Notes from Americana

You’ll need some context for this essay. I moved to Los Angeles from India roughly two years ago, to go to school at USC, a private university set in the Hispanic/Black neighborhood of South Central LA. The Wikipedia article on South Central LA will give you context. Superior, Ralphs and Trader Joe’s are popular supermarket chains in LA. Jefferson, Figueroa, Hoover, Vermont, Adams are streets near USC. I trust you’ll have any other context you need, or simply follow the hyperlinks.. This essay is based on my experience in shifting cultures, and my observations in America. At first I agonized over whether this essays was a balanced and fair appraisal, but I eventually realised that that was not the point, the point was to convey the experience of shifting cultures and it was what it was. This essay had to stay true to that experience, or fail its purpose

DISCLAIMER: I don’t know how this will come across to you, but I have a very positive opinion of America. My second essay on America brings this out better and these two essays complement each other.

He wondered what to name it. Americana came to mind. It sounded cheesy. Then, for reasons beknowst only to the inner workings of his mind, he thought of “Notes from the Underground”. And it became “Notes from Americana”. Even cheesier. There’s good cheese and there’s bad cheese. Americans put cheese in everything. He was tired of it. Food was not bread, cheese and cinnamon. Food was cumin seeds and coriander, garlic and ginger, cardamom and asafoetida, coriander and tamarind and a gazillion other spices. The rote monotony of entering Subway and knowing precisely what you were going to say for the next five minutes unfailingly lulled him into zombie mode. Maybe the first zombie outbreak would begin in a Subway outlet. “Cheese? No cheese. Toasted? Yes. Vegetables…” The pitter-patter of conversation across the glass front could just as easily have been two robots talking. Usually, the Subway employees, sorry ‘sandwich-artists’, were as bored as he was, and conversing with them was pretty effortless. They tended to to be Latino, who were as close to Indians as you were going to get in the États-Unis. He remembered one conversation in particular, because it gave him some insight into Latinos, this one at the Subway on Jefferson and Figueroa. They talked about him going to SC, and eventually wound up discussing how she thought “Asians” were smarter than everybody else. He had to reassure her that it really wasn’t the case. They just spent more time within the four walls of the building that had a lot of books. She persisted, saying that was what she had heard. The cash register rung, he gathered up his subs, and left after a backwards glanced bye.

Shifting to a new culture affected you in all sorts of insidious ways. It certainly introduced a basal level of stress. That stress passed unnoticed for the first few months till you finally saw it in yourself. In your terse-er reactions to others, in your unconscious release on pastimes you used to enjoy, in your tunnel visioned focus on courses and assignments. In the faint awkwardness you displayed with “the natives”, simply unsure of your ground, and of how different their expectations of a conversation were from yours. Though that made the pleasure of setting solid friendships with Americans only sweeter.

He was shaken out of his reverie by the lady at the counter motioning to him. “Next please”, she said in the amortized voice of someone saying something for the millionth time. He started forward, unconsciously, to the idiotically named “U-Scan”. Using that thing felt like plugging into a robot. He waited, in trepidation, for the day when he would hear the sibilant tones of the U-Scan in a dream. “Please scan the next item.” Perhaps it would be the usual flight dream. Maybe a giant U-Scan chasing him down the aisles of Superior. And him grabbing things he needed off the shelves. And finding a bunch of other U-Scans waiting for him in ambush at Checkout. Upon which the only recourse was to ditch everything and make the exit on the double. One of the first things you noticed in America were the fluorescent green “EXIT” signs in buildings. It was always interesting to him to notice how the building codes in the two countries, India being the other one, were different, and how America’s wealth lead to more stringent codes, or rules in general. Wealth meant greater resources, which meant greater capability and stricter enforcement. He mechanically set down his last ‘item’ on the U-Scan. Then tapped the screen a few more times, swiped his card, and got out of Superior. It was felt so good getting out of Superior. You felt you had escaped some odd virtual dreamworld, where everyone was an actor, and each actor was told to go through the same motions as everyone else. It didn’t help that the lighting was awful, rows of naked tubelights strung from the ceiling. With the constant announcements of how awesome Superior was. It was suffocating. He missed India’s kirana(mom & pop) stores. Where you could simply walk up to the counter, interrupt whoever was doing business, ask for whatever you wanted, and then hope to hell you had change. Or wait 10 minutes till someone brought in change with them. It was always those enterprising Biharis or Uttar Pradesh-ies running the stores.

