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Monday, December 27, 2004

California Blues

Vakada Sridhar, my friend, wrote this when he shifted from India to US.

First of all, this is my impression of the US in the first six months and some of the initial settling experiences.

Came here by a pretty round-about route. Madras to Kaula Lumpur to Hong Kong to Los Angeles to San Fransisco. I took the same flight out of MAS that murali and I took when we went to spore. landed in Kaula Lumpur early in the morning and spent about 3 hours there waiting for the Cathay Pacific flight to HK.

Looking at Malaysia, from the air the first impression is of the lush green forests. flying from Delhi to BGL, the color of the soil can be easily made out. not so while flying over malaysia. it is absolutely green and forests seem real dense. We flew over the South China Sea and flew along the Chinese ( ? ) coastline to HK. Entry to HK is pretty interesting. Down below lot of ships, steamers can be seen converging to one point on the coast. entry by air into HK too is also pretty interesting. quite down the descent path, the plane turns to the right. Pretty surprising especially since the plane is at about the height of some of the taller buildings which you see around you. the landing strip is really a strip of land parallel to the sea and boats can be seen anchored on either side of the landing strip.Hong Kong seems to be in a very hilly region and it seems dense with buildings. Spent a lousy 10 hours in the airport waiting for the next flight. couldn't get out bcos a visa was required.spent the whole time trying to sleep and exploring the shops and restaurants. Hong Kong airport is really crowded, almost resembles a railway station. contrasting it with the Kaula Lumpur airport is really interesting.

The Kaula Lumpur one is business type in the western sense and almost everybody seems to wear the western type of business clothes and are busy talking away on cellular phones, carrying brief cases etc. there is little crowd. HK is crowded with chinese dressed in casual colourful clothes. all of them busy chattering away, eating food and luggage strewn all round them. Sort of got an impression they were a part of a big tour from china returning back after sight seeing/shopping. The duty-free shops and the restaurants are same as in Kaula Lumpur -- you would find the names of all the french fashion houses if you move around
these shops.

Funny thing. There was a group of pakistani college students who seemed to off to some country on some religious seminar. one guy started chatting asking if i was from india and so on and after some time when i told him i was was from south india he lost interest totally!!

Stood in the Q for the LA flight pretty early and started chatting with an american ahead of me. Guy was pretty helpful. He knew hindi a bit and said he was pretty close with some indian muslim family in New york ( ? ) from whom he had learnt it. told me that i would have to do my immigration and customs at LA and not at SFO where i was planning since that was my exit point. he said immigration and customs is at the port of first entry to US. I got a bit tense as i had only an hour gap at LA before my next flight to SFO. The guy started off saying i could cancel the SFO flight and go by a later one etc..etc. he said he knew the pilot of the LA flight and checked up the available flights to SF from LA. Luckily we reached LA 2 hours ahead of schedule so finally i had a good 3 hour cushion for the immgration check.

The flight to LA used the polar route so it flew down south along the pacific coast line. the aeroplane had a console display in front of every seat showing the location of the plane, the height, speed etc. -- great tool u could zoom in and out and see in the map the area u were flying over etc. pretty good view from the top with the sea stretching out and a bit of the very hilly coastline visible from my seat. Funny thing was even at night 8 pm i could see the sun which felt strange initially. Later realized that in the higher latitudes the sun sets late in summer...

Immgration check took about 1 and half hours. customs was a breeze "what do u have inside? " any eatables ? " pickles is fine." done.

LA airport is real functional. No flowers/creepers like spore airport. The flight to SFO was a typical american flight from what i hear. Minimal security check. The stewardesses make little fuss. no food. just a coke and a packet of peanuts.

My friends picked me up at the airport and dropped me at my hotel by 1 am. and next day by 1 pm was generating revenue for my company!!

Jet lag isn't much of a problem i think if u sleep through out the flight.

First of all the area i stay in, is something like a vast suburban sprawl. Lots of towns combined together. no high rise buildings and all that. lots of houses everywhere but all maximum two-three floors. SFO on the other hand really looks like a city and is also quite dirty.tall buildings and all that. almost looks like an indian city.

