When I first moved to the United States back in August 2009, I had to confront a surprising and rather unsettling situation. I found that many Americans and students from Europe were asking me eerily similar questions about where I was from. These were not questions about how I was coping in a new country, or how I was handling the culture shock. Instead these were questions along the lines of “Is it true that there are no toilets in India?”, or “Do you guys have banks in India?”, or “Is it very dangerous to live in a big city in India? How about the rural areas?”, or “Do you have cars and other technology over there?”.
When I was first asked these questions, I had no clue how to respond to them. I didn’t even have a clue as to WHY this person I had just met was asking such denigrating questions about my home country. But the truth was that none of these questions were ever asked in a condescending manner at all. On the contrary, the people asking me this always showed a genuine sense of curiosity. When I eventually found out the reason why so many Americans and Europeans were asking me these questions, I was flabbergasted. The reason why these questions came up was Danny Boyle’s 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire.
In case you haven’t seen this movie, Slumdog Millionaire is about a kid from the Mumbai slums who grows up being the victim of almost every aspect of India’s dark underbelly. It documents what he went through and culminates with him winning a million dollars in a game show. It was marketed as a rags to riches story, but in reality that theme was just a vehicle to reinforce every single pre-existing stereotype the Western world has about the third world in general – and specifically India. Some of the things shown in the movie include child prostitution, forced begging, open toilets, religious riots, rape, blinding of children, call centers, etc.
After the movie won the Best Movie at the Oscars, it predictably got a lot of additional publicity and a lot more people made the effort to watch it – especially in the western world. And so whenever I met an American or a European who had watched the movie, I was typically asked questions like the ones above. And it was not just me. Most of my fellow Indian friends have gone through this same experience.
Yes these are not appropriate or even the correct questions to ask someone. What I realized though, was that I was being asked these questions by Americans not out of condescension, but out of an actual lack of knowledge about India. Essentially, Slumdog Millionaire was the ONLY mainstream representation these people had about India. Predictably, those whose opinion about India was only based on this movie were the ones asking those questions – and they were doing so out of pure curiosity and fascination.
Needless to say, Slumdog Millionaire is not at all representative of India as a country. Make no mistake – all those things shown in the movie do exist and they do impact a lot of people. But by deliberately showing ONLY the dark underbelly of a country, there is a conscious building of a narrative – one which dictates that the dark underbelly IS the country. And THAT is not at all acceptable. Imagine if a movie is made about America focusing ONLY on the school shootings, opioid crisis, police brutality, crime in low income neighborhoods, racism in the deep south, widespread obesity, big corporations controlling the population and the elections, and an extremely divided country with one set of people hating the other. And if this movie is the ONLY mainstream representation of America in a foreign country, would Americans consider it fair? Probably not. Such a movie would again just take the dark underbelly of a country and portray it to be EVERYTHING there is to know about the country. And that is simply an incorrect portrayal.
And that right there is what I call the “Slumdog Millionaire Effect”. This is a classic manifestation of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. This is what happens when the spotlight is put on a select few aspects of a situation and the audience’s understanding of the entire situation is thus limited to just what is shown in the spotlight. It is a dangerous technique but one that is widely used in today’s society – especially in the media.
Which brings me to Hasan Minhaj and his Patriot Act episode about the upcoming Indian Elections on Netflix. In a nutshell, Hasan Minhaj has used the same techniques that Danny Boyle used to portray India. But just labeling it as an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy would hide all the other (more important) deep seated issues that the episode is symptomatic of. And that will be the focus of the next post.
This is the 2nd installment in a series of posts outlining the divided nature of the United States of America. All posts can be found here.
One of the hallmarks of a functional society is not just the availability and constant dissemination of information, but also the diverse sources that perform the act of dissemination. As an extreme, take North Korea for instance where there are a few media outlets (radio, print and TV) but they are all controlled by the same one source – the leadership of Kim Jong-Un. Contrast that to a country like the United States where there are approximately 1300 newspapers, hundreds of radio stations, and hundreds of news channels – and they are controlled by many different groups including many that are independently owned.
