Wednesday, April 8, 2009


[Warning: Long post..]

The only other place, outside India, I had ever visited before coming to USA was our friendly neighborhood Nepal. And Nepal was not really foreign, coz we clubbed that trip with Sikkim and Darjeeling.

Quite frankly Sikkim felt more 'foreign' than Nepal. At least people in Nepal understood Hindi. So much for Nepal being alien.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was where I landed and started my professional journey in USA. Like any other Desi who first arrives here, I had little clue what to expect. The cab ride from Pittsburgh Airport to the hotel (Holiday Inn,Greentree) felt surreal. It was late evening and our African-American cabbie was listening to some random radio channel. He also had a walkie-talkie which for some reasons constantly emitted messages. We were three of us, me and my two co-workers, who were going to lodge in the hotel for a few days before we could find ourselves more regular accommodation.

The idea of our company booking us in Holiday Inn had impressed us. But once we landed at the hotel reception our temporary effervescence fizzled like a flat soda bottle. Signs of human existence seemed far fetched. It was also scarily silent. It was around 10:30 pm alright, 'but still', we thought. No "salute" wala doorman, no one to pick our luggage, no one at the 'reception' to receive and to register. The contrast with Holiday Inn, Pune was telling to say the least.

It hit me that we had finally arrived in a country where any kind of service will be at a premium. All three of us looked at each other with complete zero-ness and vacuum; something usually associated with a long travel or, say a, tough Viva question.

After waiting for about 10 minutes at the reception counter, a grumpy looking fatso appeared on the scene. She registered us without a smile or small talk and showed us our way. No "welcomes" or anything. (Our desi blood expected that on our first day in America for some reason). It was plain. We went into our respective rooms without talking and walked silently towards it. Thankfully the rooms were in a much better shape than the fatso at reception.

My company had given all of us a list of "Dos and Don'ts" for the client office visit next day, where we were expected to work on a seemingly long project. It had some random draft about American work culture and how Desis should behave and more importantly *not* behave etc. This must be some CMM level 5 shit my company usually had up it's sleeves, I thought to myself during the 'orientation' routine.
(It's a little weird that a few years down the line I got another similar "Dos and Don'ts" list, but only this time from my current company, which is American. It was for my first official visit to India. The classic role reversal. This time I was the Client visiting our offshore Vendor)

Inside the room, I took out some thalipeeths from my bag and ate some of them, thinking it was morning breakfast time in India. I tried to channel surf my way through boredom but it was futile. The overall SILENCE of the entire premise was killing me.

Next day morning we went to have breakfast. It was plain-jane again. Waffles,Bagles, Bread etc. Man, I had already started missing kande pohe, idli sambar, khuchkara. The plain-jane-ness of this whole place was just sinking in. Yet we were all prepared to face our clients in downtown. We had formal attire with laptop bags. Holiday Inn had a free downtown drop off shuttle and that was a relief, because the notion of ordering a cab was alien to us. In India it would have been simple - just yell for a rickshaw and hop into it.

The address was xxx, Fort Duquesne Blvd, Pittsburgh. I told the shuttle driver we have to go to Duquesne street. I pronounced it - Dukuznee. It was supposed to be more like - Dukane - where 's' was silent. He had a smirk and a smile when he understood what I wanted to say.
I found my self in an embarrassing dialect situation with my pronunciation of a Noun even as my colleagues enjoyed a vicarious laugh at my expense. My first lessons in American-English had officially begun.

The ride from Greentree to Downtown Pittsburgh was impressive. That city has a very Ooty kind of feeling. Hilly terrain, topsy-turvy roads and tall pine trees. There was minimal honking of cars or not at all. I also saw a series of bridges around downtown. Finally we reached our office right on the river boulevard. This was Fort Duquesne. The office building was imposing even as we waited for someone to fetch us at the office reception.

The dude from the client end who was co-ordinating our stay was Gerald. Gerald had few idiosyncrasies that are hard to describe. He had a way about him. He introduced us to all other team members and let us settle in our respective cubicles.

After a while he came back and asked us out for team lunch. Since it was our first day, it would be a good start to know each other over lunch, he thought. Not a bad idea, I thought.

All three of us made a presumption that the lunch will be on the house or on the client actually.

As it turned out, it was not. It was a soldier payment system. We were now like a deer on the headlights. Almost stranded. We looked at each other again clueless ly as others started chipping in cash on the bill book after the lunch was over. (It was called 'check' here in USA, something I remembered from that "Dos" List).

It was our first day in this country. We had yet to open bank accounts so there was no Debit card. We din't have any credit history so there was no Credit Card. We had lot of traveler checks, if the restaurant was ok with it. But I don't think they'd take. Finally we chipped in cash, which our company had provided before leaving for US.

I got my first lesson in American office culture. Always expect soldier or dutch payment. "Atithi devo bhava" is not valid here. And I don't know why it should be valid anywhere.

It feels like it has been a while since I first landed here and much water has flown through Allegheny and Ohio river. I have been living in Chicago for last few years. Have got pretty well acquainted my self with American culture, both work and social. At least I think I have. My current company is native and is as cool as it gets. Non-fussy and Non-bureaucratic. Over the years I have not been able to keep in touch with those 2 dudes I came with. I last visited Pittsburgh in 2004. Last year I did pass through it but did not go inside the city. (I don't know why;I think I should have).

Pittsburgh was not as big as Chicago for sure, but had a neat little downtown. The Heinz field would be filled with yellow T-Shirts every Steelers game and from the distant bridge that was on my bus route the field would look like a big bowl filled with yellow custard.

There were countless number of bridges going into downtown; and I think Pittsburgh used to be called "City of Bridges" if not "City of Steel". It is special in the sense that it was my first city in an alien land. That's where I started this so far short journey and learnt whatever positives and negatives about this nation. As I connect my dots backwards, I can't help but mention Pittsburgh as an important station where I halted for a brief period whilst I discovered more of my own - America.

1 comment:

Rohit said...

Good one. I loved the part about the holiday inn!

BTW, you should be thankful you landed in a good size city like Pittsburg. I landed in Logan, UT!,_Utah.