Later, I found out that Anwar Uncle liked the boy anyway, since he was an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon, one of the few students from Bina’s school who had made it to college. Bina and all her other friends from school studied at the nearby community college.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAnwar Uncle was disappointed in Bina. He told me this on the train ride when he brought me home for Thanksgiving. He worked at a firm in downtown Philadelphia, so I met him near City Hall to catch the train to Devon. I spotted him from a distance against the grey columns of City Hall, a tall, forlorn figure in a grey trench coat with a long, gray face.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤOn the train, he asked me about my engineering classes and nodded when I related my grades. Then he sighed.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“None of my children are smart like you,” he said. He meant me and the graduate student at Drexel, and all students from South Asia, especially engineers. An incident during the visit confirmed his feelings.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe day before Thanksgiving, a Pakistani family came to lunch. We sat in the family room while Margaret worked in the kitchen. The Pakistani parents were well dressed, emanating a Desi aura of respectability and excellence. They had two high school children, who were lavishly praised by their proud parents. The Pakistani girl was tall, her hair styled in a boy cut like her mother. The boy dressed in a sweater and khakis like his father. The boy played in band and he was applying to Princeton as his school of first choice. His parents asked me questions about Penn, as they were just then researching all of the Ivy League schools.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Bina will never get into Princeton,” Anwar Uncle said. “She doesn’t stand a chance.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“He thinks I’m stupid. He says so all the time,” Bina said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Your grades are very bad. You don’t try,” Anwar Uncle said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤA piano on which Bina had played Edel Weiss on my first visit stood in the corner. On top of it, there was a photo of Bina, taken for her high school graduation, wearing a blue dress, laughing. The others made sympathetic noises to assure Bina that in their eyes she was talented. Bina moved to a sofa to sit with the Pakistani siblings. In a few moments, they were laughing together. The Pakistani family had just visited Karachi in the summer and the brother and sister chatted about what it was like there, how there were loud parties, and how it was so modern, how, instead of covering themselves, the Pakistanis in Karachi wore the latest American clothes. I sat near them and heard every line, yet I was sitting with their parents, separated from the American born people of my age by a vast distance.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThat night, Bina confided in me that her father hated her. Just a week ago, her car had skidded on fallen wet leaves and hit a tree. Anwar Uncle had to come home from work and call a tow truck. The whole time, he scolded her, but both the tow truck driver and the mechanic at the garage said it wasn’t Bina’s fault. Wet leaves were more treacherous than ice. It could have happened to anyone.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“My dad thinks my boyfriend Mark is smart because he goes to Carnegie Mellon. He thinks I’m stupid.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You’re not,” I said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“He hates me. He thinks I’m dumb because I’m not in engineering like you. But I don’t want to study engineering. I want to be an artist. He doesn’t respect that.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤLarge works of graphite on canvas hung on the walls of her room, framed by Margaret, who quietly shielded her children from their father’s disappointment.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤIn the morning, after the night’s easy confidences, we were strangers again. The snow falling outside the window made the room appear extra warm. I sat on the floor, rummaging in my bag for my toothbrush and something decent to wear for the party that evening. I had gained so much weight that none of my clothes fit me. Bina had to step around me to get to the bathroom.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s alright.” The glib American expression fell out of my lips automatically. I paused, self-conscious, waiting to be caught out like an imposter. But Bina was already in the bathroom, brushing loudly.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBy mid-day, Bina’s school friend Jodie arrived. They sat together on her bed gossiping. I sat facing them. Every now and then they broke off their confidences to fill me in. Bina said she wished she were pale.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“But you are already so pale,” I cried. “To me you look white.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I’m lighter than you, but I’m still very tan.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It’s a beautiful color, Bina,” Jodie said.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤWe both gazed at her in admiration but our validations meant different things to Bina; my ingratiating words represented the awe of an outsider, while Jodie’s reassurance was a seal of approval from within.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“But listen, you guys. I have something juicy to tell you,” Bina said. “There’s a match being arranged at the dinner tonight.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“That’s crazy! Tell us more,” cried Jodie.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBina said that among the guests invited to the party that night was an Indian family with two marriageable daughters, one of whom was going to be introduced to an Indian bachelor. This was the secret purpose of the party, to bring the two young people together. The three of us were equally shocked, scandalized, and filled with romantic anticipation about the meeting of this young couple, whom we considered, in our innocence, to be practically married. At our age, the arranged meeting of two lovers was no less exotic and fascinating to me than it was to Bina and Jodie.