Gifts of America


We had a late-night conference call in our Pune office. By the time the call was over it was almost midnight. The air outside was cool and crisp.  Nobody was in a mood to rush home. At least I wasn’t. It only made sense to go for a nice cup of hot coffee. As we settled down at a round table at the nearby restaurant, the conversation drifted from one topic to another. Suddenly I heard someone say, “So why do people go to America?”


Indeed. Why would people go to America? There are lots of things wrong with America. It no longer seems fashionable to go to America. America seems to be losing its Superpower edge. Every day there is news about its rulers bungling this or that. American corporations are firing their employees and sending their work overseas to the smart Indians or Chinese. We can now avail ourselves of the amenities and luxuries that once only America supposedly had – shopping malls, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and all the channels in the world. You can even work and learn remotely, thanks to the Internet!


I realized that his question may have been prompted by my having narrated within the last half-hour a few strange experiences in America, so I quickly answered, “Exactly, that is the point! People go to America to experience just such strange things. They are commonplace for Americans”.


It is very easy to offend people with a discussion involving the comparison of another society with their own. I believe that every society and culture is like the legendary water-glass that is both half-empty and half-filled. What follows below is an honest attempt to capture the “half-filled” aspects of American culture. While comparing American and Indian culture purely on the basis of my own personal experiences and opinions, I have not discussed some of America’s greatest assets -- Public Radio and Television, Public Libraries, and National Parks, for example --  only because India has not yet achieved sufficient economic strength to support them.


All Work is Equal

As graduate students we were probably below the poverty line in America. Many of us had no scholarship or assistantship, and hence were willing to do anything to make a buck. A friend of mine washed dishes in the student cafeteria; another re-shelved books in the library; another worked as a waiter in a restaurant; yet another worked the night shift as a phone operator in the University Security department.  For us, touted as the “cream of the crop” back home in India, this was a hard lesson. Before landing in America, we had surely strong preferences for the type of jobs we would accept, but America broke that mindset once and for all: Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans and Mexicans – all of us were working the same lowly jobs. No one treated us any differently than those lucky ones who had scholarships and fellowships. We saw that America gave respect to every honest dollar, no matter what job got you that dollar. We later saw Americans proudly driving garbage trucks from house to house, hoisting garbage cans to their shoulder, headphones over their ears, whistling as they piled up ton after ton of trash. We saw high-school students working as waiters in fast-food shops without the least bit of embarrassment in their eyes. We saw them mowing grass on weekends. We saw women driving trucks for supermarkets. And these were mainstream Americans – from all strata of society. Their parents were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, farmers, their lineage and status largely immaterial.


America taught us that all work is important and must be given equal respect.



Degrees are not collector’s items – don’t go through education as a routine

I had already decided my plan of what to do in America well before I set foot in Syracuse, New York (my first home in America). First, a Master’s degree in Computer Engineering, followed by a Ph.D. in some specialized area – I had no clue which area, but that didn’t matter. In India, most of us go through the education system quite mechanically. There are institutes, in fact, that allow you to do so without requiring leaving town or changing schools. They get you started in their pre-school and take you through high-school and college classes straight through to your degree. Taking a pause in this series of acts is a crime; taking a break is sacrilege. Everyone understands that you are either economically deprived or intellectually inadequate to have taken such breaks or pauses.


America, though, taught us that education is a means to a goal, not a goal in itself. We saw that high-school graduates commonly took a year off to wander off and do other things. They might travel, perform some social work, or simply join a music group and do gigs in local clubs. Some of them never went back to school – or at least not for a long time – if they found suitable and interesting work.  Others used that year to get a feel for the real world, weigh their options, figure out what they were really interested in, and only then entered college. Post-graduate education was taken up even more thoughtfully. Almost none of the Americans in my Master’s program were automatic rollovers from the bachelor’s program. They had worked in the industry for a while and had decided that a bit more theory might enhance their careers. They chose their college or university based on the quality of its degree program, and what they could afford. Geography also played a small role: rather than determine the closest campus, their concern was to find someplace new and adventurous, the farther from their parents the better!