The studied contrast between Superior and Ralphs was an endless source of fascination to him too. How could two grocery stores in the same freaking neighbourhood, walking distance from each other, be so different. Ralphs was like a little piece of white suburbia, transplanted into South Central LA. He somehow doubted there would be a Ralphs there if USC wasn’t there. Maybe he was being unfair. From Google Maps, there were other Ralphs in South LA. Trader Joe’s was funnier though. He had tried it. Gone to Google Maps, and searched for Trader Joe’s. Then searched for Superior. Doing that and noting their respective locations pretty much told you all you need to know about LA. Ralphs was brightly lit, the products were well displayed, more upmarket, they had a ‘Deli’ section. I think they do leastways. Imagine Superior having a ‘Deli’ section. Doubt that word meant anything to people who used Superior. People. That was the most fascinating difference between Superior and Ralphs. You never saw your typical Kappa sorority girl at Superior. Pretty sure they won’t be caught dead there. Ralphs, on the other hand, was full of them groups of them scanning the beer and wine aisles, determining with great concentration what combination of alcohol would maximize pleasure within reasonable expense. You barely saw Hispanics at Ralphs, you did see some black folks though. And a lot of white people. At Superior, it was pretty much Hispanic. I needn’t tell you which store is more expensive, need I? I do remember the first time shopping at Ralphs, those long aisles of brightly lit and perfectly packaged goods were seductive. At checkout $94. The first lesson in America. You are in Consumerville. Thinking of checkout reminded him of the funniest thing about Ralphs. It was how long it took him time to figure out why they had ping-pong balls at checkout. Took at least a month. Sheesh.

Walking out of Superior he ran into Eric. They waved at each other. “Hey man” “What’s up”. Affable. Conversations in America were so casual. No one expected anything of a conversation. Even with friends. Conversations with strangers even more so, but in way that was at once casual and formal. Both parties knew exactly how it would go. They knew the stock phrases to employ. He had lost count of the conversations that went so.

Hello, how are you today?
I’m good, how are you?
I’m good. What can I do for you?
(conduct transaction)
Thank you so much.
Thank you. You have a great day.
Thank you. You have a great day too. I really appreciate it.
Thank you. No problem at all. Have a good one.

Culture shock was not one shocking difference that shook you. It was the creeping, subliminal addition of a hundred little differing things encroaching on your comfort zone. The mechanicity of conversation had begun to embed itself in him. Sometimes he would catch himself doing it. In India, a conversation meant an actual conversation. Running into a friend would’ve meant a few minutes of chat. When he explained this to Americans they didn’t get it. “What do you meant ‘conversation’?”, they pressed. “What would you discuss?”. Why, you would discuss what you were doing, where you were going and what had happened to you recently. It was a way of saying,”I acknowledge your presence and it is important to me.” He had known Americans to walk straight past him, eyes determinedly keeping a fixed gaze, loath to deviate in the slightest, lest they chance upon the countenance of someone they knew vaguely, inviting the ghost of social awkwardness into their midst. A ghost which obscured and upset their cherished protocol. Which ofcourse was to maintain course. The other side of the coin, society’s needs and pressures rarely intruded on your personal sphere here. Do as you wish. You are your own Fate’s master. Ofcourse no one was Master of their Fate, but that was an entirely different discussion. The average person in America was ‘removed’ from you. The equilibrium distance of separation where people were comfortable was larger. And they consciously put it there, checked the barriers were in place, and felt comforted on finding those barriers in place. Any inkling that those barriers were disintegrating was met with an immediate shoring up. An immediate return to formality. To the thud of social protocol interposing itself in the way of persiflage. Waving its finger at you mouthing words of warning. The goal ofcourse was that doing business in America with people was extremely easy. Getting straight to the point was completely acceptable. As was signifying with your body language and tone that all you wanted was to get your business done. There was, admittedly, a strange sense of satisfaction in that. In knowing that you could get straight to the point with complete strangers, in knowing that they expected you to and they would too. And in that your business would be smoothly and competently completed.

