“Can I have the free swim shedule?” I asked the teenager manning the desk at the pool.
“A what…?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in mock confusion. I could hear the stifling of giggles from the assorted teens gathered behind him.
I tried my best to ignore the sniggers and braved on. “A shedule of the free swim? You know the timetable for days when the pool is open for us to come and practice?”
“Ah, you mean a schedule? Wait a minute,” he said, enunciating the ‘sche’ and the ‘d’ in schedule, as he dived under the desk, clearly trying to get over the laughter that was threatening to overcome him.
As I walked away with the free-swim schedule, I could hear the laughter erupting behind me. Only then it hit me that the little twerp knew all along what I was talking about. He was clearly used to our accents, what with all the desi men and women who frequented the community colleges’ swimming lessons. I am sure we could go to a private swim class and get better lessons. But we desis are cheap and the community college fee rates suited us just fine.
“I just need to learn the technique,” I overheard a paunchy guy in his 40s tell the instructor. “You know, so I don’t have to stay in the shallow end and be able to rescue my son.”
“Sir, what you are learning here is not enough for you to jump head long and rescue anyone,” she said, clearly not trusting the guy’s technique.
She had obviously no idea of the over confident Indian male species who thought they could learn to swim and rescue a drowning 5-year old just by taking twice a week, six week swim lessons at a community college. But I was FOB (as I was politely told by someone who had been living here for five years) or fresh off the boat, with barely three months in the country and was all too aware of the Indian male phenomenon.
Getting used to America was another matter. It wasn’t as big surprise as it was for some of the other desi women but it was still a mystery I was trying to unravel. The shedule – schedule was one of those incidences that made it perfectly clear to me how to pronounce certain words. It didn’t matter if I spoke good English. I also had to get the pronunciation right and get the word usage down to a pat.
“Don’t say ‘double’ 4,” Ajay, my husband of four months, told me one day after he heard me give my cell phone number to a friend.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you know how you said, 972-9double 4-6123? Just say, 972-944-6123. Here, double is usually reserved for bra sizes, as in double D, double B, etc.,” he said, obviously knowledgeable in bra jargon. That was a piece of clothing that also threw me for a loop initially, with its different sizes and the underwire. Who ever thought of the underwire bra must have been a man because these things were pokey and pinchy and not very comfortable. I longed for the days when I could go to the hosiery shop in my town and tell the guy behind the counter to give me a medium sized, cotton bra and he would produce four bras of different colors and fabric patterns. And that was that. It fitted me fine and I was done for the whole year.
Here, Ajay, told me to buy at least seven, “one for each day. I do laundry once a week and you need to get used to that routine too.” Whoever heard of once a week laundry! Next thing you know, he will tell me to grocery shop once a week and cook food for the week on weekend. And what do you know, he did! (For the record, I do not like to use more than one exclamation mark on a page, let alone a paragraph, but I thought these two notions warranted the indulgence.)
Doubling back to proper wording when giving out phone numbers, I welcomed these nuggets of information in order to avoid future backhanded giggling and general amusement of teenagers. And the thing was these teenagers were everywhere; in the shops, working behind fast food counters, in movie theaters and hanging out in the malls. They looked at you with their sullen, bored expressions and discouraged all manner of talking. Conducting a transaction was one of the pleasure of shopping back home. We could chat with the shopkeeper, haggle on the prices, and discuss the weather. It didn’t matter if you were buying grocery, vegetables, clothes or shoes.
The first time I went to Gap, I started talking to the girl behind the check- out counter.
“Hi! I am from India. I just landed a week ago and needed some new clothes,” I said.
“Un-ha. Will this be all? Did you find everything you were looking for in the store?” she asked.
“Yes, I did, thank you. I love your store. So many different cuts of jeans and I love all the colors of the T-shirts,” I said.
Thankfully, this one was too bored to giggle.
As I picked up my blue bag and walked out the store, I heard her ask the next customer the same question. I looked up at Ajay, standing outside the shop, waiting for me.
“You could have told me the counter-girl asks everyone the same question and not to bother chatting with her?” I said.
“I can’t think of everything to tell you. Use your judgment. On second thought, ask me if you are in doubt,” he said.
We both remembered the 911 incident. It still makes me laugh but he winces every time he thinks about it.
It happened the first night we landed in Dallas. Some friends of his picked us up from the airport and brought us back to his flat, which I was quickly learning was called an apartment.
It was a cold, February day when we landed here and the wind chill was in the 30s. I had experienced cold before but not this bone chilling cold.
“I thought Texas was supposed to be hot?” I asked, as I stood shivering at curbside pick-up, waiting for his friend.
“Yes, it is. In summer,” he said, warm in his wool sweater and blazer.
“Well, I am going to have to go shopping,” I said, shivering.
“I know,” he said with a sigh.
I was wearing a sateen salwar-kameez and an ill-fitting man’s leather coat that had been altered to fit my slender 5ft 2” frame. That was all I could find in my small town where my cousin had a small shop selling leather handbags and coin purses. He had procured the coat for me from his vendor but forgot to tell him it was for his cousin sister.