So yes, the United States has way more freedom of press than North Korea (duh!). But this is not a binary measurement with North Korea as 0 and the United States as 1. There is a full spectrum of possibilities in between. We all know the consequences of the lack of freedom of press in a country like North Korea. But it would be incorrect to presume that the other extreme is perfect. Far from it. As we will see below, a free press doesn’t necessarily mean a fair press. It is not just the veracity of the reporting that counts in a free press. What counts equally is what is and what is not reported by each source of information.
(For the sake of ease of putting my point across in this post, I am going to use the phrases ‘sources of information’, ‘information outlets’, ‘media house’, ‘news outlet’ and ‘media’ interchangeably. But what they will refer to is any platform through which information is disseminated on any topic. Additionally, when I refer to news outlets covering and presenting only ‘specific topics’ or ‘different sets of facts about a topic’, it is implied to include instances of news outlets presenting selective facts on a topic, covering only developments that peddle a certain narrative or that are favorable to an organization/ideology, providing disproportionately large amounts of airtime/print space to people espousing a certain point of view, present information/opinion in an us vs them format, etc).
The Ideal World and the Real World
In an ideal world, people think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information on hand and with no inherent bias. But we do not live in such a world. We live in a world where people believe that they think rationally and respond to situations with the complete information, and they believe that they do so with no inherent bias.
Another aspect of an ‘ideal world’ would be that any information disseminated by a source is both complete and unbiased. This means that any news outlet would provide all the different pieces of information on a given topic while providing the appropriate emphasis on each of those different pieces. But we all know that is also not the reality.
The reality is that different media outlets provide and emphasize different sets of facts on the same topic, but rarely present all the facts about it. Each outlet, of course, strongly believes that the specific sets of facts that they are emphasizing are the ones that deserve the attention of the society. So what we end up having is a large number of sources of information disseminating and emphasizing different sets of facts with each believing that their ‘coverage’ is the more relevant (or even important) one to the society. However, none of these media outlets would cover all the facts of the topic at hand.
How We SHOULD be Consuming Information
There is a very important distinction to be made here. It is one thing to have different media outlets emphasizing different pieces of information on a given topic but still doing so within the context of the overall umbrella of information on that topic. It is something totally different when the various media outlets choose to present and emphasize only certain pieces of information while partially or completely ignoring the rest of the facts on that topic. The former is an instance where the diversity of the information outlets becomes an asset by being able to provide a voice for those specific (parts of) topics that would otherwise have not been emphasized elsewhere. The latter implies straight up bias where the media outlets are deliberately disseminating a specific set of information while withholding another set of information.
Now let us take our real world where we have the latter scenario – one in which there are many different outlets that are disseminating information on different topics or different parts of the same topic, and exhibiting clear bias. In such a society, what would a rational person do if they sought information on a wide ranging topic such as, say, immigration?
First and foremost, they would go to one source of information and gather all the facts from that source. But importantly, they would also identify and acknowledge that the first source does not necessarily provide all the facts of the topic. This would then compel them to seek out a different source of information that would provide the facts that were necessarily not part of the first source’s coverage. Then they would repeat this until they believe that they have reasonably covered all the different aspects of the topic at hand. With this, they would then have a perspective on the topic based on complete information about the wide ranging aspects of that topic. And if society was filled with such people, we would have a very well informed population who would call for specific and reasonable action to address the issues of the society.
How we Actually Consume Information
(OK now let me return from that awesome parallel universe to our own less impressive one.)
But unfortunately, we human beings are not a rational species. We are not even meant to be a rational species based on the way our brain works – which means we have to put in that much more effort to behave rationally. So what this means is that we all have inherent biases that are hard to get rid of. It also means that it is extremely hard for us to actively seek out information that contradicts our pre-existing beliefs or opinions. These two fundamental traits influence and manifest in the way we consume information.
Because of our inherent bias, we are already predisposed to certain sources of information. These outlets typically cover and emphasize specific people, topics or parts of topics that we are already in (at least) general agreement with. Consuming information from such a source will further reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and opinions about a topic while gathering no new or potentially contradictory facts about the same topic.
This will lead us to a deeper entrenchment into the same set of beliefs and opinions thereby helping our brain get even more cozy in its comfort zone. And then, the vicious cycle turns into more like a spiral where we get entrenched deeper and deeper into our own sets of beliefs and becoming increasingly incapable of processing any information contradictory to it.