He walked through the parking lot, noticing the shopping carts scattered about as usual. The carts always looked extremely forlorn to him, their items been stripped from them and loaded into cars by shoppers who then left them out to dry in the lot where they had to wait for the dude to listlessly drag them back. With their warning labels,”Do not take this cart out. It will lock.” It always made him wonder how homeless folks managed to get their carts out if they auto-locked. It also made him wonder if a shopping cart would be happier serving a homeless person or happier at a supermarket serving a stream of humans who didn’t care. Won’t a homeless person who pretty much depended on you to carry his stuff be more rewarding? Hmm. A Hispanic couple with two kids, one in the shopping cart tray, passed him. Shopping cart filled double bagged. The amount of plastic consumed in double bagging stuff amazed him. Yeah, sure, they threw stuff away in India, but the use and throw in America was on an entirely different scale. It was again a result of individualism. He decided that individualism underpinned America. The individual came first, irretrievably. Everything else was subordinate. If something helped you, the individual, in the slightest, then that thing was good. If going through dozens of plastic bags meant the barest of increases in convenience to you, it was good. And it would not be questioned. You were pushed to the fore, and the world worked to satisfy your wants. The downside being that you had to do everything. Social cohesion was non-existent. Your neighbours could be living in the next county for all you cared. That was unimaginable in India. In India, your neighbours could drop in unannounced, and it was okay. They were your neighbours. Here, neighbours dropping in unannounced was probably grounds for calling 911. Unknown persons on your private property it would be. America was so big on private property. The bs about the Tragedy of the Commons. Panchayats worked fine till the British messed it up. You didn’t really see “No trespassing” signs in India. In America, they were everywhere. That reminded him of the burglar alarm “Property secured by…” signs on front lawns. That was not something you saw in India either. It was funny to say this, but India felt safer than America. He didn’t know if India was safer than America. Sure India had gangs, but they did not feel real. They never impinged on your life. You could walk down the road in the middle of the night and think nothing of it. Here, it didn’t feel so. The constant presence of police was unsettling. Sure you got used to it after a few months. But after living in a country where you have never ever seen a police car, let alone one with sirens blazing, their presence was an unsubtle reminder that beneath the surface crime moved. And that things were not okay.

He never thought it would reach a stage where a police car with sirens blazing, speeding down his 23rd street would be ‘normal’. But the faint background orchestra of the siren slowly rising and falling had now being a pleasing, reassuring little smear of the background collage of elements that made up his life. He now understood why American films always had sirens playing faintly in the distance. He would miss the fire engines too, when he eventually left LA. It was always fun to see them screech down the street. A bit of spectacle to see everyone stop, and the engines, lights flashing, storm down the road. The cars, there were always cars in LA. He can taken Downtown freeways at 1 at night and you hit traffic. If this world had a car capital, it was LA.

