Wow, these squirrels are as big as cats in India. That was one of my first reactions when I came to America as an eager grad student in the early 2000s. Everything was bigger, brighter and faster.
I hadn’t stepped foot outside India before then. But I knew all about American culture – what was cable TV for, anyways? My new life would be as happening as any episode of Friends.
I take that back. It would be way more happening than Friends. Maybe Friends and 90210 melded together.
In my defense, I was 21.
And no one mentioned that upstate New York (where my university was located) ran at a slightly slower pace than Times Square or Beverly Hills.
Fast forward about 15 years. I now live across the country in Oregon. I’m the minivan driving queen of suburbia. I pack peanut butter and jelly school lunches. American life feels…regular. Every now and then, though, I still feel like ET – especially when I check the box on forms that describe me as a “resident alien.” But it’s easy to forget the wonder, goof ups and plain old shock of being in a new country.
Like my jaw-hits-the-floor awe at American portion sizes. I remember telling the server at Panda Express to please stop loading my plate. Sure, I could eat that much chicken. In about a week.
That, of course, changed over the course of a few years. Or maybe it was a few days. (It’s amazing what your body can do when you put your mind to it.) I can now polish off my Beijing Beef before you can say Kung Pao.
Here’s a list of other things that I blew my FOB mind:
A Cheeseburger is not a vegetarian option of a sandwich with cheese and no meat? Really? And a Hamburger doesn’t have ham in it? You’re kidding me, right?
You Need a PhD
To order coffee in America, that is. I steered clear of Starbucks like it was the Center for Disease Control. Then there was Subway – my eyes skimmed over gazillion options like I was studying the periodic table.
After a decade in the US, though, I was sure I had finally conquered the endless options scenario. Till we went to get ice cream the other day. I had the cone size down and kids wanted Vanilla. Easy peasy. “Would that be French Vanilla, Old Fashioned or Vanilla Bean?” the nice lady behind the counter asked. Oh-kay, here we go again.
The Trust Factor
Free refills. That’s a concept that I still can’t wrap my FOB mind around.
Where I came from, in Chennai, India, there were seasons. There was Hot and Hotter. The colors of Fall belonged in books. Then I went to upstate New York. I saw everything through the eyes of a child – the cotton-candy cherry blossoms and fields of tulips, the crunch of fall leaves and fresh snow. It was like opening Christmas presents at the turn of every season.
The Espresso Bar at Church
Whaa?? That’s the grace of God right there, people. And everyone said, “Amen!”
Say It Like It’s Not
If you want a fork or a knife – even if it’s plastic – you politely request silverware. Ask for cutlery and you may be met by a puzzled expression and a plate of celery. True story.
An entire aisle for pet supplies? C’mon people. I just got over the fact that breakfast food took up the real estate of a small Indian apartment.
There was a time when I examined strangers’ grocery carts with unbridled curiosity. I was convinced that people did their groceries every year or so. That was before I had to schedule time just to unload and put away my weekly groceries.
PDA in … church?
Well, the kids are in Sunday School. There’s music and nice lighting. Unlike Indian churches where there’s an unstated one foot space requirement between spouses, American churches seemed ideal for some hand holding and shoulder squeezes.
I’m sure there’s a ton I’ve forgotten. Maybe my mind has suppressed some memories. Like how I wasted an entire stash of toilet seat covers in an effort to get one – just one – on the darn potty. You live, flush and learn.
What were your first experiences of living in a foreign land?