Coming to America


Photo by Birney Imes.

Story Jiben Roy

It rarely snows in Columbus.

However, it did one December morning about five years ago. The phone rang. All classes were cancelled. Guddu, my youngest daughter, and I went out in the yard and threw snowballs. She made a snowman.

Compared with my childhood in Bangladesh, Guddu leads an idyllic existence. The schools are good and she can go to an amusement park, eat in a restaurant or go to friend’s house for a sleepover.

I grew up in a village where bullock carts used to drive over the earthen main road. Walking was the main transportation, sometimes five to 10 miles, and trains were available for distant destinations.

While at village middle school, I came to know the name America — a country known to us at that time as a heaven on earth. Is there any way I can go to the U.S.? My daydreams started.

I read newspapers whenever I could get them. I still remember headlines such as “America bombs Vietnam.”

What was that war for? Why that war? I had no idea. One time I saw a picture where a naked child along with others was running for her life because of napalm bombs. Such a powerful photograph. Later, I heard that this picture won a Pulitzer Prize. What ever happened to that little girl? Decades later, I learned she had become a middle-aged woman and was living in the U.S.

After Bangladesh became an independent country in 1971, my classmates started receiving scholarships in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. I didn’t even apply.

After completing undergraduate work at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, I applied to a few universities in Canada and the U.S. for my post-graduate studies.

One fine morning in 1979, I received a letter from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, offering full financial assistance. I accepted the offer. That first summer there, I paid $100 for a Greyhound ticket that would give me unlimited travel in Canada and the U.S.

I realized my American dream when I stepped off the bus in Fargo, North Dakota, in the summer of 1980.

After receiving my Ph.D. in Canada, I left snowy Saskatchewan and landed in paradise at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. After a year there I returned to my homeland. Over the next 16 years our family of five lived in Australia and Bangladesh.

My first exposure to this country came as an era of upheaval was ending. An American had landed on the moon. American scientists were winning Nobel Prizes one after another. A native of my Bangladesh designed the Sears Tower. Vietnam was coming to an end. Nixon resigned. Sri Chinmoy became a meditation guru. So many things had happened and these were all in the U.S.

Most importantly, I saw how America provides unimaginable freedom. I was fascinated when I walked into the office of a colleague at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and there was a huge painting of Karl Marx on his wall.

He was doing his dissertation on Marx. Living in a capitalist country and doing research on Marxism; that’s what I call freedom in America.

Years later when we were living in Bangladesh, I asked my daughters where they would want to live, Bangladesh, Australia or any other country?

“The U.S.,” they replied without hesitation.

So I started looking for a job in the U.S. and it clicked in 2001. I was offered a teaching job in West Virginia after a 45-minute phone interview. Unbelievable, indeed!

After a 24-hour-long flight, we landed West Virginia one evening in the month of October. We were singing, “Country road, take us to our naturalized home.”