by Ramesh Mahadevan
Remember my Uncle Venkat ? He made his hundredth visit to the USA this summer. After the initial euphoria and jetlag wore off, he was back to getting bored again. "It is like being under house arrest" he confided in me, between his belches "My son and daughter-in-law go off to work. I can't even step out of the house and go for a walk, because dogs roam the streets or cars come dashing by. And there are so many bad characters stalking the area. Everyone in this country is so huge. Even the children are so well built I can't tell them for sure. If a huge guy rides an undersized bike, then I conclude that it is a kid. The only interesting thing that happened was the Boston Tamil Association's annual pot luck lunch last week. Of course, the chief guest was Norman Schwarzkopf."
He went on. "I am no longer sure if I want to get my green card and settle down here. In this country, husbands divorce wives, there is homosexuality, sons don't take care of parents. Ramesh, don't forget the Hindu way of life. I can't even talk to my grandchildren because they don't know any tamil and they don't understand my english. Look at those little devils, they don't sleep in the afternoon and get very 'kirrannki' in the nights"
"Give them pissas with pepperoni, they'll devour them with a pazzion. Give them rice, they won't touch it. Give them French Fries, they will go for it. Daal, hmm hmm. Give them pawncakes or what is the other thing that looks like a table tennis racket, yes, waffles, they will eat a dozen. Give them ..."
"Uncle I get the idea"
"Come here, granddaughter, let grandpa tell you a story"
"Story ? I love stories. Tell me one"
"You heard about the 'Rabbit and tortoise' story "
"No, but what is a tortoise, is it like turtles ?"
"Yes, which one runs faster, a rabbit or a turtle ? Tell your grandpa."
"Turtle, of course"
"Are you sure the turtle runs faster than a rabbit ?" My uncle asked disbelievingly.
"Yes, Ninja turtles"
"Shucks, too bad. If only you told rabbit, grandpa would have told you a nice story. Ramesh, see what I mean ?"
As a desi in this country, my English has been corrected, both the grammar and the pronunciation, quite a few times by the natives. "It is pronounced 'sord' and not 'sword', the w is silent" some kind soul would one-up me. Many a times, I would simply lie, claiming that that was the British way of speaking English. Now, I have 'sorta' gotten used to the local english. And most of the natives I interact with, have no problems with my brand of english. After all, we Indians speak gooder English than most immigrants and our English continues to be influenced by great literary minds such as Shakespeare, P. G. Wodehouse and Bart Simpson.
Then I moved to the Denver area, the Wild West Country. Everyone is mucho macho, especially the males. They all have mustaches, drive a Taj Mahal sized truck, wear jeans and Goodyear blimps for hats. And they always say "you bet !" no matter what you say. You say a polite thanks and the response is a loud and emphatic "You bet". "Isn't it a wonderful day ?" "You bet !" "What do I do in Las Vegas ?" "You bet !" "What do YOU do in Las Vegas ?" "You bet !". "Ah, I caught you there, didn't I ?" "You bet !" And so on.
Several American usages have always intrigued me. Never mind that they use 'flammable' instead of 'inflammable' to mean the same thing. Apparently (so the story goes) not too long ago, gasoline trucks used to be labeled 'inflammable' till one day, someone thought it meant flame-resistant, threw a matchstick, burnt himself real bad and sued the signmakers for a trillion dollars. Then you have child bearing women who are termed 'very pregnant' as opposed to having a touch of pregnancy; there are football players who know their 'basic fundamentals' well; then, there are people who 'own their OWN homes or businesses' as opposed to owning someone else's.
Also, most unknown processes are 'automatic'. "The bill will be deducted 'automatically' from your account" or "I assumed 'automatically' you would be in your office" etc. There was a time, when I had to teach undergraduate Physics lab for a living. A woman walked in half an hour late, found herself without a lab partner and set out to do her experiment alone. The experiment involved rolling a block down an inclined plane and determining the value of g, the accelaration due to gravity. She was all flustered and asked me "Should I keep pushing the block down or would it go 'AUTOMATICALLY' ?" That was almost surreal.