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBy evening, the house filled with a flow of guests, mostly middle-aged, successful South Asians living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. They appear now in my mind in greys and blacks and browns, women in saris and shalwar kamiz suits in muted colors with cardigans on top, and men in dress pants and jackets, grey faced, silver haired, hawkish, talking animatedly about their professional accomplishments.The veneer of respectability was everywhere, from the solid wood furniture, the piano in the corner, and the paintings on the walls to the drone of middle-class conversation.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe two Indian sisters were indistinguishable. I remember them being scarcely older than I was. They were slight, petite, demure, and dressed in embroidered Indian shalwar kamiz, with angular faces and large eyes. Margaret Auntie had said that their parents were eager to get the older sister Preeti married within the year, as she had already turned twenty-five, and Neeti was only two years younger. What I remember most is that they were very Indian, more like me than Bina. They were Penn graduates also, and I believe they were both engineers. They were very kind to me, and we chatted easily about books and classes and majors and professors, about the mechanics of things and the surfaces of things, taking pleasure as only young people can in simply naming things.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe sisters had been brought up, as so many other South Asian girls I have met in subsequent years, according to the strictest ideals of both worlds—to excel academically in America, attend Ivy League schools, and go on to careers in medicine, engineering, and finance, but also to learn Sanskrit, play Indian musical instruments, and meet the most romantic ideals of womanhood in Indian society. In that sense, the sisters and I were not that different. We had probably grown up watching the same Indian movies and admiring the same Indian hero in these movies. This hero had a few unchangeable qualities. He was quiet, thoughtful, often a lawyer or a doctor, a poor boy from a village who had gone on to earn the highest degree, whose principles and morality would be tested in the movie, who would ultimately be chosen by the heroine as her husband because he was a good human being. The idea of this Indian hero in my head (played by Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee on the big screen) was to inform everything I expected of that night, as it possibly informed the girl in question as well.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI spotted the young man Prakash, our hero of the evening, in an opening in the crowd. He was tall like a reed, adorned in a sweater, a stiff collar shirt, and dress pants. His features were at once indeterminate and pleasant. He was intelligent and funny and he talked and laughed easily with the older men who surrounded him in a circle, eager to like him.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPeople took food from the table in plates and ate standing up in various rooms. I remember my first cranberry sauce, turkey, cornbread, and chicken rice soup. At one point, Bina came up behind Jodie and me and poked us.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPreeti and Prakash were standing together in a private corner of the dining room, their faces burning as they spoke slowly and politely to each other while everyone stared at them. They were both eligible, both good looking, from good schools, with good jobs, and from good families. What I remember more clearly than the young couple talking together is Preeti’s father. I can still see the lines of desire on his face, the veins standing out on his grey forehead as his daughter was produced before the tall, lanky man by his old friends. A good boy. An eligible suitor. A decent young man who would marry his daughter.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAt the end of the night, after the two Indian sisters had left with their father, I stood at the foot of the stairs talking quietly with the last of the guests, including Prakash. It was decided that he would drive me home. He lived in the city and was driving in that direction, anyway. He would wait for me to pack my things .Before I went upstairs, I saw Anwar Uncle and another elderly gentleman standing with Prakash under the staircase beside the rows of Bangladeshi pictures, drilling him in urgent whispers about what he thought about the “girl.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“So, what was she like? Did you like her?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Yes, she was very nice. Very pretty.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBina and Jodie were chatting together on Bina’s bed. I said goodbye, and they politely expressed their wishes to see me again. I carried my bag downstairs and bundled up in the bulky down jacket that hung around me like an impenetrable cylinder. I was so fat that semester that I couldn’t walk properly. I used to wobble on the sidewalks on campus. I remember the acne, the sleepless nights studying, the uncombed hair, working in dining services and smelling of stale food when I rushed to class after work, lost, out of my element.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤWe stepped outside into the cold night. The snow was still falling. There was a thin white blanket on the ground. I said goodbye to my uncle and auntie, my family in America, and to the warm corners of the house, full of its delights. Then I walked with Prakash to his sedan parked a few feet away. My face and hands were freezing while my body felt too warm in the heavy grey jacket. He opened the passenger door and I climbed in.