Yesterday I went to the airport with a couple of friends to pick up three new students who arrived from India. As I stood waiting for the delayed Jet airways flight with a sheet of paper announcing the name of my university, I remembered that I arrived in a similar fashion exactly two years ago.
I landed in the US on 13th August 2008. True, my arrival was very different from this – I arrived with my cousin sister-in-law and my cousin brother took me to his home. I didn’t have to worry about food, money, phone or any other basic needs for the first few days. Yet, something about these girls reminded me of my first day in this country. The apprehensive glance, the genuine wonder at seeing a lot of things, the evident disappointment on seeing some other things (Newark and Harrison are not among the cleanest and best-looking places in the US), the inability to understand any English spoken by a non-Indian, the too-tired-to-care body language and the melancholy of homesickness hidden ineffectively under their beaming faces – everything indicated to a state of mind that I recognized very well. I had been through it two years ago.
So how was “America” different from my expectations? I had written about some of it back then, but one does not realize everything in the first month. So here I’ll discuss a few more things that surprised me during these two years.
As soon as I came, I was surprised with the lack of people on the streets – especially in the residential areas. I wrote about that earlier. What I did not realize at the time is that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the United States, and New York City has the highest population. So if I felt these places wore a deserted look, then places like Ithaca, some places in upstate New York en route Niagara and almost everything we saw between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon felt like out of this planet. In this country, you can drive miles without ever coming across a pedestrian. Although I like crowds sometimes, this lack of people along large stretches of highways does create a very soothing view of the countryside which in India would have been dotted with slums, huts and roadside shops.
Americans produce an unbelievable amount of trash. Nobody ever recycles anything that can be thrown away. Whether they are plastic and glass jars, or fully useable furniture and appliances, everything gets thrown away. Tennis players don’t fetch balls that they hit outside the court. Golfers don’t look for balls that don’t land where they intended them to. People don’t climb the stairs if there’s an elevator. Some people have forgotten how to walk. The amount of damage they are doing to the environment is incalculable. But this will not be evident if you see the cities here. New York, one of the largest cities in the world, has an amazingly clear air. The sky is pristine blue and the visibility is about ten miles in clear weather (in Kolkata it is never more than two). Also, in spite of being one of the most light-polluted cities in the world, more stars are visible from New York than from Kolkata (a city that is mostly dark). While this difference probably has a complex explanation involving types of car engines and the quality of fuel used, one thing that is immediately evident is the presence of large parks inside the cities. When I say parks, I don’t mean dusty patches of ground with a swing and a slide, but several hundred acres of wooded area with lakes and wildlife. Once you enter Central Park in New York, only the distant skyline serves as a reminder that you are still in Manhattan. When the people of Kolkata protest against the court’s protection of the Maidan, they fail to realize that they are trying to destroy the city’s only chance of survival. Company Garden in Allahabad is almost exactly like an American park – large and wooded with small areas for gardens, monuments and playgrounds. I’m sure some other Indian cities have such parks too, but we need more of these in our country.
Another thing that I have come to realize about this country in these two years is the fact that the whole country is very much homogenized. You may go to Boston or to Las Vegas and the roads and buildings will look exactly the same despite the fact that the weather is very different in these two places. Having similar houses everywhere may look “neat” but it actually results in tremendous amounts of energy wastage for artificial heating and cooling. But then, energy is cheap here. Petrol is cheaper than water and Coke.
Americans are a strange people. Men have no problem showering naked together in a common bathroom at the gym, yet they will hesitate to sit next to strangers on a train. While a three-seater bench on a Kolkata local train always has four people on it, a three-seater on a New York train will usually have two. People will actually prefer standing to occupying that empty seat, and I have earned quite a few stares by squeezing into empty spots between strangers.
In fact, almost all the differences between the US and India can be traced back to a single factor, and that is population. I realized that soon after coming here, and I will say the same thing now after analyzing this country for two years. What are India’s problems? Pollution? Dirt? Corruption? Rudeness? Dishonesty? Indiscipline? Poverty? Illiteracy? Everything would have gone away (or at least reduced to the level of the US) automatically if the population were to reduce to 10% of the current value. It is not feasible to smile at strangers and say “Hi, how are you doing?” when you meet five hundred of them between your home and the bus stop. It is not rudeness, it is just common sense.
I did not tell these things to the new students. I will let them figure out these things by themselves. I am happy to see that many people of my generation seem to be able to look beyond the outward glitter and see this country for what it is – both good and bad. Many of these people are planning to return to India and make a difference there – something that people who came a few decades earlier did not do. But all that comes later. For the first few months, it is a time for unfeigned wonder: the wonder of seeing skyscrapers, visiting world famous places, looking at things that one has only read about. That does not mean the seeing stops after the first few months, but the enjoyment of seeing things for the first time gradually fades away.
I enjoyed it immensely. Now it is their turn. I will, in the meantime, watch their reactions and relive my memories.