After my maiden trip of around a month to the US, I was back in office in Pune last week. As I finished a day’s work and started taking it all in, contrary to what I had expected, there was barely a need for any sort of re-acclimatization. It is probably a sign of the pre-occupied times we are in today. Or maybe my expectations from the masses of urban India had been on the lower side.
Low they may have been, but certainly not without reason. The superpower in its bid to impress the ‘superiority’ of the occidental culture appears to have left little to chance to convey their thought. Lavish showers of courtesies with genial smiles to absolute strangers, extremely accommodating demeanor with fellow tourists YET consciously avoiding any physical contact even by a remote chance, a pedestrian-first motorist-next mindset, minding little else but the business of self, a deeply liberal dressing sense – as deep as the plunging necklines – all these are arguably the patent of the Western outlook, and felt by almost all first-time travelers to the US. Juxtapose this with two prominent Eastern cultures that would spring to mind in direct comparison – those of China and India. Let us reserve the exposition and a possible debate on these cultures for a later date, and now just view them in perspective. The Chinese way of life would subscribe to the elevation of the group over the self/individual, interpersonal relationships founded on reciprocity, avoidance of direct confrontation among others. Little wonder then that their proverb ‘three humble cobblers brainstorming, make a great statesman’ finds resonance to this date the world over. Back home in India, a quick peek inward will tell us so much more than what a few words could barely attempt to. Prevalence of religion over human values, familial bonding, male domination (should I even mention?), lack of dignity of labor, and a general fancy for everything Western, including language (I can absolve myself of some guilt as I consciously stick to my native tongue when not at work or on the keypad) – and this is not even representative of the list! Reminds me of the bloke who returned from America after a brief office-sponsored training gig. He was muttering ‘hamburger’ all the time, and when I asked him if he knew what the origin of the word is, he said the damn thing’s got ‘ham’ in it so ‘hamburger’. So, what meat is ‘ham’, and he replies ‘beef of course’! I kicked myself for not quizzing him on the whereabouts of Hamburg, and on his palate for pork!
You get the idea, how an Indian in America gets overwhelmed by his/her first encounter with a Western way of life.
Having looked at America through the cultural lens, I think it is about time to see the ‘real’ things the great country has on offer. The tangible stuff! The places and the spaces. Oh no, you don’t want me to get started. And get started I won’t, as I certainly didn’t traverse the breadth of the country! Far from it. Even the handful of cities I did, I just about glided over. So let’s make it simpler for both of us, and pepper the narrative with illustrations?
Back to America’s ostensible preeminence. It is not clear if the country consciously set about doing things big and grand, or if the federal powers realized one day that their big ideas are also beautiful, making sense to characterize everything they create by great magnitude. Be it the Chicago downtown or the New York City skyline, the structures simply spring up. Transiently, I had this queer recurring idea of druid Getafix injecting his magic potion into the girders and concrete. The spectacular view from the top floor of the Willis tower (formerly Sears tower) in Chicago awes you as the towers engulf the cityscape, reducing humanity to a mere dot. Each of the towers has character and yearns to tell its story. But of course, Chicago’s modern history is so much about how the city’s urban planners decided to build the very character into its structures and commissioned some of the best architects of the time to design its buildings, in a bid to revive a city ravaged by fire. I was walking the streets of Chicago downtown with one overriding thought following me about – is it really such a big deal to draw up concrete plans (pun intended) for cities in India? If not for the fire, would the ‘windy city’ have been just another American urban settlement?
Among the other sights I had of Chicago, which was my base station for most of my time in the country, noteworthy would be the Navy Pier, the Shedd Acquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Millennium Park, the River walk and the magnificent mile downtown of the city. I’ll probably roast in hell if I were to take away the credit due to its natural beauty. But make no mistake, marketing is the buzzword. Keep them neat and tidy and smart, package them in some attractive deals so that you HAVE to believe that none of them can be given a miss, set up souvenir shops along the exit routes, and Bob’s your uncle! The Ferris wheel at the Navy Pier, for instance. Apart from history, the wheel doesn’t have much to offer. Didn’t even move, or if it did, I didn’t realize it. Surely there was some other way I got to the top, where I stayed long enough to catch a real quick glimpse of the city by the lake, and before I realized I was getting out of the box.
It is the American enterprise I’m left impressed with really. The idyllic Mackinac island for instance. Located in Michigan and in the midst of Lake Huron (one of the five great lakes, for the uninitiated), the island of not more than 9 sq km has a fair bit of colonial history. But what makes it interesting is the Government’s move to preserve the island as a national historic landmark through restricted tourist influx – open only during summers – and non-motorized modes of transport – you either walk it or use bicycles or horse-carriages. While it’s all beautiful and romantic, you know pretty well that summers are what they count on the most. If this isn’t a convincing example of the commercial ingenuity, then the Sin City is where you should head to. But of course, Las Vegas is what I’m talking about. A city built on a desert, with the only popular recorded history being that of high profile gangsters and gamblers much before it became a tourist haven. Gambling isn’t the top money-spinner anymore. People of all sizes and ages come , hotel-hop, stroll around the casinos, do a show or two, take in all the bright lights and signs and resolve to stay up all night long. But the hoteliers aren’t complaining. If glitz is what people want, glitz is what they will get.
This leaves me with Milwaukee, Niagara falls, Washington DC and New York City. Save for Niagara, all the others again need to be seen for their character. Beyond the Whitehouse, the Smithsonian museums are possibly the best draw in DC. Sadly, a one-day whistle stop visit to the capital is not one bit justified, and I would talk more about it only if I got to do all the museums. As for New York City, it’s very American in stature but mostly un-American in character. Its probably the only place in the US where you might be excused for bumping into people and moving on. The local trains carry the city, quite literally. At Milwaukee, the Harley Davidson museum was yet another reminder of American style of business. But the company’s century old journey through cycle models was nevertheless a treat to the eye. The museum tour, I’m sure, will continue to inspire many more generations of Harley enthusiasts, as it did for me!
It was my maiden trip to a ‘first-world’ country, and I got to live the American life rather than get air-dropped to tourist spots. I know I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a most memorable trip in a long time. Words may flow endlessly, which amounts to nothing until you actually get to be there. They are a patriotic lot, the Americans. The star spangled banner stoops down from every third building, and flutters on the back seat of every third Harley! Patriotism is consciously practiced, and also found in their sub consciousness. I felt. Even if it were to be a fashion statement, one can be reassured that people are fans of the flag enough to flaunt it.
Back in India, I’m yet to counter nosey parkers, boorish public servants, lechers by the tea-stalls (or let me admit, I’m choosing to ignore them) and other telltale signs of a country the world knows by. Pre-occupied times, like I reckoned earlier on. I may be seeing things with a new pair of lenses now, but certain signs are hard to miss. Mindless honkers, unreliable service providers, selective politeness, the list could go on. But you know that we are nowhere near doomsday as many India-analysts would have us believe.
If there’s anything I really need to find in the India of my post-sojourn inhabitation, it’s got to be my peace! My bet is that, it then helps me tackle issues impersonally and ground up.