A Welcome of Sorts: Stranger In a Strange Land

Bindu Desai with colleagues in England (Image provided by Bindu Desai)
Bindu Desai with colleagues in England (Image provided by Bindu Desai)

From April till September 1976, I worked at Newcastle General Hospital in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.

I was a Senior House Officer, the lowest on the totem pole, after having been the Chief Resident of Neurology at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine/North Carolina Baptist Hospital (now known as Wake Forest University School of Medicine), in Winston Salem, N.C.

I had taken up this 6-month stint in England, unsure of my status as a resident in the US which was dependent on the approval of my visa. Thus, I applied for a job at Newcastle General Hospital, having been connected to the head of the Neurology Department, Professor John Walton, by one of my professors in India. His colleague, Dr. Jack Foster, who was in charge of the Neurology ward, wrote back offering a position of Senior House Officer for 6 months to “the young Indian woman of whom you speak of so highly.” 

There I was, flying over the Atlantic to the land that so many I admired had come from – William Shakespeare, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy to name a few. In those days, the baggage allowance for international travel was one suitcase weighing no more than 44 pounds. So I filled my suitcase with clothes and basic toiletries. I planned to purchase more when I got to Newcastle. I had come a day earlier and was housed in a pleasant, many-bedroomed building which was shared by several non-white residents who had come from the far-flung corners of the former empire. There was a large common living-dining area and kitchen. The hospital was across the street on Westgate Road. It was a set of old stone buildings connected by a seemingly endless corridor. After having unpacked, I asked a housekeeper where I could purchase necessities. She suggested a tobacconist’s shop a short walk away. 

I got to the store, made my purchases, and went to the cashier’s area to pay for them. I remember the cashier very well, dressed in a plain light brown frock. She totaled up my purchases and, as she accepted the money I gave her, said clearly and loud enough for me to hear, “Damn black bastards! They’re everywhere!”

I was taken aback. I don’t think I said anything and walked back to the cottage. I had heard from friends and relatives, including my siblings, of the overtly racist comments and behavior that they had experienced in England but I had not expected such a ‘warm welcome’ on my first day in it! Something told me that this was not an isolated incident and I should be prepared for more of them. I sat down at my desk and numbered the days I was to be in England from 180 to 1 and scratched off each day as it passed.

I wrote to my friend, an Irish woman who lived in the US and had trained as a nurse in Dublin and London in the 50s. She wrote back:  “Well ‘black bastard’ now you know how the ‘dirty Irish’ feel!”. I ate at the Junior Doctors Dining Hall and for the 6 months that I was there, not once did a white British doctor sit at our table. The only white people who sat with us were medical students from the US who were doing an elective in Newcastle. It had been the norm for all non-medical staff at the hospital to call us “colored doctors”.

Whenever I took a public bus, a double-decker similar to one I was used to in Bombay, I noticed incoming passengers look to the right and left and go to the upper deck if no other seat except the one next to me was available. I took to walking 3 to 4 miles rather than take the bus.

I found it easier to eat at an expensive restaurant than at a fast-food one, as the rudeness or ‘microaggressions’ were more likely in the latter. 

I began to notice that anytime change was handed to me, the store clerk held the coins carefully so that he or she did not touch the palm of my hand. I wondered if I was becoming paranoid. However, when I returned to the US and the store clerk put coins touching my palm, I knew that the aim of the store clerks in the two countries were different! One wanted to avoid touching me, while the other wanted to ensure the coins were securely placed. 

Once a colleague said to me, ”You speak English very well.” Reflexively I replied, “That is my misfortune!” – Which, in my 6-month stint in England, it certainly seemed to be! 


Bindu Desai is a retired neurologist who in non-Covid times spends 4 months a year in Mumbai. 


 

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