I left Bombay (Mumbai) India on Sept 7, 1961 via the Australian Airline Quantas Air. My journey was marked by two noteworthy events. The first occurred before I had even left Mumbai. There were four or five cars in our group going to the airport. Someone had put my bags in a car other than the one I was riding. When I reached airport, I realized that my bags had not been unloaded from the car and that driver had left to bring his fiancée to the airport. There were no cell phones at that time. Everyone anxiously waited for that particular car to return to the airport. We could hear the PA system at the airport announcing over again and again that “Mr. Dinesh Shah, your plane is leaving soon, please get on board!” Finally the car arrived with my bag, and I was the last person to enter the plane before it took off from Mumbai airport!
The second memorable event was occurred on the flight itself. The person sitting next to me was an executive from General Motors who was returning from Australia on a business trip. He was reading the Wall Street Journal. He asked me, “Young man, where are you going?” So I told him that I was going to Columbia University for my Ph.D. degree. He told me “Excellent.” He added, “You are going to a very technically advanced society, we are very efficient in whatever we do!” Then he went back to reading his Wall Street Journal. The air hostess brought a tray with a pot of hot water, a tea bag, sugar packets, and biscuits. In India, we add loose tea leaves to water, boil and then strain it; so I broke the tea bag and dropped the tea leaves into my hot water. I thought that there should be a strainer or some kind of filtering device on the tray. Maybe the air hostess forgot it. So I called her and politely asked for something to filter my tea. She said, “Sir, you were not supposed to break the tea bag, you just drop the whole tea bag in the water!” The GM executive looked at me and said, “Young man, I told you just a few minutes ago that we are very technically advanced society, we designed the tea bag so that tea molecules come out of the bag and you toss away the bag and you do not need any filtering device or a strainer! Just remember, you are going to a scientifically very advanced society.” I removed some of the tea leaves as best as I could with my spoon and added a little milk from a very small plastic cup. However, I needed to add sugar in this tea. So I remembered the advice given to me by the GM executive. I thought that if this society designed the tea bag that allowed tea molecules to come out of the bag, it must have ALSO designed a sugar packet for sugar molecules to come out! So I dropped two whole packets of sugar (wrapper and all) into my tea, but it did not sweeten the tea. My neighbor saw this and said, “Young man, you were supposed to open the sugar packets before pouring the sugar in tea!” I said to him, “You just explained to me that tea molecules come out of the tea bag so I thought that the sugar molecules will come out of the sugar bag!” He said, “Young man, you will need lots of help to survive in the USA.”
In those days, there were no long distance flights, we had to stop in Tehran, Kuwait, Frankfurt and then London. The last non-stop leg was from London to Idlewild (JFK) airport in New York City. I arrived at JFK airport totally exhausted nearly after two days of flying time and not knowing how to reach to Columbia University from the airport! To my most pleasant surprise, as I came out, there was a desk for foreign students. A volunteer American student gave me a ticket to go to Port Authority Bus Terminal by bus. I did not have any dollars, I had only rupees in my pocket. No one told me that I should have converted some rupees in dollars at Mumbai Airport. I had no idea that rupees had no value outside India! To explain my situation, I have to mention that I was brought up in a small rural town, Kapadwanj in Gujarat State and I did not have sharpness or smartness of urban students. I was “Mr. Simpleton” totally unfamiliar with outside world. All I had was a dream to earn a Ph.D. degree from an excellent university in the USA and then return home to become a good professor and do good research! So when I got the admission for Ph.D. program in Biophysics and a promise of some part time work in a laboratory from Columbia University in New York City, I borrowed some funds from relatives and family friends and obtained an Educational grant for travel and one semester’s fees and decided to come to USA. I had lot of anxiety, tension, and frankly was scared to enter the United States with totally unknown future in a totally new society. I blessed from my heart the student who paid for my bus ride and called another volunteer that I was on the way to Port Authority bus terminal. When I reached to Port Authority Bus Terminal, another American student met me and took me to the right platform of bus to go to Morristown, NJ.
I was supposed to stay for four days with an American family as a part of a home-hospitality program arranged by some churches to help foreign students get familiar with the American culture and life style. I reached Morristown, N.J. at 9pm at night. It was dark and I did not know how I was going to find this host family and reach to their address? To add to the confusion, my bus ride was not very pleasant! A drunk person of about fifty years of age sat next to me and started asking me all types of questions including whether I would like to meet girls, etc.! The other people in the bus laughed at his loud questions. Coming from a country where prohibition was the law, I had never seen a drunk person in my life! However, other people had recognized that he was drunk! He even asked me to get down with him at some intermediate bus stop. I politely refused his suggestion. This was also for the first time I saw a black person in my life. In India, I had not seen anyone of African origin. I also noticed that they were doing most of the labor type jobs. Frankly, I was overwhelmed and wondering how I would survive in this totally strange place?
Again, to my surprise, the American family was waiting at the bus stop for me! I did not know how they knew that I was going to be on this bus! Later on, they told me that the student at the Port Authority Bus terminal called to inform them that I was on my way to Morristown and gave them my arrival time.
I reached to my host’s home and slept soundly after my two days of exhausting travel and experiences. The next morning, I interacted with my host and explained to them about my vegetarian meals. They had no idea what to feed me!! When I completed my first year, they wrote me a nice letter saying, “Congratulations that you have completed your first year! We were sure that you would return home within the year!”
I must say that I initially felt like a fish out of water! I did not like boiled carrots, peas, or grilled cheese in place of Daal, Bhaat, Rotli and Shaak. When I review my life of the past 53 years in USA, I do feel that some American friends would say “You have come a long way, baby! ”
Dinesh O. Shah, Ph.D.
The First Charles Stokes Professor of Chemical Engineering and Anesthesiology
University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 32608 USA