My First Night in the USA

by Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, 1969.  First published in November 2000 in, now at

It was past midnight. The plane circled over Los Angeles on a clear summer night. The lighted city sprawled endlessly. It was the first time I had seen Los Angeles. From the air Los Angeles looked like a fairyland. All I knew about it was that it had been the host city for the Olympic Games in 1932. The lights below gave me the impression of a carnival atmosphere.

After three days of continuous travel in a propeller driven aircraft from Ratmalana, Ceylon, the sight of my destination, where I was to spend the next four years, was comforting and left me impressed with its gigantic size. The excitement of coming halfway around the world to study at the University of California on an athletic scholarship it awarded me, and prepare to compete at the Melbourne Olympic Games, in the most technologically advanced and richest country in the world filled me with pride. I felt privileged.

Before 1 a.m., all passengers were in the air terminal building, claiming their luggage. A fellow traveler from Cairo, returning to the University of Southern California, and his friend who came to meet him, offered to drive me to a hotel. The large airport, the parking lots, and the crowd of busy people gave me an indication of the enormous extent of the area and the hectic life ahead. I was preparing myself for the fast moving life in the United States.

The wide well lit streets; big cars, neat looking, straight edged buildings and houses were my first images. Every intersection had traffic lights. They were blinking yellow or red lights. I did not know the meaning of blinking lights. There were many cars traveling on the street but no honking of horns. I asked my friend why there were so many cars on the street at this hour of the morning. He said it was Saturday night. I did not understand, but I noted a fact, “Saturday nights, too many cars on street.”

I was elated by the Technicolor panorama before me. I was enjoying the ride. Strains of the US national anthem were audible in my mind, but I could not remember the words except that this was the land of the brave and free people. I had listened to the U. S. national anthem played so often in the 1952 Olympic Games that the emotion packed tune and most of the words are ingrained in my brain.

My friend stopped the car in front of a hotel. We got out, took my luggage and went in. All rooms were taken. We repeated this ritual at two other hotels. My Arabian friends asked the desk clerk at the last hotel to turn off the neon vacancy sign. At this late hour desk clerks are tired too, and my friends were not being polite to him. My grandmother used to say Arabs are hot headed people. People act hot headed only when they have something bothering them. I hoped I was not being a burden to them. They were speaking in Arabic and talking angrily. I was determined to get off at the next vacant hotel.

When we saw the vacancy sign, my friend asked me to stay in the car and he went alone into the hotel. He came back smiling. I was relieved. We walked into the lobby, which was empty except for the receptionist behind the desk. I smiled at the receptionist as if I was a guest and he the host. He looked at me, standing still and silent. I said an American “Hi.” He turned to my friend, face twisting and mumbled something. Then he stuttered, out a sentence at my friend, “I thought the room was for you.” I felt cold. My mouth felt dry. I was scared. My friends scolded him. They were angry. The clerk spoke hesitantly. He said, “The other residents will not like him staying here. The management will not allow it. I am only an employee.”

A rude shock was getting home to be stored. I was being denied a room to sleep in because of the colour of my skin. I felt tired. My friends were arguing, but I did not hear what was being said. Suddenly I was a child being scolded for drinking water from the well in the low caste neighbourhood. I did not understand the reason. A man whom my relatives said was a low caste drew water from the well for me to drink. A kind act he was not allowed to do. I could never understand the caste system nor could I understand what was happening to me at that very moment.

I told my friends, “Let us leave,” but they would not. One of them said to the clerk, “Look he is an Indian coming to study at UCLA. Look at his hair, he is not a Negro.” Not a Negro! In 1948 I used to cut my hair short and pretend that I was Harrison Dillard, the gold medalist and the fastest human on earth in 1948. The clerk looked at me and did not know what to make of me. I kept silent.

When I went near the Galle Face hotel, Galle Road entrance, the mob of Sinhalese who had beaten the Satyagrahis and dispersed them, were moving towards Wellawatte beating Tamils and destroying Tamil shops on the way.It was only a few months back that I went to see the Tamil Federal Party’s Satyagraha at the Galle Face esplanade against the “Sinhala Only Bill” that was to be introduced in Parliament.

My two Tamil friends and I went into the Dispensary next to the hotel. We were at the doorway watching the mindless assaults on Tamils. Suddenly a Sinhala man who was beating other Tamils on the road turned and asked us whether we were Tamils.

Fearing injury and death I said, “Nai.” From my accent he suddenly recognized that I was lying. He was angry. Then he smiled. He must have recognized me from my pictures in the newspapers as a High Jumper. He told the proprietor of the Dispensary, who was a Sinhalese, to take me to the back of the shop. He took us and locked us safely in the storeroom.

We talked and reflected on our predicament. For fear of death I denied my culture, ancestry and identity. I tried to pass for a Sinhalese. I felt ashamed. I also reflected on the actions of violent mobs and individuals that would injure or kill a Tamil but spare another Tamil.

I promised myself that I should never deny my cultural heritage even at the point of death. We went to our lodging after the mob moved on causing destruction to Tamil properties and injuring Tamils along the way.

Father Peter Pillai, Rector of St Joseph’s in Colombo, warned me, before I left Colombo, in August 1956, about the discrimination in the South of the United States and asked me to stay away from there. He said California was a better place, but that I must not get discouraged if I was discriminated against. “You are going there to get an education and improve your jumping. Do not be distracted by these problems. They may not discriminate against you because of your hair.”

The clerk shook his head and said, “I am only an employee, the owners and the residents would not like it.” I felt naked in the newly tailored blue suit. The Egyptian put his head close to that of the man and screamed many obscenities. He reminded me of my grandmother when she was angry. The clerk stood still like a slave.

We went back to the car and drove around looking for another place. I was dazed. I was no longer in Los Angeles, but in my village, among the people and their structured caste system which the British broke down legally a long time ago, but which in reality exists openly and proudly in all villages.

The centuries of discrimination that the lower caste people have endured from the high caste is barbaric. Incidents flashed back in my mind. The segregated grave yards and cremation grounds, teashops, residential areas and segregated temples are vestiges of a sick society. I never before was able to feel how it was to be a Pariah. The criminal incidents that took place when a low caste man exercised his legal rights to enter a temple or cremate their dead in public cremation grounds flashed back with new meaning.

I was only a spectator who despised the caste system, but by being a silent observer, I became part of those who condoned the status quo. The talk of elders in the village about “uppity” low caste men rang clearly in my mind. It was painful. I came halfway around the world to learn how a section of Tamil people in my village and in other parts of Ceylon suffer.

We stopped at a place that had no neon signs. The man at the desk, who smelled of liquor, looked me over and said, “The guy who works at the garage would be getting up soon to go to work. You could have his bed. Make sure you don’t disturb the others sleeping in the hallway.” I no longer wanted to be a burden to my friends. I said I would take that bed.

But my friends refused to let me stay at this sordid looking place with people who he said would not hesitate to rob me of all what I had.

I looked around America. My friends at home would not believe it. My only comfort was the recollection of the story of Swami Vivekananda I read in school. When he came to San Francisco for a conference long time ago, he was also refused a place to sleep. He had to sleep on the pavement.

I spent the rest of the dark hours on a couch at the Egyptian friend’s apartment thinking about the caste system, Negroes, life in the United States, and the four years ahead of me. I was like a captain trying to chart my course away from storms. My goal, an education and high jumping! What price a degree!


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