He stuffed everything into his bag, unlocked his bicycle and set off. He wished he had a car, but getting a driving license was undoubtedly one of the hardest things to do if you didn’t have family. It was funny to see how small things became complicated without family. Unless you wanted to spend tons of money on renting cars and an instructor to learn to drive, you had to be good enough friends with someone to get them to take hours out to teach you how to drive in their car. It was just complicated. And Los Angeles made so much more sense with a car. Whole vistas opened up. If America had a caste system, it was those who possessed cars and those who didn’t. It was always amusing when Americans asked about the Indian caste system. In India, the caste system was an abstraction, something relegated to history books. No one asked him what his caste was, he asked no one, nor had he heard anyone ask each other. Indians seemed to define themselves linguistically and geographically. “Native kya hai?”, they would ask. America’s caste system was unspoken, but real. Everyone knew it existed, yet no one would breathe a word about it. The upper classes used physical distance and mobility to enforce their boundaries. You’re homeless. You don’t have a car. We’re going to live miles away from you and run sinuous veins of concrete to our houses, and on these veins will flow the lifeblood of our urbanity. And you will not be allowed to partake of that lifeblood. Because you are poor. You are car-less. You may live with your shopping cart in South Central LA. And there will be no way for you to get to our perfect, suburban house. Because the freeway forms the border. A magic portal between havesville and havesnotville, and a car (ergo money) is the key to this portal. This lent itself to America’s abysmal public transport. Yes, one reason it didn’t exist in LA was that LA wasn’t dense enough. Yet another reason is the rich didn’t want to bestow the power of mobility upon the poor. Do you want to give the homeless man in Skid Row the power to reach your picture perfect Beverly Hills street where nary a blade of grass is out of place? Obviously not. Yet Americans will never talk of this. Ever. If you discuss public transport with an American and he or she does talk of this, you have found an American who will be straight with you. It did go some way towards explaining why Indian public transport was better than American public transport when America was so much wealthier.

It was strange to see that those in, say, Beverly Hills would never rub shoulders with one un-moneyed. They would never talk to one, see one, know of that one’s existence. It would be a world screened off. They would live in a world of BMWs at 16, weekends spent boating or at a golf club, unlimited credit, mansions away from the urban decay, and a world strangely removed from quotidian troubles, where one entered an alternate reality shifted from true reality by a wall built of money and connections. They didn’t know that sort of viscerality, that of living life from a shopping cart, of choosing price over quality, of experiencing the pain of deprivation. It was like constantly living life on uppers. Everything was perfect and beautiful. And there was not a wrinkle in the picture. Beverly Hills and South Central LA were a few miles apart. Just take Olympic straight down, that was all you had to do. You went from Westwood and Century City, from 9-oh-2-1-oh, to Skid Row, in a few miles. The disparity was hard to describe. You also literally went from white to black. That was a harsh statement. I’m sorry. In India, it didn’t matter if you lived in the richest part of town. You were immersed in a vibrant middle class. All you had to do was step outside your house, and the people who owned Bajaj Scooters, and used Godrej soap were there. It was real. And tangible. And you felt it.

On the other hand, California… California. How did one describe California? California felt like a place where life could be good without hurting other people. You could have what you wanted, they would have what they wanted, and the lot of us could still get along. It was the vibe. People were unfailingly friendly. And relaxed. The bagger at Ralphs would end with “Take it easy, man”. The beach was 30 minutes away. Even if you didn’t go there, that thought did something. Everyone was good looking. The weather was as perfect as it could get. People didn’t have hang ups. Getting along with each other seemed as natural as day and night. The diversity in LA took his breath away. He felt like he could reach out and grasp any culture he wished to. Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Koreatown, Filipinotown, Little Eritrea, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little India were all close by. Little Saigon was in Orange County or so. Tehrangeles was in Westwood. And these cultures lived in happy harmony. Like a colony of symbiotic bacteria, feeding off and co-existing in cozy amicability. Where else in the world would you find this? Los Angeles itself felt, this is a weird analogy, felt like the surface of Io. Constantly churning, turning itself upside down. It was amazing to remind oneself that one lived in the city where World Pop Culture was invented. You were literally living it. What happened here filtered into the thought consciousness of the world. The way Angelenos talked was the way people around the world would talk in two years. Selling and marketing yourself almost became second nature. Promotion and a way of talking that highlighted you and constantly pushed you seeped into you. Everyone did it, and you absorbed it. It soaked into you. Just around USC, you could see people you know, friends, trying to build careers in music, in DJing, in marketing. In promoting themselves. Around you, you could see trends being laid down. You could see hipsters moving into Silverlake. You could see the girls on campus shifting trends. You could see ‘a look’ filtering through the social consciousness. You learnt to read people from the way they dressed. A certain style of dressing told you how that person wanted to be assessed, and where they were coming from. What sort of social milieu they moved in. That was Los Angeles. It was about people. Most cities were about geography. About how history, the landscape, the to and fro of history came together. About monuments and palaces and art. LA was about people. It was chockful of interesting people with ideas and stories to tell. Who wanted to create things. You had to engage with it. There were a million different sub cultures in LA. If you were a purveyor of human nature, Los Angeles was the city for you.