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤOn the drive back, on highways I did not yet know, we chatted about comfortable things. Prakash asked me about my classes and subjects and teachers. I complained and joked; he listened. He also must have been a graduate of Penn. He had gone on to get a master’s degree from the business school and was now working in the city at an engineering firm. He was altogether accepting of me, although he too, like Bina, had grown up in America.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Do you find your classes hard?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No, they’re easy. A’ Levels are much more advanced.” I spoke in the usual arrogant way of foreign freshmen. “It’s the social aspect that I find difficult.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Yeah? What do you mean?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“If I ask a question in class, the other students think I am being annoying, asking too many questions. They also think that even if I am answering the teacher’s questions. This is confusing to me. You are supposed to answer questions in class, no?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPrakash laughed. “What else do you find difficult in America?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI leaned forward to confide in him about what had bothered me in all my interactions with Bina.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“To tell you the truth, I find other South Asians born in America the most difficult. I know that other students are supposed to be different. But I don’tunderstand ABCDs. They look like me, but they are completely different. I asked an Indian girl in my hall where she was from and she was very upset. She said she was born and brought up in Boston and I was being rude.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“You know it’s not politically correct to say ABCD, right?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“I know! Now I know.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAt Hill House, we international students from the subcontinent used to go around calling Desis (South Asians) born in America, ABCD (American Born Confused Desis), scarcely understanding the connotations of the label, while they called us FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). “You’re an ABCD, you would know,” We would say. Or “What would an ABCD do in that situation?” I had no idea how offensive this was until an ABCD named Vandana in my suite told me so. Her admonition stuck in my head. I stopped using the expression after that. But we (the FOBs and the ABCDs) must have felt our mutual divide instinctively, that instant prejudice and mistrust of each other rising immediately upon contact. I explained all this to Prakash, and he nodded, as if he sympathized with why I felt compelled to think of him as a confused Desi.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI matured with time, but I never completely lost that feeling of alienation with ABCDs. Years later when I was a graduate student at Princeton and my father was teaching at Tuskegee University in Alabama during sabbatical leave from his university in Bangladesh, my parents rented a car at the end of the year and drove up to visit me and my siblings. All three of us were studying at various schools in the Northeast. One evening, we drove together to a party at Anwar Uncle’s house. As always, another family had been invited to dinner. By then, Margaret talked to herself while she worked, a behavior I put down to an unhappy marriage. Bina joked with the guests about how her father had tricked her mother into a difficult marriage with his sweet talk during their student days. Bina herself had become a successful artist. After finishing her college degree, she had taken up an internship at Disney arranged by her grandparents in Florida, and from there she had gone on to become an artist. She had a business now designing cards and graphics. She told me that she drove to the coffee shop at Princeton all the time with her friends and we agreed to meet there some time, although we never did (more testimony to the fact that we would always live in separate worlds).
ㅤㅤㅤㅤAnwar Uncle was, as always, generous, and steady. He said nothing outwardly on the subject of his children this time, but one could still see that he was quietly sad about how they had turned out. The older boy, Alan, had gone on to Bucknell Community College, and the two younger boys had attended the same college and gone into odd jobs. I think one had a business fixing refrigerators. This was wholly foreign to a South Asian community full of doctors and lawyers and engineers. But what I remember most acridly, why I remembered this night in the first place, is that there were some other young Bengalis of our age who had just returned from a visit to Bangladesh. Bina and these other women were discussing their recent trip. They talked about the dirt everywhere and insects and having to be careful about the food they ate, while my siblings and I sat apart from them shaken by disgust at their foreign perception of a place that was our home.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBut the young man who gave me a ride the night of my first snow in America did not treat me like a foreigner. Perhaps because he was handsome, in his element, Prakash felt confident enough to reach across the divide and ask me questions about my lowly school life and listen attentively to my perspective. He provided details about his own degree, company, and job. Anything I might have said, with the bright eagerness of a naïve newcomer, would be embarrassing to remember now. I might have told him about struggling in computer science class, about never having seen a computer or a disk before, about running around the halls with my suitemates in Hill Hall carried in the tide of a prank being played out by everyone else, splashing water under someone’s door, screaming down the balcony, laughing loudly because everyone else was laughing, scarcely aware of my own body, my sense of self—where others stopped and I began.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤPrakash only said, “It’ll all work itself out in time. A lot of these freshmen aren’t very mature. I made my real friends in my sophomore year. You’ll find your crowd.