Monday, October 29, 2012

Key F.O.B






Last Friday we picked up an Indian friend of ours at the San Francisco International Airport, who was making an onsite visit to a client multi-national company in the Sillicon Valley for the first time. On the way back we stopped at a local Subway and let him order his sandwich while we grabbed a seat. Minutes later he came back wondering aloud why the person at the counter asked him such personal questions. Upon enquiry this is what we learn.
Person at the counter: “For here or to-go?” (For the uninitiated, it means “would you like to have your food here or do you want to get it packed?”)
Our unprepared but sincere friend: “Umm, I am on H1B but I will go” !

With that comment our friend has officially made his entry into the Hall-of-Fame of the much jested category of fresh off boats a.k.a F.O.Bs! In physical chemistry terms I would define FOBs as hyperexcited (read hypervulnerable) humanoids in a transition state from their familiar home shell to an unfamilar foreign shell. It is a highly unstable and transient state but a state that they all have to pass through before stably settling down in a shell away from home. All puns intended.

Lets imagine this plight: After taking an exhausting transatlantic flight for the first time you land on American soil and at the airport come across a sign reading ‘Rest-rooms’. Like a desert traveller sighting an oasis you lugg each one of your suitcases to the area, dreaming of stretching your cramped muscles, only to realize that it’s a place where people, if at all put their inflated bladders to rest!  You step in anyways to hide your embarrassment in the garb of purposeful intention and what awaits you is more harrasment. At the faucet you see what most definitely looks like a tap yet has nothing to twist or turn! You stand there feeling like an Neanderthal, time warping to some future AD, when someone steps up and waves his hand under the tap to let it flow. Welcome to the first world powered by motion sensors. Your life will never be the same again. However, here is my two cents on making ‘5G- toilets’- can we please keep some apps like flushing, non-automated? I think it kind of impinges on the practice of free-will.

Switches in a switchboard that in India would dispell darkness if pushed down will never behave the same in the US. This is such an auto-pilot skill that any Indian would do it like a reflex to darkness. American switches however need to be turned up to be turned on. I struggled with this basic skill till an American friend once en-‘lightened’ me saying that it’s more logical to turn a switch up to represent a higher energy state. So was it actually a logic driven step? Here I was, thinking it was one of those anti-colonial (read anti-British) reflexes to establish the ‘new world’ identity. Just like writing the month of the date first- just like rebelling without a cause.

 If you are a fresh import to this country and god forbid your body decides to fall sick without notice, you will be up for a big surprise my friend- the health care system! A blissfully ignorant me, sat over a sore and watering eye till a doctor-visit became an exigent priority. Back home in such a situation I was used to just walking up to the nearby optometrist store and getting my eyes checked by the visiting opthalmologist. Sometimes I had to wait a little and sometimes I must admit, I got the consultation even out of turn, since I lived nearby and the store owners were family friends. Additionally having a father working for a Pharmaceutical company and having attended a Medical College for education, had only spoilt me further.I always got ‘physicians samples’ of medicines and never had to pay for consultation or prescriptions. However even if you count me into a somewhat ‘privileged’ category, I’m sure we all agree that for any sudden medical emergency in India, people mostly turn to their doctor neighbour for help irrespective of what time of the day or night it is. Of course you cannot depend on the ambulance to arrive on time which may be stranded in a traffic jam somewhere, or care for the field of specialization of your neighbour. Aren’t Doctors ‘God-Particles’ that will attend to you in sickness and save your life? The moot point is, if you fall sick suddenly you are entitled to and do get medical attention, irrespective of whether you have prior appointments or insurance. But only when I got down to seeking medical attention for my eye, did the forerunners of a hyper-organized capitalist healthcare system namely medical insurance, prior appointments, reminder calls etc revealed themselves to me. Ever since I have either learnt to be more organized about falling sick or my body has learnt to heal itself just by the thought of going through the whole nine yards of finding out insurance coverage, co-pay etc.

I also have to admit I did not learn American medical manners before shocking a colleague out of her wits by persistently probing about the ‘medical cause’ for her leave or actually showing up at work with a running nose.While it is extremely uncompassionate or rude to not enquire about peoples’ ailments in India, in the US it is considered breach of peoples’ privacy. The same runny–nose and fever that can make your family, friends and colleagues in India close in to comfort you, can elicit quite an opposite reaction in America. While one country pushes the frontiers of personalised medicine- i.e medicine customized for the person, the other survives more by people acting as medicine. Truly, human social culture never fails to amaze me.

There is no denying that Americans are a ferociously honest lot especially when it comes to their food- the ingredients need to be spelt out loud and clear - there are no secret spices, no cooking to a blend. I learnt it quite literally the ‘bitter’ way when I ordered coffee and chicken sandwich hoping to get what I now know should have been café latte with sugar and a chicken caesar wrap! Wonder how in the same vein one would have to order for Biryani or chingri malaicurry!

Talking of surprises how can I not mention the traffic experience in the US. The first thing taught to drivers in America- driving in a straight lane at a more or less constant speed obeying all traffic signals is probably the last or least useful maneuver learnt for Indian roads. There, just one rule rules- if you think there is space, it’s a green signal! Having grown up travelling such roads I must say I found it hard to believe when I witnessed an accident in America and all that ensued were the involved drivers quietly stepping out of their cars and exchanging insurance information. Such an anticlimax to what would have caused rolling up of sleeves, unabashed cursing, uninvolved-public involvment, traffic choking and full-fledged drama in India! On a serious note I sometimes imagine it would actually be nice to enforce traffic etiquettes on Indian roads as well. However I stop short thinking of what the GPS could be showing- “make a sharp right next to Dadu’r dokan” (that might be the only identifier for that turn) or live traffic update showing “cows blocking darji-para road- slow traffic”!

It’s been a few years since I have moved to this part of the world. Yet I still experience my share of quintessential FOB moments- while ordering food especially when the waiter asks me how I want my water, or when I struggle to open the lids of bottles without following the instructions on it. The only instruction I can imagine on any cap or lid in India is probably –“best of luck”! However I have picked up a few things too. I have learnt that it is courteous and not creepy to say Hi to complete strangers and also that “how are you?” does not necessarily call for any response let alone an honest one. I have learnt that if I say I ‘passed out’ (graduated in Indian sense) three years ago I may actually cause the listener to ‘pass out’ (faint in American sense). Or if I say I ‘freaked out’ (having fun in Indian sense) with my friends over the weekend my American listener may think I am a ‘freak’ (strange creature in American sense). I have learnt to skip the ‘T’ in Santa Clara, convert the J to H in San Jose and totally ignore the spelling when pronouncing La Jolla! I have learnt that people that laugh at FOBs are either laughing at their own past or their predecessor’s past.

But most importantly I have learnt that, like drift-fruits gets dispersed by ocean currents, strike their roots into unaccustomed soil and eventually render an unique character to the shore itself, every new wave of immigrants will eventually adapt, integrate and contribute to their new world, causing a synergism where none have lost their roots and yet a new dynamic shared identity has emerged.Thus will continue the story of the great immigration-the big American dream.

So here’s raising a toast to the man who began the story, the Big Daddy of all F.O.Bs – Christopher Columbus
Cheers!

1 Comments:

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