Friday, November 18, 2011

Looking In The Rear View Mirror

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons - Castle79

You know all those people who always dream of coming to America? I was never one of them.

Yet six years ago, I landed in New York on what was a rather cold November day. I was a newly married 25-year-old who had never visited the U.S. before and ended up here to join my husband who worked here though he too, like me, is from Bombay. Thanks to visa processing delays, I had to wait behind for over two months after our wedding, which meant making the big move by myself.

I packed into two suitcases as many of my treasured possessions as airline regulations would permit, bid farewell to all my friends and family, and landed at JFK airport after a 24-hour long journey. As excited as I was to start a new life, along with me, unnoticed by the watchful eyes of the immigration, slipped in a certain sense of displacement, which though has diminished with time, I suspect will never really go away.

I barely knew anyone in the U.S. – I didn’t have a single relative here (can be a good thing sometimes, especially if you’re Indian) though I did have a few friends from school and college scattered in other cities. And if the amount of time spent together is directly proportional to how well you know someone, you could argue that I didn’t know my husband too (though I’d like to believe that was not the case.)

We had what is famously labeled in India as an “arranged marriage*” made more complicated by the fact that we were in two different countries and could only communicate virtually for almost a year before we got married. During this time, we had spent a total of three weeks of actual time together – the only time when the husband-to-be could take leave and come back home for a visit. (Sounds crazy, right? But crazy or not, considering it’s been over six years now, that’s still 30.417 times Kim Kardashian’s marriage (365x6)/72))!

Though I was no stranger to American culture – if a regular diet of Hollywood movies, American TV shows, MTV and Archie comics can be considered educational – I still had lots to learn about the new world I had landed into. At times, the smallest of things perplexed me:
  • How could the smallest cup of coffee at Starbucks be called ‘tall?’
  • In India, the floor at the ground level is called the ground floor and the level above is the called the first floor. So the ground floor in India = first floor in the U.S. This meant that I did mistakenly get into an elevator once (ok, maybe more than once, out of habit) to go up to the first floor.
  • Taking the ‘u’ out of words like colour and humour just seemed wrong, as did replacing the ‘s’ with a ‘z’ in organise and analyse. But I hastened at making a good effort to switch from British English to American after some of my spellings were marked “wrong” on college writing assignments <inserting eye-roll here for dramatic effect./>
Six years later, my written English is now completely purged of its British influence and I can’t help but reflect on how far I’ve come. While moving to a new country opens up a whole universe, it also has the unintended consequence of making you feel stuck in between two worlds. Most people end up clinging more than ever to their roots, struggling between the dichotomous paths of retaining a sense of their identity, even as they try to integrate themselves with the culture and people of their new home.

There was no Facebook or Twitter when I first got here and it’s also been interesting to observe the role new media has played in my life as an immigrant since then. Agreed, it’s often been a source of endless distraction – not everything I end up reading is of cerebral value, sometimes nothing more than inane details of other people’s lives. But at the same time, it’s helped me stay in touch with friends and events back home. Sometimes, I learn about breaking news events in India even before my family and friends do. It serves as an optical illusion that makes everything seem less distant and more connected.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also helped me better acquaint myself with my new home. I find myself more attuned to the world around me. In some ways, I have found it easier to connect with people through online channels. I don’t mean to suggest that virtual interactions can replace the depth of IRL friendships but I have found that the Web can have a unifying effect – factors like where you're from and whether you speak English with an Indian accent, matter much less. Virtual communication can make differences between people less pronounced and place the focus more on the actual interaction.

Six years later, I am grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had and all the good things that have come my way. And that’s only appropriate considering Thanksgiving is around the corner. (Traditional turkey with an Indian twist, anyone?)

How does new media touch your life personally? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

*arranged marriage - No, I wasn't forced to marry my husband. I could have said no if I wanted to. And I did, to other ‘prospects’ before him (God bless them!)
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