Americans go to school multiple times in their lifetime. They don’t feel the need to finish it all off in one go. This makes sense because (a) many vital lessons are learnt only in real life so there is no point spending the most important youthful years in school, (b) a lifetime of learning is better spaced out evenly, and (c) topics of study can be selected based on changing interests as one moves from one phase of life to the next.


I must also add that the American campus life was a unique experience for me. The word “campus” took a special meaning with its wonderful architectures, spacious quads (huge green lawns), innumerable tree-lined walkways, spots to drink “free coffee”, a separate office and friendly place for international students to hang out any time, a street (or streets) full of restaurants and shops, the student activity center, the central library with its infinite spaces, and so on. One can easily discover romance on an American campus (even if it does not involve a person!). The American university system also offers a great deal of flexibility – in choosing courses, in deciding the order in which you learn, in picking majors and minors, in changing tracks, and even in learning for free (with something called “audit” courses). I feel sorry for Indian students who arrive with a fixed plan of doing such-and-such courses and quickly looking for work! They are so focused on courses, grades, job-skills, and the degree certificate (all of which can be obtained much cheaper elsewhere in my opinion) that they completely miss out on a wonderful learning and life experience. Some of them even try to wrap the whole program up in a couple of semesters. Their argument is that they have spent so much money getting here that they need to start earning asap. But, I feel, precisely because they have spent so much, they should try to get the most out of their investment by going for a fuller and richer learning and life experience.


Life is a series of adventures – you only live twice!

There is a famous James Bond movie by the name “You Only Live Twice”. I think that title captures a very profound truth. We Indians traditionally lead a very linear life. Our first challenge is to get a job – a secure one. The second challenge is to get married to a suitable partner – again a stable one, and settle down in a safe and secure place. It’s all about stability and security. Once you select a career you are pretty much expected to see it through to its logical end. There isn’t much opportunity for a second chance or a loop-back in this system.


Most Americans go through multiple careers in their lifetime. A very good American friend of mine took a degree in philosophy, took up a sales career, followed it with a few years of monastic life, and then took up software testing! Another person I know taught English in high-school, and in parallel learned tabla and Indian classical dance. When she had learned enough, she quit the teacher’s job and started her own music and dance academy. I have heard an example of someone leaving a thriving business to become a police officer. If you stop and think, we rarely know as a youth what we really want to do in our life. Most of us discover what we want through trials and errors, or simply by observing others. Going further, some of us would enjoy more than one career. So why get stuck with one career?


Americans believe that since you only get one chance to live, you’ve got to make the most of it. What you enjoy doing, learning and playing is more important than what you are “supposed” to do. Americans like to do “cool” things. It’s no wonder that the highest number of entrepreneurs are in America. Americans understand that rewards are obtained only by taking risks.


People all over the world do make such career changes – but they are primarily driven by extreme events, such as near-death experiences through disease or accident. A lottery prize or similar financial windfalls also allow people to do what they really want to do. Sometimes they are driven by spiritual gurus or other influential people. But in America, this is part of living an adventurous life. Americans don’t bat an eyelid at moving from a career they have grown tired of to a new, appealing career that promises to be more meaningful.


I know of many Indians in India who hate their jobs, but are unwilling to make a change for fear of losing their pension! What good is the pension when you are 60 year-old!



Knowledge means understanding, not skills and information

Recently I took a tour of the Golden Triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur with a tour group of about 20 people packed into a bus. There were other families like ours, and my 9-year old son quickly struck up a friendship with another boy of his age. I overheard them engage in a “Q&A” competition. The other boy started off with questions on capital cities of the world. He was amazing; he knew practically every country and its capital. Then they moved to other topics such as the names of obscure animals, their equally obscure habits, etc. In the age of Google and Encarta, I thought the boys were wasting their brain cells on such tidbits, which could easily be looked up with a few key-strokes. So I interjected and asked the boys to try questions of “how” and “why” instead of “what”. They tried that for a while out of respect for the old man, but soon went back to their general knowledge questions.


