I had planned to do my graduate studies in the USA or UK. There was no second guessing that dream. Everyone around me then, made different plans. With the help of another classmate I methodically prepared towards my goal. Mom had no clue. Her thoughts were that I will marry someone who’d probably take me overseas as a dependent. Dad knew most of my devious plans from the start and would simper at anyone who thought they knew that I was on a path to destruction and they’d get a chance to jeer. Well, that didn’t happen.
I got my I-20 to FDU, Madison, NJ for summer. The school probably wanted to test foreign students in their pharmaceutical program and I was their Guinea pig. It was truly an honor. I packed my bags with whatever I thought I needed, over-confidently assumed that I’d need no more than $2k, still left the parents with nearly empty pockets as this was a surprise expense and took the leap of faith. If not for the sister’s family of a dear friend from High School who was willing to host, I’d be homeless the moment I set foot on US soil. A third cousin graciously picked me up risking his part-time job and dropped me off at my destination. There was no excitement of being in the US because of jet-lag. That was a first. I probably slept through for two straight days displacing their teenage son who probably was counting days to my leaving their home.
I decided to show up the day they asked me to at the campus. The travel included a drop-off by my hosts to the train station. The train to a transition station was 30 minutes. Then a dash across the train station to a bus to another bus terminal to catch another train. I sincerely hope the transportation is better now than it was 19 years ago. Once I hopped onto that second train it was another 30 minutes to my destination, which actually was the station before my true destination. So I walked about 2.6 miles to the campus to land in the Admissions Office. There I met this gentleman who I’d be ever grateful for trying for me.
Since that was not the International Students Office, he asked me to try the Indian Students Association which was in another campus across Jersey about 45 miles drive. I did not drive and had no other means of getting there so I got phone numbers of the President and some of the students who’ve been there. They came to where I was staying and swooped me in their car, showed me through the places and put me up in a two bedroom Apartment with five other girls, one being friend of a relative. By the way, all through this I was still the over-confident, smart-ass, and too egocentric for my own good. I successfully pissed off many of the senior students in the process with my unrealistic expectations. But they still put up with me.
One went on to become a National-award winning Director, the other thankfully forgave me for my ignorance (of declining to take help) and let me be friends with his wife, another is best friends with my husband, and this young lady who has always been available when I needed and continues to be a staunch supporter through my idiocy since. I was still adamant that being in a crowded apartment, doing odd jobs or changing majors was not what I signed up for and wanted to be dropped off at my hosts place. They reluctantly agreed. I’m sure they thought I was not a great candidate to be coached.
While I put myself through all this, there was a lot of chaos that my parents were put through. Relatives reproached them of not knowing when to send their child to an overseas college and that there were only Fall and Spring semesters. That summer semester wasn’t really a thing. And ofcourse, I have been ‘cheating’ them all along. This girl who I met in that crowded apartment somehow passed on false notes about my existence. That created more accusations and mom would cry inconsolably each time I called. I didn’t know how to comfort them and neither did I want to burden them with what I’m going through. Unlike other younger parents they were in their 60s already. I curse my memory to have remembered that my character of being a liar, a cheat and a characterless girl and even bring half-pregnant probably began broadcasting right at this time. Prior to this, all gossip was hush-hush.
There was this one moment where I stood close to one of the branches of the Hudson river and wanted to commit suicide. Although if I truly did jump into those waters, I would have ended up with broken ribs and no one to care for, but I would’ve not died. But then, my parents would be not only harassed for raising a weak child, along with the earlier accusations but I was sure that there would be a stories of shame that my relatives would create that were of extreme cinematic value. So, I abandoned that thought and wrote a poem instead. It was the fear of retribution more than the fear of dying that stopped me from doing what I wanted to – thanks to my dear relatives for not letting me die that day.
My seniors dropped me off with all my luggage and shook their heads in dismay that I’d be begging for their help soon. I’m sure they were right but I lived in a delusional world that I wanted to ensure becomes reality. I kept on trying and finally stumbled across that International Students coordinator who was the biggest influence in my life along with the then Dean of Students. That is when my rendezvous with the veracious American life began. When I walked into her office after my ride-train-bus-train-walk journey, I remember her screaming in joy, “here she comes!” She gave me a run-down of what to do and started settling me in.
My hosts tried every bit to reduce my commute and found me a place closer. I got my on-campus jobs, graduate assistant ship, ended up with another host family in the same town as my school, only later to be kicked out for reasons I would never know, then adopted by my host parents and their entire Cucciniello clan to who I am ever grateful. The love, affection, the hand-me-downs that were better than new, how they turned me into an all-American girl, all within 6 months would be forever my medals of honor. They were the true family I would ever have besides my own (mom, dad, grandmother). From far away, my doctor cousins who were the only next to kin who unquestionably supported me!
I can never forget the three days between a particular transition where the school was closed, the cafeteria was too and I was stranded in the dorms with nothing but tap water and the pickle my mom forced me to carry even though I don’t generally eat. The hunger pangs and the thoughts of defeat were just too strong. It would have been very easy to give up but I did not. This episode made me stronger than before and I’d go on to never accept defeat no matter how bad any situation was, I’d never bask in self-pity and I’d never care for inpalpable remarks. As I became older, forgiveness and forgetting have become meager and probably meaningless.
In this whole rumpus, a friend (now extinct) from back home used to exasperate the bejesus out of me. They would ask me to ‘loan’ money not with any intent of returning. Even after repeated explaining that I don’t see cash and everything is paid for. They’d ask me to lie to my parents to send me money and instead divert them to their possession. During this drama, my parents became my secrets vault. There was nothing they didn’t know about what I was doing and what I would be doing. I’d present them evidence at every speculation. Precisely then, I realized the very meaning of ‘PYA’ — protecting your ass!
In a about 6 months of landing on US soil. I became in my way, a somewhat self-made woman. On my own I’d never be that, an International student who had a graduate assistantship and a resident assistantship that would help sail through glorious three years. I was not just a cynosure of my tribe, but a poster-child in my own right. Those that I tortured during my initial days would come around to visit my suite and wish me well. I wasn’t on any merit list but I had been exposed to the best of the departments in Business school and the very best of opportunities. There were so many others that helped me along the way and I hope to write their stories some day soon.
Those who measure success in a different paradigm please forgive me if I am not a size zero but go up and down Burj Khalifa every day in terms of vertical feet, forgive me if my success is not being a braggart of fanciness, when my yard-stick of integrity lies in being stuck up in values that are ingrained of certain unknown thresholds hard to be kept except by fools like me and that my idea of relations is not measured by the ounces of blood that we might share but how long and hard you’ve stood by my side when I was desolate.
Jennifer Pastiloff says – “Find Your Tribe. You know, the ones that make you feel the most YOU. The ones that lift you up and help you remember who you really are. The ones that remind you that a blip in the road is just that, a blip, and not to mistake it for an earthquake, and even it were to be an earthquake, they’d be there with the Earthquake Emergency Supply Kit. They are the ones that, when you walk out of a room, they make you feel like a better person than when you walked in. They are the ones that, even if you don’t see them face to face as often as you’d like, you see them heart to heart. You know, that kind of tribe?” I won’t say I’m a victim of travesty but life experiences like these have helped me build my tribe, my voice and my inner strength. They paved way for my travels from expectation to reality.
#quotidianblessing #reality expectations #travesty #love #suicide #depression #fight