But unfortunately, that is how information is consumed in this day and age. We gather our information from sources that typically disseminate the kind of information we already agree with, while (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding sources of information which provide information that could potentially be contradictory to what we already believe in. Essentially, we are all slaves to our confirmation bias.
In the next post, we will look at how such a mode of information consumption impacts society in general.
Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.
From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.
The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.
What are the Issues?
It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.
The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).
It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.
It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.
The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.
Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)
So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.
The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper. This deepening of the division leads to a feedback loop that incentivizes the systems in play to propagate these divisions even more.
But a society cannot be truly divided into two distinct groups just because people have differing opinions on some specific individual issues. To better understand this, consider a (hypothetical) middle aged man in rural California who owns a small farm, employs legal AND undocumented immigrant workers to work his farm, carries guns with pride, goes to church every Sunday, wants universal healthcare, opposes abortion and gay rights, wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, advocates for tuition-free college, advocates for climate change initiatives and wants tariffs on goods (including food) imported from outside the USA.
How on earth would you label him – a Conservative or a Liberal?!!?? He supports issues on both sides as it would be perceived today. It is simply impossible to put him in one or the other category as these categories are understood today. Now imagine if America was made up with people like him – people who have strong and differing opinions about the seemingly divisive issues, but do not have a set pattern in their opinions across these issues. In such a situation, when everyone has differing sets of opinions about the same issues, there cannot be a sufficiently large population group that can be thrown into just two distinct categories. Instead, there will simply be dozens (or hundreds) of different groups where the people within that group share common opinions on ALL the issues. But this does not lead to a divided society! This actually leads to a lot of different groups of people with lots of different priorities – but no sustained division. So then why exactly is it so hard (or just plain impossible) to find such people?
The answer lies in grouping. The ultimate key to generating a divide is to identify these divisive issues and the two contradictory (for or against) opinions about these issues. Then allocate a ‘for’ to specific issues and an ‘against’ to the other issues. (Which ones get a ‘for’ and which ones get an ‘against’ are not necessarily rooted in any common basis or philosophy. And the question of exactly WHO decided these ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ is for another post). This becomes one group – say liberals. Reverse the allocation of ‘for’ and ‘against’ and we have the second group – the conservatives!
So, for example, one group of such opinions would be to stand for gun rights, oppose gay rights and abortion, for free market, for lesser taxes, against Climate control initiatives, for religion, against immigration, against government programs for general population, pro-business, etc. These, as we understand them today, are considered conservative opinions. The opposite group of opinions would then be considered as liberal opinions. So once the opinions of people on these issues are grouped in a certain set way, the label can then be applied to that entire group.
So instead of having dozens (or hundreds) of groups with each group having different sets of opinions on the same issues, we now have two specific groups where the set of opinions on the same issues are pre-determined. In the former, there is no real way to create and sustain a deep division between dozens (or hundreds) of groups of people. But in the latter, it becomes very simple to create the divide when you only have two groups of people with pre-determined and contradictory sets of beliefs/opinions about the same set of issues.
(Yes there are obviously many many people who do not identify themselves as a strictly conservative or liberal in the way these terms are understood today. But there is no one representing these people in Congress or anywhere for that matter. In other words, they are not large enough in number to actually have a voice that can make a difference. This, unfortunately, makes their presence quite redundant. Similarly, it is also true that the current administration’s trade policies aren’t exactly favoring a ‘free market’ – which has led to some conservatives getting rather confused on how to respond to this).
And that is what has happened to this country. There are exactly two groups of people – liberals and conservatives – each seemingly represented by one specific political party. And with each group having a pre-determined (and opposite) set of beliefs and opinions about the same issues, the ease of creation and sustenance of division becomes that much easier.
But then this leads to further questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW?
Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.
For the past month or so, I have been looking at job postings in my field of specialization – Geotechnical Engineering – across the US and Canada. During my searches, I noticed some general trends that the companies exhibit when it relates to the expectations and/or qualifications of the candidates they want. Most are what is to be anticipated for the corresponding position. But of all the different expectations listed, one particular aspect has many interesting collateral impacts for the overall job market. And that is the requirement of Experience.