One of the most striking features of American education is their focus on problem-solving and understanding. I have always been amazed by the practical application skills of my American colleagues, who had much less impressive educational qualifications than their Indian counterparts. It has to do with American education’s emphasis on analytical skills and application-oriented training. Right from pre-school days, the system asks students to do projects that require research and original thinking. The home assignments given to graduate computer science students at Syracuse University all required writing programs.


I used to think that “paper-writing” was a punishment only meant for scholars and doctorate types. In America, an average student writes hundreds of papers in his/her school lifetime. We Indians overload our brain cells with so much information – sometimes completely useless – that there is little room left for analysis and problem-solving. America taught me to ignore information that could be looked up in reference material like books, encyclopedias or the Internet, and focus more on understanding fundamental principles.


The Nobel-prize winning American physicist Richard Feynman has narrated in his autobiography how his father used to prod him as a child to go beyond knowing just the names of things and places, and try instead to really “know” them. He later gained fame not only as a physicist but as a teacher of physics and was famous for his novel approach of going to the basics rather than describing complex equations.


Confident communication, better eye contact

When I first watched American TV news shows I noticed that they got ordinary street folks to comment on some news. I was struck by the confidence and fluid style of their communication. In classroom situations, American students appeared very polished and relaxed when they replied to questions from professors or gave oral presentations to the class.


Americans are generally good communicators. Their communications have an almost musical quality. They show a lot of emotion when they talk, using both pitch and body language. Their bodies are very relaxed and alive when they talk. They are not very shy when it comes to addressing a camera or an audience. They also talk a lot – no matter what situation. I have seen very important business meetings begin with meaningless chatter about the previous night’s football game.


We Indians have somehow adopted a very stiff style of communication. I don’t know if it came from the British. We use our body very little, neither do we use any pitch variation to convey our emotions. We take our classroom and business situations very seriously. Of course our teachers and bosses are to be blamed for that. In the IT industry, a lot of visiting customers complain about the lack of “signs of life” in their meetings with Indian teams.


Communication is one of the most important aspects of the human community life. It enriches our relationships, adds to our knowledge, and improves the quality of our lives. Americans surely have a lesson or two here for us.


Compete for the right things; look at constant improvement

There are legendary American figures that are known for their fierce competitiveness. Michael Jordan was so competitive that he would virtually carry the team on his back to victory even while his own body was suffering from fever symptoms.


Competitiveness is an essential quality for progress, but I think everyone first needs to achieve a certain personal level before seeking to compete with others. We Indians start competing too early – in school days, and that too for the wrong things. We compete for a higher rank in our own small school in our own small town, and feel complacent after getting the top rank. The American education system encourages individual progress rather than competition. There are no ranks; you get graded for your performance. Rather than competing with specific individuals, you focus on improving your ability to achieve a higher grade. It also prepares you for a lifetime of learning and achievement, since there are no limits to what you can achieve.


I feel this kind of attitude brings each individual to a certain personal level of capabilities, after which one can make an easy and healthy transition to competition with specific individuals or companies.



Irreverence doesn’t mean disrespect; there are better ways to show respect

I saw, as a university student, professors being called by first name. That was a shock, of course, since I was used to calling my teachers either Sir or Madam. The American professors didn't seem to mind it. I also did not detect any hint of disrespect in the students towards the professors. “Interesting”,  I said to myself.


Later, I came in contact with families - with the usual mix of grandpas and grandmas, aunts and uncles, and the children. To my surprise, the children called their uncles and aunts by first name. Like "Uncle Tom", or "Auntie Sylvia". If I had spoken with my uncles in India in this manner, I would have certainly got a nice tattoo of 5 fingers across my cheek!


And still later, I saw people interacting in offices. There were the usual bosses and employees, managers and workers, executives and engineers, etc. Even here, the first name business continued! The CEO of the company was just "Peter" or "Fiorina". There were white-haired executives as well as brash young managers - but all of them had only first names. There were some exceptions - some used "Mr. Last Name" instead of first name. Like Mr. Holland or Ms Carter. But no "Sir" or "Madam".


