Immigrant Bengalis

I should admit at the outset that I am not qualified to share “immigrant experiences” with the readers of this website because I am not an immigrant nor I ever was. But I had an opportunity, back in 1974, to spend over six weeks in various parts of the US and observe American ways of life of that time. For those who have not been to the US, I thought that some of my recollections may be entertaining. For Bengalis who live in the US, memories of my visit may trigger happy trips down nostalgia lane.

“Going abroad” is now commonplace for Indians but forty years ago, long trips to far away countries were not very common among middle class Bengalis. So, I was very excited when I received the news that I had been selected by Rotary International, District 326, to go to the United States under their cultural exchange program. I was one of five young Rotarians who had been chosen that year by the “district” comprising of West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. I was about 30 years old and working in a steel plant in Rourkela, Orissa (I still live in Rourkela) – and I was thrilled at the prospect of being a guest of the Arizona District (I forget the district number now) of Rotary International.

On April 3 our group took off from Dum Dum International Airport on a domestic flight for Delhi. That part of the trip seemed to be very short because I was busy enjoying the novelties of my first air travel experience. In Delhi we boarded an Air India flight in the wee hours of April 4. Air India had just started its Boeing 747 “jumbo” jet service but non-stop Delhi-to-New York flights had not been dreamt of yet. Our flight stopped at Beirut, Rome, Paris and London – before crossing the Atlantic to arrive in New York. I enjoyed disembarking and embarking the aircraft at each of the stopovers and catching glimpses of the different terminals but each stopover took time, and slowly but steadily my tiredness mounted. By the time we reached New York, it was around 4 pm, local time, and I was dog-tired. Our ultimate destination was Tucson, Arizona, and we arrived there around 7 or 8 pm, Arizona time. Our group was staying in a hotel. After dinner, I went to bed. I was truly tired but I could not fall asleep. Over excited? Yes, I was. But the real reason for not being able to fall asleep? There were no familiar sounds of vehicles moving, pedestrians talking, radios blaring or dogs barking! Fortunately, after a while my roommate (the leader of our District 326 contingent) began to snore in a loud but rhythmic fashion! To my ears, that was a lullaby from heaven, and soon I drifted away.

Our Youth Exchange Program was designed to give us a close look at American family life. To that end, we were placed with American families in their homes. I would stay with one family for two or three days – and would then move to another family’s home for two or three days. I moved from one town to another, one city to another. This process exposed me to a wide cross section of American society and helped me appreciate the diversity of American life.

Automobile was the workhorse of American society then (and it probably still is), and I was driven from one home to another and one city to another by car. My host family in one location would drive me to the next host family, no matter how far apart the two families lived. But I was in “America of 1974”, a country reeling from the after-effects of the first Arab oil embargo! In order to conserve petrol, the US Federal Government had decreed that the speed limit on American highways be reduced to 55 miles per hour, even 50 on some major roads. Americans in general were upset with this mandate because it slowed them down. Many of my hosts were happy to drive me two or three hundred miles in their huge luxury cars but were sincerely – and repeatedly – apologetic to me that they could not get me to my destination sooner! Little did they realize that longer car rides gave me greater opportunity to enjoy the passing scenery. If ever I had to sit on the back seat with two other passengers, the host would repeatedly ask me for my forgiveness. One incident topped all my expectations. My host was frustrated and apologetic that the drive to the next host family would take too much time to suit me, so he offered to fly me in his private airplane. Guess what? I did oblige my host and take him up on his offer. During my first-ever private plane ride I felt like an Indian movie star – as depicted in Indian movies. Later I had the opportunity to fly over the breathtakingly beautiful Grand Canyon in a three-passenger plane, a slightly bigger version of my host’s private aircraft.

Another incident still remains vivid in my memory. One of our hosts owned a factory where motor homes were built. He gave us a tour of his factory, and halfway through the tour, he introduced us to a mechanic who was using an air gun to drive nails onto a structure. The mechanic was his son! I was stunned. The factory owner was a very wealthy individual, and why was his son working as an ordinary laborer in father’s factory? In response to my question the gentleman explained that the son was planning to go to college – and needed to earn money to pay for his college costs. That was a big culture shock for me. The shock got compounded the next day when the gentleman proudly took us around his huge house and remarked that the beautiful pool alone cost him about $35,000. At that point I blurted out: “If you can spend that much of money on a swimming pool, surely you can pay for your son’s college?”. My host gave me a puzzled look, and I figured that I had unknowingly given him a culture shock. I dropped the subject, realizing that I had stepped outside my boundaries.

