5 Reflections From The India-America Cusp

A week has passed since I returned from a 4-month tour in India — living in Rajasthan and Mumbai, playing the role of Midwestern corn-fed-American-adventuring-in-an-exotic-land. It certainly got an eyebrow raise to say that I was briefly and casually moving to India. And as the sights and sounds and colors and smells still cling to the inside of my mind in that mix of was-that-real-life and is-that-something-that-should-be-filed-and-shelved, here are 5 reflections from a place that different, intimidating and also somehow just like home:

1. America is quiet

The reflections start from the ground, the sounds and sights of the street. I was told prior to arrival that India is loud — that some people even wear ear buds for the noise. And on returning, it strikes me now that America is quiet. No honking, no screeching noises, no rain out the window or waves from the shore or rumble of many conversations happening all around me all at once. I stopped off at the local library, and walking to the well-spaced parking lot, a low hum of cars and rustle of leaves and wind air was all that filled my ears. It is quiet.

And it is empty. I must have developed a standard for how many people should be at an intersection based on its size. Small junctions maybe have a smalls shop or two, perhaps just a portable coconut cart. And it would have a taxi or auto on the curb waiting for a passenger. Yet approaching a large 5-way, fully paved, curbed-lane junction in suburban OH, I was uncomfortable at how few people I found — none sometimes. The instantaneous mental math in my mind was misfiring. It was as if the landscape had been turned upside down and shook until the people and rickshaws, and roadside shops fell off, leaving the pristine and un-dirty curbed, paved, grass covered infrastructure of the place. True, Ohio is pretty sparse. Yet, I also remember (my colleague) Ravdeep commenting on her trip to New York, “It is a wonderful city. It’s so easy to get around. There is so much space.” And my response, “Well, I supposed that is a bit different from the reputation that is has in the US.”

2. Diversity is a home-team sport

The features people impact me next, the diversity, colors, languages, accents. Before leaving for India, I worked in a small room with a diverse community of 5 — two India-natives, one Hong Kong native, one UK native, and me. Diversity right? We would talk about their homes, and there are of course differences, and when we would go out to dinner, the team would disproportionately select Asian restaurants (Japanese, Malaysian). And outside of that, I was in America on my terms, eating my standard Fage Greek-yogurt breakfast and tossed salad lunch.

Something is different about being in a foreign community on somebody else’s terms. I have an accent, not the other way around. I have interesting food preferences. It is my first experience as a minority and my first time to recognize that that territory comes with a different experience. Sometimes it is odd formality — when I enter the security for Phoenix Mall (a selective activity already), the security guard practices his English on me. Sometime it is request — children in the Barmer market run past others to stand next to me and pinch my elbow in request for change. And other times, it is just something that I notice without anyone saying anything — when I rode the Bikaner public bus, and stood squished in the isle way between the other members of the crowd as a single white face. The first thing that I noticed during my Amsterdam layover en route home to the US was all of the many white faces. It is a different feeling. Even back in Mumbai, at Bonobo, an upscale watering hole that is known to be one of many havens for westerners, I was still a significant minority. I would double take at another westerner. “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here? I know what I’m doing here — what are you doing here?”

3. “Long hours” is relative

The activities and time spending patterns come next, and at the expense of sweeping generalizations, people in India work a lot. First, let’s start with the top-flight corporate jobs. In India, Saturday is a work day. Progressive companies have started to adopt “2nd and 4th” policies, meaning that each month, the 2nd and 4th Saturdays are holidays, offering the gift of an extended two day weekend. Sure, weekend work is something in the US, particularly for the employers who are paying for it — it is not the baseline

Second, let’s talk about the rural jobs. For the MBAs in rural management, the schedule is even more grueling — Sushil (colleague) would travel from home for 10 months of the year. He would be permanently away — not that he would skip home on the weekends or every 10 days — but permanently. The travel home in the latest visit in which I saw him off was 40 hour train journey.

Third, let’s move even further to talk about long hours, and talk about the doorman at our Bandra apartment complex. Bandra is a “suburb” town in Mumbai, playing a similar role that Brooklyn Heights plays to Manhattan, just being outside the “proper” island. It is the choice sea-facing ex-British destination in which many expats, Bollywood stars, and Sachin Tendulkar (“the God of cricket) reside. Our night watchman (Shiva) tends to routinely be dosing when I or my roommates arrive, jumping to the occasion as we tap him awake to open the door, join his hands palms together and put his thumbs to his forehead to greet us. Vishnu (my roommate and close friend) learned that he works 24 hours a day — 12 as the night watchman at our building, 12 as the day watchman at another. He sleeps 2–4 hours on the job. He sends over 70% of his paycheck back to support his family in the North West, saving the remainder for food, and cashing the change to fund a 2-week religious-and-tradition based journey each year. And I feel quite lucky to have my hours.

