I didn’t have many culture ‘shocks’ when I first came to this country, more like culture ‘surprises’! I was surprised (well, that maybe an understatement) when Sean’s three big, huge brothers enveloped me in a bear hug to welcome me into their family. Keep in mind, I came from a land where we didn’t touch, we folded our hands in namaste and greeted others. I came from India, that too mid-nineties India. Not only did we not touch, we didn’t hug MEN, unknown men at that! Goodness! So when the brothers gave me welcome hugs, I was culture surprised! Looked up at Sean to see him smiling benignly at the scene. When we had a moment together, I hissed ‘What was that all about? Why did your brothers hug me?’ ‘They were just welcoming you to the family! That’s how we do it here!’He tried to soothe me. A little tutorial before meeting his family would have been helpful, but that was obviously overlooked by my fiance. No matter, I learnt in due course, now I go back home and try to hug friends to show my love and feel them stiffen!
Another instance of surprise was when we took shelter from torrential down pour, under the awning of Baja Beach Club and peeked in to see what was going on inside. People were trying creative ways to drink shooters aided by scantily dressed buxom beauties. That experience could be qualified as culture shock and not mere surprise but we are not going into nitty-gritties here. Then there was my first Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade in Central Park in New York. Hmmm, I forget if that was surprise or shock. Just remember gorgeous men and women wearing very little clothing or no clothing.
My big issue, as a new comer, was the heavy, Baltimorean accent. I could not, for the life of me, understand a word that was being said! And here I was, a person who took pride in knowing a foreign language so well! I was in for a rude awakening. There was a really nice young instructor in the gym we went to. Gary, the instructor, was a nice man with a heavy, heavy Baltimorean accent. He took a liking to me right away since I was from India and he loved Indian food! He tried to engage me in a conversation whenever he could. After a few ‘I beg your pardon’s (I was very formal those days and spoke the Queen’s English), I looked at Sean to translate. Sean, fortunately, understood my predicament and rose to the occasion. He learnt to read the utter incomprehension in my face and jumped in to rescue me. Despite his help, I felt like a complete idiot! It became so bad that I didn’t dare go to the gym if Sean wasn’t with me! And if I did, and Gary was around, I tried not to meet his eye! It was very embarrassing. Poor Gary! And poor me!!!
Talking about the gym, I must mention another culture ‘surprise’! Sean went to exercise and I went to pretend to exercise but primarily to hang out with my husband. Newly married and all. I noticed, the men who exercised there hardly ever looked at me! What’s up with that? Here was a cute, young woman (I was kind of cute and definitely young) working out next to them and not a single, stolen glance! That didn’t bode very well for my ego. Sean got a lot of stares, and this I noticed! Finally, I asked him ‘Why do the men ogle you and not look at me?’ ‘Because they are gay!’ He answered. Oh, the joy! Phew!! I was just not the right gender. I was ok with that! We lived in a predominantly gay neighborhood, and I never felt so safe living in crime infested Bawlmore. Sean got a few cat calls from time to time, but me? Never! I could walk home from work late at night without a worry. It was great!
In a few months, I got a job as a guest coordinator in a hotel in downtown Baltimore. Things were getting better, I was beginning to break the code of Baltimorean English till bam…..telephone conversations!!! I had to frequently talk to guests on the phone and the thought of phone conversation was enough for me to break out into a cold sweat! I tried to avoid picking up phones, hoping my colleagues would take pity. But they yelled ‘ANSWER THE PHONE!’ I still cringe remembering how many times I had to say, ‘I am sorry, could you please say that again?’
Since, I still didn’t understand what my colleagues were saying when they spoke fast, I kept to myself and didn’t contribute much. One nice lady asked why I was so quiet! I smiled but another lady answered for me. And I am NOT JOKING, this is exactly what she said, ‘Well of course, she is quiet, because where she comes from, if she makes too much noise, the tiger will know where she is and come and get her!’ I didn’t think she was joking but hopefully, she was! Remember, all this happened about 14 years ago, when people didn’t have much idea about ‘incredible India!’
Around that time, when I was trying to understand my fellow humans, I went into a store to buy some stuff. Probably cough lozenges, I was addicted to those! The cashier, a young man, said something to me jokingly. Of course, I didn’t get the joke because I didn’t understand anything that he said! So I asked, ‘Ummmm, beg your pardon!’ he said it again, I failed to comprehend, yet again. This time I said, ‘I am sorry, I didn’t understand your accent!’ The man must have felt irritated about me not getting his hilarious joke, he said this loudly and clearly, ‘Lady, I don’t have an accent. You do!’ He was right.
The irony is, now I talk like Americans, gone is my Queen’s English. But my Indian friends get somewhat frustrated about this, ‘Gosh, you put on such an accent! Talk normally!’ This is now normal, or I have forgotten what is ‘normal!’ Looks like I simply can’t win!