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This summer vacation, I visited some places along (and around) the US East Coast along with a group of my friends from school.
This, however, isn’t exactly what you’d label a quintessential travel blog.
My trip to the USA was an enriching one, in many respects. Besides the stated purpose of visiting NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as part of this “educational tour”, there’s much more I learnt just being in the United States.
Here’s a list, in no particular order.
1. Road Discipline
My friends home here in India must be laughing off their chairs by now.
Yeah, we all know the scene here in India. It’s not so much the enforcement of traffic signals, speed limits and other rules that caught my eye as what seemed to be the general inherent discipline of drivers.
Vehicles driving beautifully in lanes, maintaining stopping distance and a respectable gap between themselves, even in slow traffic or a traffic jam. Almost no horns at all. Now, that’s discipline.
Compare and contrast to the condition here in India. Lane driving is almost non-existent. Honking seems to be a child’s play-game to outshout the driver slowing you down from your (often breakneck) speed. For many drivers, traffic rules, parking restrictions and signals exist only when there’s a traffic police officer or a speed gun nearby (witness many violating traffic signals late at night). In short, road discipline is not inherent, it is enforced largely by fear of an external disincentive.
Drivers in the USA aren’t saints, of course! But then, you know it’s inherent when it’s in the blood of people to generally maintain lanes and distance. Because, this was what I witnessed on all roads, and all of them definitely didn’t have a traffic cop standing near.
Oh my, of course!
India seems to be suffering a colonial hangover from the British era. We often address people lower in stature as lesser humans and not exactly in the respectful tone we would use with high society (and should use with everyone).
Fast forward to the opposite side of the world, the United States of America. Greeting people with a “Hi, how’re you doing?” and saying “Thank you” is very, very common; regardless of the fact that you are a dark-skinned foreigner (at least in the cities I visited).
In the United States, a respectful, empathetic approach towards everyone seems to be inherent in most people, be it a police officer or a Wall Street executive.
I sure will be more polite henceforth, to everyone. People here, the taxi driver for example, get pleasantly surprised when I say “thank you” at the end of the trip. It feels good to make the other person smile (gratitude is good for health, says science; it makes you happy).
3. Dignity of labour
Again, this is something largely absent in India.
One of the things about the United States that stood out to all of us was how everyone is universally respected, be it it the janitor, the bus driver or the executive.
Although many of us try to break out of it, the social heuristic of looking down upon people doing seemingly “menial” jobs: sweeping, driving public transport, our maids and servants; in fact, upon anyone we consider any else “equal” than we in the elite of the society are, is widely prevalent here in India. And it hurts me, to the core.
The presence of the system of self-service prevalent in most joints and restaurants in the USA was perhaps a brutal wake-up call for many of us used to having our plates and garbage cleaned by “lesser equals”: that everyone is born equal, and that no one exists just to serve somebody.
To be less subtle, the lack of India’s notorious “chalta hai” attitude.
“Chalta hai” attitude
A tendency amongst Indians to accept things as they are, and to leave the nitty-gritties and finishing touches of a new endeavour unfinished; unprofesionalism
Yes, I made up that definition. No, it isn’t incorrect; it reflects an undeclared reality. And no, it definitely doesn’t find mention in the Oxford English Dictionary.
What is apparently the lack of professionalism in many aspects strikes me here in India. Road signage is not proper (except in a particular flyover in my home-city Kolkata built by a very reputed company). Road markings themselves are hardly straight, in many places. Police stations look very unwelcome with all the laundry hanging out to dry.
Almost everywhere you look (with many, many exceptions, of course), unprofessionalism; the fact that something lacks its finishing touches is staring you in the eye.
Not so in the United States of America. In that country, everywhere you look, you see a completed endeavour as a testament of professionalism. Proper road signage, perfectly straight road markings, proper road surface, cleanly laid tiles, etc.
We Indians have a lot to learn with respect to professionalism. Let’s begin with something as basic as getting our spelling and grammar along with the formatting correct in official documents.
We Indians seem to have a penchant for tossing things out of the car window onto the streets. Or just plain old littering: throwing away the empty packet of chips you just will not carry to a dustbin or home.
I don’t ever throw away garbage/trash like that onto the street, and trust me, many of my friends have and more probably will laugh at me if they see me tuck it into a sidechain of my bag to trash it later at home.
The beauty of the United States? With the exception of New York City (which is a pretty unclean city), there wasn’t a single piece of litter, garbage or plastic we saw anywhere: be it the street, a parkway, a stretch of green, etc.
If anyone of you have turned your back after a picnic somewhere here in India, you know how disgustingly dirty the place gets. Leave alone the government, if we don’t curb this habit of throwing stuff away anywhere we wish to, this problem of littering isn’t gonna go away anytime soon.
6. Enterprise & Entrepreneurship
The United States of America is a consumerist society. Now, that isn’t really such a good thing. But there’s one thing that caught my eye.
Everywhere we went, there’s a souvenir shop or established businesses ready to sell stuff and make a buck or two. Tourist attractions draw huge crowds because these Americans have installed every possible activity you can probably dream of out there.
You may call that catering to consumerism. I prefer to call that enterprise. Come on, let’s admit it; Americans know how to do business (and not always in very good, palatable ways).
The USA’s consumerist culture is responsible for much distress amongst its citizens and residents. But let me tell you this, the spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship prevalent amongst much of its citizens: the “do it yourself” (and build a fortune, sometimes) culture, is something I admire greatly.
7. Joie de Vivre
What I understood from my 14 days in the US East Coast is that Americans are a class of people who just love to have fun. And that isn’t such a bad thing, you know. We could all do with being happier and more content in life.
Sure, Americans hustle, and honestly, sometimes a lot more than they really should. But they play equally hard.
Now, that’s something admirable to learn.
8. (Healthy) Pride
Yes, I know. Americans are a bit more proud than they ought to be.
They will still measure their temperature in Fahrenheit when the rest of the world uses Celsius. They’ll follow the F.P.S. system when the rest of the world uses the C.G.S. or SI system. Their switches are upside down by standards followed by the rest of the world. America is apparently still the greatest country in the world. There are just so many idiosyncrasies characteristic to the USA, by virtue of their pride.
Perhaps it is a bit too much (I personally think it is).
But then, India lies on the opposite extreme. Ever since birth, we are conditioned, thanks to our generally pessimistic outlook about our own country, that there is little hope for India.
And yes, did I mention that pessimism quite often ruins your chances of ever achieving something just because you believe you cannot?
We could all do with a bit more pride and belief (let’s not go to the level of arrogance, that is bad). If not in our country, at least in ourselves.
I do realize that this perhaps adds fuel to fire, thereby reinforcing the delusion of the citizens of the United States of America that they still are the greatest country on the face of the Earth.
Well, let’s not argue, that is a delusion that still affects so many Americans.
But hey, why not learn something good (not just from the USA but also from everyone else) and leave the bad out? This is all good stuff I learnt. I didn’t inculcate the not-so-good and the bad I saw out there.
Let not the presence of the latter contaminate the former.
Originally published at sagniksarkar.in