“May I see your papers?” says the man in uniform.
This is my third time. I’m startled to see how normal everyone is, and being the only nervous person in the room is making me more nervous.
“Sorry, we couldn’t clear you. We need you to get authorization from the secondary.”
As we walk down the corridor, I start to feel ashamed. This is my dad’s first time coming to the country his son is supposed to call home for the next four years. And this is definitely not how he was supposed to be welcomed.
The officer instructs us to leave our passports in a box and to take a seat. The place is like a school principal’s room. Everyone waiting was looking at the ground, as though they had been punished by their teachers and made to feel ashamed.
The lady in the navy-blue uniform summons the elderly Indian couple. Along with another officer, she starts interrogating them. One question, two questions, and then a whole lot of questions. The Indian man – who would be as old as my maternal grandfather if he were alive – repeats the same phrases in English that probably someone had made him memorize. The officer starts yelling at the couple.
One of the officers then heatedly orders them to go back to their seats. And they follow the order like guilty sixth-graders.
My father silently watches the drama unfolding. Feeling a sense of unease in his gaze, I keep my hand on his. He promptly faces me and grins as a bead of perspiration rests on the tip of his nose.
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As a child, I used to get sick often, and boy oh boy, did I get a lot of flu shots. My father used to walk me to Ibn Sina Diagnostic Center – a twenty-minute walk from my home – to get the shots.
He used to promise me Pokemon cards under the condition that I wouldn’t make a scene at the doctor’s. To be honest, he was more afraid of needles than I ever was, and so every time I got injected, he used to hold me tightly although my hand never shook. But today as I grabbed his hand compactly, I could feel it trembling.
“Lucy Jones,” The inspector barked. A middle-aged woman approaches the counter. Her face, complemented by the off-white silk top with striking purple, looks like that of someone I saw on TV. “I see that your passport is expired,” said the lady officer in a rather soft voice.
“I completely forgot to renew it. I’m sorry.”
In the midst of the shock from my own personal experience, those words befuddled me. “How could someone coming to the US forget to do that?” I said to myself. My father and I had checked our documents 14 times.
The lady inspector goes inside and comes back with a burgundy passport. “It’s OK, sweetheart. Enjoy your stay,” she says as returns the passport. As Lucy struts past, her suitcase brushes against mine.
The elderly Indian passengers are talking to each other in Hindi. I wished to be alongside them while they were being interrogated. I could’ve used my Bollywood-inspired Hindi skills to help them out. But the tone of the officers at that moment acted as deterrence. So now, a train of negative feelings is hitting me without any signs of stopping for a platform.
I inspect the officers’ name-tags. Caroline and Hemman. Always busy, always in a bad temper – with their colleagues and obviously with the travelers who have the bad fate of being in the same room as them. I wonder if they are the same with their families.
When I was in Grade 5, my school was five blocks away from my father’s workplace. So, rainy weather was an excuse for me to go to his office and use the internet. My home’s internet connection was worse than Walmart’s WiFi when you are 50 yards away from the store. My notebooks used to be covered with pictures of Dragon Ball Z that I downloaded and printed from his computer.
Sometimes when I was furiously going through different tabs, my father’s colleagues would bring me chocolates and pastries. They always used to tell me how comfortable they feel having my father as their colleague. My father almost never spent a weekend with us. If he wanted, he could’ve. But he chose to use the weekend as a window to tour and motivate employees of remote branches.
I went to 21 districts with Baba and, everywhere I went, I was bombarded with “your Baba is a great human” and “I have never loved working with someone as I do with your dad.” I liked listening to praises of my father.
“Mr and Mrs Shukla!” shouted Caroline. She starts inundating them with more questions.
“Sir, do you have a return-ticket?”
“I asked about the return-ticket”
“Sir, do you speak English?”
“Ji…I mean yes.”
Caroline, clearly frustrated, turns her face to Hemman. “The Hindi translator is on a leave; what do we do with them?” says Claire. Hemman then asks about the return-ticket again. More aggressively this time. At the end, the couple is sent back to their seats again. I gently rest my head on Baba’s shoulder.
“Sir, we are sorry to say that we didn’t find enough reason for you to enter the US. Your son is good to go, but you need to go back to Bangladesh.”
I hug my father, crying. And then I wake up from sleep, still crying and still hugging my father.
It was a dream. Our interview isn’t over yet.
“There is another person who shares your name, so the primary couldn’t clear your father,” said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the Primary Screening Booth. I went there to check whether he had sealed my passport.
Turns out, mine wasn’t. Nabil, a Bangladeshi software engineer at Google, had come to pick us up. Mom had called at least 20 people to find someone who would be willing to let us stay in their home before my New Student Orientation (NSO) at Stanford begins. Nabil’s mom and my mom’s cousin were neighbors in Texas.
“Don’t tell Nabil that we were in the secondary,” my dad whispered in my ears as I returned to him.
“Mr Rahman!” shouts Caroline. Thank God, we could speak English. My dad and I take small steps, saying small prayers from the Qur’an.
