Is This For Here or To Go? August 26 2009

First time I walked into the Lowry Mall McDonald’s at Columbia, Missouri and ordered my favorite Big Mac, I faced with this critical question. “Would you like your meal for here or to go?” I was bewildered: go where?    

As a “furner”, even though, you may have learned English in parallel to your native Bangla, some of these idiosyncratic phrases and local American accents can be quite amusing. It goes somewhat beyond the “schedule/SHE DUEL” distinction and you learn to adjust and say “GEE-AW-GRAPHY “versus just “JAWGRAPHY”.    

I arrived in Columbia on a Greyhound bus after first landing at the St. Louis International Airport. The few people on the bus, some smelling of alchohol, or looking bland and depressed, was not the impression I had of my newfound land of hope and prosperity.

Having watched many American TV serials, I kept peering out of the bus window for a Knight Rider or a ranch gate like Southfork. All I saw were cars with unusual names like Chevrolet/Pontiac/Ford and barns with the kind of pointy roofs one learns to draw in kindergarten. I arrived safely at the Columbia bus station with two bulky suitcases and a world of ambition.    

After a while, a large Brown Pontiac showed up with two unfamiliar Bangalee faces. Bangladesh is such a small gram (village) that you always find a “relative of a relative” in remote places, even in Columbia, Missouri. Razzaq Bhai and Elly Bhabi took me to their University Terrace grad student apartments, where a fresh meal and a shower were very much appreciated. In these pre-internet days, other Bangladeshis were anxious to meet this new undergraduate student and learn about “fresh” news from back home.    

My first ever roommate, at Cramer Hall, was a 6’4”, 220 pounds football player; Mike Ceglinski was an undecided freshman from St. Jo(seph), Missouri. I had no idea that you could go to college undecided .    

In Bangladesh, in the mid ‘80s you are raised with some simple rules: if you have any sign of intelligence, you have to study medicine, engineering, architecture, or something in science. I had expressed an interest to study my favorite high school subject:Economics. One evening, over a cup of milky tea, my Dad sat me down and nudged me towards Industrial Engineering (as the closest thing to Economics!). At that age, that nudge was quite enough. Like many other decisions in life, Economics became a minor on my curriculum; it’s like a breakfast cereal that you don’t particularly care for, but is good for you to start the day with!    

I am quite certain that my new roommate, Mike, had never talked to anyone outside of his home town – let alone someone from another planet (well, being from Bangladesh to him was like being from another planet!). I was half expecting him to go “Nano-Nano” with me like Mork! Interestingly, he brought along his pet snake, Edgar. Edgar was harmless but had to be fed rats. His girlfriend, Stacy, who had met an Indian (the dot kind) once, folded her hands in a “Namaste” when I extended a hand for a simple shake.    

There were many introductions to the location of Bangladesh; someone asked me once if it was in the Middle East. Others pointed to its adjacency to China! I had to explain to people how there are bangs (frogs) in Bangladesh but we dissected those in biology labs…didn’t eat them and definitely it was not meant as a part of our country’s name. The language is “BAH-UNGLA” … not BENGLA.    

My first social event was a picnic and ice-cream social,  where I re-confirmed that I had come from another planet and there were many other extra-terrestrials (with their own alien registration cards) with their understated vulnerability and home-sickness. A whole bunch of my compadres, new arrivals from Africa, had to be sent to the hospital since they had been treated to wonderful icecream – but didn’t realize that they were lactose intolerant.

Over time, some of my best friends in college came from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Trinidad & Tobago, Iran, Indonesia, China, Turkey, Springfield, MO and over hundred countries! This shared sense of being “lost and found” and accents, knowing that we are all “different” in some ways, creates a common bond and humor that lasts a lifetime.

My first job was washing pots and pans at the Cramer Hall cafeteria. Eric, another native Missourian, introduced me to the art of using high-speed jets to spray off gunk from industrial kitchen equipment while screaming at the top of my lungs singing “I Love Sunshine on a Cloudy Day”. It’s unimaginable to survive this job without such entertainment. I learned to clean floors, using a squeegee and a mop, and of course to use the sanitizer. It paid $3.50/hour and I was allowed to work 20 hours/week. At 1985 conversion rates, this “pots/pan washer”, in cash sense, was clearly making more than the legal income of the Secretary of State in Bangladesh.    