I think there is a certain beauty in using actual names when interacting with people. It not only creates a personal touch, but it gets people's attention better. It is like instantiating an abstract class. When someone calls me by my first name, all my senses become alert to the signal, and I feel committed to respond appropriately.


When you use "Sir" or "Madam" there is also the very real danger of putting people up somewhere where they don't belong!! The game of respect then turns into a game of "personality destruction". If you call someone a dog 100 times, he will start believing that he is indeed a dog. It takes much less than that to convince someone that he/she is an Einstein or Marilyn Monroe (as the case may be). In our society, a lot of arrogance and aggression is created artificially by this "Sir" or "Madam" culture.


Unfortunately our society is so stratified by a variety of class systems that we are forced to show respect in obvious ways. Anyone in a government uniform for example is to be respected all the time. Teachers or professors are to be called Sir and Madam. Boss is always to be referred to as Sir. Politicians are above the law and must therefore be worshipped and garlanded. America broke this barrier for me. I started viewing people for themselves – by qualities and achievements rather than external attributes. In America, even genuine respect is shown not by a visible show of bending bodies and/or servile words. It is simply kept in mind.


Standardization has nothing to do with monotony

Although so much of America smells of engineering (in a good way, of course), my expectation, that American history would be replete with leaders who were engineers, was disappointed.   I am not talking about engineering wonders like the Golden Gate Bridge, but standardization, an engineer’s first love and a pillar of American global excellence. Take its roads for example. The width of its lanes is the same anywhere in America. The colors of sign boards are standard across the country. Vehicle width must be within strict guidelines. Emergency procedures are common: you learn them once, and you can travel anywhere in America. Interstate highway numbering itself follows a standard – all east-west highways use even numbers, and all north-south highways use odd numbers.


Consider the home front as another example. Practically every nut and bolt, every window and door, every tap and pipe, every plug and bulb will fall into some already defined category of size, shape, and other critical dimensions. You can walk into any of the Home Depot type of shops, buy building blocks for your house and put them together yourself. I know of American friends who built and sold one house every year and made enough profit to cover the cost of their own home! The FM and AM radio stations in every city follow a standard numbering convention so that you can find your favorite music or programming at the same frequency.


The proliferation of mega-corporations like McDonald’s is a direct consequence of standardization. The creativity of McDonald’s team is productized in a single R&D center and then replicated across the globe. Standardization does not make life monotonous – it allows us to re-focus our creative energies on new inventions and discoveries; it makes things predictable that should be predictable. You don’t want to enter a toilet wondering how the flush might work. In our country we waste so much time fixing things because every peg and every hole are of unique sizes. The so-called “variety” in our system has sapped our creative energies solving mundane problems. We need engineers to run our country!


The personal lesson for me in this was the lesson that variety and excitement is to be sought not in solving mundane problems of daily living, but at the leading edge of life’s pursuits.


Sports and physical activity is not only for kids

During my first days in America I was amused to watch Americans of all ages jogging on the streets in sports attire, carrying Walkmans. There were beautiful blondes sweating to maintain their figures; others huffed and puffed to restrain their spilling abs. Whatever might be their motivation, Americans give high importance to sports and physical activity. I was surprised to discover that my professor sometimes used a bicycle to cover the 10 miles’ distance from his home to the University. My company receptionist of 60+ years once informed me that she had walked 30 miles for the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign. Many of my colleagues participated in the bicycle or running marathons that are routinely held in American cities. A programmer friend of mine used to run 6 floors up and down every hour to stay fit.


Most American cities (including what we call “suburbs”) have a city center which buzzes with a lot of activity during weekends or holidays. Most of these city centers have family entertainment, thus attracting people of all ages. Invariably, there is a public dance hall where local enthusiasts volunteer to teach basic steps to anyone and sundry. It is a wonderful sight to watch Americans young and old, slim and heavy, ignorant and learned, men and women, green-haired and bald, all dancing merrily to Hispanic, African, or Israeli tunes.


