Scoundrel Time

How to Become American

  1. Watch Friends.
  2. Try saying “kʰə̃nt” instead of “kɑːnt”. 
  3. At dawn, draw a new Rangoli pattern on the threshold of your home in Old Hyderabad. Dry rice flour on damp terracotta tile, it shoots outwards in sinuous symmetry, reaching for the city, its crowded buses, four-hundred-year-old Charminar and four-year-old HITEC City. 
  4. After sunrise, ask Amma to oil your hair. Cool balcony tile, warm sunshine, warm coconut oil, Amma’s warm fingers.
  5. In the afternoon, stare out the window from the twentieth floor of the Cyber Gateway building. Skyscrapers in the foreground, the Hyderabad of your childhood in the background. Short cubicle. Long email from manager. Status update? 
  6. In the evening, shop for glass bangles at Laad Bazaar. Your wrists don’t need the bangles, but your eyes need the colors. Henna green. Turmeric yellow. Vermillion Red. Peacock blue. Run into Professor Naidu, your poetry teacher, calmly sipping on Irani chai. Tell him about the product launch you led last month. Watch him lose interest. Do you still read Sri Sri?
  7. At dusk, eat the fluffy, perforated dosa that Amma places gently on your plate as the fragrance of fermentation floats about you. Watch Daddy sprinkle Amma’s freshly ground sesame powder on the dosa in his usual precise manner. 
  8. At night, re-read మహాప్రస్థానం (Mahaa Prasthaanam). Make a list of things that keep you up at night:
    1. Sri Sri’s poems
    2. June jasmine
    3. Zuhaib’s voice 
  9. Open an envelope with a red, white, and blue border. Miss Lakshmi Rao: We are pleased to inform you that you have been admitted to the doctoral program in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington.
  10. Meet Zuhaib and show him your list of unexpected upsides of long-distance relationships. Read me some Sri Sri. He smiles, but his eyes don’t partake. 
  11. Celebrate the arrival of your F-1 visa. It comes with something called an Alien Number. A-67290127.

  12. Look out the window on a September morning, unsure if it is day or night, skeptical of golden leaves on aspen trees.
  13. At Bed Bath & Beyond, discover kitchen appliances you did not know people needed. Wonder why an avocado, whatever that is, needs a special slicer.
  14. Buy an avocado slicer.
  15. Start putting avocado in everything you eat.
  16. Get complimented for your English at Walmart. 
  17. Start year one of the doctoral program. Overdress for orientation day. 
  18. Get addicted to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
  19. Get sick of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
  20. Listen to expressions like “home run” and “teed up” and pretend you understand them. 
  21. Learn what these phrases mean and try them on immigrants newer than you.
  22. Pass qualifying exam in your second year.
  23. Visit Museum of Native American History in your third year.
  24. Submit dissertation proposal in your fourth year.
  25. Visit Civil Rights Museum in your fifth year.
  26. Defend dissertation in your sixth year. Modernistic Portrayals of Resilience and Dignity: Exploring Ordinary Lives in Sri Sri’s Free Verse Poetry. Call Amma and Daddy at 3 a.m. India time. Doctor Rao, their voices quiver. 
  27. Get an offer letter from the University of Illinois. 
  28. Apply for OPT, apply for EAD, apply for H1-B. Look up your case status online every morning using your Alien number.
  29. Open a wedding invitation on WhatsApp. Maroon background, gold letters. We request your gracious presence at the wedding of Zuhaib Khan and Sakeena Abbas.
  30. Tell your hiker-biker-Mount-Rainier-loving neighbor about your new job. Why Illinois? he asks. Realize that you did not choose Washington. And that you are not choosing Illinois. Immigrants go where they need to be for so long, they forget to ask—where do I want to be?
  31. Google “How to use a snow shovel”.

  32. Allow sprawling, dancing corn fields to welcome you to a second, second home.
  33. Teach ENG 372 World Poetry. Add Sri Sri to the syllabus. Wonder why you smell jasmine in the classroom every time a student asks, What does Maha Prasthaanam mean? 
  34. Find out one morning twelve years later while shoveling your driveway—you are a pro at this point—that you are eligible to apply for citizenship.
  35. Make a list of things you love about America:
    1. Apple pie
    2. Chinatowns
    3. Avocado toast
    4. Amtrak
    5. Emma Lazarus
    6. Redwood National Park
    7. A relentless rejection of the status quo
  36. Make a list of things you don’t love about America and keep this list private. Irreverence is an indulgence immigrants can afford only in tiny doses.
  37. Apply for citizenship. 
  38. Throw a Fourth of July party. Invite your American friends and soon-to-become-American friends.
  39. Don’t invite your immigrant friend who applied for an F1 visa, then a CPT, then an OPT, an EAD, an H1-B (not picked in lottery), another H1-B (not picked in lottery), another H1-B (picked in lottery), but by then decided to go back to India. Don’t invite your undocumented friend who hasn’t seen his sister in fourteen years.
  40. Ace the civics test at your citizenship interview. It is much easier to know that there are 435 members of the House of Representatives than to know if you are ready to give up your right to vote again in an Indian election.
  41. Pass the English test. Hear the USCIS officer say, You will have three chances to write one sentence in English correctly . 
  42. Raise your right hand and recite the Oath of Allegiance. You have to say all of it if you want citizenship. Here’s a tip: You can say some parts loud and some parts less loud.

    “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

  43. Drive home.
  44. Toast two slices of sourdough.
  45. Spread Land O’ Lakes butter on the first.
  46. Add a slice of Pepper Jack. 
  47. Find the avocado slicer. Stack avocado crescent moons on Pepper Jack sky.
  48. Sprinkle Amma’s sesame powder on the second slice. It looks like Rangoli on terracotta tile, stardust in the night sky, breadcrumbs in the forest.
  49. Assemble sandwich.
  50. Watch Friends.


Aravinda Garimella is an emerging writer of short fiction. She resides in Champaign and is a faculty member at the University of Illinois where she teaches and conducts research on how interaction with technology shapes individual and societal behavior. Her stories speak to the essence of home and belonging – a theme close to her heart as an immigrant from South India. This is her first literary publication. 


Image by: Aravinda Garimella