Macchars don’t wear sweaters

Archive for April 2011

My very first couple of weeks in the US were a confusing mix of emotions. On the one hand, there was no evidence of a “culture shock”, or disorientation of arriving at a totally new place. Before coming, I was  fed on stories of “the first month is the hardest”, and “even years of living alone hadn’t prepared me for it”, and “my colleague was fired because he smelled” by experienced campaigners. I could conjure images of myself in a empty dark room, a bleak cold landscape outside the window, weeping for family. Or scrubbing myself hard every morning lest a vagrant whiff from my person offend someone. But none of that happened. I was surprisingly emotionally comfortable almost as soon as I came. Maybe it was because I had already steeled myself, or simply because it is not all that different – roads maybe wider and cleaner; houses maybe somewhat prettier; people different, but not different enough to be incomprehensible. Importantly, people smelled (even more than me). It also had something to do with the fact that I made a good friend almost as soon as I came, an Iranian.

This sense of reasonable comfort was coupled at a sometimes overwhelming frustration at simply not knowing how things worked. Most things here work differently and involve a degree of automation I am not used to – electronic bus conductors; self check out at Malls; self service at petrol stations; “checking” and “savings” accounts in banks; a bewildering TV remote control; telephone contracts; international calling; a peculiar style of queuing; most fast food sold stand alone or as a “meal” (meaning with coke and chips/bread); serve your own fountain coke and so on. This was added to by the fact that I was simply hesitant to ask someone because I somehow had a general impression that it was considered rude around here to ask strangers (this turned out to be largely wrong). Most things were not self evident from the instructions, and seemed to me to be over-organized. I got into the habit of standing back and observing other people, or simply mumbling yes to the question I was asked by the cash clerk. This didn’t work in most cases, as I got on a bus without a ticket, got a “meal” when I wanted a burger, ordered “to go” when i wanted it “for here” and wondered why I had been handed an empty glass. I gradually learnt by hit and trial, and it is still early days. Some of the frustration remains.