Sunday, April 22, 2012

Nationality - Lines on the earth, lines in our minds - I

This train of thought has been inspired by various personal observations over the years, news from various media, politics and some novels.
The English Patient - One of the chief characters, Count Ladislaus de Almasy, considers himself a man without national boundaries
The Namesake - a touching story of an Indian immigrant family in the United States

(Both of the above novels have been made into acclaimed movies)
and a subscription mail from another blogger who decided to become a US citizen.
Those of us who have lived in more than one country, called more than one place home, know exactly the pull of different directions on our hearts - from the country of birth as well as our country of 

The First Few Years, Initial Impressions of the United States of America
When I initially landed in the United States, I was floored by the neatness and systematic nature of everything - right from the roads to the malls, restaurants, parking lots and the disciplined sense of traffic on clearly marked lanes. I marveled at the planned manner in which even interstates had numbers and cities/attractions, exits and rest areas were clearly marked and the way driving tests were administered. The absence of corruption from everyday life was a great source (and still is) of admiration.
This is the honeymoon phase. The phase when everything around you seems bathed in a halo of light from paradise. I am not saying that I was so gullible as to believe that there was no crime or poverty or any other problem in the US (after all, I had seen television documentaries on serial killers in America).
However, in general, the attitudes of people and their way of life were, and still are, enchanting.
For the record,  I come not from some podunk, underdeveloped Third World area but from a bustling metropolis, Mumbai, in India. This is a major Asian city and sea port, complete with the stock market, Bollywood, fashion, Miss India contests, newspapers and publishing, banking and corporate offices of a number of companies spread out across various sectors.
Mumbai represents the microcosm of what America represents to the world. People come here (and to other Indian cities such as Bangalore) in search of opportunity, which, in turn, will propel them towards greater personal freedom.
Young graduates from smaller towns come here in search of jobs and get exposed to people from other parts of India, the latest fashions, restaurants, coffee shops, even nightclubs and also sometimes meet their significant other, rather than just stay home in their small towns and settle into an arranged marriage.
Unlike small towns, people have the freedom to dress as they please without being ogled at or sometimes even harassed and live without caring all the time about what the neighbors will think of them.
Disposable income enables them to buy everything from cell phones to television sets and if they earn enough and invest wisely, a flat and a car.
I guess this may be the case with many big cities in the world.
Yet, apart from the malls and McDonald's outlets, there is still a sense of chaos and dirt in Indian cities. Due to overcrowding in cities where people in white collar jobs have to absolutely reside if they wish to move up in their careers, pollution, traffic and waste choke the joy out of a daily peaceful existence. Most have to endure long, harrowing commutes in jam-packed trains and buses or inhale toxic fumes on snail-paced busy roads, leaving little time or opportunity to enjoy nature and outdoor activities.
There is a sense of everything being difficult, some of it due to facts, and I suspect some of it being due to perception, from registering to vote to paying a traffic ticket to, heck, driving from place A to B or finding a clean restroom where there are no malls and fancy restaurants or coffee shops. I had written about the blessing of malls in this respect a few years ago in this post, "Malls and Loos".
Some other bloggers such as Rajeev Srinivasan had mentioned the relative difficulty of daily life in India (sorry, can't find the exact blog post).
And, no matter where you live in India, I still cannot escape the feeling that there is a stifling lack of individual freedom. This is not due to legal or constitutional factors. It is a social construct that has been passed from ancient times but has, of course, changed and become more liberal with modern times.
However, the pressure to marry a person approved by one's parents at the right age, or dressing in a certain manner, or finding a secure job, still remains.
The difference is that younger Indians are more likely to aggressively pursue higher education and a well-paying job and they are also more open to travel, luxury, eating out and the pleasures of life as compared to past generations.
There is also idealism in them as seen by the reaction to Anna Hazare or the candlelit vigils demanding justice for Jessica Lall.
There are also more love marriages, especially in urban areas and Indian models and designers have carved out a niche internationally.
Okay, I have summed up some of the positives and negatives of living in India, not from a superficial, touristy stand point, but from the perspective of the average, aspirational citizen.
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Now, onto the land of the free and the home of the brave as the US National Anthem goes...
America always held a strange appeal for me when I was younger but I never really thought that I would make it my home. Reading about the various interdisciplinary fields and research opportunities in US universities in my Saturday Times of India,  I was fascinated by the fact that one could combine one's interests in different fields, pursue an area of interest not just for the money and expand one's horizons in so many ways. I had a vague sense of America being the land of opportunity.
I had heard about the 'dignity of labor' in America, about how a student at a top college could work as a waiter or dishwasher in a restaurant and not think of such work as below him or her or be perceived by others as somehow inferior.
I knew little about American society or American politics except that they had a different kind of democracy from India's, and that it was a lot more socially liberal than India, just like other 'Western' countries.
It is funny how we lump all Western countries into one and all Eastern countries into another, and, perhaps, African nations, Middle Eastern nations, etc., not realizing the various nuances and glaring differences in their political systems, economies and cultures.
We did study a bit about the American War of Independence and The Declaration of Independence in high school and chapters pertaining to slavery and works by Mark Twain (if I remember correctly).
And popular culture in the form of Hollywood movies, TV series and American novels such as Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and Archie comics were part of my life.
Coming from an English medium educational background, adjusting to life in an English-speaking country was fairly easy, barring the initial difficulty in understanding the American accent as opposed to India's British English and pronouncing words in a way that the average American did not go, "What's that?"
Note, for example, the difference in which the word, 'mandatory' is pronounced in the US and outside.
Or the more well known 'schedule' pronounced with an 'sh' in British English and 'sk' in American English.
Or the noun form of 'record'. The Brits pronounce both the noun and verb form in a similar fashion whereas the Americans pronounce the noun form differently. You can refer to for phonetic details.