“What’s the purpose of your visit?”
“To accompany my son. He will study at Stanford from this fall.”
“Show me your return-ticket.”
My father had to answer some very personal questions. But what mattered after all this is that we are now officially allowed to walk out the room. We are free.
We meet Nabil outside Gate 3 of San Francisco International Airport. “Here are some cookies for you. You must be jet-lagged. Let’s go home.” Nabil makes us feel welcome in America after 3 hours of praying that we don’t get deported.
If you’re still scared of little things, how will you live alone?
I like Nabil’s car instantly. The Sparco racing seats add an unorthodox contrast to the high-end luxurious Maybach. Going to his house, he makes us parathas and chicken tikka masala.
“You should become a software engineer at Silicon Valley,” says Baba in a not-so-serious voice. “Nopesie. I am destined to die as a poor physicist,” I reply, laughing. I don’t remember how I fall asleep.
My eyes open wide as I discover myself on a bed that is not mine. I press the light-button on the alabaster Casio W214CH Baba tied on my left hand as I entered through Dhaka Airport. The watch isn’t set. It was drizzling when I fell asleep; now the rain is battering the tilted window.
Someone is walking on the veranda. All I can sense in this jet-black darkness is muffled footsteps, rhythmic and delayed footsteps. My voice jitters as I call, “Baba, baba.” He doesn’t wake up.
A swooshing sound from the slits of the exhaust fan adds to the dramatic effects of the frenzied orchestra of my senses. Nabil was supposed to start for Vancouver at 3 A.M. Maybe he has already left. I call again, “Wake up, Baba! Hey, Baba!”
He answers with his eyes still closed, “What happened?”
“I hear footsteps from outside.”
“Who will walk this late? Go back to sleep.”
“Please wake up, Baba! I’m scared.”
Baba rises up to turn on the light. I jump from the bed and grab my father’s arm. I’m not convinced. “Come let’s see who is walking on the balcony,” says Baba, as though he is the father of a seven-year old who went to sleep watching a horror film.
I tip-toe behind him as he twists the doorknob and steps into the wooden floor. The sound was, unsurprisingly, from the hanging orchid pot that hit the wall. “If you’re still scared of little things, how will you live alone?” Baba asks with a despondent yet strong smile.
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Like a camera, I observe his face but don’t think as I answer, “I don’t want to live alone.”
In the morning, I head to the kitchen to make breakfast for my father and me. At home, my mom never let me cook. With my three-day experience in cooking before boarding the plane, I take out three eggs from the fridge. Egg-fry is the only “dish” I can cook.
The end results: 2/3 eggs I fried had no salt, and 1/3 was burnt. My dad praises the egg-fries, thereby giving me a tremendous boost in self-esteem. We wash our dishes and dry them. Then I teach my father how to call an Uber.
The journey from Santa Clara to Stanford ends in 45 minutes. Two Stanford students help us with the luggage as I say bye to the first female taxi-driver I have ever seen.
Every leaf is as pretty as a flower. The energy of nature lifts up my father. I never realized how coming to Stanford with me would give him a new identity he could be proud of. He is now a Stanford dad.
Baba visits me from Santa Clara every day. Amid the shambolic nature of NSO, I hardly have any time. Sometimes he waits for several hours to meet me for 10 minutes. Every minute I spent with my father was a minute I could have spent with my interesting peers.
On the final day of his visit, Baba calls me to come outside. I was in my first dorm meeting, so leaving that makes me a bit angry. “Here are two plates and a glass for you,” says Baba as he hands over Minnie-Mouse and Finding Nemo utensils. “Don’t ever go to bed hungry. Study hard. Make our sacrifice worth it,” he adds, teary. I hug him once more and watch him get into an Uber.
I haven’t turned off Viber’s setting to save incoming photos. My gallery is now filled with photos of my Dad in San Antonio and New York. He often calls me. And as I’m always doing homework, I do get a little annoyed when he calls me in the middle of my work.
After a week, the day of his departure from the US arrives. He calls me as I was writing an essay. “Love you,” says he. “Hihihi,” I reply while blushing. It sucks to be in the US and not meet my father as he leaves.
As I cut the call, I wonder when I’m going to see him again.
Three months pass by like three weeks.
And all this time, I realize that I hadn’t been just to my father who had travelled 8,000 miles just so that I don’t feel alone in my first few days here. Ironically, that is how I had made him feel.
EDIT 1: Baba doesn’t know I’m coming home on December the 17th. I simply couldn’t let him see the fireworks alone wishing I was there. I worked 12 hours a week and finally earned 2,000 dollars – enough for me to buy a surprise plane-ticket to Dhaka.
And as I board the Airbus A380, I count the number of times I have replayed what his reaction would be two mornings later as he will hear a bell and be compelled to get up from reading the newspaper and listen to me saying these words for the first time in his life:
“I love you, Baba.”
EDIT 2: As I type this, I’m lying in bed, and Baba is snoring next to me hihi.
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