When my roommate told me a shooting had happened at Virginia Tech, I asked, “At Blacksburg?” He was surprised that I even knew where Virginia Tech was. I do, because friends, immigrants from India like me, went to school there. Many Americans might never have heard of Blacksburg before Cho Seung-Hui emptied his gun into it, but small, leafy university towns like Blacksburg are the portals into the American dream for many of us who come from all over the world to the United States.
The list of the dead brought that home. G.V. Loganathan was a professor from India. Partahi Lumbantoruan hailed from Indonesia. Daniel Perez Cueva came from Peru. Liviu Librescu was a Romanian-born Israeli Holocaust survivor.
Some of their journeys to America might have begun just like mine did, in air-conditioned offices of the United States Education Foundation in sweltering cities, poring over Peterson’s college guide. More often than not, we ended up in small towns like Blacksburg. That’s where we found financial aid and teaching assistantships.
I came to Carbondale, Ill., another leafy small town, the kind of place where you thought nothing bad ever happened. I didn’t think about it then but these small university towns are now international towns. I looked at my alma mater’s website; its picture gallery has an image of an Indian dancer. I remember its grocery store with Indian and Malaysian spices.
I don’t think I appreciated Carbondale as much as I could have. To me, homesick and away from mom’s cooking and my old school friends, Carbondale felt so far away from everything I had ever known. The chicken curry at the local Chinese takeaway just didn’t cut it.
But these small towns are also America’s face to the world.
It’s not just Blacksburg that is reeling now. It’s all these little Blacksburgs across the country, their sense of safety in smithereens. Many commentators have contrasted the attention paid to the 32 killed in Virginia to the hundreds blown up in Iraq that very day. It’s a point well taken—Blacksburg and Baghdad make unlikely sisters in grief. Why, the only orange alert in Blacksburg was probably about fall colors.
This is where our parents felt safe sending us away from the political hotspots of the world where we grew up. Be careful in New York, they’d warn us, we hear about muggings in the subway. In San Francisco there may be earthquakes. But Carbondale sounds safe. Someone’s cousin’s wife’s brother went to school there.
Here’s to the Blacksburgs and Carbondales of America. They provided us homes when we landed jet-lagged, travel weary, knowing no one. Perhaps now it’s our turn to lend a helping hand.