Americans also roll their 'r's a lot more and soften their 't's as compared to the British.
There is also the difference in spellings between US English and British English such as 'traveling' (US English) and 'travelling' (UK English) and 'honor, flavor, color, tire' (US) and 'honour, flavour, colour, tyre' (UK). US English does not differentiate between the verb and noun forms of 'practice' so there is no verb, 'practise'.
The linguistic adaptation was relatively easy as compared with someone not fluent in English. Overall, the American manner of everyday speech is simple and easy to understand and I felt, even somewhat casual.
One of the facts that strikes you the most is the adherence to law and order and rules here.
People generally follow the rules, whether it is stopping at a 'Stop' sign (trust me, I hadn't seen Stop or Yield signs in India with their transnationally understood octagonal and triangular signs respectively or even heard of them), or signaling to change lanes or dumping garbage in the designated bins.
Live and let live
These are minor when you compare it to the big issues that can really make or break a democratic society.
For example, a person who has never traveled out of a developing or underdeveloped nation or a country with strong religious factions may believe that all Westerners are ultra liberal and do not care much for personal morals such as dressing modestly or respect marriage or religion.
While it is true that one can generally wear what one wants and live with whoever one pleases, America has rules and cultural taboos, too. For example, one cannot streak across the street naked unless you are at a nudist beach and, in the past, most people disapproved of homosexuality. Even today, there is a section of the population for whom homosexuality is a strict no. In general, people have become more accepting of different sexual orientations and even alternate relationship models such as polyamory.
Premarital sex and living together before marriage used to be more of a taboo long ago. And, yes, cheating on your partner and having extra-marital affairs is not cool anywhere.
Did you know that both adultery and homosexuality were punishable offenses in the US a few decades ago and adultery is still so in some states as shown by this Wikipedia article? As for India, there are some archaic laws regarding adultery dating back to the Victorian era probably because no one bothered to amend the Constitution or penal code. Thanks to the efforts of India's progressive citizens and the judiciary, some of them have been repealed, for example, the law against homosexual acts was repealed in 2009.
True, there are stray incidents in the US such as violence against gays. The Mathew Shepard story is one such example. Sometimes, gay teens still get bullied in school and this has led to some tragic suicides.
For all its liberties, America has a right wing, too. 
Women who sleep around are still called 'sluts' and 'whores'. The right wing radio pundit, Rush Limbaugh, got into a lot of hot water after he referred to women using contraceptives as 'sluts'.
And, when strip clubs were opened in some parts of America, there was opposition from the more traditional populace. Today, the grounds for opposition are less clothed in morality and more related to matters such as fears of a higher crime rate as seen here and here.
The difference, though, is that in America, you just can't break the law and get away with it. You will get prosecuted within a reasonable time frame. If citizens do not agree with a law, they campaign against it and work to overturn it. 
Secondly, you can say what you want. The left and the right wing make all sorts of comments but no one can haul you to court because everyone accepts that free speech is sacred. You can yap all you please, but if other people stop talking to you after that, it is your problem.
What I truly admire about the American people is that everyone here is left in peace to live their lives as long as they are not breaking the law. 
Compare that to India where we have a gem of a Constitution and probably most if not all the liberties enshrined in the US Constitution (archaic laws related to homosexuality and adultery were/are still unfortunately on the books passed down from the days of the British Empire) BUT in practice, any political party can run amok.
The main difference between India and the US is not the spirit of the law, rather, its implementation.
Over the last few decades, we had right wing parties such as the RSS and Shiv Sena and their affiliates or emulators telling girls they should not wear jeans and go to night clubs, sometimes physically obstructing business establishments, without any regard for individual rights. 
What is even more depressing is that many Indians actually support such actions in the name of defending Indian 'culture'. Culture can never be forced down anyone's throat and democracy can never mature and progress without individual liberty. Most importantly, cultures change, they evolve.
What such parties do not understand is that Indians living abroad maintain their culture and traditions very well. For example, many of us wear cute tops, jeans and skirts and occasionally go to clubs here but also celebrate Navratri and Diwali and wear salwar kameezes and bindis and host Indian dinner parties complete with samosas, gajar ka halwa and medu wadas. Heck, there are Indian associations for various linguistic groups such as Tamil Mandrams, Malayali Samajams and Maharashtrian ones.
Some Indians actively participate in classical music recitals and Bharatnatyam performances, too. Indian maestros tour the US and other countries, attracting a loyal fan following.
The sheer ease of daily life  
Daily life is just too easy in the US if you compare it with India. Consider renting an apartment. In America, you look it up on the Internet, talk to the apartment office, take a tour, sign the lease and make whatever payments are necessary. You'll get your own space complete with dishwasher, stove, refrigerator, running water, electricity, a decent bathroom, mostly even a washer and dryer. 
Call the cable company for your Internet and TV and you are ready to settle in.
In India, well, life is a little more complicated. True, you have real estate agents and local cable operators who are kind of middlemen rather than service providers but, sometimes, you have to haggle with them and you don't get so many amenities in a flat.
There are places where you still have water cuts, power cuts and all those little hassles.
And, there are some apartment complexes or housing societies as they are called, where the neighborhood Aunty or Mami (Tamilian for Aunty) will certainly raise a storm or at least her eyebrows if there is a group of single guys wanting to rent out a place in close proximity to their teenage daughters. 
Ample space and scope for leisure 
As the Master Card ad says, there are some things that money can't buy. Clean roads, tree-lined boulevards and local parks for walking, bicycling and just enjoying the company of nature are available virtually all over the US. To add icing to the cake, there are umpteen avenues for recreation and sports ranging from skiing to kayaking and skydiving.
Unfortunately, India needs a lot of work done in the civic area. I remember visiting the posh Juhu neighborhood of Mumbai where a lot of Bollywood stars live in their outrageously priced homes. Guess what, the choking traffic and streets so crowded that you would have to have serious maze-navigating skills, are the same as in the poorest localities.
Smaller towns are not faring much better either. Streets are shared by everyone from pedestrians to hawkers and trucks and there are very few well-maintained outdoor spaces.

