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Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t smile at strangers.

I grew up hearing these golden rules everywhere I went. And rightly so. We live in a country where self-preservation is our duty. And so, it was with no surprise that by the time I grew up enough to realize my dream of studying in the US, these rules became a part of me. ( More in USA Lifestyle )

Gigantic huge buildings that touched the sky… Lights that never went off.. People who never slept.. Oh yes! I had watched each episode of ‘Friends’ a 100 times. I knew Penny (from Big Bang Theory) better than I knew my classmates. The Hangover showed me the dazzle of the country that never slept.

Was I ready for it? I’ve always loved living in smaller towns more than in bigger cities.. But hell yeah! I was ready for this!!

And so even as thoroughly scared and jetlagged as I was, I was shocked out of it when I changed planes at New York for Cincinnati. The plane barely held 40 people. And I had to duck my modest 5 feet 2 inches to clamber onto my seat.

We flew over miles and miles of empty greenery. WHERE were my lights and buildings and and and….???

airplane farms view

Over the days, I realized that everything I had ever imagined or learnt about this beautiful country, I had to relearn.

Yes, the roads were spic and span. But there were no huge buildings towering over them. Those buildings stayed restricted to the biggest cities and the downtowns of the smaller ones. Even malls were single storied.

Yes, the people were free to express themselves through their tattoos, hair color, clothes…or anything else. But they were extremely friendly and very, very polite.

Everywhere I went, people held doors open for me. At bus stops strangers chatted with me about everything ranging from the weather to how I was adjusting. It took me quite some time to shed my inhibitions about strangers smiling at me. But I’ve always believed in adjusting to new places and looking for the best in them.

So in a few days, there I was, smiling back at people and chatting incessantly with anyone who wanted to. However, I never did leave my guard down. And I would advise the same to everyone else.

What took me by surprise the most was the sheer number of people who are extremely conservative here. This is not what any of the American sitcoms or movies had prepared me for. A huge chunk of people frowned upon live-in relationships.

A lot of them are deeply, deeply religious. A number of families (especially from the South) still believe girls need not go out and work, if their husbands are earning enough. Premarital sex is frowned upon. Being a single, unmarried mother is a huge, gigantic taboo. Homosexuals are fighting very, very hard to be accepted by society.

And here are all of our Politicians and religious leaders blaming ‘Western Culture’ for all of India’s problems. Irony!!

But what was it that really, really stole my heart about America?

It was how accommodating most people are. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, what your skin color is, what you wear or how you pronounce different words… you will be treated with respect here. (There are always exceptions, but then again, there are bad eggs in every community/country/religion).

They will make an effort to learn about you, your belief and your culture, without scorning or laughing about the 100+ gods you believe in (If you follow Hinduism). I was not judged for any of my beliefs or opinions. Even though I am a non-vegetarian, every time I went out with a new group of people, they always checked to see if I was vegetarian before ordering food.

I’m still learning every day. But what I’ve learnt the best here is to keep an open mind, and to not judge people. We all have our different opinions and beliefs shaped by our families and our environments. Last Diwali, a number of joggers stopped and told me I was looking beautiful in my kurta. She doesn’t judge me for wearing a kurta…I don’t judge her for jogging in hotpants.

smiling jogging

I must say, it is refreshing to not have to watch out for men trying to touch me while walking down the road. I learnt during my four years of college in India to avoid eye contact with men on the road, to look away irrespective of whether they leered or smiled and to always, always try and maintain as much distance as I could from them.

What took me the longest to adjust to here was that if I did not smile and talk to the people on the streets/ lines/ elevators irrespective of their gender, I was being awfully rude. There have been times when someone politely asked me if I wanted to have a cup of coffee. If I smiled and said I was in a hurry, they always, always stepped back and wished me a good day.

My professors have treated me as their colleague from day one. My ideas are given equal importance. I can argue with them if I disagree with any of their thoughts. My timings don’t matter..my output does.

Have I not met any people I disliked? I wish! That would be a dream, wouldn’t it? But there are so few of them, that I don’t let it affect me.

People in the US are, on average, far more honest and ethical than most Indians. In fact, I am often dismayed at how many Indian students take advantage of the system here.

A lot of things in the US run on trust and honesty.

I know Indian students who not only steal and cheat, but are pathetic enough to brag about it. From watching multiple movies after having paid only for one, using the same reusable coke glass that restaurants give for over a month.. to insurance fraud and even cheating on exams… it is extremely, extremely sickening.

Professionalism

My advice to prospective International students?

Come with an open mind.. and you will learn something new everyday! Remember you’ve come to a different country because you think the system back home is not as good. Don’t drag our country’s name down the drain by being dishonest here.

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