In general, I noticed the following breakup in the job postings (I do not have hard numbers, but a constant exposure to the postings will pretty much confirm this):
Senior Geotechnical Engineer (40% of available positions): 10-15+ years of experience.
Intermediate Geotechnical Engineer (30-35% of available positions): 5-10 years of experience.
Junior/Entry Level Geotechnical Engineer (25-30% of available positions): 0-3 years of experience.
At first glance, the above description appears to be rather innocuous. A direct correlation between seniority of position and expected level of experience from the candidate is fairly obvious and definitely warranted. But this does not provide the complete picture. What needs to be looked at is that about 70% of jobs in the market are only for candidates who have experience in the range of 5-15 years or more. So what does this imply?
First, we have to understand where the labor supply – all experience levels – comes from and where they are currently and where they will be in the future. In the field of Geotechnical Engineering, I can think of a few hundred people graduating with a Master’s degree every year in the US, and a Master’s degree is pretty much a requirement for a career in Geotechnical Engineering. So that means there is a constant supply of maybe 200-400 eligible candidates every year for the Junior/Entry Level positions. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that all these graduates get an entry level job. (From my own experiences in trying to hire entry level candidates for my company, I can say that the demand exceeds supply. So this assumption is valid). And let us also assume that most, if not all, of the demand for the entry level/junior Geotech positions is fulfilled. So far, so good.
But this is where the fun starts. Because you see, unlike the constant supply of eligible graduates for Junior/Entry level positions, there is absolutely no such supply for the Intermediate and Senior level positions. The people graduating from colleges are unemployed and actively looking for entry level jobs. Companies are also actively looking to fill their junior/entry level positions. So there is a constant match between demand and supply for the entry level jobs.
But there is no such connection available between eligible candidates and the Intermediate/Senior positions. The ‘eligible’ candidates for these positions are typically already employed and lack any incentives to change jobs. The lack of incentive only increases with a person’s experience. That is, the longer a person spends time in a city or a company, they are unlikely to move away from either or both. People develop professional connections, drop roots in a community, buy houses, start a family and get settled in one place as they progress in their career.
If anything, the factors listed above only contribute to a ‘cost’ for the person if they were to consider changing companies and/or cities. And any company looking to hire for an Intermediate/Senior position will have to ‘compensate’ for that cost in some visible form – higher salary, higher position, faster career growth, better living/working conditions, etc. And it is not sufficient for the company seeking to hire the candidate to be just ‘better’ than the candidate’s current employer. They will have to be ‘significantly better’ since they will have to provide additional compensation for the ‘cost’ the candidate has to pay to change jobs.
All this points to a job market where the entry level positions are continuously filled and the intermediate/senior level positions are hard to fill. Most of the intermediate/senior level jobs typically stay open for a long time (several months). Anyone can login to any job platform and see this for themselves. In spite of this, one cursory look at the tone and content of the job posting requirements for intermediate and senior level positions reveals such a sense of idealism on part of the company seeking the candidates. There are typically such a large number of specific requirements listed for a candidate in these positions, one has to wonder exactly how successful are these companies in hiring people for this level?
And that is not even a rhetorical question from my side. I am genuinely interested to know what the success rate is for companies seeking to hire intermediate and senior level positions in a specific high skilled profession. What percentage of these positions actually get filled? How long are they typically open for? Do the recruiters ever relax their requirements? Do they promote someone from within the organization and/or give them additional responsibilities? Are the recruiters even aware of the nature of the job market? What do they do when they absolutely need someone?
Or in other words, exactly how liquid is the job market at the intermediate and senior positions for high skilled professions?
These questions take me to yet more interesting aspects/impacts on the overall job market. In an illiquid job market, what does job creation even mean? Exactly how valuable is experience for a given role? How would/should one define skills shortage? And how should this be addressed? What should be the role of immigrants in such a situation?
These are questions I seek to address in future posts. Stay tuned.
I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come.
Growing up in India, the term ‘big city’ largely implied the size of a city in terms of its geographic scale. And the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ meant that there were people from all over the country who called the said city their home. But here in America, the term ‘big city’ implies the size of the city in terms of its population, and the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ means that one can find people from all over the world who call the city their home. There was always going to be a culture shock going from a small city like Des Moines in the Midwest to living in New York City. I was largely prepared for it and definitely looking forward to embrace it for the duration of my stay.