AT&T, my favorite phone company at this time charged $8/min for the first minute and $2.50 for every subsequent minute to call Bangladesh. The first time I called my mother, it was ~ $12 which was equivalent to 4 hours of standing in the steaming heat of the back of the Cramer Hall cafeteria. But it was worth hearing her voice and learning that everything was ok back home.    

After a few mishaps, and with the help of some friends, I learned how to operate a coin-operated laundry. Inadvertently, some of my white shirts turned into a unique tie-dye; quickly, I picked up on the miracles of bleach, the spin cycle and “separate” loads!    

Sociology 101 was my first under-gradulate class at 7:30 am at the Industrial engineering auditorium. I wore a tie and a blazer to this class; needless to say, I was the only person wearing a tie. Since my professor was technically blind, it really didn’t earn me any “brownie points” either. At the next class, the calculus teacher, who was a graduate Teaching Assistant, came in a pair of ragged shorts and insisted we call him by his first name, Matt. I was introduced to this amazing sense of constant informality in life that I have come to absorb, as a part of my disposition, even today.   

First Car in Columbia MO 1986

Jehovah’s Witnesses impressed me with their potential “targets for conversion”. Within a week of arrival, they were persistent in inviting me to social events (all of which involved some form of prayer) and a free meal. On Sunday evenings, when the dormitory cafeteria didn’t serve meals, some of these dinners didn’t seem as absurd. But it was rather amusing when one of them offered to do calculus homework for me, if I went to a Bible Study class. Due to some petulant questioning, I became a persona-non-grata on their list.    

1985 was the year when St. Louis Cardinals played Kansas City Royals in the “world series” (that only the US plays). Since both teams herald from the great State of Missouri, this was like a Abahani/ Mohammedan game in Dhaka and I got introduced to the rules of baseball. It was mayhem in our dorm that weekend. I wish I could tell you that I have taken on this game as a passion.    

Fall was upon us quickly and I realized that the sweaters my mom had hand-knit for me where not really adequate when walking to class on a cold day from one side of the campus to another; this boy from the sub-tropics discovered “layered” clothing and Kmart “blue-light” specials! While walking by the Quad and around J School, I picked up my first red maple leaf as a bookmark. I was dumbfounded when my friends at the cafeteria asked me if we celebrated Halloween or Thanksgiving in Bangladesh; I tried imagining the pilgrims and Indians (the feather kind) sitting by a fire and exchanging curried turkey or some Bangladeshi vegetable (Korola), with a green flag/red circle flying half-mast by the fire.    

On a cold December evening, during my finals week, I looked out of my dorm window to see white snow, coming down in a fury. It was pretty but somewhat disconcerting. I wish I could relate to the euphoria of Hindi film stars singing and dancing in this weather paradox; I didn’t have snow boots and wasn’t certain that my sneakers would make it through this calamity.    

When I think back to those days, I wonder how I adjusted to these almost constant, numerous changes in daily, ordinary life. For someone who had never written a bill or done his dishes (forget cooking/laundry), how does one keep up with these constantly changing rules?    

Somehow the first semester passed; I did reasonably well (in my grades) and thanks to the generosity of my American (and Int’l) friends, learned to navigate around the streets (and sounds) of my new surroundings.    

Every day, I was amazed to directly drink tap water, or find out that people calmly wait in line (no shoving or inadvertent touching) and do get served at the bank or the post office; I discovered that pedestrians have the “right of way” on zebra crossings and people do make eye contact with you even if you don’t know them and often they greet you with a “hi”. I am still impressed when I see cars pull away to the right of the street, when an emergency vehicle sounds its siren, … or that your PhD professors treats your stubborn-teenage opinion with respect!    

From emotional, colorful Dhaka to rational, first green, then grey Columbia… from relative homogeniety to multi-colored, multi-flavored dexterity……a protected shell to a world of opportunity…    

For Here or To Go?    

For now….Let me eat in.

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