We drove through highways and overpasses, passing cars of different makes and models, all gliding past on silent wheels. There was no honking, no screeching and no shouting of angry drivers and best of all there was no pollution as far as I could tell. Anyway, back at the “apartment” the heat was turned way down since Ajay had been gone for the last two weeks. In case you are wondering, he was in India, getting married to me.
His friend helped him carry the two big American Tourister suitcases up the apartment stairs and said he would come by later to pick us up for dinner. I explored the beige apartment with a galley kitchen, a small bedroom off the living room and a bathroom with a tub in it. The small kitchen seemed cozy and I longed for a hot cup of chai but with no milk in the fridge and no tea leaves, the hot beverage seemed elusive.
“We can pick up some Statbucks on the way to the restaurant,” he said. But the thought of getting down and braving the icy cold wind for a cup of coffee was not warming enough for me. Now, if there was a chaiwalla at the corner of the block selling hot piping ginger infused chai I might be tempted to get down. But no way was I getting out of the warm car for a Starbucks. The ‘cheap’ desi in me can never justify a $3 coffee when I can whip up some instant coffee powder with milk and sugar and make a desi cappuccino at home.
I needed to get ready for dinner. We were dinning with two of his friends at an Italian restaurant, a cuisine I knew nothing about except for pizza. I had high doubts about the authenticity of the pizza I had in India with spicy tomato sauce and broiled paneer topping. I was prepared to order a blander version of the pizza if need be but when I glanced at the menu, I didn’t recognize any thing I had eaten before.
“She might like eggplant parmesan,” one of his friends suggested when I declared I didn’t know what to order.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t like eggplants. Instead, I smiled and nodded, eager to make a good impression.
There was a salad that came with it, all green leaves and olives. The only things I liked were the croutons and the cheese and the blue cheese dressing that came with it. I munched on those while listening to the three of them discuss green cards, work visas and the latest gossip at work. I barely touched the eggplant.
Back at the apartment, all cold and hungry and homesick, I told Ajay I wanted to call up my parents.
“Use the country code 91 then dial your town code without the zero and then your phone no,” he said, handing me the phone.
“Why don’t you do it this once? I am tired,” I said.
“I won’t be here all the time. You need to learn to do this yourself,” he said.
And that is how the 911 incident happened. I dialed 911 instead of 91, realized my mistake and hung up quick.
“What happened? Did you dial 911 instead?” he asked.
“No,” I said, trying not to sound like a simpleton who couldn’t even dial an international phone number.
What I did not know was that the operator on the other end had already picked up the phone. She dialed back our phone number and he picked up.
“Sir, we received a call from this no. Did you or anyone in your household call from this no?” she asked.
“I think my wife may have misdialed while trying to call India,” he said.
“Sir, please put your wife on the line and get off the speaker phone,” she said.
He handed me the phone, “It is for you.”
“Hello,” I said.
“Ma’am, this is the 911 operator. Are you off the speakerphone?” she asked.
“Did you just call 911? Is everything alright?”
“Yes, everything is fine,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“You see, I landed here from India today afternoon and I was trying to call my parents back home. I dialed 911 instead of 91, the international code, by mistake,” I explained.
“Would you like me to send an officer to check on you?” she asked, ignoring my explanation.
“No ma’am, I am fine. There is no need to send someone,” I said, panicking now at the thought of a police officer visiting our apartment at night.
“Ok, you have a good night ma’am,” she said and hung up.
I looked around to see Ajay listening intently to the conversation.
“You dialed 911, didn’t you?” he said.
“Yes, but I hung up as soon as I realized what had happened. How was I to know the call went through?” I said.
“This is not like India. The calls go through quick and everyone has caller-id,” he said.
Five minutes after our conversation, there was a knock on the door. Ajay opened it to find a police officer standing on the doorway.
“Sir, may I speak to the lady of the house?” he said.
I went to the door as he asked Ajay to step back in the other room.
“Ma’am, did you call 911? Are you in need of assistance?” he asked bending down from his 6ft frame.
“I explained to the lady on the phone, I misdialed 911. I was trying to call India, you see and the code begins with 91, followed by the town code, minus the zero and then the home phone number.”
He looked over my head inside the apartment and saw paper buntings on the wall and some rose petals leading to the bedroom. It was his friends’ way of welcoming us back.
“You see, we came back from India today in the afternoon and his friends put all this up,” I tried to explain. I was mortified for the officer to see the blatant suggestion the rose petals were indicating. After 24 hours of air travel that involved crossing two continents and three time zones, I just wanted to curl up in the bed and sleep.
The officer seemed convinced and walked away, talking into his walkie-talkie.
Ajay came out of the room looking worried.
“Is it over?” he asked.
“Yes, I think it is fine. I told him what happened and he seemed convinced. I think these buntings and rose petals your friends put up convinced him finally,” I said.
“I guess we will have to clean it up tomorrow,” he said looking at the mess.
“I can’t believe they sent an officer down to check on me just because I misdialed,” I said, yawning.
“Yes, they will do that. I think you have had enough adventure for the day. I know I have had enough for a lifetime. Let’s go to bed,” he said.
As I climbed into bed, I realized that it was high because I was sleeping on two mattresses and covering myself with a comforter, which was just another word for a blanket which here means a thin coverall. It was cozy though and soon I was drifting off, with dreams of making hot, piping ginger chai in the morning. As soon as I figure out the electric cooktop.