You’ve come to America to get a masters or Ph.D. You’ve been in the Los Angeles area for a year now. How long can you survive on some Indian guy giving you a ride to Artesia—Little India with its sari shops and real masala chai? (You don’t particularly like the guy, but he has got a secondhand red Nissan that has broken down only twice recently).
You envy all those American women applying make-up and eating while driving. For them, it seems like a birthright, almost as easy as breathing. All those people staring when you wheel the grocery cart, clickety-clack on the pavement—and Pavillions or Ralphs do not even have chapatis. Tortillas are a poor substitute. You rather like Hawaiian bread; maybe in time you will salivate thinking of smoked salmon. But now you are vegetarian, and you need to be mobile, learn to drive.
Get the number for Sincere Driving School. It is the cheapest: $38 for two hours. You call.
A guy will answer: “Yes, automatic. No problem, pay at the beginning of class.”
You agree. You have no choice. Other foreign students tell you he shouts. No “thank you m’am, have a nice day” here, but he is the cheapest, and at $900 a month grad school stipend you better not fuss. Unlike your American classmates, your parents are not going to buy you a car—forget secondhand, not even hundredth-hand. It was hard enough getting the $750 and the one way plane ticket for you on Singapore Airlines plus $20 at the airport. For that your father took a loan from his Provident Fund. But then you were the lucky one—Indian middle-class—and yes, your parents were sending a girl to America for higher studies—and she was not even married. What did all the neighbors think? They thought: Girl, 20-plus, and her parents are sending her off for her Ph.D. What about finding a suitable boy, have they gone mad?)
Go down and wait for the guy from Sincere Driving School. You don’t have a cell phone. No one has a cell phone. This is the late ’80s or early ’90s. Look at your watch—ten minutes late. Maybe he had said Thursday; you had understood it as Tuesday. Or you confirmed Tuesday, and he understood Thursday. Accents are a problem. (All Americans say you have an accent. What about that Boston classmate? You only catch alternate words when she speaks. And that guy from Texas who tells you your accent is—appearing or disappearing?—you’re not sure which one he is saying. And his voice sounds like water through an old pipe, pulling the words along.)
Your $10 Casio watch bought at Longs Drugstore may lose two minutes, but not 30. Just then a white car pulls up. In India there are Fiats, Ambassadors, and Maruti’s—three cars, you can identify one from the other. Now here they have Toyotas, Nissans, Hondas—and those three American brands—Ford, Chrysler, GM—each with an array of cars. More complex than the multidimensional tensor matrices that you’re learning in applied mathematics.
A chubby, middle-aged Chinese man gets up and opens the door. “You student—sit this side. Adjust mirrors. Hands at 2 o’clock, 10 o’clock on wheel. Here—automatic transmission. OK, now we start.”
You have worn jeans and a loose fitting top. Did not know what to expect. Two hours in a car alone with a man. You did not want him viewing your legs, only your driving. This man seems decent. His English is broken, but he seems nice. Relief runs through you.
Start out slowly. Look in the rearview mirror at what is behind. Don’t hit the old woman walking her dog across the street. You press the accelerator, start to reverse.
“Not so fast.” His voice rises like a rocket as he jams his dual control break.
Now you are on the main road. It’s 10 a.m. You should be in the lab doing research, but you’ll make up time by working late at night—streaking bacteria on petri dishes, extracting plasmid DNA.
The road is clear. You should get extra credit. You even check the rearview mirror. You press the accelerator again. Yes, you are finally in control. The road respects you.
“You not in India, in America,” he thunders as he grabs the steering wheel.
You are doing fine, driving well—and there are not many cars on the road. What is his problem, you wonder? He grabs the steering wheel and from the passenger seat he parks the car. You exhale a breath. It’s like pre-exam tension. Then it flashes like a solution to a trick question. Oh yes, you were driving on the left side of the road, and left is not right in the U.S. His forehead is crusted with pearls of sweat, and you wonder if it is you or the LA heat. Of course you do not ask.
While doing a lane change, when you almost run over a cyclist on the bicycle lane, he explodes like a firecracker. You are thankful he calls you names in Chinese, a language you do not understand. Then he makes you drive to Arcadia. He asks you to park at a corner where there is no car close by. He does not trust you yet. Leaves to get a glass of water at a relative’s house. You wonder if this is part of the two hours.
He comes out. Now he ups the difficulty and tries to make you parallel park on a quiet side street. Yes, you’ve mastered parallel lines. You even know a bit of non Euclidean geometry. But all your understanding of equations and parabolic curves doesn’t help.
He tells you, “You—public transport. No drive.”
You hold back tears. Maybe driving was not in your DNA, dammit! He pulls up near your dorm. You get up to leave.
He shouts, “Thursday, again come. This time on freeway.”
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a graduate of IIT-Bombay and Caltech University. She is a senior scientist in biotech in the San Francisco Bay Area who also writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Roopa was a finalist for the PEN Rosenthal emerging writers fellowship in 2004.