4. Social choices are a privilege

And then I reflect on people’s ideas — what they feel. It is definitely a refresh in my mind of what the scale for social freedom is. If there is any word to wrap up my complete psyche, all the elements of it — it is ‘choice’. I think a lot, sometimes second guess, and most of the time believe in a self-constructed view of the world grounded in the idea that I am master of all my choices.

And then in India, it seems like the socially acceptable list of items available for choice is all mixed up — prominently different are where to live and who to marry (cornerstones of my personal choosing options) are off the table (sometimes)! “I will live in Hyderabad because my family is in Hyderabad” was a statement that a colleague made, happy and confident in the certainty. More than just your home city, it is even off the table to live apart from your family. Another colleague and friend inquired of me one evening (I am paraphrasing based on memory): “So you live in Cleveland? [Yes] And your parents live in Cleveland? [Yes] And you do not live together? [No] And you are not estranged from your family or in a massive disagreement? […No] “And that is what you want to do?” […] “Why?”

However, is it true that because these choices are “off the table” in soliciting options, people are able to commit to them in a way that I suppose I am not hard-wired to do in America? The ability for people to choose what is current and what is the reality, to embrace it, to believe in it, to put themselves into the mindset of having it be their own choice, even if before they know it (either their parents selected a spouse or a genetic act of randomness and selected their birthplace) — it is profound. Is that the essence of making choices? Take marriage — I looked up the stats: 40–50% of marriages in the US end in divorce. Compare that with India in which 1.1% of marriages end in divorce. Are Indians better at “choosing” their spouse — embracing them, sticking with it, believing in it — because of the lack of options? There is more to the whole concept, this touch-and-go example for sure, but still, could Americans take this social mentality to commit to choices and keep it?

5. People are all ‘trying-to-get-along’ ‘have-real-feelings’ people

And finally, thinking of those layers, peeling them back, I perhaps did learn something about what people are underneath. And in my humblest of opinions, it is pretty much the same. There are noises and hard talking business dealers, and still, to my mind, the cores are (to drip with cliché), the same stuff.

Perhaps this came through to me in the most bizarre taxi ride of my India time — a trip from the Delhi railway station to the International airport. As I did not know the terminal, all I shared on the driver’s questioning was ‘Mumbai’ and ‘domestic’. He drove me to the ‘domestic’ terminal 1, old and crumbling, and not flying any flights beyond puddle jumps — the international terminal 3 was the only one offering Mumbai flights, the most common commuter route in India. When we asked him to pull around to the new terminal, he demanded an extra 500 Rs (India rupees, equates to about 8 US dollars and doubles the overall fare). “Kyā bōla rahē haiṁ?” (What are you saying?) I shouted, sure that he was wielding ignorance to squeeze an extra few bucks from an unaware non-local. 3–4 barks later I reluctantly agreed, tight on time notwithstanding haggling delays, and we drove fast down the 400 meter straight freeway to the new terminal, separate from the rest of the airport. And would you believe it — we were pulled over for speeding! On the newest and nicest road that I saw perhaps in all of India, a set of officers set up on the curb flagging cars and taxis over to write out a 400 Rs ticket and squeeze a few extra bucks from unsuspecting drivers. He pulled his license from a hidden compartment in the median near the stick and the registration from under a footpad in the backseat and relaxed his hard and confident face into one of stress and defeat. When he dropped us and asked for the extra 500, it seemed to me not as a demanding faux-public-servant trying to slip extra dollars from my wallet, but rather a man asking for help.

I was told that when I came to India, I would no longer see the world in black and white, but rather in shades of gray. Perhaps this incident is what these people meant? Instead, I see it as the opposite — maybe there are some shades of gray on stuff and activities, and asking for extra Rs and this and that. But when it comes to friendship and confidence and insecurity and doing what you need to do to get along and the bland cliché to treat others as you would treat yourself, my deeper views are as crisp back and white as I have ever thought, and I thank India for that.

Originally published at thoughtcatalog.com on October 14, 2014.

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