On the first day my boss took me to office and dropped me off at the hotel in the evening. the next day onwards i had to fend for myself. ( CDOT GET period is god sent, very little hassles initially at least!!). I had taken down the bus numbers, the change required and where to get down etc... and still needed help. after getting onto the bus and dropping the change in the box near the driver, ran into my first problem. The driver kept saying i needed to drop one more nickel. i had no idea how much a nickel was
and finaly offered him all the change i had. he picked up a 5 cent coin and droppped it himself.

I was having difficulty in understanding the accent of these guys and was not sure where my stop was:-( looking around i saw an indian in the bus and went upto him ( i was sure to understand him, at the very least!! ). of all the things, the guy was wearing a cdot XL cutover T-shirt. He was a GET 4 guy from Delhi. Luckily he was going to the same office too. So all problems solved!!

In the evening another funny thing. i was walking back to the hotel and i see a sikh guy coming towards me. problem here
is, people seem to say "hi" to just about anybody who goes past them. i was wondering whether to greet him and finally nodded to him and this guy begins to talk... asks if i can provide him with a job and that he has come here recently and so on. Man, i was hardly two days old in the US and this is what i hear. I almost started laughing in front of him.

Initially i kept bumping into people i knew everytime i went out. For close to two months everytime i went to an indian restaurant i would meet at least one fellow i had lost track of.

The first task is of course to settle down at the earliest -- get a room-mate and then find a house, buy bedding etc. bus frequency is not very good and cabs are not visible like the autorichshaws. anyway i have not seen anybody i know, use a cab till now, though most of the drivers seem to be Sikhs. Seems they have a monopoly of taxi-driving in the cities here. then of course i got into the initial hassles of bank a/c, social security number, driving license, driving lessons, driving tests etc.

Settling down here takes a while. meaning till you can move around independently on ur own with out having to ask people around. till then people would tell me not to stare at things. initial funda as everyone said was to move around more and try to do things by myself and so get used to the way things are done here. I would intially look around and see how others did and then imitate them. I realized i was settling down, when i started to do things by myself without having to looking much around me.

Accent is real confusing. the whites have two or three different styles depending upon where you meet them ( in office or store or in bus .. , guess its a matter of education level). the blacks have a totally different way of speaking and the chinks have their own accent.

Initially i would be asking lot of those stupid questions --- "can i cross the road wherever i want?"" do i need to Q up for the bus?"" where do u have to go to get this?" of course nobody gives up such a chance to lecture and keep giving out fundas all the time. "do things this way and that is not the way to do it, americans dont like that", stuff like that. here quite a few things are done opposite to the way in india. keys are turned in different direction to unlock ; the switches also work in the "wrong" way. so automatically u try one way and then the opposite way. once i had to get right down to the basics to enter a room. the door was tight and wouldn't open. the immediate question that came up was if i pushing the correct end of the door? so i tried pushing at each ends of the door till it opened. I noticed that walking down a corridor I would walk on the left side a bit and would give way to people coming in the oppposite direction by moving further to the left. Well, that doesnt work here. people walk a bit to their right and give way by moving further to their right. Generally with my habit i would end up face to face with them all over again. Now i am delibrately developing their habit. Luckily i didnt have to unlearn any driving habits over here!!

Getting used to the american way of greeting is another thing. these people say "hi""how r u" to even strangers. and i still wonder what to reply back. It is very obviously a mechanical greeting. when the bank teller says " how r u " as a greeting and finally finishes off the transaction saying "take care " things have reached the pits. Learning to respond takes time intially and then becomes mechanical i guess. Then i guess it used on people like navada who get totally charged up. getting used to the miles/fahrenheit system takes sometime. when somebody says it was hot yesterday -- hundred degrees, it doesnot make much sense to a guy used to the centigrade system.

