Wednesday, June 03, 2020

It’s not the USA I’ve seen

It was three weeks into my first visit to the USA when I first heard the honking of a car horn. My hosts informed me that honking was considered an insult to other road users and was rarely resorted to if it was a must. On roads, lane discipline and speed limits were strictly adhered to. Pedestrians have the first right of way at intersections. I was struck by the civic discipline on roads, malls and other public places.

The other aspects of life that strikes first–time visitors are civility and cultural sensitivity of people. Passing strangers greeted each other with a cheery ‘Hi’ or a smile or a nod. However, if in England “an Englishman’s home is his castle”, in the USA, one can live in splendid isolation if one chose to, within a civilised society.

The axiom “customer is king” is neither an empty slogan nor a cliché. Sellers, store owners and service providers—all take it seriously as if their life depended on it. Reputations to adhere to timelines are arduously protected. Just to give an example, a made–to–order shirt was not delivered on schedule. It was not the fault of the store but of the courier service. When complained, the store sent a replacement. A day later the original dispatch reached me. I called the store to inform that I would pay for it. The store said it was not necessary; I could keep it. It was in a way a reparation the store paid for the delay. Supermarkets like Costco accept return of goods purchased even if they are used a few times.

Fastidious vegetarians like me need have no apprehensions about meat contamination in made–to–order snacks in wayside Subway or Dunkin’ Donut franchises. The suppliers wear fresh gloves for making each order. I was informed that all American food outlets and ice-cream parlours throw away any leftovers when they close for the night.

An important aspect of American civic life is how people of diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnicities live in perfect harmony. The weekly house cleaner who visited my bro–in–law’s place and the plumber were Mexican immigrants; both were over seventy. A taxi driver whom we engaged to go from Philadelphia airport to our home in Bear (Delaware) forty miles away was a Bangladeshi. A convenience store attached to a gasoline station was run by a Sardarji who was more at ease in Hindi than English. A pest control company engaged to cleanse bed bugs sent in an African–American technician. The fumigation had to be done at 1500 F (500C). He did his job without a whimper; accepted the $50 tip with a grin and left.

Our travels took us to several places in the Bay area in California; from Dallas through Austin and Houston to Corpus Christi in Texas; and in the East Coast to places like Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Washington DC and up to Niagara on the Canadian border. We have seen everywhere White Americans, Hispanics, African–Americans and Indians—all working in tandem; cordially interacting with each other and going about their jobs. If there was any racism we didn’t sense it.

There is a quaint American way for begging too. The beggars don’t waylay public but silently sit on the sidewalks with a placard stuck out reading “Am homeless. Please help”.

It is not to say there is no crime. We were told New York subways were not safe at night when they are taken over by derelicts and drug addicts.

From what we saw and heard the law enforcement officers were even–handed and did not discriminate between one ethnicity and another. If there were any exceptions, it was because the police knew in advance the person sought to be detained had or suspected to have had a history of crime.

We did have brushes with the law enforcement officers twice and on both occasions the officers were polite and sought to resolve issues with palpable empathy. The first time we had a problem was with the immigration authorities in San Francisco. I could not fill in the “Address of Local Residence” column in the immigration form as I did not know it. I explained to the officer that my daughter was coming to the airport to pick me up. He said that that was not enough. They could not allow an immigrant who “did not have a place of stay”, to enter the United States. We did not know what to do. Finally he relented and said as it was our first visit he was allowing us; stamped our passports and warmly welcomed us.

The second incident took place in Bear, Delaware. Wanting to call India I dialed +91 without prefixing it with the ISD code 011. Even though it was not exactly a correct dial, the system “automatically corrected” it—to discomfit me as it turned out—and dialed the US emergency code 911. There was an answer from the other side before I could disconnect the call. No matter. The system took over. In a few minutes two carloads of hefty policemen with wireless sets and guns hanging from their belts descended on the house. When I answered the bell the lead officer politely asked me whether I dialed 911. I said I did. With an apology I explained that I was trying to call India and instead of the code +91 must have dialed 911 by mistake. He asked me if I was sure everything was okay. I assured him that there was no problem. He accepted the apology and explanation; said it was okay and went away.

I visited the USA twice, in 2017 and 2019. In the time I was there I hadn’t seen a hint of racism—unless the whole nation was pretending. What happened then in the last couple of weeks? Why is the whole nation on the boil?

This article was originally published in TheTime Of India Blogs.        

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