The existing noise pollution is compounded by festivities during Indian religious events such as Navratri, Ganesh Chaturthi and Deepavali, to name a few major ones, not to mention secular events such as elections, weddings, etc.

                                                                      Fall in the US 

                                                    The green countryside in Southern India

Sorry, I don't have pictures of the busy streets in Indian cities that I can share in public.
Women and work
You can do a lot of things as a woman here. You'll find women in hardware stores such as Home Depot or driving trucks and public transport buses or even working as cable company service people. 
Women can technically do everything in India, too. I have seen girls working in gas stations and factories back home, too. It is just that there is more of a general sense of safety and opportunity in US society.
Individualism and a plethora of stars and entertainment
I remember reading in my civic classes about the founding values of the US - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
Individualism is celebrated in America. The average person's contributions are highly valued. I had seen a trend in the Indian media, particularly in the 90s and early 200s, of glorifying only some individuals, be it certain Bollywood actors or cricket stars. 
Open a mainstream US newspaper and one will not find much celebrity talk at all. On the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised to read about teachers, gardeners, local heroes and such.
There are tons of actors, models, athletes, pop stars and other celebrities that are featured in magazines. Individuals from other walks of life get their limelight, too. Lots of people are well dressed, made up and are shown to be pursuing their dreams.
In short, you won't see only the same stars talked about day in and day out. There is a huge variety. India also has its chefs, fitness experts and athletes who are not from cricket. It is just that their volume in the US is staggering.
When it comes to movies, I was excited to discover different types of movie channels and channels exclusively dedicated to food and travel. There are stars in all these areas - chefs, physical trainers, adventurers and TV hosts.
Of particular interest to me were the movie channels dedicated to true stories and mysteries and I also watched a little bit of science fiction. 
India has a multitude of TV channels, too. What is more, we have TV series and movies in multiple languages. What I am talking about is the type of movies and entertainment, the genre, not the number.
The average person in America is aspirational. Uniqueness is welcomed. What I have felt after living here is the opening up of a wide range of possibility inside me. The 'do what you love and find your niche' mantra circulates in some form a lot.
As an individual, I now have both India and America in my psychological make-up and life path. 

Immigrants change a country and their chosen land changes them, too. I think immigration changes the land of birth, too, if significant numbers start emigrating. Maybe it is not just emigration but the forces of economics and global politics that cause the change but the diaspora of any country can have a very positive impact on it.

More to come in Part 2...

My sincere thanks to Wikipedia for all the information that I have linked to, along with some news and other organization sites.

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