Food. Initially i was quite excited. the canteen had about 5 counters with different varieties of food every day. daily i would try out something new. very quickly i learnt a safety mechanism. pick up a bottle of tomato sauce along with the food. if i found the food to be unpalatable pour tomato sauce liberally and then eat whatever possible and junk the rest. i find i cannot eat the regular american food ( as opposed to fast food) without the help of tomato sauce. most of the veggies here swear by italian food. but i found it tough to eat. mexican food was ok initially but quickly i stopped liking it ( dont like the smell). by the end of two months my regular lunch menu was fried/plain rice with a curry very selectively picked from the chinese counter. now my standard menu is a vegetarian burger with curly fries( pretty good, a spicey version of french fries). most of the indians get lunch from home, i guess i will start doing that soon...

Canteen serves indian food about once a fornight. My first experience is worth describing. I got pretty excited seeing indian food on the menu. The serving fellow made a small hill of the palav, and on the top of it proceeded to add the curry. and then poured the raita all over the curry. The veg. palav was a mixture of rice and only cabbage ( of a purple variety ). the guy then asked if i wanted "the crisp ones " or "the soft ones". it took a little while to understand he was offering me an option between the papads and the chapathis. These he kept on the top of the raita and then put the pickle on the papad. now i tell him exactly what i want and where on the plate to keep it. i think i have the same problem with american regular food. they dont seem to have a base ( rice/chapathi) around which the dishes are eaten. it feels a bit like there is only curry for lunch. the indian restaurants
are pretty ok here. plenty of them.

Buying a car. Thats about the first major item of expense. hell of a lot of research is done and all sorts of considerations are taken into account. If you come thro' Wipro/TISL like companies generally they have a rented car pool arrangement. so initially the transportation problem is less. People dont go for a walk here, they go for a drive. If u have nothing to do, go out on a long
drive. We went on a 200 mile ( 360 km ) drive one saturday afternoon bcos we were bored. There are a few parks and like stuff around but mostly kids play there in the evenings. The number of models of cars on the road is amazing. difficult to see two cars of the same model together.

Shopping here is different. Difficult to find a local kirana shop like operation. Mostly big shopping complexes of chain companies which constantly advertise on TV. there is no Max Retail Price on the products. so depending on the area the price varies. Some of city corporations seem to have built shopping complexes which are rented out by these chains. Only in these shopping complexes i found some family run shops. there are a couple of roads along which all the shopping is generally done. Away from these roads shops are difficult to find. there are several restaurants around. Quite of a few of these are privately run ( i mean by individuals ) . The chain companies specialize. one in office supplies, other in groceries, another in pharmacy, another only in clothes, another only in high end designer clocthes, another in sport goods and u see the outlets at regular intervals along the road. Almost everything can be bought by telephone. telephone is pretty useful here and is almost considered a neccessity item.
plenty of information can be obtained over telephone. most comapanies are now maintaining web sites too here. There are infinite "sales" going on always. but several holidays and special days seem to have been created just to boost sales. There is a "mother's day, "father's day' etc when papers and TV are filled with ads promoting "ideal" gifts. the returning policy is pretty good. and they seem to accept it quite routinely. One new policy which i saw here is if u find the same item in another shop for a lower price within a month of buying the item, the difference of money is refunded. Generally the people in the malls are helpful but sometimes u meet the junk guys. Some people are anyway natural kaam chors. One fellow i knew once complained and to his horror the shop manager called the assistant and told him that he was fired .

Initial problem here is what girish calls "sense of money". there is no way to find out if something u are buying is overpriced or not. using the indian prices as standard is not possible. Relative pricing too is different compared to india. A walkman may cost a little
more than a dinner at one of the indian restaurants. Petrol is extremely cheap compared even by converting into rupees. you get about 6 litres of petrol for the cost of a burger( ~$4 ) here. Clothes are costly even relatively. and so are formal shoes.

Holidays here occur on fixed days of the year. like last thursday of november is thanksgiving. etc. Generally infotech companies seem to take pains to give a long weekend off in case of holidays. like thursday holiday results in friday being declared off too, getting 4 days off in a row. the holiday season starts with thanksgiving ( end of november ) and climaxes with chritsmas. and tapers off with new year. Plenty of christmas cards around but couldnt see many new year greeting cards here.people are busy shopping, work slows down in december. Houses and shops are lighted and having sales etc. I guess a bit like diwali-dussera time. Christmas is quite well celebrated. lot of houses are lighted. and on halloween lots of kids were going around to houses accompanied by parents ( people are real scared here of wierdos and TV helps in increasing it ) to get sweets etc.

