With today I complete exactly 5 years of stay in the USA. Five years! FIVE years!?! I can't believe its been that long. I still feel like it was just a little time ago that I landed as a wide-eyed, fresh-off-the-plane master's student. But, when I think back and look at how much I have changed (for better or worse) since that time, I feel like, maybe, just maybe it is possible that so long a time has really elapsed!
As I wrote last year, this whole going abroad to study was something which I never considered seriously till the time my GRE scores came out. Even then, me coming to Davis, California, to study was hanging in the balance for quite sometime as I debated whether to work and then study or study and then work. My parents had made it clear that they would back any decision I made 100% - no questions asked. So my decision was mainly upto me.
I finally chose to go to the USA to study. I still can't believe that my parents agreed to send me off to a country where the only relatives (two in number) I had were at least six hours away by flight from where I was to live!
A series of helpful people made the whole planning process easier. My close friend from undergrad, S, had moved to California and was staying with her sister M and family. M, who herself had been abroad since high school was warmly welcoming and emailed me detailed answers to even my dumbest doubts (I even had questions like whether it was okay to tie a clothes-line in the balcony :-D).
Due to a stroke of luck, I located my future apartment and room-mates in Davis from India itself. I plagued those future roomies (all were senior to me and had been in Davis for a year) too with tons of emails asking tons of questions - to which they replied with great patience (only later did they tell me how they were beginning to worry that they had chosen a pest as a future roommate - LOL :-D).
By the time end of August in 2001 rolled around, almost all my classmates starting their Master's program that year in the USA had already left for their respective destinations. Since University of California, Davis (UCD) has a quarter system, school started only in the last week of September for me. So September 9th, 2001 was set as my departure date.
By the time September 8th rolled around, all my shopping, packing and farewells were done. I was to leave by a very early morning flight on September 9th. So, late evening of September 8th, my immediate family as well as most of the members of my extended family had turned up at the airport. I guess there were about twenty people just to see me off. I would have enjoyed the party if not for the fact that I would be leaving it soon :-(.
As the time approached for me check in, I took one last mental photograph of everyone and waved one last goodbye before stepping into the airport. For company on the plane, I had two more guys, T and C (I had found them with the UCD graduate secretary's help) who were also going to UCD from Chennai. But I barely knew them and did not make much conversation. The long flight to San Francisco from Chennai had a stop-over at Singapore.
I guess I had the most difficult time on the stretch from Chennai to Singapore. Thoughts tumbled around my head as I questioned my decision. Oh, I would be so far from home! I would miss everyone so much. I did not know anyone at all in Davis. How was I going to manage? How would the new place be? Would I be able to make friends? Oh, maybe I should have just joined work instead. And so on. Waves of homesickness swept over me. I sat wide awake and miserable on the plane as passengers all around me snored.
Once we touched Singapore, we had a long break. In those days, airlines were still rich - so the Singapore Airlines had offered us free accommodation at a posh hotel for the duration of the stop-over. We took a prepaid taxi to the hotel. I was exhausted by that time and just nibbled at the food in hotel buffet (I couldn't identify most of the food stuff anyway). Then I had a nice shower and sank into the bed for some much needed sleep. Unfortunately T and C wanted to go around Singapore and so I was soon woken up by their knocks on my door.
We did not see much in Singapore though and soon it was time to head back to the airport. And then we were on the flight to San Francisco. On that flight, I was just beginning to convince myself that I might be able to cope well with all the changes when the captain announced that the flight would be landing in San Francisco in an hour. All at once, irrationally, I began to hope that the plane would make a u-turn and go back to Chennai! Landing would mean that the fact that I had left home for a new country would be established irrevocably.
Oh well, of course, the plane landed in SFO. T, C and me all cleared immigration and went through customs without any difficulty. And then I officially stepped into San Francisco, USA. Before I could orient myself to my new surroundings, I could see a figure waving excitedly at me. And my undergrad friend S ran under the rope cordon and enveloped me in a big bear hug, "Archu! Welcome to the USA!". S had said she would be at the airport to receive me - so I knew she would be there. Still, her exuberant reception and her genuine happiness at seeing me perked me up immediately and made me feel so good!
And then she got hold of my luggage cart and started maneuvering it towards the exit. As we walked, S added, "M and P are waiting for you". Sure enough, there stood S's sister M and M's husband P with huge welcoming smiles on their faces.
I was so touched, I could have cried. You see, M was about eight and a half months pregnant with her first baby at that time (she had a baby boy exactly 10 days after I landed). In spite of P and S urging her to stay at home, M had insisted that I would feel better if I saw a whole family waiting to receive me. And so they had all traveled the 30 mile distance from their house to the airport to meet my late night flight. It had not occurred to them that I was actually only S's friend and that I had never met P before and M had met me exactly twice before.
At that moment, I knew I would survive. No matter what was in store for me, as long as there were such kind people in the world, I would do fine. And, with a little more courage, I took a deep breath and got ready to start a new chapter in my life.