A Primer for Understanding ‘Merica
My first few weeks in the USA
This blog is the continuation of my first blog where I wrote about my first few days in the USA.
When I came to the USA from India to attend grad school, I had to learn many cultural norms that were very different from those at home on the other side of the planet. It was a steep learning curve, but people around me were always helpful and understanding. The following are some of the moments I remember due to bewilderment or embarrassment.
When should the chicken cross the road?
On one of the first few days during my stay, I went to a deli store with a friend. I was waiting for him outside the store near an intersection. A car passing by stopped at the intersection, and the person inside waved at me and smiled. I happily replied with a wave and a smile. And then he waved back, and I did the same again.
Now he honked and waved as a few more cars started lining up behind his. I was confused: I knew people here were friendlier than I was used to, but this guy took it to the next level. I started looking around to see if he was trying to say something.
Then he screeched his car away from the intersection, without a smile. I was confused about what I did wrong. My friend later explained to me how the pedestrian crossing worked. This was very different back home where, to cross a road, you had to precisely calculate your crossing trajectory so that it had the smallest probability of intersecting with that of the traffic.
One thing that took me a while to get used to was making eye contact when talking to a person. Back home making an eye contact for an extended period of time would be weird, if not impolite. It was uncomfortable in the beginning, and I still haven’t got used to it.
What is more, when you make eye contact with strangers while passing by, you are expected to smile. This is taken even more seriously in less populated/suburban areas where, in addition to smiling, you must greet people with a good morning or afternoon. The hardest thing for me to learn was being polite in every conversation by saying thank you or sorry (even in response to events that weren’t my fault). I made it a habit to use one of the words at least once in a conversation to sound polite.
I remember a hilarious interaction with a cashier when I visited a pizzeria. By this time, I had been to grocery stores a few times, knew how to converse with cashiers, and was confident. However, at this place, the menu was new to me, and I didn’t understand many of the items. I thought pepperoni meant some kind of a condiment (derived from pepper) on a pizza, which was weird but understandable. Anything is possible in America!
The only item onthe menu that I thought I understood was pizza with buffalo chicken topping — and I didn’t eat red meat! You can imagine what happened next. Boldly, I went to the person and asked him “I want a buffalo chicken pizza without buffalo, just chicken”.
He looked confused and was silent for a few seconds. I was so confident at that time that I thought he was new to the job and tried explaining. He asked if I wanted the topping or not. Of course, I wanted toppings but just wanted chicken on it. We went back and forth until a friend came to my rescue, and I realized how silly the whole scenario was. To this day, I still believe it wasn’t my fault!
Too Many Choices
The grocery stores here are huge! Fruits and vegetables look like plastic toys because they have no spots on them.They were all bred to be perfect! The stores boast a wide variety of vegetables I have never seen or heard of in my life, and the vegetables I knew back at home are not available here.
I couldn’t believe the number of varieties each product had. I never knew there were so many types of apples or brands of toilet paper. Back home, to get anything I just walked up to the grocery store and told the person (who I knew since my childhood) what I wanted, and he decided which brand I would get (usually the pricey one). I didn’t even have to pay him, as he would just write it up in his log, and my family paid the bill once in a while. I figured the best way to shop here in the US is to go with a shopping list and pick the cheapest of all the available options.
The above are just a few examples. I could go on with many others.It took me a few weeks to be ‘trained’ by my new friends on using the buses and subway… showers and taps with the luxury of both hot and cold water flowing 24 hours a day were new to me… when cashiers give you change back and say, ‘there you go,’ it doesn’t mean they’re asking you to leave but is just a figure of speech…
But, in each case, I always found people who are understanding and, because of their kindness, I survived every situation. It took me just a couple of months to learn how to live here.
I realized that you do not have to learn everything yourself but can instead figure things out with other people’s help. In most cases, the worst that can happen is eating a pizza with the wrong toppings!
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