People here donot seem as wacky as made out by some people. Most people seem conservative and donot easily get involved with other people. But this area is supposed to be one of the safer areas in the US. Seems the inner city area of some cities can be pretty tough . The default conversation is of traffic. Of course football is the other topic discussed around. freetime seems to be spent in shopping and movies. Most of the people seem to have a lot of outdoor hobbies. mountain biking, rock climbing, gliding is some i have heard of. everybody goes to the gym to be in shape. Yeah, what i am saying is probably among the richer infotech guys. Probably the poorer guys cant afford all this. But something like training for a private pilots license costs about $5000 ,about 2 months pay of a s/w engineer. I see some punks ( wearing all those chains and weird hairstyles ) now and then but not very frequent. I see more number of guys in sun having long hair than generally in the streets, but yeah, they %age of guys with long hair will be probably more than india anyway!! The funniest i saw was a guy in sun canteen with half his mushtache shaved off and the opposite half of his beard shaved off. Anyway my interaction with the americans is very less and only with office people. so cant say much about the people.

Generally people in the office are much older than us. they generally seem to have a lot of experience. I think these people start working pretty early and study at college while working or in breaks. Guess they donot study in one continuos stretch like we do. The indians and chinese are the young fellows looks like.

"thanks" doesnt seem to be fashionable here, its " i apreciate your help". sounds a bit like " hum bahut kush huye" type and initially it would get my hackles up. At work these people generally react very quickly if u ask anything. If i ask for anything they give the information before the end of the day. But not sure if this happens everywhere. When working in National the guys used to take ages to reply to our questions.

Selecting the company to join here has one additional criteria. The company/division u join should be doing good. getting fired bcos the company/ division is doing bad is not uncommon. references matter a lot here. Seems here the boards go through 3-4
version before reaching the field. All the alpha, beta testing terminology makes sense. Nobody expects the first version to reach the field directly. They seem to think about asics the same way too:-))

I guess the infrastruture is what separates this place. Roads and highways are meant for high traffic flow. Electricity and water problems are very few. I have seen power go off in small areas about two times till now. Seeing police guys patrolling around is common and they play hide and seek on the roads to catch any unwary speeding fellow. You hear the sound of the ambulance and police cars pretty often. Salaries seem to be pretty evenly distributed between private and public employees. A fire-engine guy earns almost as much as teacher and a software engineer. Of course the engineer generally has shares from the company etc..

Telephone installation is very quick. Every city has very good libraries. American soccer seems the most popular sport here ( in this area especially bcos the local club is about #1 in US ). Basketball is another popular game and baseball is falling in popularity it seems. Tennis talk i dont hear much. Can you believe the US open coverage was limited to barely a few columns in some interior
part of the sports section of the paper. Newspapers are full of local news and politics doesnot neccessarily occupy front page. Especially in this area newspapers even headline major breakthroughs in industry ( like IBM making copper interconnect practicable, intel making new type of memory) or take-over or tie-ups in the industry.

The fellows seem to have a hell of a lot of rules and regulations. Referendums seem to be held here -- shall we have a new road/bridge built in the city, is it ok to build the stadium in this area etc. the city council sessions seem pretty open to public. Sun was planning to buy some govt. building here and some other people were opposing it. Some sun employees who stayed in that area went and made some speeches and all during the debate. i dont know if all that is possible in india?

People here seem pretty much scared about violence in schools and among the youth. The weirdos here seem to be like being high profile here while in india i guess they tend to mind their own business.

TV has about 40/50 channels but cable is not very cheap. and then there are some channels which charge extra to get connected. there are a few movie channels . the prime time seems to start off around 8:30. mostly during this time there are comedy serials running. have not managed to see any of the sopa operas so far. advts are as common here as on DD. i dont follow much
of the sports around here, though the guys who did their MS here seem to have become regular sports channel addicts. ISDN is available here though its costly and WebTV has also started operations recently.

ok thats about it. to say goodbye in Americanese " have a good day, take care!!"

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