Humans were fascinating. And here in LA, he had the chance to observe every ethnicity and every race. Every shade of skin color. The way you could clearly see that blacks were not in their own land. That they had been uprooted and transplanted into an alien land, an alien culture. And when slavery ended, they had to find their way in a culture whose values were very different from that of their African values. And it had changed them. The focus on individualism fundamentally differed from their values, yet they had to deal with it. And there emerged a curious amalgam of cultures, a culture that they could define themselves by, yet that distinguished them from whites starkly. To see how some of them owned their identity, and in that became, for lack of a better word, ‘cooler’ than whites. I am ofcourse talking about rappers here. The age of Bling, and the way it pushed black performers to the fore, to stardom. Combining individuality with rap, which from what I understand, has African roots, though ofcourse it is not for me to say what the connections between rap and Africa are. I don’t mean to talk about blacks authoritatively, this is only what I have observed and I could well be wrong. But black folks were the coolest people I’ve encountered. In that they were very open, and would happily talk to you. Just like Indians. It made them happy to talk to you. And it was genuine conversation. They meant it. White people tended to be different. For them, you had to first convince them that they had something to gain from conversing with you. Initial conversation was not as free, you could feel the barrier in place. A barrier that took a bit to displace. But it was only a result of whites’ higher social status. Better put thus. Those with higher social status were more circumspect in their interactions with you, and whites just happened to have higher social status. It was nothing intrinsic to whites, it was human behaviour. On the other hand, some of the friendliest people with the least hang-ups were white. It made for interesting contrast. It was also interesting to view hipsters as the white reaction to black performers reaching stardom. Because, obviously, what was cool for black folks to do in order to become famous, was not cool for white folks to do. White folks had to take the highbrow route, which lead straight into the bowels of hipsterdom. Into the embrace of knowledge as a way of asserting status, and asserting pseudo savant-hood. And gaining the respect of your peer group. In being ‘edgy’, where edgy is defined as having one arm tattooed, wearing ‘hipster glasses’, and thin jeans. It was a natural reaction to the mainstream declaring that rap and bling was cool. A reclamation of that most precious space. Hispanics were different. They didn’t seem to partake of this. They were very like Indians, indeed the closest to Indians culturally. Deriving satisfaction from the constructs of religion and family. And not the competition to win the respect of one’s peers. Though he had noticed many Hispanic girls dyed their hair blonde, but it more was a SoCal thing he felt. It felt like an unwritten rule in the SoCal residency requirements. Want to be a SoCal resident? You need to be blonde. I should note here that I could also totally not know what I’m talking about, as far as people are concerned. And that these are broad generalizations and don’t apply to everyone. There is ofcourse more to be said about people, you can write entire reams on people. But geography, why did people not talk of SoCal geography when they talked of LA?

For not only did Southern California contain people, but Southern California contained geography. Oh, it contained geography. It had valleys, deserts, mountains, forests, beaches. You name it, California has it. California has the lowest point in America, Death Valley, and the highest, Mt. Whitney. It has the forested Sierra Nevadas. It has the majestic solemnity, the vast desolate desert expanse of Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree. He loved Joshua Tree. He’d been there enough times that the staff at the Visitor Centre knew him. He loved the way humans felt like interlopers at Joshua Tree, where Los Angeles and civilisation felt a million miles away, where there was only the soft desert wind to keep you company. The sunbaked expanse of desert. The mountains ranges drifting into grey obscurity. The stark solemnity taking you out of you, saying experience this. And, in contrast to the desert, the warm, inviting beaches running along the coast, mile after mile of them. Then the mountains bounding LA. It was amazing to see the snow capped mountains framing DTLA skyscrapers in winter. Gorgeous. The days in LA were gorgeous. He remembered this scintillating day in November. Driving with a friend down Grand in DTLA. Past the Walt Disney Philharmonic Hall between the skyscrapers. To describe it he had penned the following lines,

