Notes from an American suburb

Pawan Singh

This last word is special to me. I am writing this from another country and not in the editorial offices of Teacher Plus, which has very kindly entertained several last words from my pen, the readers’ displeasure notwithstanding. And as I write this one, I have circumvented the classic problem already. Getting the beginning out of the way!

But now I have to think about what I want to say next, a lot harder than the first paragraph. Two and a half weeks into my American life, I’ve been asked several questions about how I feel here, what I miss about India, and whether I want to go back. Sometimes I suspect all these people surrounding me are employed by the immigration department, doing some friendly spying on a potential immigrant, trying to gauge where they can nail him. I’ve also been told, Oh you’ll have fun, this must be so exciting for you, and some foregone conclusions pronounced, oh you’ll never go back.

It also doesn’t help that I am in California, the alleged epitome of the American experience. I am living in Sunnyvale, an ethnic suburb flourishing with Indians and Latin Americans. The Indian supermarket called Madras, and also, the Madras Café are a five-minute walk from where I stay. It’s quiet for most part of the day except for ‘American’ conversations outside the window that startle me. It’s easy to cross the street; amazingly, one just has to wait for the signal to change! The supermarkets offer more choice than one can handle but then my training as an Indian shopper often results in purchases that do not sound extravagant when one converts the currency.

I miss the auto rickshaws back home. The cramped Indian spaces now seem comforting in relation to the large American roads bathed in honey sunshine with cars racing past each other. Traveling is not easy without a car and public transport is quite expensive. So I miss those argumentative auto drivers who charged me, what, 50 cents more every ride, but were always available.

Hungry Indians here are different too. They follow rules, speak in a different accent (something I am afraid of contracting), and do not seem as friendly as they are back home. Living in a neighbourhood inhabited mostly by Indians does not mean that one is after all on home turf. And just the other day at lunch, I was strangely impressed to see an Indian gentleman eating a masala dosa with fork and knife. And he did it to perfection! Maybe that’s what happens when you eat a dosa that costs 300 rupees.

So what else can I say that would not offend the readers? What facets of my experience can I analyse in a politically correct manner? So what’s so different about living in America? There is the absence of small comforts – maid, auto, ironing, phone booths, photocopy shops, and free incoming phone calls (Yes! One gets charged for incoming phone calls and text messages if they are from a service provider different than yours), but this is just slightly outweighed by the washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, and the 5000 different varieties of breakfast food one can buy.

The USA is a land of choice indeed but whether one can make each one of those choices remains a moot question. I can see why one would want to perhaps stay here permanently. I can also see why one would eventually want to move back. And while I’ve been asked this million dollar question time and again, I really cannot say how my American experience will turn out. Yes, life is relatively more comfortable with the dishwasher and the vacuum cleaner but is that all one wants? Speaking of which I have dishes to load into the dishwasher, and, oh yes, a supermarket visit.

The author is a PhD student at the University of California at San Diego, USA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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