To the people who live there and for those who have never spent significant time there, it is perhaps nothing more than an axiom – that was acknowledged a long time ago and something that holds no significance now – that New York City is the biggest city in America and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But for those who have never spent any significant time in a city that size and that diverse and who go to live there for the first time, it is no longer just an axiom. No, for those who go to live there for the first time, the size of the city and the diversity of the population is easily the most glaring feature the city has to offer. It is the first thing that will strike you and it will continue to be a constant reminder of what the city is and what it stands for.
So yes, that was the first thing I noticed myself – the sheer number of people and the diversity of those people. (To be fair, I had been to NYC (and have spent many days in Chicago) previously for a few days as a tourist, but these kind of observations and realizations do not come when in the mindset of a tourist. You just have to live there for a while). People from all over the world – from places I knew well to places I didn’t even know existed. I met people who had lived in the city since a few weeks and I met people whose families had lived the city for several generations, and everything in between.
The term ‘melting pot of different cultures’ cannot and should not be used in an off-handed manner. But NYC clearly makes the case for being one. There are always going to be isolated pockets of people from different cultures who tend to spend time among themselves. But from what I saw, there was a lot of clear racial and cultural inter-mingling that has taken place over several generations and continues to this day. Interracial couples and mixed race folk tell only part of the story. The true inter-mingling happens in the transfer of ideas from people of one culture to another. And this is on full display in the city. It is largely on the subtle level, but if you are looking for it, you will definitely find it.
The diversity is so much on display there that (apart from the one exception of the concert crowd) there was never in a single situation where I found that white people were in the majority! In the subway, in Times Square, in Harlem, in lower Manhattan, in Queens or Brooklyn, in movie theaters, in restaurants and literally anywhere else, I always found that non-white people made up at least half the crowd. I made that observation and state it here as absolutely nothing more than a fact that reflects the true extent of diversity the city has to offer.
For all the talk about New Yorkers being rude and arrogant and living life in a hurry, I found that most of my encounters and observations pointed to the contrary. I spent a good amount of my time (at work) with strangers who had no reason to help me in any form. I am not talking about people in the office working in a cube. I am talking about blue collar workers of different age groups who were born and raised in the 5 boroughs. I spent a lot of time with them – weeks together on a daily basis – and got to know them rather well. Most of them tried to help me out on various tasks when they had absolutely no incentive to do so. And everybody were polite.
In fact, the more time I spent with them blue collar workers, the more I noticed a rather raw side to their general nature – an honesty and straightforwardness that I hadn’t found among anyone working in a cube. There was no beating around the bush, no needless diplomacy – just the honest and polite truth. My conversations and interactions with those blue collar workers – especially while hanging out at their office food truck for breakfast or lunch – were definitely some of the memorable highlights from my NYC stay.
It was not just that those blue collar workers spoke a certain way. What also made a difference to me was that my own skin color did not seem to make any difference to anyone in NYC when they interacted with me. Here in the Midwest, I have typically found people being more guarded when talking to me as compared to other white people. Even though they mostly do it with the right intention, it still remains an undeniable fact and something that prevents me from developing new and deeper connections. But in NYC, the people I interacted with had no holding back. Sample this: Within two days of meeting and working with this one blue collar worker, we were already talking about what kind of college degree his daughter should pursue! Even strangers I met on the bus or the subway didn’t appear to incorporate my skin color or accent into how they interacted with me. And that was an extremely refreshing experience that I had sorely missed in Iowa.
The explanation for this is actually pretty obvious. The more that white folks get to see and interact with people from other countries/cultures/races, the more familiar they get with them, resulting in not putting up their guards when they meet someone not of their color/race/country in the future. This phenomenon is obviously not just restricted to white people. This very much applies to any dominant group of people interacting with people who have less representation in the same geographical area.
And so, with 5 months of NYC under my belt, I can see why immigrants like to flock to a city like NYC. The reasons and explanations may sound obvious and almost banal to those who already live there or in similar cities. But for someone like me living in a much smaller place where many times I am the only diversity around me, it was a massive paradigm shift in terms of the dynamics of social interaction and what assimilation means and stands for.