“today’s a perfect day hangover of summer that that you can let go of six months of california summer for winter sky’s been replaced by a painting broad brush strokes of white sweep mountainous verdigris frames the end of my street california’s warm sun glances off polished downtown skyscrapers zephyr whispers past beckoning summer along and away over the palm tree dotted los angeles sprawl”

California had given rise to two great urban conurbations, the Los Angeles-San Diego and the San Franciso Bay Area conurbations. The former drives world culture, the latter drives world technology. Allow me to recite the oft cited statistic that if California were a country, it would be the eight largest economy in the world. If you are wealthy enough to own a car and live within an hour of the beach in California, life is great.

The culture wars that made the Huff Post front page, that seemed to ravage America, that divided American into neat little sections of red and blue, seemed a world apart. Those little sections that reminded him of the black and white tiles in the game of Go, constantly trying to encroach upon each other. It seemed to be part of another country. It was just like in the End of the World video where it ends with Hawaii, Alaska and California forming their own country. The moral and social dilemmas which appeared to confront other parts of America simply did not exist here. It was all cool. That many of these dilemmas stemmed from religious beliefs, and that he was now passing the former Christian Science Center – now the Art of Living Foundation – reminded him of how America was more religious than he expected. America felt more religious than India, and he certainly did not expect that. Sure India had temples aplenty, but they were small, maybe occupying a street corner, innocuous. He could count seven churches near his house, churches that looked assertive in contrast to India’s temples. There was a large one right behind his house, two beautiful churches a stone’s throw away on Adams and Figueroa, a Jehovah’s Witness center on Menlo, two Korean churches on either end of Ellendale, a church or two across Hoover on what 24th street I think. To have enough people to support all these congregations meant the percentage of religious people must be high indeed. But then it was said that America was built on a Protestant work ethic. It fit right into what he thought of America. Even before stepping foot here he decided that to Americans work was religion and that money was God. Money was to be attained, work was how you attained it. On coming here, he only felt vindicated. Americans worked. Hard. It was expected. It fit right in with the cult of individualism. That you, you, pushed yourself, and you took pride in pushing yourself. Getting less sleep, losing yourself and not having any time were akin to marks of honour. It was encouraged. To get as much done as possible, at the expense of yourself. And because being individualistic meant forming a society that let go of you, there were no constraints. One could do as one wished. Evolution’s forces were let loose. There was no social contract to buttress the searing evolutionary forces. Which meant you were in competition with everyone else, and there was a constant drive to out do everyone else. And because it was individualism, no one really cared. When you fell sick, Indians would instantaneously offer to help out and put themselves at their disposal. Americans would draw back in horror and ask you not to come close to them. And this is when you’re sick, in a moment of vulnerability. These factors combined to make the lives of Americans a lot more stressful than they needed to be. Especially the values that made other people less willing to take you into consideration in their decisions. He had seen it. You lived a lot closer to the edge in America than in other less individualistic countries.

On the other hand individualism added color and life to the people around him. People were free to express themselves and be the people they wanted to be. And because the culture pushed them, they were high achievers. To get to that point though, required a price in flesh and blood, in stress and tension that left marks on the psyche. That did bow you down. It had made him question, what was the balance? You could push yourself and hate yourself and be a high achiever. Or you could take a life a little slower, flesh it out, explore what life had to offer, and achieve a little less. Would the former make you wish you had more time for life? For yourself? Would the latter make you wish you had done more? Been a harder person? Perhaps the grass would always be greener on the other side and the only answer to find and so something you liked. Which was hard. But at least it was an answer. There must be some sort of balance that you had to find, the point at which you were comfortable.