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No, really. Just hang in there. You’ll see.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThe city lights of Philadelphia showed in the distance, spurring on a discussion about the meaning of the name Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, and Schuylkill River (which Margaret had told me was a misnomer since kill already meant river in Dutch). We drove into the city, my destination nearing.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThen suddenly, in the dark, Prakash said, “I guess you could tell what was going on back there, at the party tonight.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI mumbled nervously that I knew a little bit about “what had been arranged.” I was shy and awkward. Perhaps I tried to close off the conversation to save him embarrassment. But Prakash was determined to go on.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“She was nice. Don’t get me wrong. She was very pretty. But to tell the truth, I couldn’t marry someone just like that. I mean, I would have to live with her first. Try it out. I need to get to know her.” He looked at me in the dark for validation. “You know?”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI chuckled nervously to express my assent. I was scandalized. Here was the groom confiding in me his doubt about a marriage that I assumed was as good as final, a marriage that we had all (Bina, Jodie, and I) considered a done deal.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ”Somehow, I know that living with her wouldn’t be acceptable,” he said sheepishly.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No.” I shook my head to hide my embarrassment. I had never even heard the expression “living together” outside of books before, to refer to something real, in real life.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤBut naïve as I was, newcomer to every custom and object I encountered in America, I knew what kind of man a Bengali father desired for his daughter. I wanted to explain to Prakash the idea of the young, eligible bachelor—the romantic hero of Indian movies who loved only once and for life—and about first meetings leading to lifelong trysts. Perhaps he had watched these same movies sitting with his mother in a living room in New Jersey.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤThere seemed suddenly to be a distance between us. To Prakash it seemed the most logical desire to live first with the woman he was going to marry. But I could still see Preeti’s father standing alone at the party, staring at Prakash with a look of longing and trust, a father resting his hope on the shoulders of a young man who would take care of his daughter. Later, I met other young Indian men like Prakash who told stories of going to Indian parties where girls’ mothers eyed them greedily as suitable husbands for their daughters. These same men were sleeping with every woman they could. There was a comical contrast between what the mothers saw in the young men and wanted them to be for their daughters, and what the young men desired. And what would Preeti have thought about this proposal, who had been shielded from men so carefully by her parents to be an ideal wife for a Bengali man? But perhaps I have misread her, whom I keep conveniently silent.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤI met her at another South Asian party during winter break, where I had accompanied Anwar Uncle. There were other South Asians of my age at the party, the children of Anwar Uncle’s friends. They were loud and confident, going to Yale or Cornell or Michigan, teasing one another about their college football teams. We were all gathered in one room on various sofas in front of a TV, pizza slices in our hands. Preeti came to greet me as soon as she spotted me by the long food table. She was congenial as always, inquiring about my school days.But she looked sad. Her face had lost the flush of youth and beauty it had held at the previous party. I was aware that I knew something she didn’t. Margaret Auntie had told me that Preeti and her parents had been devastated by Prakash’s rejection. But Preeti couldn’t have known why he had rejected her.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“No, you couldn’t ask her to live with you. That would be very bad,” I said to Prakash in the car that Thanksgiving night. “She would be shocked! Her parents and all the other Bengalis would be shocked.” I spoke in my clipped, South Asian, British-sounding accent, which must have sounded harsh to him because he was silent for quite a bit.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤWhen we spoke again, it was to make small comments. As we passed through the familiar grid of the streets of West Philadelphia, we exchanged anecdotes about Penn. Through both the silence and the words, with the snow outside and the heater warming up the interior of the car, we let the divide sit comfortably between us, the gap between my way of seeing things and the impossibility of such a thing for him.We cradled this gap almost intimately in a companionable silence, a shared confidence, and this is probably the closest I have ever come to having an honest conversation with an ABCD.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤWe entered Penn and drove past the lighted windows of old buildings. Prakash parked on 34th Street to let me out in front of Hill House.
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Have a great time, young one!” He smiled at me. “ I hope you get good South Asian As, but also remember to have fun.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“Thank you so much for driving me back!”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤ“It was my pleasure.”
ㅤㅤㅤㅤHe started the car. I thanked him again over the noise of the engine before turning away and walking across the newly fallen snow to the doors of Hill House, crunching the thin ice underfoot. The wind bit my cheeks and the tip of my nose. Perhaps, just before I entered the building, I looked back and he waved to me quickly before driving off.