WHEN THE JAL 747 touched the runaway at Los Angeles 20 months ago, my first glimpse of the United States was a rectangle of a smudged sky above and a strip of speckled concrete below. Armed with an Indian passport, a student visa and an admission letter, I had come with a bulky bag of undergraduate dreams. And a small, glitzy packet of preconceived notions, gleaned from Philip Roth or John Updike, from Bruce Springsteen or Sigourney Weaver.
No, I am not a living cliche of immigrant fiction conjured up by Salman Rushdie or V.S. Naipaul. I am not their dark, mysterious stranger staring at the alien sky. Why not call me one of those migrant students, the modern Steppenwolves blown around by an undergraduate idealism. At 23, we are not the dreamers of dreams but the seekers of abstractions.
Innocence, Albert Camus once said, is often called upon to justify itself against the onslaught of reality. As a foreigner in the United States, I have frequently been called upon to explain what I had effortlessly taken for granted.
The discovery of America seems to have gone against me. Thinking that he had stumbled across India, Columbus called the native Americans "Indians." Almost five centuries later, in college library catalogues and glossy tourism brochures, "Indians" here remain the noble savages exterminated in the name of Manifest Destiny.
I have suffered neither the agony of starvation nor the instability of war. I haven't been hounded by left-wing guerrillas or oppressed by tinpot dictators. For that very reason, I am consigned to oblivion.
Were I from China, Nicaragua or Eastern Europe, I would have been more visible, and perhaps, better understood. Maybe microphones would have been thrust under my chin and my clipped accent broadcast to every American living room.
But for me, that's not to be. In fact, I think social well-being is a reasonable price to pay for invisibility.
To be seen at all, I have searched for masks: masks suitable for responding to "take-care," "have-a-nice-weekend." Laughing masks and weeping masks.
I have often felt uncomfortable with the stacks of paper towels on the dinner table. Used to my fingers, I find that knives and forks have become the steel crutches I need for wading through this strange confluence of cultures, mine and the other's. At the market, I stare in admiration as the salesperson runs a packet of frozen french fries over the optical scanner. In that metronomic beep and stutter of the cash register, I hear a deafening discordance. As I trundle the shopping cart to the parking lot, I think about the wizened old man back home who gingerly put the weights on his scale, weighed the potatoes, removed the bad ones, counted the change and talked about his son who was in the village and his wife who had a fever.
I scan newspapers to read about home. But the New World Information Order is nowhere to be found. Except for a two-inch story with a headline about 45 killed in a communal riot, there's nothing. Then there is the language. Suddenly, words become adversaries.
While "streets" in the United States are crowded, the "thoroughfares" in India are "teeming." While a ceiling fan "briskly whirs" in America, it "listlessly drones" in India. While there are "homeless" in America, there are only "destitutes" in India. Even the intrinsic justice of language seems to have failed. Shall I then see the moon through the blackness of my apartment window as a used quarter? That's not my currency. It becomes an American moon.I turn to the bookstore and the library, the sheltered havens. Standing in an aisle, I open the portals to the printed worlds I know, the names I've heard and read. But even books don't always help alleviate the gnawing alienation. I have never met Steinbeck's Tom Joad struggling across the dusty Midwest plains. I have found Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas. But he is a menace flickering on the network news, not the Bigger I had cried for in my attic at home.
At the worst times, the dollar comes to the rescue, and often I have found solace in the green bills. I am still apprehensive as I stand near the vending machine, afraid that my quarters may be gobbled up. I read the instructions, drop in the coins awkwardly and press the knob.
The machine has responded faithfully. No masks required here.
Cards further establish my identity. Looking at the rectangular pieces of plastic, I feel a strange comfort. I know that tucked away in the computers of a credit union or a bank, I have a unique alphanumeric identity. For the first time, numbers breathe and caress. Signing checks has an emotional resonance to it.
The air at social gatherings is different, rarefied, my responsibility immense. I am expected to share in the battle over abortion, and the appeal of Dick Tracy. As I sip a glass of white Zinfandel, I am seen as the representative of more than 800 million people from India -- that huge, second most populous country in the world, where democracy creaks along painfully. Where life, seen through America's lenses, is often a sulphurous farrago of poverty and curry, illiteracy and yoga.
So what if the Indian family is the source of emotional support and inspiration? So what if the tacit Indian laws dictate that the old parents be cared for by their children? So what if the Indian psyche has an inclination to tears, the calling cards of compassion?
These are not salable cliches, and soon I start understanding the rules of the game. I can distinguish Pepsi from Coke, I can point out the salad dressing with the lowest calorie count. I have begun to crawl through the chasm between foreign reality and native truths. Maybe that's the way it is supposed to be. Maybe a constant alienation is a healthy antidote to the threat to individualism in a foreign culture. And maybe, that makes the arduous process of discovery all the more exhilarating.
Raj Kamal Jha is an intern with The Post's Style section.