The average American may not look “sporty”, but he or she is more sport-loving than an average Indian. I personally learned more sports during my 2 years in Syracuse than I ever had in my previous twenty years. Besides burning calories, sports and dance help you loosen up. They improve your confidence and body language. They make you comfortable with yourself.


Sense of humor has no boundaries

There is a famous series of satirical movies called “Naked Gun” in which Rob Nielson stars as a fumbling Special Agent whose job is to uncover mysteries. When I saw “Naked Gun 33-1/3” I was appalled by the treatment inflicted on the family of George Bush Senior in that movie. Incidentally George Bush was the ruling President when the movie was released. Later I got hooked on David Letterman’s late night comedy show which routinely heaped sarcasm on politicians, celebrities and holy men. These days, George Bush Junior’s peculiar use of English, called Bushisms,  are popular fodder for American comedy shows.


I soon realized that Americans valued humor as an offshoot of their freedom of expression. There are no bars to what or who the humorist might choose as focus for his next creative outburst. This is in sharp contrast with the rest of the world, where politicians don’t like to be the butt of jokes. Humorists and newspaper-men get attacked physically if a cartoon touches any sensitive chords.


The IT industry, where I work, is solely people-driven. One comment that is usually heard about Indians is the “lack of life” syndrome. For example, in meetings and conference calls, we sit as if we were attending a funeral. We are tight-lipped, dead-serious, and averse to any humor.


Americans love humor. People crack jokes in business meetings, classrooms, and TV shows. It makes them loose and relaxed about what and who they are. It helps build bridges – my graduate advisor won me over very quickly with his happy and relaxed demeanor. I am not a serious person myself, but America made me even more “un-serious” about life.


Independence is sacred, personal space and time is important

If there is one thing Americans will fight for unto death, it is their individual freedom and right to privacy. The American Constitution has a Bill of Rights that talks about various freedoms. These rights are viewed as a prized asset and a differentiator from the rest of the world. There is one aspect of this freedom that really appealed to me. It can best be characterized as “personal space”. Coming from India, I was a social creature – I didn’t think I would survive if I didn’t have company. I know of some friends today who literally go bonkers if their families go away on a short vacation leaving them behind alone. When I came to Syracuse, I saw that my American colleagues also had friends and they moved around in groups. But I also noticed that they were alone many times – at home, on weekends, after school, and it didn’t seem to bother them. I didn’t really appreciate this until much later, that everyone needs some time and space unto herself or himself. A wife needs a break from the husband, parents need a break from their children, children need a break from the adults, and friends need time away from each other. It’s a very healthy way to grow as individuals. It encourages independent thinking. It makes you more confident. It gives you the chance to evaluate and prioritize your relationships. It makes your social behavior healthier. In fact it helps you appreciate your social connections better.


Senior citizens in America prefer to live an independent life. There is usually a senior citizen center in every city; it provides free entertainment, library books and courses to learn a variety of things. It runs a “meals on wheels program” – i.e. meals delivered to homes at subsidized rates. It arranges for free volunteers to drive senior citizens with physical handicaps to medical clinics, malls, theaters or entertainment places.


Ironically, Americans or westerners are thought to be “loners” by us Orientals. We feel sorry for their lack of social activity. But I think we have inadequate understanding of their culture. I view their individualism as a great virtue. It’s no wonder that there have been more inventors and scientists in the west – they didn’t waste their time in useless socializing. I truly believe that many of our own social ills can be attributed to the lack of personal space allowed by our society.


Civility and courtesy define the true character of a civilized society

There is a lot of talk about civilized nations, third world nations, backward countries etc. There is definitely the economic aspect to it. But I think one of the true parameters of a civilized society is how well people treat each other. Courtesy and civility towards each person with whom one interacts is a hallmark of the American culture that I experienced. The left-wing socialists may attribute this to America’s capitalist culture, but I think it goes far beyond wanting to make a quick buck. Here I was in Syracuse – a foreign student with an awful accent, shoving people around to get ahead or sometimes afraid to speak up. I had to meet all kinds of people – secretaries, system administrators, librarians, student advisors, and so on. Everyone including the chairman of my department had courteous manners that put me at ease even though I didn’t always get positive responses to my demands.


