Coming to America: For here or to go?
Since I talked about Chito in my previous blog and all those early days of coming to America, I remembered a few events that was part of my baptism by fire that I can laugh about today.
Coming from India, food was the biggest adjustment I had to go thru. For whatever reason, Citibank had special ordered “Hindu meal” in the Lufthansa flight that brought me from Mumbai to US. And the Germans – mostly because they are Germans – took the instructions very seriously and had a load of green leaves on my plate that would make any cow back in India chew the cud for a month or so.
Well, Hindus eat far less raw vegetable leaves than any Germans or Americans do. That is a fact of life. So, you can only imagine how hungry I was when I landed in USA. The first thing we did (we being the few folks Citibank had transferred to USA) was hit the place we had heard a lot about – McDonalds.
When we landed up at the golden arches, all hell broke loose. First and foremost, why people were forming well defined queues was totally beyond us. See, back in India, we formed queues with the self discipline of a bunch of bees smelling honey. We certainly did not comprehend the reason to have about two feet of “personal space” between every participant in the queue. Back in India, we had people. Lots of them. Like 1.2 billion (with a “b”) of them. We did not have enough space to have “personal space”.
Then the next confusion point was the menu on the board. God!! Way too many choices. You know, we were used to “chicken” or “mutton” or “vegetarian”. That would not do for the most advanced country in the world. First there are ten choices. Neatly marked #1 thru #10. And that was merely the rows. Then there were the columns – small, big, really big or something like that. And then there were the fries option…. and drinks options. In India, those options were “Yes” or “No”. Here it was Sprite, Coke, Diet Coke, Hawaiian Punch, Lemonade… And when you were exhausted choosing one, came the next bombardment – “What size?”.
Eventually, we had nowhere to hide. We were face to face with this burly black guy whose face was the epitome of the word “disdain” and man, he kept on saying something. We saw his lips moving and there certainly was a non-zero decibel level associated with it – but we had not the faintest clue what he was saying.
One thing about us Indians. We might be idiots. But we will never let you understand that. Why do you think we put you on those endless waits on the call center calls? 🙂 In this particular case, we just resorted to “point and shoot” mode. #3 somebody said, pointing to the board behind the guy, as if he knew what the hell he was ordering 🙂 And the guy punched in some keys. #5, the next guy said. More punching.
Till Srini, the vegetarian from south India put in his order. “Burger. No meat. Please”. Of course, I was impressed that Srini remembered to say Please (in India, we had long foregone such niceties in life). The black guy, though, was fixated on something else. “What???? Burger without meat???? You want just buns??”. Srini, for the better or else, confirmed the order. Over the next five minutes, the guy fidgeted with his machine till he realized that even the sharpest programmers in McDonalds did not put in an option to price a burger without meat. So, he just gave up and gave Srini the buns free! “Smart dude, Srini”, we all agreed!!
And finally, just when we thought our whole pain was over the black gentleman asked another question. And when I say ‘asked a question’, I mean we had a general sense that some words were escaping thru the clenched teeth 🙂 Here is the real problem. There stood, nary an Indian, that understood what he said, that day.
Eventually, I think some of the Ebonics – if that is even the right term – made an impression on one of our friends. We called him by his initials “RG”. He could decipher that he was asking us “For here or to go”? RG, while he understood the literal words, had no idea of the context.
His response was, and still is indelibly etched as one of the “Passing of Rites of Coming to this Country” for me.
“Sir, we will have it here and then go”, is what he said!
And that is how I had my first meal in the country that eventually became my own country.