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Closing The Cultural Gap

posted Oct 23, 2010, 1:24 AM by Diana Rohini LaVigne   [ updated Oct 23, 2010, 1:30 AM ]

By Diana Rohini LaVigne

My in-laws recently made the cross-continental journey from India to California to attend and bless my marriage, and I was astounded at the incredible adjustments they had to make during their three-month stay here. Coming from a small town in India, and never having been outside the country, I’m sure they were somewhat apprehensive about what life would be like for them here. No doubt many readers can identify with their experiences, both touching and humorous. 

Take a 22-hour plane ride from India to America, several months of visa headaches and endless hassles of arranging house-sitting, then add on the existing anxiety of seeing your family member’s life in America…and you’ve got someone with the weight of their world sitting on their shoulders when they arrive. Sitting here in America, it might seem less daunting at the time, but it still amazes me how those coming from India for the first time can adapt so well. Even as the plane’s landing gear touches the airport runway, first-time visitors to the United States will be  faced with learning to extract a luggage trolley from its port. At some airports, these carts are only available to those with local currency in hand, which means if your pockets are filled with rupees, you are out of luck. After realizing only American currency will work and the money transfer counter is beyond the customs area, arriving passengers are forced to drag their six-months’ worth of clothing and gifts by hand to greet their receiving family. Seeing the heavy luggage being dragged step-by-step by a 60-year-old mother in a sari is something that continues to haunt me whenever I step into an international terminal.

Just as their first challenge of getting luggage beyond customs is overcome, Indians coming to America for the first time are faced with another more daunting task: learning to ride an escalator. Although there are escalators in India,  elevators are still far more common. Watching even an experienced escalator rider take on the quick moving metal stairs with luggage in hand, still dizzy from the daylong flight, can be unnerving. Imagine being the person who has never ridden one. There are no instructions. You are  given the opportunity to either jump on the escalator with the rest of the group or risk being lost in America. The thought of being separated  from your family at this very moment will inspire even the most hesitant newbie to jump on the heap of rolling metal for a ride to the top. At last, you arrive at the home of your family living in the States. Sleep on the first night will probably come easily as the mental and physical stress of the entire trip can strip even the strongest from their power. The next morning, they wake up in a strange land, which is scary but also exciting. Then again, if you are visiting someone who will be working daytimes during your stay, it might prove to be difficult and admittedly extremely boring at times with nothing to occupy you. On day one you might be feeling blessed for finally arriving safely in America. You find incense and reach for the matches, yet you find only a butane, gas or laser lighter instead. Lighting the incense might prove to be another test of your willingness to try something new. If you’re a nonsmoker, it’s less likely you’ve experienced one of these lighters first hand. So you endure the chuckles of your Americanized family when you ask for assistance  with the fire-making machine you’ve seen used only in Bollywood films. As your America-based family departs for work, you feel lonely, isolated and may spend all day just looking for things to do. Washing clothes, doing the dishes, and chopping vegetables are things that are often done by a helper in India, but in America you must do these yourself. But sympathetic to the hardships those who live in America must endure, visiting relatives are more than willing to pitch in and help. Each of these  household tasks should come with a manual, from how to operate a garbage disposal and how to run a dishwasher to how to use a coin-operated washing machine. But these machines don’t. The self-taught lessons are frustrating and may further injure one’s ego as they are made to feel so “behind the times.” It is for this reason I decided to write about my deep appreciation and admiration  for those who come from India, stay for six months (or less) and manage to adjust to the westernized environment during this brief time. 

Americans have become so good at independence that we’ve become less able to adjust to change and less able to adapt in general. My in-laws’ first visit to the States made me clearly see how adaptable Indians can be. It has also made me want to make personal changes to adopt a more flexible way of life. Change is the only real constant and I intend on learning from their example. In the end, I know I’ve already learned so many lessons on the amazing beauty in this cultural exchange, and I personally encourage others to properly appreciate their visiting relatives as well. At the end of the day, it might seem harmless to giggle at your brother-in-law spending one hour trying to start the microwave. Instead, stop and watch him with admiration, respect, understanding and love. These are life’s precious lessons—don’t let them pass you by.