The other day someone asked me how I am surviving the summer without an air-conditioner in my attic room. The question may come as a surprise to people who don't know that New York City touched forty degrees Celsius last week. For me, however, the surprise was of a different kind. The very idea that I would be unable to survive without an air-conditioner in forty degree heat was laughable. After all, I have grown up in Allahabad where forty-five was the norm during summer and I had to bicycle back from school when candles turned liquid within minutes in the sun. Also, much of the day was spent without power supply and hence the absence of even a fan was a mere inconvenience that we learned to live with. And while explaining all this to my questioner, I thought about all the different ways in which growing up in India has hardened me against difficult situations. Some of the day-to-day situations that are very commonplace for me are extremely disturbing for my American companions, and this forms the basis for this post.
The first incident that comes to mind involves a mosquito. I was sitting at the subway station near my home one day while immersed in an interesting book. Suddenly, I heard something like “Ewwwww!!!” in a feminine voice from my left side and looked up. There was a teenage girl sitting next to me, and she was pointing at my knee with an expression of extreme horror and disgust on her face. Sitting close to people, pointing at them and saying “Ew” are all extremely rare in this country and so I decided to follow her finger and look at my knee. There, on my trouser-covered joint, sat a particularly large and juicy striped mosquito, which on brief inspection didn’t seem much different from the ones back home. Therefore I decided against treating it any different from the ones back home: I swatted it with my palm, dusted the carcass away and got back to my book. But as long as I sat there, I was keenly aware of a pair of eyes that pierced me with a gaze that was a mix of awe and disgust. After all, how could a common man kill such a big mosquito with his bare hands?
The second incident that I can remember didn’t strictly happen to me. It happened to my Turkish roommate. Someone at school explained to him that houses built prior to 1930 have lead pipes and people living there were in risk of lead poisoning. My roommate said our house was built in 1928, and so it must be having lead pipes. The other person apologized for scaring him, but my roommate just laughed in his face and said “I’m coming from Turkey; I don’t care about that stuff.”
I remember feeling really amused when I saw weather.com’s air quality alert for the first time. They advised people to stay indoors because the concentration of ozone near the ground was likely to be high during the day. I had to look up ozone in Wikipedia to find out what happens in ozone poisoning and what causes the ozone level to increase, and came to the conclusion that back home in India every day must have been a high-ozone day but nobody knew about it.
Be it something related to food or drink, or the weather, or phone, electricity or train services – whenever something falls out of the ordinary, the American way of living is thrown into disarray. People lose their way while driving as soon as the GPS gets confused. Take away cell phones and even basic tasks seem impossible. And the less one says about the Internet, the better. I have seen people sitting with the setting sun on their face, and breaking their heads over Google Maps trying to ascertain which direction they are facing. I, on the other hand, try to keep my dependence on machines to a minimum (a battle that I seem to be gradually losing) just because I want to make things easier for me when I go back to India.
Coming back to hilarious situations, the most memorable one occurred during one of the classes that I was teaching. I normally write a problem on the board at the beginning of the class. That day while writing on the board I was aware of a growing murmur in the class behind my back. I turned to find the students talking among themselves excitedly. “What’s the matter?” I snapped. “The place is crawling with bugs,” came the reply. Now I noticed there were winged termite-like insects all over the floor of the lab. Back home these insects come out during the rains and are considered quite harmless. So I asked the nearest student, with genuine impassivity, “So what’s the matter? Are they biting you?” He stared at me with a look of incredulity and replied in a hurt voice, “I do not want to sit in a classroom full of bugs even if they don’t bite me.” I realized my mistake and quickly moved to an adjoining room. Our tolerance of such extraordinary situations as normal can be very unnerving to Americans. Like the time when someone threw a dead kitten in our garbage bin, greatly upsetting my landlord. I remained calm and mildly amused throughout the whole incident, but that’s another story.
Of course, I maybe better adapted to commuting on an overcrowded train, but that does not mean I am always the one with the higher tolerance for something bad. I realized this when I was going to Ithaca a few days after arriving in the USA. As I bought the bus ticket, the gentleman at the counter gave me a badly torn $20 bill. “Can you change this please?” I asked. He gave me a surprised look and asked what was wrong with it. I showed him the tear which ran halfway down the bill. He replied “So?” and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I later came to know that we Indians may have a better tolerance to heat or mosquitoes, but when it comes to torn currency notes, almost anything can be used in this country.