Notes on the US of A

Spent two weeks at my aunt and uncle’s place in Chicago, USA (and they were very, very hospitable) and observed many aspects of life in USA which differ significantly from India.  Some are probably well known and well discussed but others seem to escape the eye of Indians visiting USA as I had not been led to expect it and was surprised.  Rather than write long paras on it, I would like to make a laundry list of these aspects.  At the outset, I should also mention that we (self and parents) visited New York City and Niagara Falls on a 3 day trip all by ourselves without any relatives living in USA accompanying us.  So we were much more dependent on the co-operation and kindness of native Americans to make our visit enjoyable.  Here goes:

1.  First off, most of the Americans I met were, contrary to the widely publicised stereotype, very helpful.  We asked for directions about a thousand times in NY, either on the streets or in subway stations and were never refused help nor spoken to rudely (ok, just one shopkeeper who didn’t know about a particular place and got irritated when my dad persisted with questions).  On our flight from Buffalo to Chicago, a co-passenger swapped seats with me so I could be close to my parents and he did so without my asking at all.  Just for info, he was white.

2. Continuing on the above thread, nobody pushed or shoved in the crowded NY subway trains.  People waited patiently for passengers to alight from trains or from stairways.  The silence inside trains was a deafening contrast to Mumbai.  A similar silence is also noticed on the streets, even in the business district and honking is a rare indulgence partaken only when absolutely necessary.

3.  Speaking of Mumbai, it is a joke to compare Mumbai to NY as Indians are fond of doing and I say this as someone who has grown up in Mumbai and lived here for 25 years.  They may be the financial capitals of their respective nations and have lots of skyscrapers and a dense population but that’s where the similarity ends.  At best, it could be said that NY is the city Mumbai could have been.  Its architecture has an aesthetically appealing uniformity and integrity that Mumbai lost long ago.  It is far more stylish and glamorous. The beautiful Central Park occupies the centre of Manhattan, providing a much needed relief from congestion that SoBo sorely lacks.  Above all, it is very much walkable.  Ask us.  We walked miles and miles and saved taxi fare and the wide, well maintained pavements and clean air made the experience immensely enjoyable.

4.  The air is markedly different from Mumbai or any of the other Indian big cities for that matter.  That is not something I had expected.  Indians talk about the sheer wealth and beauty of cities in advanced nations but not so much the environment.  I took long walks in the neighbourhood of the Chicago suburb I spent time in, as also in downtown Chicago, Manhattan and Niagara.  At all times, the air was very inviting and demanded breathing in.  The water is also pure and people in USA drink it off the tap, no packaged water.  It made me feel fresh in the mornings even after only 4-5 hours of sleep on some days.  In fact I would wake up feeling I had slept like a log only to find it was just the early hours of morning yet, say 5 or 6 AM.  In suburban neighbourhoods, a variety of trees, flowers, birds and even small mammals like hares can be spotted frequently.  Our cities are not fit for animals other than us humans and maybe crows and dogs to live in.  What does that say about their condition?

5. American airports (I passed through O Hare, La Guardia, JFK and Buffao) are efficient and comfortable but are acquiring an old look, compared to the spanking new T2 terminal in Mumbai.  It underlined a certain cost consciousness that I repeatedly encountered in USA (cue also the ageing, noisy coaches in the NY subway).  They don’t necessarily splurge money thoughtlessly all the time; in fact they are careful to spend money only where it is absolutely required.  The airport security systems are way more advanced than in Indian airports for instance.

6.  What instead sets apart these airports and many other US public places is the proactive attitude of staff in sharp contrast to India.  At O Hare, new counters would be opened as if by magic to handle high load of passengers at the security check so we never had to stand for too long in queues.  Staff doing the examination were cheerful and relaxed.  In general, people in US, well, the three cities we spent time in anyway, are relaxed and cheerful and don’t wear the permanent scowl so familiar in India.  They are also looking to save time for the customer and themselves all the time, an attitude that is not often noticed in India.

7. Lastly, it is possible to do a lot of things with trust as the basis in USA.  It may be a materialist society but it is not, at least at the ground level, a devious, thieving one.  For instance, we paid twice the normal fee to a guy representing New York Skyride in exchange for faster passage to the observatory at Empire State Building.  Having done so, we wondered if we were being had.  Not only did he keep his word and get us to the top pronto, he also gave us tickets to an entertaining 4D presentation on NYC which he hadn’t even included in his sales pitch.  We leaned on the staff (Chinese) at our hotel in Flushing, Queens to arrange private cabs to the Ganesh temple in said locality and they charged a reasonable fare even though we were in a weak position (metered yellow cabs are as rare as white tigers in Queens).  The folks at Buffalo airport arranged a cab to Niagara, the fare for which was less than the total shuttle fare for three passengers, and voila it was a Lincoln Town Car, the biggest sedan I have ever traveled in.  In fact, people seemed to derive pleasure and pride in arranging great deals for a customer.  That is the way to build relationships and make a great impression on a first time visitor to a city or a country.  Of all the positive aspects of USA, this is the one thing our penny wise pound foolish service providers or store owners can and should imbibe first and foremost.  Remember that for a tourist visiting the country, you are effectively an advertisement and a brand ambassador for a nation.  He/she is unlikely to forget a bad experience in his/her dealings with you and probably will project it on his/her larger impressions of the nation.  And equally, he/she will be grateful for your assistance and will return with fond memories and recommend visiting the country to his/her friends.

As I am going to, to my friends in India.  Go, check out the USA.  It will provide a different perspective and, if you happen to be a jingoist, will probably cure you of said malady.

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2 Responses to “Notes on the US of A”

  1. Vijaya Says:

    Very nice Madan!
    We take a lot for granted in the US, so its interesting to step back and see things from a visitor’s perspective, especially one from Mumbai. I do agree with your observations in general but I will say that for me, the thoroughly cosmopolitan atmospheres in mega octane settings in both cities drown the differences somewhat…putting it another way, NY is probably the only city in the US that can be likened to Mumbai in terms of its personality, energy, diversity, opportunity and, even the general topography….NY is a much better version of Mumbai (or what the latter could have been)!

  2. Madan Says:

    Yes, in terms of cosmopolitanism and pace of life, they are probably somewhat similar. In terms of topography, NYC is oriented West-to-East rather than North-to South (Mumbai). Manhattan borough is also cut off from the sea which literally kisses Mumbai at several points. Thanks for the comment!

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