He was passing by the Indian store now. It actually, for real, had “Thank you for your business. Come again.” plastered outside. The stereotypical-ness of it always made him shake its head. The associated restaurant had the best Indian-Mexican food though. Chicken Tikka Masala Quesadillas. Just stop right there. Savour those quesadillas. How many cities in the world offered awesome fusion food down the street. He would really miss LA’s diversity. Well perhaps New York surpassed it. But who the heck wants to deal with snow and 90% humidity when you could get it minus the snow and 90% humidity? The store being Indian also made him think of what the Latino neighbourhood thought of USC’s students muscling in on their neighbourhood. Considering that there were a ton of foreign students from different cultures, particularly Indian and Chinese, who passed through this neighbourhood in just a few years. Did they like that? Did they resent it? These foreigners knew no Spanish. The Latinos didn’t know much English. There was no interaction. He wished there was more interaction. The closest he’d come was in playing football a few times with the neighbourhood kids. Nothing like sport to break down barriers. He remembered playing football with this kid from Guatemala at the Hoover Recreation Field who told him to check out the LA Critical Mass, which he actually did end up going to. It was awesome. Thousands of cyclists pouring down LA streets, from Wiltshire and Western, only to ride through Mid-City and DTLA to end at USC. He was grateful that kid mentioned it to him.

The fervour of bicyclists in a car crazy LA surprised him. It was another sub culture. There were always subcultures in LA. He didn’t understand people who complained about LA. Complained about the traffic, about the smog, about the people being superficial. Obviously if you never engaged with the city you would find it to be like that. If you never tried finding and immersing yourself in a subculture that you loved, how could you connect? If you never explored the hipster ridden Silverlake, DTLA’s grimy sheen, Westside’s clean suave upperclassness, never went to Huntington Gardens, to the Getty Centre, to Venice Beach boardwalk, or simply admired the California skies, you had no one to blame but yourself. LA offered up people on a platter. Take those people. Plug into LA.

To be honest, there was no shortage of superficial people in Los Angeles. Of people who were so fake they should be fashioned out of plastic. Girls who had the valley girl accent going on and guys who looked like they spent the entire day in the gym. He had no idea an accent could be that annoying until he encountered girls who used it to convey vulnerability and turn attention to their appearance. Such a turn off. It was questionable if there was actually a person underneath, that if you poked the surface you would find an emptiness below. People who wanted to be judged by how they looked because that was all they had. LA manufactured looks and appearance. It bred it. It was in the air. Growing up in SoCal could most certainly mess you up. If you took it too seriously, you too would be mired in the ideology of appearance, that you as a person comprised the shell on the outside, such that you would never fill the inside. You only had to go to one frat party to see it for yourself. The superficiality of it all. It was up to you to choose being a person over being a shell. California also made you a little soft. It too was in the air. The perfect weather. Knowing the beach was 30 minutes away. The slight laid back attitude. The abundance of marijuana. The hippie culture. That too could easily lull you in, and make you cave in to what was easy. And not only cave in to the kind of weed smoking hobo hippie that this might conjure up, but into a kind of New Agey spiritualism that he’d seen take root in the wealthiest pockets of Beverly Hills. It was this weird kind of pseudo lifestyle. Where you were vegan, you only bought food that was ‘organic’ and ‘farm fresh’, you did yoga, had a tattoo in Devanagari naturally being oblivious to what the letters stood for, only used ‘natural sea salt’ or god forbid ‘Himalayan pink salt’, talked about the soul and about what humans had lost in this day of smartphones and media, and how we needed to find ourselves. These pseudo-philosophical ideas that were used to fill what? Perhaps the emptiness that capitalism brought in? The feeling that you were in this constant race. And perhaps such New-Agey-ness was a simple reaction against it. Filling the void in your psyche – your emotional needs – with that which added color to life and made you happy.

