The Quintessential American – I

“Do you feel like a quintessential American?” I asked A.

“These days I do, at the nadir”, he said.

“Hmm…that’s not quite what I am getting at”, I said.

To which I said, “almost everything is a point of comparison for you, between India and America. When we see a brilliant movie or TV show, with flawless direction and lines of dialogue that never miss their mark, you ask me if I can imagine an Indian movie or show with the same attributes. When we see an intelligently designed product you ask if I can imagine it coming out of India. When we see people trying out adventurous things like bungee jumping or diving off a cliff you once again ask if an Indian can be imagined in such a situation. Even when you wolf down habaneros by the dozen you question the ability of Indians to stand heat in their food to the extent that Americans can. This one is really strange because Indians are famous for eating hot food! So tell me what it is that sets America apart in your mind? What trait, what characteristic? And how American do you feel? You’ve been here longer than I have!”

“It’s hard to explain. I see it through sports. Football, baseball…how it’s played, how it works as an instant ice-breaker when you are around people who follow the same team or even when they follow other teams, people bond over sports, something active, something energetic. I don’t see Indians radiating energy. Every time I go to India I see people sitting around discussing politics or Hindi cinema. I was always stunned on my trips back to India when I heard people get into serious discussions about how many people Amitabh Bachchan single-handedly fought or how many storeys he jumped and survived! It’s as though Indian cinema is more real to them than reality. And every movie buff talks about heroes! How are these actors heroes? What have they done that’s so heroic? Do you ever see Tom Hanks or Harrison Ford being called a hero? I don’t think this way, Americans cannot possibly think this way.”

We have been through similar discussions on several occasions during our twenty-one years of marriage. His view of India doesn’t necessarily mesh well with mine, even though I can’t deny the fact that actors and actresses, for some mysterious reason, reach an exalted status and that politics does get discussed with directionless passion, just for the sake of discussion.

We both think of the time in the nineties when we were visiting India and we were talking to some of A’s young cousins, little kids, who said they couldn’t do well in school and that it wasn’t worth doing anything with their lives because Laloo was in charge. I haven’t heard little American kids say that their grades don’t matter because Bush or Obama are in charge.

But none of this gets us closer to the question: what makes one American?

There’s the sports immersion that appealed to A because he came to the US at the age of eight. A world viewed through the lens of American sports is certainly uniquely American. He still carries around an entire century of baseball stats in his head and remembers his Little League or high school football days with fond nostalgia.

It was different for me. I grew up with stories of America. My parents always referred to it as my country. I never imagined an Indian future for myself. In Indian crowds, in uniquely Indian dirt and poverty, amidst the rudeness of bank tellers or in the face of bureaucratic red tape I used to hear about how smooth the process would have been in the US. I also heard that Americans were friendly and lively and always wished and greeted strangers or offered help if someone’s car was broken down at the side of the road. To me it sounded like heaven on earth and my heart was set on America.

I thought I could learn about America from Archie comics! (I wasn’t too far off in this estimation). I devoured these. I never missed a single episode of Star Trek or Diff’rent Strokes or I Love Lucy; these were the only shows that made it to India during the years when I was watching them. I needed to absorb the diction, the culture, the sights and sounds through the pages of comic books and novels and through the black and white television images.  Sidney Sheldon, Ayn Rand, Tootsie and my parents’ fond recollections of a carefree time here all helped construct a particular image of America in my mind.

I started spelling things the American way, dropping the unnecessary “u” from words like color or labor and spelling words like organize and mesmerize with a “z” (pronounced zee).

Earlier on my dad had acquired an encyclopedic series of books for us called “Learning by Doing”. These books had been authored in America and were basic science books that taught science through illustrations and experimentation. I devoured those books. I especially loved the illustrations, the most poignant ones showing a father or a son or a father and daughter standing in the fenced in yard of a typical American suburban home as the father pointed up at the night sky to planets and constellations. It was an image that got etched in my mind.

Since my dad had obtained a doctorate in the Sciences in this country and since I thought of him as a scientist who made sure my first few words were, “DNA is the building block of life”, in my ideal sense of America, dads were scientists and they held their kids’ hands through observing and through doing things together, helping them think for themselves.

When I was older and it was time to start thinking about my westward journey I read some of the literature the embassy put out. These books and pamphlets said Americans were friendly, talkative, engaging, that they respected personal space and breaching this 3′ distance between yourself and others was frowned upon in informal social settings. I absorbed these facts as well.

I thought I saw some of this in action when I went to the American Embassy in New Delhi to get my first US Passport. An American girl behind the passport counter was demonstrating something to her colleague by breaking into an impromptu dance. I was entranced. Never in my life had my own personal interactions been so buoyant, so energetic.

Was this what it meant to be American?

There came a time when I didn’t have to wonder anymore. I held my father’s hand for the very last time as he led me here and indicated more confidence in my ability to make it here than I could muster up for myself.  But no inner thoughts were daunting enough for me to decide against this move.  I was here, out of the air-brushed world of my imagination and breathing the air, feeling it on my skin. I landed here in the fiery brilliance of fall. I saw colors I had never seen before and endless highways. I saw more cars than people and then I started meeting the people.

There was Mr Christian Dunyoh, at the employment office, who rolled his eyes and shook his head in despair when he learned that I could neither type nor drive and that all I possessed was a legless BA Honors in Economics. He found me a job nevertheless and will remain memorable for his chagrin at my lack of life skills and an optimism that remained unaffected by it.

The next stop was the workplace where my boss was only a year older than I was. I was all set to call him sir or Mr Sierra but the former wasn’t done and the latter, he said, was his dad. He was simply Dan and I was to call him that. He told me that first names were to be used all the way up the chain of command. Informality in addressing people was my first lesson.

The second workplace lesson was that there was no concept of putting in some time or deserving before desiring. There was no break from desire, here in the new world, relentless desire drove this engine.

My boss was new in his role when he hired me and he was campaigning for his next promotion from day one of his current job. He took me in his confidence and often pulled me aside to help him plot his next moves because even at twenty-one, like all Asians, I was perceived to be in possession of some ancient wisdom and insight. Or perhaps it was just my ability to spell correctly. Whenever I asked him what made him think he could be promoted just a couple months into this job, he told me that this was the way things worked, that all it took was enhancing ones visibility to upper management, to not miss a single opportunity to be in their faces and to even pretend one was Italian when one really was Puerto Rican.

This was a novel idea for me. I came from a place and a time where almost everyone I knew worked in the public sector and there were no fast tracks to the pinnacle. One had to put in the time, earn seniority and take a step up when the time came. I grew up hearing how honest people were inevitably on the slow track. The ones who hopped, skipped or jumped ahead used political connections and the Hindi word, pairvi, was often heard in this context. I suppose it meant using inside connections to get ahead. So this world where one thought one could simply reach out and pluck a promotion out of thin air, was new to me. This was 1988 of course, and this country still had jobs and things like career tracks.

What stood out from my initial American experiences was evidence of an unquenchable, infinite thirst riding the perfect wave of hope. Even if one’s microcosm showed tinges of despair, the macro picture erased it all with finesse. On a larger, grander scale an American was always soaring above the earth and looking down at a glittering blue, luminous perfection.

In those early years a quick adoption of this attitude was indispensable for me. See, I, have never felt lucky and I have never felt as though I could attract wealth or success. But coming here did bestow upon me a sense that with tenacity and determination I could possibly turn things in my favor, just a little bit.  Just that hint of a feeling, often just something that whispers in your ear and brushes against your fingers that says it is all possible here more than anywhere else in the world, is a quintessential American feeling for me.

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