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This Jest In
November 27, 2007
While the cultural barrier is a challenging hurdle for Indian immigrants to get past in America, the social chasm is as daunting. Most of us goof up at some point and practically everyone gets names mispronounced with hilarious effects. For the entertainment of fellow desis, I have a few such rib-tickling anecdotes.
Aliens in America
Edison, New Jersey, is known to be full of Indians. Oak Tree Road has stores with names like Deepa Mechanics, Ravi Food Mart, Chowpatty Chaat House and so on. Traffic rules are as lax as they are on the busy streets of Mumbai. Thanks to road rage, people occasionally roll down their windows and refreshingly unique Hindi cuss words aren't uncommon.
We once attended a party at an apartment complex in Edison. My colleague Jim and I walked through the complex where rows of old, retired folk were enjoying the evening breeze after tea, for a chat, just like in India. Jim could feel all eyes on him as he was the only white American in sight. Children were eying him suspiciously and one little girl in particular surveyed him with great interest. Suddenly, she ran over to where her grandmother sat and pointed to Jim excitedly. 'Look, look Naani, a foreigner!', cried the precocious four-year-old, clapping her hands together as Jim visibly paled.
The height of irony
Russel, the lab technician, lived on the edge. He spent his weekends at bars and drove around on his motorcycle all day, looking for what he liked to call 'a good lay.' Russ, as he was known, lived the life of a modern day Casanova. We often shook our heads in disbelief when he told us tales of how he had woken up next to a girl he had met at a bar. But when Venkat, the graduate student, returned from a four-week trip to India with a bride, Russ surprised us all by asking him, 'Dude, how do you sleep with a girl you hardly know?'
What's in a name?
Payal Mehta had settled down well into her routine in the United States. The job was well-paying and she finally decided to get herself the little piece of plastic all shoppers adore: a credit card. Happy at being approved for one, she waited for the brand-new card to arrive. And it did after a few days, her name typed on shiny blue plastic -- Pile Mehta, in bright silver letters.
Funny side up
Ranga's first visit to an iHop was stressful. He had no idea ordering breakfast could be such an ordeal. Back home, a quick holler of 'Idli-Sambar' would be enough to guarantee a filling meal. He looked through the menu for what seemed like ages and, pretty confident about what he wanted to eat that morning, smiled at the young waitress. 'Eggs and toast' he said, trying to keep it as simple as possible.
'How do you like your eggs?' she asked. He looked up surprised. 'I like them very much, thank you,' he replied brightly, touched by her unexpected interest in his likes and dislikes. Ranga was crestfallen when the waitress clarified she just needed to know how he wanted the eggs made. 'Sunny-side up,' he mumbled, blushing furiously, burying his face into the menu.
Leave the rest for last
Lata's mother was travelling to the United States for the first time. In fact, it was her first trip out of the country and when Lata saw her emerge from the arrival gate at La Guardia Airport, she was relieved. 'I really need to pee,' Mrs Bhatnagar said anxiously even before Lata could give her a hug. 'Everything was great,' she continued, as they rushed around looking for a ladies room, 'but instead of having so many rooms to rest, they should have toilets.' Apparently, she was confounded by the unfamiliar title, 'Restroom'.
Way down where?
Vishnu was proud of his new apartment. He even had a small sofa in the living room within his very first week in the United States. He soon realized quite a few graduate students lived in his apartment complex. Steve, his colleague, was surprised when he realized Vishnu lived in the same building. 'Which floor?' Steve asked. 'Underground,' Vishnu responded, referring to his studio in the basement.
Hindi-Chini bhai bhai
India and China may have had a war way back when, but Indian and Chinese graduate students are often best buddies. They both put in long hours at work and end up getting chummier than the rest. Khushboo was feeling especially happy on her birthday. She had a feeling Bao Chun and Jun Bo had a surprise planned for her. She'd heard them whispering all day. When she entered the lunchroom and all her Chinese buddies yelled out a loud 'Surprise!', nothing could have made Khushboo smile any wider. Except maybe the cake. Happy Birthday Khush Boo, it said, in pink icing.
When I first taught Siming, my Chinese friend some Hindi, little did I know the fiasco it would lead to. I taught him to say 'Namaste' and he did a pretty good job of it, even bowing low with hands folded. He then wanted to know a few swear words, so I taught him the seemingly harmless 'Kutte, Kamine, Saale' ('You wicked, horrible dog'), which have found eternal place in Hindi films anyway.
A few days later, Siming and I were in an elevator when the department chairman Narayan walked in. He was a stately figure, always formal and serious. Siming wanted to impress the guy and win a rare smile. With hands folded, he bowed respectfully and in the politest of tones said, "Mr Narayan, kutte, kamine, sale.' The usually stern Narayan looked surprised for a brief second, then took one look at my horrified expression and burst out laughing.