Courtesy is not just about how you talk. It’s also about your body language. It’s about recognizing and respecting other people’s needs. The custom on American roads to always allow pedestrians the first right of way, i.e. letting them cross the road before the vehicles, is an example of courtesy that is completely lacking in our country. On the Indian roads, pedestrians run around like chickens let loose in a pack of wolves.


Americans usually greet people in public places, for example while taking a walk in a park. One might argue that those greetings are superficial. But I think they are far better than the unfriendly glares or just plain curious stares that we give in our culture. When someone greets me, he or she is simply saying “I recognize your existence as a fellow human being”. That is enough for me to feel some degree of justification to exist, and some camaraderie towards other humans. Cordiality is not friendship, but it inserts positive vibes into the normally drab day-to-day public life.


Courtesy also has to do with concern for others. Americans follow many rules of cleanliness in public places, not just because they like to stay clean, but also out of courtesy to the next person who might use the same facility.


One of the most amazing experiences for me in America was the treatment I received from the American police. Yes, I was pulled over by police for violating traffic rules.  When the police officer approached,  me, he didn’t ask me to get out of my car, but rather started with “May I see your driver’s license Sir?” Later he asked me, “Do you know why I stopped you Sir?” I was subsequently punished each time according to the law and was asked to pay some fine. But I did not feel humiliated and degraded. And that is the key of “civilized behavior”.  In India, I so often see traffic police beating up a motorcyclist for some traffic violation. Yes, the police have the right to stop the violator, question him, confiscate his license, etc. But it is so uncivilized to get physical with the person.


Generally, in our culture we are very friendly to the person we know – we almost go overboard in trying to please that person, and we are probably the best culture in the world in that regard. But our behavior toward strangers is very strange indeed. We either watch them with idle curiosity (just observe how people idling on sidewalks or standing in their balconies stare at passersby), or glare at them (for example when you make an unusual request to a shopkeeper), or abuse them (for example when a bicyclist stumbles in front of your car).


Silence is golden – distaste for noise pollution

It takes time to get used to the quiet in typical American environments. Away from the cacophony of Indian life, I was first disturbed by the “deathly silence” in Syracuse. Gone were the sounds of honking automobiles, hawkers, stray dogs, people arguing next door, loud late-night TV shows, marriage parties, and so on. I was in a city, all right, but it felt as if I were thrown on a lifeless planet. Even during daytime, the streets were quiet but for the sound of the tires of fast moving cars. University departments appeared as if everyone was on vacation. Slowly I got used to this quiet ambience, and I started to like it. I realized that my brain was suddenly free of a heretofore hidden stress,  probably of filtering sounds so that I could concentrate on the task at hand. I also realized that I didn’t have to shout any more to be heard.


NASA did an interesting exercise some time ago. They created a new type of map of the world – one that showed the amount of man-made light received in space. For example, the map showed bright spots where our great cities are; and dim spots where there are clusters of smaller towns. If they did a similar experiment to map the sound emanating from the planet, I am sure India will shine the brightest! We Indians love noise and sound. Our car drivers like to honk every few seconds to indicate that they are very much alive and awake. We like to argue in high decibels to ensure our neighbors are informed of our views. Our TVs run at high volumes to ensure passersby get a piece of the news. Recently I visited a friend of mine who lives in a 15th floor apartment in Mumbai. I stood in his balcony absorbing the visual beauty of the city. I was also feted with a variety of sounds rising from the streets and homes below.


After the American Experience, for better or worse, I have developed a preference for “deathly silence” over “lively exuberance”.


In closing

American society has its share of problems and challenges like any other society. Due to its superpower status (albeit diminishing), it is held up to a different standard by the world, and so it is easy to overlook its many positive aspects. I have tried to list above a few of these aspects that have influenced and appealed to me.



Author: Abhay B. Joshi (

Date: May 30, 2006

Published in parts in the Indian Express of July and August 2006