Living small

The amused look on the face across the counter said it all. My wife and I surely looked like teenage kids who had just found a pack of smokes. We were giggling and our faces were flush with happiness. There we stood holding our brand new TV !

Never mind that it had a 10” (yes ten) screen and should have sold with a magnifying lens. We were baring our teeth like it were the happiest moment in a while. And it may well have been, considering that it was our first TV. First, that is, since moving toLos Angeles, after months of savings from the graduate student paycheck. After hours of research and even more hours of deliberation around what it meant for our future savings. Anyway, that was all behind us now. We had earned the moment, and every channel the tiny antenna could summon (cable was a few dozen paychecks away, almost certainly required a job).

Now that, my friends, was happiness.

The memory came alive last week when my daughter, now 3, rejoiced as she carried the little furry, scrawny stuffed pet that caught her eye (from Walmart, where else? Cost 99 cents). Contrasting that with her almost reluctance to get in the shiny new battery-powered Jeep we bought for her ($150, ouch, Toys’R’Us), her happiness with that floppy pet was downright irritating. I so wanted to tell her how wrong it was to value the limp-cotton-ball over a Jeep. And to just look at the Jeep for gods sake and fall in love with it (a 150 times more at least). But no, a look into her eyes told me that the person buying her the furry pest was her hero. And if you know anything about dads and only daughters, you know that I had to buy it for her. Anyway, I digress.

Half a decade since our first television, armed with a job and several dozen credit cards, we recently bought our first 46” LCD flat screen. We were happy no doubt, but I did miss the excitement of the little one. And it’s huge and makes the living room look small. Time to buy a bigger house I guess. I so wish happiness scaled with size.


English, one bite at a time

There are still nights when I wake up screaming “Whatever”. I’m usually standing at a counter, with a glass separating me from lots of food, and a guy in uniform and cap staring down at me, shouting impatiently “White or wheat?” I don’t get the question despite leaning over and straining my ears. The variation to the dream is the last question, which changes to “regular or footlong”, “plain or toasted”, “American, Swiss or Provolone?”, “honey-mustard or ranch?”, “for here or to go?” and “credit or debit?” The other parts remain the same – the intense impatience in the set of eyes under the cap, matched by an equally intense fear in mine, my incessant mumbling of “Could you please repeat that?”, a realization that the entire world has stopped lunch just to hear me ordering food, and finally the hunger (oh the hunger) following the attendance of several graduate course lectures after a sleepless night of assignments. And yes, I wake up screaming “Whatever”.

Of course that’s not how it played out in reality during those early months after I first came to this country. “Whatever” was still not a common gesture, and definitely not part of the just-landed-Indian-grad-student vocabulary. Moreover, several generations of fear of the uniform – unfounded, really, considering how little power the uniform bestows upon the wearer in India (unless it’s made of khadi, that is) – rendered the tongue incapable of uttering anything remotely disrespectful, so that “Whatever” was ruled out. Eventually the mumbling and repeating would help in the end, however, and would leave me standing euphoric with the resulting shredded vegetables and bread (plain of course, I wouldn’t dare wait during the toasting process and give the guy a few additional minutes to think of other questions).

The problem, of course, was to understand the American accent, followed by understanding the crux of the question, and then offering an intelligent reply. The last of which would then be met with a “huh?” due to the similarly broken process of Indian-to-American English translation on the other side of the glass. What typically threw me off was why, when there is a menu up there, couldn’t I just order something and get it without actually have to spell the recipe? I mean you might as well pay me and not the guy with the cap.

But looking back, I cannot think of a better substitute to those Subway lunches in getting a crash course in American English. And culture, to think of it. I mean once you know how to order cheese, pay with credit and end the conversation with “Whatever”, what’s more to learn?

Making every ball count

One of the earliest shocks that I suffered upon coming to America was to find that cricket was not the national game in every country. I mean talk about being uprooted. Every kid in India grows up with one of two career aspirations – becoming a batsman or a bowler. One typically spends the first twenty years of life learning to play cricket, only to find that there are 11 openings and a billion applicants. Not great odds, you must admit. At which point, the remaining billion minus eleven become doctors, engineers and software professionals. Still, the dream lives on.

We are all experts of the game, ardent followers and ruthless critics. We spend hours watching a game and then days debating the technicalities. Movie releases and election campaigns are timed so as not to interfere with the big games. Even the gods are not spared. The stars are summoned and heavens bribed to positively influence the outcome. Winning leads to wild dancing on the streets and losing to riots. Anyway, you get the picture. We are enthusiastic about the game.

And so it hurt when I had to explain the game to my fellow graduate students. Some who remotely knew the game dismissed it as “just like baseball”. It is so not like baseball. I mean yes, there is a ball and bat and there is hitting and running around the ground, but which sport does not have some version of that? I thought I should have better luck with the Chinese, given the Asian connection and all. After explaining the game for 20 minutes or so, my friend exclaimed “Ah! So it’s like ping-pong?” I’ve never tried explaining cricket ever since.

Watching sports is so much like following a religion. You subscribe to your favorite team or faith, maintain an irrational position that it is the best, chant slogans or prayers trying to convince the other side that they suck. (Playing sports is a different matter, and is close to practicing a religion. Requires practice, very few show commitment, and fewer still perform.) Not having a sport/religion creates a vacuum that is unnerving and difficult to sustain. You want to believe in something higher than everyday life. The vacuum gets filled quickly, especially with so many choices.

And so mine did, with American football. But then making a change is never easy, is it. Initially, there were significant challenges. It was difficult just to follow the ball, what with its propensity to get quickly buried under a dozen oversized guys. Not knowing any players (who by the way look exactly identical with the helmets on) did not help. Cheering for the opposing team through most of the game was not uncommon.

Ten years later, and I’m still learning the rules. I’ve overcome some of those early barriers now, understand the game better and even know some players. But looking back I realize that it was never about the game. It’s about getting together with a bunch of loud friends, cheering and cursing the players, having good (read junk) food, staying up till late and then talking all about it the next day. That’s what makes learning a new game so totally worth it. What the hell, I may even watch golf someday.