When I arrived in the United States fifty-odd years ago as a graduate student, I was understandably excited and enthusiastic about what lay ahead for me: new sights, new culture, new experiences and new possibilities. I was not disappointed. The first couple of years of my life in the small, midwestern town was full of pleasant experiences, and I learned something new on an almost daily basis. I remember many of those experiences with great fondness but what come to my mind most readily when I think of my first couple of years are some lessons I learned about basic American values.
Learning New Subjects
The first of these lessons came within a couple of days of my arrival at the campus. I had to sign up for courses I wanted to take in my first semester which was to begin almost immediately. For my undergraduate engineering program in India, I had to follow a fixed set of courses. Here in America, for each semester, I could choose from a large number of courses being offered by my department. I was also required to select a few courses from sister departments like Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. The process was bewildering for someone who had never faced such an overwhelming universe of available options.
Fortunately, there were a couple of Indian students in my department who had already gone through the process, so I sought their advice. Since this would be my first semester in a new educational system, they suggested that I take the “safe” approach of selecting courses I was familiar with from my undergraduate program in India. Taking their expert advice to heart, I happily signed up for courses that seemed familiar.
When my classes began, I started to realize that most of the courses were surprisingly easy for me. One day I shared that observation with one of my newly-found “American” (i.e., non-Indian) friends. When he learned that I had chosen “safe courses” because I was new to the American university system, he told me something that made a lasting impression on me: “We pay good money to get a good education. Why should we pay to learn something that we have learned already?”. He went on to add, “I would rather get a C in a course where I try to learn something new than get an A in a course I have already mastered.”
Honor Codes in Learning
The next semester saw the admission of a couple more students from India in our department. Now there were five from India in our relatively small graduate program of about thirty students. We bonded quickly and started working together on reviewing class notes and doing homework. Teamwork, we felt, benefited all of us because “five brains were better than one” for learning and solving problems. To be completely frank, only a couple of members did the bulk of the homework while the others were perfectly happy to piggyback on their efforts.
One day, one of the professors happened to drop by when the five of us were busy working together on some homework. He lingered for a while and realized that we were freely sharing answers to homework problems. Gently but firmly, he pointed out to us that learning was an intensely personal responsibility, and each of us needed to do our homework individually and separately. Being somewhat of a smart aleck, I ventured to say that we were building teamwork. He smiled and gave us a short lecture on the differences between learning and sharing. “You must first learn a subject through your personal efforts because that is your responsibility as students. Sharing should and will come later in life, when a project team is formed at your workplace to address a specific need, and your expertise will complement others to get the job done.” Basically, he told us that our “sharing’ was a form of cheating.
That was my indirect introduction to the concept of “honor code” in American academic institutions. Later I would learn that across the country, school-going children are introduced to their institutions’ honor codes at an early age, and violators of the code often face significant disciplinary action from school administration.
“Work is Worship”
Soon after my wife joined me, she decided to follow in the footsteps of wives of other Indian students and take a job at a small assembly plant. It was a place where groups of women workers inserted electronic components into circuit boards. The pay was decent (for the wife of a foreign graduate student who himself earned a poverty-level stipend), and the job saved her from being thoroughly bored at home.
One day she told me that at the end of a day’s work, a worker was chosen by rotation to broom-clean the floor of her group’s work area -- and that she had done that duty a couple of times already. She hastened to add that nobody seemed to mind sweeping the floor, so she was fine with that task. At first, I was aghast at the thought of my lovely, young wife sweeping a factory floor like a janitor, a task far beneath her station in life. But when the shock wore off, I realized that I did the same thing every day in my lab at the university!
As I reflected on the experiences of my wife and myself, I saw the truth that had been hiding from me in plain sight for over a year. No work in America carried social stigma. No job was beneath one’s dignity. American society did not care what kind of work you did so long as you put in an honest day’s labor. That philosophy applied equally to a banker, a plumber, a doctor, an auto mechanic or an assembly-line worker. I knew of a professor whose daughter was married to a carpenter, and he was mighty proud of his son-in-law. Almost all of my friends did “oil-filter-and-lube” jobs on their cars. School teachers knocked on doors, eager to paint houses during summer months when they were out of work. America was not completely free of class structure but it was a lot less class-conscious than India.
In those days, “Work is Worship” was an empty slogan in India, plastered on the walls of many government offices where workers were often missing, taking naps, or avoiding customers standing in line for service. In America, “Work is Worship” was a societal belief, a faith to which most people subscribed without the slightest hesitation.
Research – A Way of Life
After a beautiful wife came a beauty of a car, an old Buick Skylark of 1963 vintage. Not surprisingly, it needed a few parts repaired or replaced now and then. As a result, I got to know a mechanic at a nearby garage. One day, I took my car to him for some kind of service (I have forgotten what kind of service was needed). The mechanic opened up the hood, fiddled with the engine for a while and then proclaimed that he had diagnosed the problem. He explained the issue and then began to describe the proposed solution by saying, “I have done some serious research on this subject …” His use of the word research hit me hard. An auto mechanic was saying to me that he had done research?
