Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A lot of people asked me whether I had a culture shock after coming to US. When I embarked upon JFK, I was amazed to find out that it looked so similar to the airports in India. Shabby walls, streams of people of various nationalities, long winding queues. It took us a good one and a half hour to reach to the immigration window. Once I got out, I was in for a bigger surprise. Everything looked so familiar! The skyscrapers, the potholed pavements with vendors selling their stuff, so many Indians on the street and the streets were equally crowded like that of Esplanade in Kolkata! Hmm, so is this America?

I had to wait for about two hours to get my answer. We built our nest in a small town called Hamden. It’s basic and beautiful at the same time. There weren’t many tall apartments, ours being six-storied is probably the highest in the neighborhood. The supermarkets were close by. All in line: Stop & Shop, Rite Aid, Marshalls at one side, Toys r Us, Wal-Mart, Shaws on the other…you can hardly spot a person on the road. SUVs, trucks and Sedans dot the parking lots. At first, I thought, this place was unique. Deserted with not much of night-life, away from the hustles and bustles of metropolises with a mixture of greenery, water bodies and basic utility stores. Wait until I started traveling. Be it in the East coast or West, Mid-west or South, this is the picture of most of the Americas. It’s so uniquely homogenous, that without the help of a GPS you won’t be able to tell a difference. The same wide lanes, the traffic signals, the directions, the malls, the stores, the houses. Yeah, almost everything.

Then the snow came. And, I got glimpses of first-world efficiency. The highways were quickly cleaned…the routine resumed. I got pretty complacent with my work-home schedule. And that’s not the only thing I got complacent about. I was at ease with my life. Well, yeah, I found a difference. There isn’t any unpredictability here that was so predominant in my life back home. Constant preparation and customization was needed back there but here the whole system is somewhat customized to your routine. Americans did quite a mean job, huh?

Socially, I found it easy to gel with. Everywhere I saw family people, leading lives with spouses, children, dogs or whatever but it’s pretty much the same as we did. They talk about everyday chores, new designs in the boutiques or even of mother-in-law problems. The have the same insecurity about monetary savings or career aspirations etc. People over here also look for romance and commitment and don’t just jump into beds.

Everything fitted in till I started teaching in a public school. In the classroom, I found Asians, Caucasians, Latinos, African-Americans, Mixed-genes and everything that you can imagine. Wow, unity in diversity. No, not much unity though. Sometimes, yeah, but there’s also groupism and an inherent inclination to stick to one’s own kin. But nothing overt. America has taught one thing for sure. Subtlety. There are kids coming from broken homes, having single parent or abusive ones. There are kids from neglected families who are always seeking attention. There are ones with deep-rooted cognitive or psycho-somatic problems. There are one’s who are burdened with budding sexuality and the constant urge to live up to the media-standards, aka Hanna Montana and its likes. Have I seen more diversity in my life??

I found a huge difference in the education system too. In our schools (at least in my time) much stress was given on absorbing information. It was about learning, mugging and replicating to near perfection. True, we felt very knowledgeable but quite didn’t know what to do with so much knowledge. Here, everything is measured to your capacity. You’re given an anecdote but it’s you who has to decode it or analyze it and decide whether you’re up to it or not. Knowledge doesn’t come easy and whatever comes needs to be deeply ingrained. In other words, education is more about concepts here. It’s more about analysis than simulation. This however, makes a huge difference in shaping the overall personality of the students. It pretty much gives them an idea of their reach and capability. And, more importantly their right to choose. Does this make them competitive enough? Or prepared to ambiguity? Groomed to comprehend the vast spectrum of the big, wide world? Am not too sure. But then every country has its own set requirements.

It’s only in one of those days when I catch up with a lonely teenager after class, chatting about his/her insecurities or deliverance that I realize how similar our worlds have been. I used to have exactly the same thoughts and doubts and resolutions when I was a teenager. And, sometime I meet a stranger in a railway station or an airport and we exchange views as easily as we would have been in a busy street corner of Kolkata savoring a perfect, innocent adda (what’s the English equivalent? Chitchat?) and I catch up with an old lady who’s grandchildren are working abroad and have just gifted her a computer to be in touch…And the working mother speeding by to pick up her toddler from school, an adolescent couple walking hand in hand giggling to glory…it’s the same everywhere. Is it not?