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American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf in DC: A Memoir
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It was a crisp fall day when the TWA plane I had boarded in London landed at Dulles Airport in Virginia. I had a splitting headache and the bright fall sun made my eyes water. I lined up behind other passengers for customs and immigration checks. I was not sure what lay ahead, and in order to avoid making any mistake, I looked around for any instructions on how to go through immigration. There were none. A lady with a clipboard caught my attention. She would look at her clipboard and shout something as she scanned the passengers in the line. I decided to go read for myself what she was telling us. After gesturing to the passenger behind me to watch my attaché case and bag, I walked to where the lady stood. I maneuvered behind her and looked at her clipboard. It was a list of passengers, and I saw my name encircled in red ink with the word “DEAF” written next to it. I tapped the woman and pointed at my name. She looked relieved. Apparently she was yelling my name in the hope that the deaf guy would hear her.

She was of great help. After learning that I could not lipread, she used a pencil and paper to tell me that she was going to help me go through immigration and customs. I didn’t have to stand in the line. Deafness has its advantage. She took me to a closed counter and talked to the supervisor, who looked through my passport and stamped it with a smile. I thought about the rude, slow, and unfriendly immigration personnel I had dealt with in New Delhi compared to their U.S. counterparts. The efficiency, friendliness, and the “may I help you?” attitude were simply overwhelming.

Then she took me to the baggage claim area. The luggage carousel fascinated me. Bags of all shapes and sizes were going around and around and people were picking up their bags. There were no coolies—the ever present laborers who carried bags in India. Americans seem to do all their work themselves. We waited for my little bag to make its appearance. Finally the carousel stopped, and I learned that my bag was still somewhere between India and the United States. With the clipboard lady’s help, I filled out the forms they gave us, picked up my tote bag and small attaché case, and walked outside. I paid $2.50 to the driver of the airport bus that was to take me to Washington, DC.

Up until then, my vision of America consisted of cowboys trotting on their sorrels and pintos through the purple sage and mesquite. I also had seen some movies starring Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and others riding fast horses, shooting guns, cleaning up towns of black-hatted bad guys, and riding into the sunset for yet another adventure. The lush Virginia countryside along the Dulles access road was very different than the America I had envisioned. Imagine my disappointment at not seeing any cowboys or horses. There were, however, more important things to worry about, and I decided to forget the missing cowboys and horses for now.

I had about $43 in my pocket, two pairs of clothes, a pair of shoes, and the clothes on my back. I didn’t know anyone in the whole country and didn’t even have a letter of introduction. There was little or no hope in my mind of getting the bag containing all my worldly possessions—two suits, four shirts and four pairs of pants, underwear, and socks. A few gifts for people who might help me completed the contents of my small bag. It was all gone.

The bus dropped me at 12th Street, NW. And now I faced the problem of getting to Gallaudet. I tried to talk to people like I always did in India but found no one understood me. A huge black porter was helpful. He asked me to write. In the past, hearing people had always written to me and I always responded with my voice because I was understood. I never had to write to express myself. This was a new experience. My speech was not good in America! I had never heard English spoken, especially by an American; therefore I had no idea, and still do not, how Americans speak. My heavy Gagret accent had made my speech unintelligible in America.

The cab driver and the porter didn’t know where Gallaudet College was. I gave them the address and the cab driver shook his head and drove away after taking a look at it. Apparently, Gallaudet College was not situated in an area that cab drivers liked to go. The helpful porter made getting the cab for me his personal mission. He waved for another and talked to the cab driver who opened the back door for me. As the cab drove, I noticed the difference between Indian and American cabs and drivers. The driver sat relaxed and used the index finger of his right hand to steer. I didn’t know about power steering, so I wondered how strong his index finger was. As he stopped at a light and then started again, I was puzzled, as he never shifted gears. I craned my head and noticed there was no clutch, either. American cars and drivers were funny, I thought.

I had practiced the American Manual Alphabet on the airplane and felt very comfortable with the speed I could spell. I was confident that I would be able to communicate with American deaf people easily and flexed my fingers.

The cab entered Gallaudet campus and the cab driver stopped in front of a huge building, which I later learned was College Hall. I saw about thirty students milling around, signing to each other with the speed of lightning. The cabdriver asked me where I wanted to get off. I told him this place would be fine and got out. I stood there with the Air India handbag at my feet and gaped at the students walking and running around signing so animatedly. I could not understand even one word. I decided to keep my knowledge of the American Manual Alphabet a secret.

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