To me, research was something professors and scholars did in institutions of higher learning and in think-tanks, surrounded by shelves and shelves of books and journals or racks and racks of laboratory equipment and supplies. In my mind, researchers studied published works of their peers, came up with a plan for their own work, painstakingly collected and analyzed data, and concluded with important nuggets of valuable insight. And this auto mechanic, probably just a high school graduate, dared to claim that he had dome some serious research! How sacrilegious!
It took me several years to realize that my mechanic friend was totally correct in his assertion. Research is not limited to the work done by intellectuals in ivory towers. The word, in its true spirit, covers a wide waterfront. Any systematic investigation aimed at analyzing information and gaining new insights is considered research. By that standard, the auto mechanic had indeed done a piece of research.
The mechanic had, unknowingly, taught me an even more valuable lesson: Americans, in many walks of life, do research in their own unique ways to solve everyday issues. School children from an early age are encouraged to collect and analyze information to answer “problems” posed to them by their teachers. Parents love to see their kids taking apart gadgets and gizmos (like radios and car engines) and putting them back together to learn how and why these things work the way they do. This nation-wide emphasis on problem-solving makes “research” an integral step in the “problem definition” to “problem solution” process. In turn, this process challenges the American society to value and pursue creativity.
Fix it Even if it isn’t Broken
But Americans aren’t satisfied with just being creative. They invariably want to see their creative ideas transformed into real products or processes that make life easier, cheaper or better for people and businesses. Simply speaking, Americans like to commercialize their inventions -- and being firm believers in capitalism, make some money in the process.
As I settled down in the US, I saw ample evidence of American ingenuity everywhere. The most obvious were the wide array of innovative devices in the field of consumer products. I marveled at the potato peeler and the splatter guard for the kitchen, the smoke detector and the burglar alarm for home safety, the label maker and self-sealing envelope for the office, and so on and so forth. Most of these products were invented by individual users who simply were not satisfied with the status quo. They rejected the “don’t-fix-it-if-it-isn’t-broken” philosophy and pursued a “make-it-better-if-at-all-possible” approach. They followed the strategy of “continuous improvement” long before management gurus coined that term. Furthermore, Americans went beyond the “necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention” adage and invented products that created completely new markets. Lasers and photocopying machines are great examples of such “technology push” products.
No wonder the United States is the unchallenged leader in the arena of invention and innovation.
(Posted April 1, 2020)
Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Comments received from Vishnupriya on April 1, 2020: "It was absolutely delightful to read both your articles. Such a wonderful window into another America. Very enlightening indeed. And what delectable language! Thank you for the treat."
Comments received from Bobby P. on April 9, 2020: "Thank you for compiling a couple of lovely articles with wonderful penmanship and language. You two are truly appreciated for keeping the Bengali spirit alive and evoking such indelible memories which has universal interest. -- I will be purchasing next week a couple of extra copies of your Book to gift to my daughters who constantly marvel about our old culture and are intrigued. Keep up doing the priceless work ! "
Comments received from Kamala (Bashu) D. on April 11, 2020: "Enjoyed reading both of your articles. Reminded me of my own past. Those days seem more enchanting every year as I get older, perhaps truly they were and perhaps partly colored by my golden remembrance."
Comments received from Shyamal G. on April 11, 2020:
"Enjoyed reading both articles, wonderfully written. They remind me of two of my experiences.
At end of July, 1960, few days after my graduation from IITKGP, I went to W Germany. I was on boat SS Roma, for two weeks, sailing from Mumbai to Genoa, Italy. It was a smaller (unlike cruise ships) boat. Australian Rabbit meat was usually served for dinner. I got sick while crossing choppy Indian Ocean. We reached Aden and crossed Suez Canal in a few days. On August 1, 1960, I boarded a train (TEE) to Hanover from Genoa. While crossing Alps, night temperature dropped so low that I thought that I would freeze to death. The train was crowded. I was unable to get my new overcoat(New Market) out from my suitcase. Language barrier was also a problem. It was probably the worst night of my life. Fortunately, I survived and reached Hanover next day. I started working from August 3 in my first job, in Peine/Hanover, which I lined up in my final year. Surely, in a small industrial town Peine, hardly anybody spoke English.
On January 31, 1970, I arrived in JFK from Kolkata, and my friend took me to Clinton Arms Hotel, NYC, on Broadway and 99th Street. Like many others, I came without a job and with limited fund. Goal was to find one soon. So very next day, in freezing rain, I walked up to 41st Street to look for an employment agency. I walked because I was not familiar with the NYC Transit system. It was another miserable day of my life. When I enquired about the building, I was told that building was “torn down”. Trip was wasted, but I learnt a new word. Luckily, I could land a job in two weeks time in Huntington."
Early Lessons on American Values