Folks, remeber the time you all just arrived, 'brand new' to this country, with some other fellow desis, aboard a nondescript plane, clutching your suitcases filled with recently made suits and useless textbooks ? Remember those days when food, cigarettes and booze used to be community property and when we all had all the time in the world to do everything in life. When advisors were only paper tigers and a McDonald's meal was a treat. That's when I discovered that almost every Indian, to a person, seemed to have had a fulfilling undergraduate life, no matter where they went to college or how exactly they had their fun. And remember the first road trip ?
Someone suggested that we checked out New York City. It was the most exciting thing we ever heard and pretty soon everyone and his roommate wanted to join us. Despite rejecting many potential fellow passengers, we still ended up with six in a car driven by the only driver, Rajan, a year senior to us.
It was a rental car and a thing of creative perfection. Like five blind men, we groped around and discovered its various components and knobs. Lele even kissed it.
"Abhey, guess what, this car doesn't have a cigarette lighter."
"Move over. You guys don't smoke. These Yanks will never build cars without one. Look at the bottom panel."
Then I remember Lele quickly running to the front seat and grabbing it, leaving the four of us to do the turf battle on the back seat. We were like one continuous mass of flesh constantly trying to reach some kind of an equilibrium.
If one guy felt itchy, the next guy scratched. But watching the super duper highway go by at warp speeds, for the first time in our lives, was something else. "This highway system is fundu. Sh**. Look at how many flyovers they have."
"These roads are nothing" Rajan would say. "You should see the roads in Illinois."
We lapped up his immense experience. This was quickly followed by derisive comments about desi highway system, if one could even classify it as a 'system'. "Buffalos would roam all over the four lanes" someone said "Dhabhas would crop up every hundred yards and there will be 'Rasta rukho' strikes everywhere" This obviously produced loud, smug laughs. Someone else would read the atlas every two minutes and inform us that we would pass a small town called Zanesville and West Virginia was less than eighty miles away. "I don't know yaar, why do they still have miles here ?"
Rajan, the sort of guy who would find inner peace in New York Times and for most parts wedded to the computers, was a totally different person behind the wheel. He would explain his every move to us, the uninitiated.
"Look at that 'aarssehole'" he would tell us in his heavy accent "He thought I would pass the Mazda on the right and then move in. Instead, I passed the Chevy on the left and then the red Beetle and moved in before the other Chevy moved into my lane"
And then the time when the entire back seat yelled "Mammu !!' in unison when we sighted a cop car at a distance. Rajan slowed from fifty five miles to a respectable fifty miles. We all watched the Police car glide by from plus infinity to minus infinity. What do you think, Cop, we are all desi dudes. We don't get caught easily. "I think the Mammu has caught the red Porsche" Lele shouted excitedly, although nobody believed him. We were still mad at him for grabbing the front seat.
Finally, after hours of exhausting back seat sitting, we arrived at Some Place, New Jersey. A shadowy figure of an Indian grad student in baggy pajamas could be seen on the second floor of an apartment building. It was Lele's friend. In a trice, Lele gushed out, and as if triggered by some primeval urge, they both yelled loud shrieks of reunion, peculiar to their IIT. It was like two love sick fax machines, emitting their high pitched mating calls.
After two days of unabated fun in the Big Apple, during which almost nothing unusual happened, we got back. On the way back, we had fights in all permutations, swearing never to talk to each other, at least to Lele. We were just desperate to get back to our crummy apartments.
The next day on, we were all friends as before, almost as if nothing happened. Now, after so many years in this country and having set foot on almost all the states and driven in several major cities, I have probably had more exciting and eventful trips. Howver, the first trip is always memorable, isn't it ?
What do you do if you just moved to a godforsaken place like Colorado and the there is only one other desi for miles around ? (My friend is also a Ramesh with Sundaram for his last name) We took this as a great chance to view the 'transplanted desi life in the USA' from the outside and make a number of sociological theories concerning our unique lifestyle. We also decided to catalog a list of myths (or factoids depending on who you are talking to) concerning all the desis in this country.
Being desis in this country, we try to understand it all. We have figured out the best way to fit in without losing our cultural background. We analyze and criticize the way the 'other desis' behave, almost as if the 'other desi's are afflicted with some kind of a psychological malady. (for example, look at what I am doing in this paragraph) We all feel good about ourselves and the tremendous adjustments we made (and the others are striving to make) to the dichotomous lifestyles of India and the US. This is almost to the point where every desi in this country feels a wee bit superior to the others. Sort of like a Lake Woebegonne syndrome where all the children are above average. This probably explains the myth (can't remember who said it) that whatever is true about India, exactly the opposite is also true - because the 'opposites' only apply to the 'others'.
