I was poor in my student years in America. Like, really poor.
(Tell my Indian relatives and friends, and they would love this new, sexy, mouth-watering topic to gossip.)
Most Americans do not understand how poor immigrant students are. Most Americans do not understand how poor new immigrants are. But foreign students, especially those who are coming from my class, are exceptionally poor because even an undocumented immigrant would find work in the underground economy, but we the American-government-labelled “non-immigrant alien” student wouldn’t, even though we have valid visa and all.
Why not? Because, not just we are legally forbidden to work outside of campus (and our spouses are forbidden to work anywhere), we are also so strapped for time. Plus, we are “highly educated”; therefore, it’s beyond our dignity to work like those God-forsaken “illegal aliens.” Right? And we are not that brave, either. We are happy with whatever little money the university is doling out to us.
Rebellion will be reserved for the havenots. We are the complacent, obedient type. Especially the ones from colonial India and Pakistan. We don’t do revolutions no more.
For twenty required hours a week, a graduate assistant is working in their department for five hundred dollars a month minus taxes, either to teach or help with the professor’s research. The rest of the time, they are studying and doing their own research — in the laboratory or library, and trying to spend time with their families. If they are alone, they are cooking, cleaning, and doing other household chores. Or, chances are, they are trying to fix their old car. Without a car, life is impossible in America, and graduate students almost always have car trouble as they can’t afford a good car. You go to any graduate student housing in a U.S. university, and on a Saturday or Sunday morning you’ll find some Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or African students burying their heads under the propped-up hood of their stalled chariot, with strange fumes coming from strange holes. A seasoned colleague is helping them.
Yet, life in those greener years was…well…greener. Southern Illinois University was an oasis for our exiled, perched souls. Having had two very difficult years at Illinois State University, one mid-winter morning, my wife, our newborn child and I took a six-hour-long drive in our dilapidated Plymouth Valiant. It was ten degrees below zero in central Illinois, and snow was ten feet high (well, maybe, two feet). Another car followed us on our three hundred mile journey. That was Gordon, an American co-student who volunteered to drive down with us, carrying our mortal and immortal belongings in his car, as Valiant could unceremoniously break down any time on I-57.
We landed in “Mississippi Delta,” Illinois. Gordon had lunch with us, and left. He would drive back up from Carbondale to Normal-Bloomington. And he is not driving a Marcedes, either. Not even a Toyota. He might as well get back before the next snowstorm hit.
Most people outside of America do not know how poor this Mississippi Delta is. I bet most Americans don’t know it, either. It’s an area circling parts of Southern Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, with the mighty, beautiful river Mississippi raging down the state lines. Here, farming is not great, no prosperous industries are visible, and timber and strip mining are two viable livelihoods. It’s Deep South, with people having a thick, Southern accent. Outside of the academic institutions, there are no jobs. It’s very rural, very conservative, and very cut-off from the rest of the world. No wonder church evangelists would wake us up on Sunday mornings, and insist that we went to their congregations.
Outside of the academia, there is extreme illiteracy. And consequently, extreme poverty, and hopelessness. In small, desolate towns like Ana-Jonesboro or wooded, desolate places like Makanda or Grand Tower, people would sit out all day, and drink booze. I hope I am not being disrespectful about the lifestyle of a place where we lived almost five happy years of our lives. I’m just telling you the truth.
The reason a vast number of American people have become so fiercely anti-immigrant is precisely because of the reason that the ruling class of America — the one percent — have not addressed and solved their economic problems. Whether in USA, Europe or India, ordinary people are taking out their anger on “outsiders” because their jobs and stability are seriously threatened. They don’t understand it’s not the outsiders’ fault; rather, it’s their own rulers who kept failing them. They have failed the outsiders, and they have failed the insiders too.
Well, that’s another story. A very important story, but yet another story.
(to be continued.)