In another incident, the lady of the house told me that she loved “the type of dress Indian women wear”, and insisted that I help her learn how to wear a sari. That caused me real grief. I had no knowledge of how Indian women pleat and wear saris, and I was petrified at the thought of helping this lady with this personal task. I decided to seek help from the telephone directory. After some effort, I found a Bengali lady living in the area who kindly agreed to bail me out of my predicament. She came over and taught my hostess the intricacies of the art of sari wearing, and I was free to admire how beautiful my hostess looked in her “Indian dress”.

Although I successfully passed this bit of culture shock, there was another type of shock I was totally unprepared for. I had not faced this challenge before arriving in Arizona. Once I got to Tucson, my problems began whenever I touched something metallic. I reached for the door handle: zap! I went for the faucet in the bathroom: zap! I would lazily walk by the refrigerator – and – zap! I wanted to pour a cup of tea from the tea kettle: zap! I was bewildered and confounded by the eternal source of electricity that I didn’t know I had secretly nurtured within myself. Was I doing something wrong? Should I be doing things differently, like, hold the tea cup or the kettle in some other way? Should I be taking extra showers? Should I have brought some holy Ganges water with myself to sprinkle on door knobs and faucets before touching them? Was I just being clumsy? I became so aware of my electrical nature that I started walking slowly in an ever-cautious gait, like a dog with his tail between his legs. Soon my American hosts and colleagues began to notice my subdued and confused ways -- and then asked me one day if anything was wrong. I confided in them, and they all had a hearty laugh at my predicament. That’s when I learned that all this electrical discharge was not unique to me and that I was not an unusually electrified personality. Arizona is a desert state – and the humidity level is always very low, making it very easy for static electricity to develop on people and animals walking on synthetic carpets. The static electricity then gets discharged on contact with metals, giving people and animals those unwelcome zaps, they explained. They went on to say that the best way to defeat these annoying zaps was to grab things fast and not give a chance for the spark to develop. They pointed out, jokingly of course: Haven’t you seen Arizonans always giving each other quick hugs and skipping handshakes? I was relieved to hear this explanation but was secretly saddened to know that I did not carry special electrical powers. Alas, for me, career of a successful guru with amazing powers was not to be.

After our formal six-week program with Rotary International was over, I stayed on in the US for another week or so to see a few friends and visit several well-known American cities. From Arizona, I went to Los Angeles where I was to be received at the airport by the president of one of the Rotary districts in the LA area (this was arranged as a friendly gesture to me by the Rotarians in Arizona). At the Tucson airport, the president of the Arizona district came to bid me farewell. He gave me all the contact details for the president of the LA district – and explained that there were three Rotary districts in LA. I could not believe what he was telling me. In India, our Rotary district covered three states (West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa), and he was telling me that Los Angeles alone had three Rotary districts!

In Los Angeles I had great fun visiting Disneyland and Universal Studios. I was impressed even before I entered through the main gates of the Disneyland Park. The parking area alone was spread over some 140 acre or more! We were advised by our host that we would be able to sample only a fraction of the attractions because one day was too short to see all. He was so right. Universal Studios offered a different kind of fun. That was my first visit to a film studio, and I marveled at the ingenuity working behind “parting of the Red Sea” – or huge trees falling down in a thunderstorm, only to stand upright a minute later.

My next stop was San Francisco. What a jewel of a city! A great natural setting and many impressive sights to see. I can still recall the smell of seafood being cooked in restaurants in Fishermen’s Wharf. There we enjoyed a huge “lobster fest” – with tasty lobsters cooked to our liking – boiled or broiled – with melted butter.

Our final stop in the US was Chicago. We all had economy class tickets for our overnight flight from San Francisco but for some unknown reason, we found ourselves in the first class section of the aircraft. We wondered if there had been a mistake but soon the plane was airborne – and the stewardess (yes, they were called stewardesses in those days) offered us drinks. Having only experienced economy class air travel until that time, my teammates all ordered soft drinks because we knew we would be asked to pay with cash if we ordered alcoholic beverages. I ventured to ask about the choices we had, and the stewardess rattled off a long list of liquors: whiskey, rum, vodka and so on. I took a chance and ordered whiskey. Immediately my friends started asking me: Why did you do that? Do you have dollars to pay for the whiskey? I kept my calm – and kept my fingers crossed. Soon my whiskey arrived. No charge! Immediately my friends started ringing their call buttons and changing their drink orders. 

My whiskey came in a cute little bottle and contained a single serving. I loved the miniature bottle. I asked the hostess if she coule give me a couple of such bottles, empty of course, to take home as souvenirs. She politely explained that the airline policy did not allow her to do so. I realized that the matter was closed -- and soon drifted off to sleep. When I woke, I was pleasantly surprised to see deveral miniature bottles of liquor on the tray in front of me. All the bottles were sealed and full

(Posted May 7, 2013)

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A Trip Full Of Shocks

Prosanto Kumar Shome.