Here is one from our grab bag of such 'controversial' statements. "Indian males would make great second husbands for women in any cross cultural marriage, because Indian males are rich, family oriented and above all, too chicken to fool around with other women". This statement has the potential to generate gigabytes of SCI discussion. And how about this one. "Even the most westernized, 'pseud' desi would regress into talking in his mother tongue after he or she comes over here." (Especially the 'Western' Ghattis, ha ha) Anyone wanting to take this on and analyze it in terms of identity crisis and so forth ? Here is another one. "Any desi who comes to this country, leaves an India frozen in time, when he left its shores. No matter what went on India since he left, he doesn't see it, but sees only what he was used to seeing. Hema Malini is still a heroine for him and he doesn't register any of the new names or any newness. This statement has enough potential for a few Ph.D theses.
Another sweeping comment is that desis are ill-educated about money. Some of them hoard it after figuring it out in rupees, live frugally to the point of going under the poverty line. Others spend it like there is no tomorrow and live on the edge. Money was something our parents used to send us every month when we were in college and thus maintain a healthy family relationship. Money is something to be saved or borrowed to go on a trip home to India. Exactly half of us clip coupons and after a well calculated break-even point, buy a 'standard' item like a Sony TV without any kind of consumer research. The other half would spend a tidy sum on long distance phone bills, buy the best beer and buy a 'standard' brand like a Sony TV without any kind of consumer research. Either way we are no money gurus. None of us views money as a dielectic material that can be sowed to reap higher returns. We are utterly confused and frightened by it and simply stick it in a lousy bank if we have it, earn a piddling interest and pay taxes on it. Now, before someone shoots me down, off I go to the next one.
More than sixty per cent of all desis in this country find the term 'desi' truly nauseating and offensive, WHEN IT REFERS TO THEM. (No problems when referring to the other 'real desis' as 'desis') So Indologists are working overtime to come up with a 'politically correct' term to substitute 'desi'. Various names ranging from Asian Americans, Brown Sahibs, Snakecharmers to Occidental Orientals have been bandied. An official name will be proclaimed after the usual lengthy debate on SCI.
Here is one of Ajay Palvayanteeswaran's pet theories - that no two Indian girl graduate students can get along as roommates. Sometimes, he would extrapolate it to all Indians in general or any two women. "It is not a sexist statement" He would add. "In fact, it works in favor of all Indian males. We should divide and conquer." And Sunita was a very important data point for him. (Not her real name, actually her roommate's name)
Sunita was a branded person, like some cattle. She was the most roommated person in known history. She has had more roommates in three years than Zsa Zsa Gabor had husbands in her lifetime. It wasn't always her fault. Once she had an 'ABCD' roommate whose mother moved in with her dog for months. Another time, another roommate would have her boyfriend over for days on end and Sunita would build up a rage. Yet another roommate, named Kathy or something would get up and leave the apartment before Sunita and come back late in the night, dissecting insects all day long, boring the hell out of Sunita. Before her next roommate, Sunita actually consulted an astrologer and matched horoscopes. It started out fabulously, but when her roommate accidentally scratched her teflon non-stick pot, it was war time. (By the way, she decided to get married to Clark Gable with a zillion dollar job - no love marriage, she just responded to his ad in India Abroad. Although she promised to stay in touch we never heard from here again. Wonder if she is with the same roommate still)
Want one more myth ? Here it is. Every second person graduating from IIT Madras is named Srini or Bala. The only exceptions are in cases of Srinivasan Balasubramaniam and Balasubramaniam Srinivasan. And here, Why did an IIT Madras guy cross the road ? Because Bala from Ganga was on the other side of the road. Not funny, ? It is funny because, the guy on the other side of the road was actually Bala from Jamuna and not Bala from Ganga. Still don't think it is funny ? Here, Bala from Ganga was actually standing on the same side of the road. You still don't think it is funny ? Listen to this. The guy who was crossing the road was also Bala from Jamuna. What ? you really don't think it is funny ? I guess, it is funny only if you happen to be Srini from IIT Madras.