I first landed at the Kansas City airport in the wee hours of Jan. 7, 2003. I'd soon be starting university at a small liberal arts school in Kirksville, Mo., a three-hour road journey from Kansas City. It was my first time in the Midwest. It was my first time in America. I was sleep-deprived. The airline had lost my bags. I didn't want to spend money on a hotel room. I'd have to wait at the airport until it was light. The school shuttle was scheduled to pick me up at 11 a.m.
Friends and family in India often asked me why I'd go to the American Midwest for college. My reasons were simple. My high school grades were awful; they'd never get me into a good college in India. I'd Googled some combination of "award-winning+student+newspaper," and Truman State University came up. It was the only school I had looked into. Without letting my parents know, I applied to it and was offered a scholarship.
I told my parents about my plans only after I had been accepted. They were concerned. They would have been fine were I heading to the East or West Coast. They had heard stories — horror stories — about the American Midwest. They claimed these stories became more gruesome the farther you went from a big city. Kirksville was far from any big city — one had to drive an hour and a half to get to an Indian restaurant. My parents were afraid of racism. They were afraid of guns. They were afraid for me. I told them they had nothing to worry about, but 9/11 was still fresh in everyone's mind.
It wasn't Islamic terrorism as much as the treatment of brown-skinned people that caused my family concern. My Hindu parents were afraid I'd be mistaken for a Muslim.
But I was in a college hungry for diversity. Most of my peers were from small-town America, the kind of people who responded to "Do you like Indian food?" with "I've never eaten Indian, but I'd like to try it." Many were the kind who gave you a ride to Wal-Mart and asked that you repay the favor by accompanying them to church next Sunday. Many had never been on a plane. Some had never been outside the state. All were accepting. All were curious. All wanted to know more about other cultures. I showed some of these people how to eat with their fingers.
On our weekly phone calls, my parents often asked about racial discrimination. There's none, I'd say. A few minor incidents had occurred — when a cohort's computer stopped working in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation, she asked me, and no one else in the 30-strong class, if I'd be able to help — but they came from ignorance, not malice. If anything, they were good conversation fodder. Soon, my parents stopped asking me about racism.
My senior year of college, I interviewed for an account executive position at the Olathe Daily News. I'd heard of Olathe, a Kansas City suburb that was safe, wealthy and idyllic. I was happy to start my career there. To celebrate a successful interview, a few friends and I went out. A number of us had just turned 21, so we had started going to bars. I'd graduate soon. I had a well-paying job lined up. Life was great, I reflected, as I ordered another drink.
That's when the comment came. Its source was a tattooed man in shorts. He may have had only half his teeth, but I could be wrong. "[Damn] 9/11 people —what are we doing allowing them in the bar?" he spat out, using an expletive unfit for publication. His friends laughed. My friends were horrified. "Let's leave," someone said. "We are so sorry," another remarked. "Naah. Let's stay," I said. "He's entitled to an opinion. It's not like he will shoot me."
That was 2006, a different time. We were naive. Last week, some maniac in Olathe, the place I was supposed to start my career, killed an Indian thinking he was Middle Eastern. The president of America finally deigned to condemn the incident. In India, we are all pretty shaken. Our worst fears — about our brownness being a liability — have been realized.
A few days ago, I took an international flight. The morning of my journey, I did something I had promised myself I'd never do: I shaved my beard so I wouldn't be mistaken for a Muslim. I felt like a coward, but I shaved. I yearn for an era when I thought racism meant someone asking me if I was good at fixing computers because I was Indian. I yearn for a time when victims of racist comments had the confidence to linger in bars because they were sure no one would shoot them.
Prajwal Parajuly is the author of "Land Where I Flee" and "The Gurkha's Daughter." He lives in New York, London and Kolkata, India.