He was almost home. He passed two kids holding hands. They must’ve been in 9th or 10th grade. The more liberal mores, again deriving from the individualistic ‘do what you want’ philosophy, had put the more conservative Indian mores he had been conditioned with into context. He had always thought that the relatively conservative Indian mores served no purpose and were overly controlling. But observing things here had changed that. It seemed possible to him that kids in America plunged into relationships too early, before they were emotionally mature enough to handle them. Before they knew what levers relationships worked and how they played into desires. And sometimes people fell into long term relationships too early. Because you were always going to change as a person, and the danger that lay in wait was that the two of you would change in different directions. And that you would one day realize that the other person was not the person you thought they were. Or that you were not the same person. Perhaps there was a point to more conservative social mores that frowned upon relationships too early. He wasn’t sure, but it had sure given him perspective on it.

He entered the gate, locked his bike, and then spied his LA Times weekend edition lying there. Sorting through the attached flyers he came across one that told you, it being Father’s Day, to get to buy some trifle for your dad ‘before it was too late’. Another for a pawnshop that promised tons of money and the good life if you sold them your gold and silver. Business advertising that leveraged emotion. It was what disturbed him about advertising in America, the blatant use of emotional vulnerability to squeeze your money from you. Actually, what better example than those ridiculous Lap Band adverts that peppered half the freeways in LA. If that wasn’t playing off insecurity about looks, and this was SoCal after all let’s face it looks are of paramount importance, if that wasn’t exploiting emotional vulnerability, he didn’t know what was. Flicking through the Times he chanced upon a piece on how residents living near the new Expo rail line were afraid the noise of trains would reduce their property values. It was another reminder of how obsessed people were with their property values. Still, this was reasonable. What about that article on how you couldn’t hang clothes out to dry in your backyard. Oh and your neighbour’s trees blocking your view, that was another big one. Individualism, private property, cars, work, money, religion, Americana. He shook his head, as if to separate the Indian and American parts of him, but they were fused together now, some sort of composite, and held together by something else. That something else made him neither Indian nor American. It was as if immersing yourself in and embracing another culture gifted you with a hyper-awareness for culture. You understood that culture was simply a skin you slipped on, a being that you took on, a part you played, because that play worked best in that corner of the world. And that you could as easily slip into another skin. The hyper-awareness to glean geographic culture, to see what people expected from their faces, to glean the psyche of a geography. That consciousness and understanding, and the embedment of that into your psyche was the unasked for gift of shifting cultures and of having embraced two cultures intrinsically apart.

The lock clicked open and he was home.


Comments on Writing Style

I got a ton of responses to this essay, and many of them talked about my writing style. Eventually, I decided I’d explain why this is the way it is. First off this is 100% autobiographical, the narrator is me. The first paragraph describing the title is exactly how I came up with the title, and is exactly what I was thinking. These are exactly my thoughts and exactly how I would put them. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stopped by Superior on my way home to buy stuff at the end of a long day, my mind simply daydreaming through. Which brings us to the style. Yes, the narrator here is daydreaming. It is apparent in the way connections are made. From the title being cheesy, to cheese itself, to the preponderance of cheese in food, the way the mind jumps through everything that has been occupying it. It shows itself in the personification of a shopping cart, just the sort of thing a wandering mind would do, a personification which is in reality is the daydreaming mind comparing by way of metaphor the choice between doing work that has little satisfaction but much status and doing work that has much satisfaction but little status.

But why a daydream. A daydream because that is exactly when your subconscious melds with your conscious. When things that have lain under the surface, intuitive feelings that have been gestating long, manifest themselves, and your conscious unconsciously feels through them. And this is precisely the reason why the narrative goes from third person to first person and slips back into third person. Third person conveys the sense of my daydreaming, first person when my mind sharpens to the thoughts and focuses on them, my conscious actively feeling through the subconscious intuitions and experiences that are coalescing into thought, and the switch back into third person the sign the reverie continues. A daydream is when you think about everything you’ve been through, and how it has affected you. You think of the quotidian and how that subtly pulls and pushes on your psyche. It is the only time when I, or you were you in my position, would think about the experience of shifting cultures and making connections. When your conscious loosens its grip on itself and flows. That is why this essay had to be the way it is. There is no other way of conveying the sense of that which had to be conveyed. This essay will always be a work in progress, and it will take edits and additions before I get the tone and balance right. Cross-cultural comparative essays are hard to write, so some latitude is requested.

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