And it was only when I came back to Des Moines last week that I appreciated the contrast for what it truly was. America is called a ‘land of immigrants’ and that is true. But I realized that what that means in NYC is vastly different than what it means in a place like Des Moines. In New York City, that phrase stands for immigrants from all over the world whose families have lived in the city from several generations ago to those who probably just landed there that week. In a place like Des Moines, that phrase implies that several generations or centuries ago, a number of East European people came there as immigrants looking for a better life and have since lived there.
I will conclude by saying that one cannot and should not compare and contrast a city like Des Moines to a place like New York City. There is only one New York City but there are many places like Des Moines. But it is equally important to accept and acknowledge the vast difference in the number and diversity of people in those cities – and their far reaching impact on the society.
Among my initial impressions of American culture and lifestyle, what really caught my eye were the isolationist tendencies that this country has consciously and sub-consciously adopted over the course of the past 2 centuries. (The validity of the ‘why’ is not relevant to this discussion). And more specifically, how these isolationist policies had manifested themselves in the day to day workings of the society. And of all the different aspects of American culture that exhibit this isolationist propensity, perhaps the most visible, glaring and sometimes obvious one is sports.
American sports (apart from Olympic events) are mostly just that – sports played in America. American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Ice hockey are sports where the biggest sporting events include teams from within North America playing each other to be crowned ‘World Champions’. (Sure there are instances of international participation – notably for Basketball, and also for Baseball in Latin America and Japan). But for an outsider looking in – like an immigrant such as myself – the universal, unquestioned acceptance of such a largely self-contained system among its people seems to display a certain sense of ignorance, apathy and maybe even some arrogance over other sports that are a lot more popular in the rest of the world. And THIS can and does work towards discouraging people unfamiliar with the sports to explore it.
Additionally, for an immigrant coming in to this country well beyond his/her formative years, it can seem to be a rather daunting, and sometimes even pointless, task to explore the sports. My own initial thoughts went along these lines: “I have no association with these sports. I never grew up with them. I have no reason to be interested in them now. So I will still continue to just watch cricket, soccer and tennis.” And this was (and in many cases, still is) echoed among most of my fellow Indian friends. It would have been that much easier to simply keep my status quo and not make an effort into exploring the product of a seemingly isolationist thinking.
But it is only when one looks beyond this apparent barrier of sports apathy and isolationism does one discover a whole new universe of sporting culture this country has to offer. And so I decided to take the plunge to see what’s out there – at least as far as American Football is concerned.
Doing my Master’s in a university with a big football tradition such as Virginia Tech inevitably exposed me to a lot of buzz around the game and the team. An American classmate of mine volunteered to feed my curiosity by watching the VT vs Nebraska (2009) game with me and explaining all the rules and objectives. VT won that game – a rather low scoring encounter with a memorable finish. And I got hooked on to the sport. I watched most of the VT games and even managed to follow some of the other ACC/BCS games that season. I even recollect going to my friend’s super bowl party that winter.
My initial efforts to watch and understand the game may have been borne out of a desire to socialize and make new friends. But over time, the sport itself grew on me – to the extent that I started to watch even non-VT games whenever they were on. So in my third semester (and second football season), I decided to watch a few games at Lane Stadium – home of the Virginia Tech Hokies. That was also the first time I learnt about the tradition of tailgating.
I just couldn’t believe it! I had never seen anything like it before. People drank alcohol for hours before the game, during the game, and for hours after the game! Lane Stadium ended up being a spot where 67,000 drunk college kids cheered on a bunch of other college kids playing football! Wow! It was just incredible! And I definitely wanted more! So I ended up going to 3-4 more games at the Lane Stadium, the most memorable of which being the 28-21 win over Georgia Tech on a Thursday night.
In the end, maybe it was being around a lot of people who all cheered for the same team, maybe it was that I was looking to socialize and make new friends, or maybe it is because I am a big sports guy by nature and American football was a sport that I came to like, or maybe it was a combination of all of them. But whatever may have been the contributing factor, by the time I graduated in December 2010, I was no longer looking at American football as an outsider. I was a fan of the sport and I had a team to root for.
Over the last 6 years since my graduation, I have become even more knowledgeable about the game – not so much its history, as about the tactics, strategy and the team itself. I have a big group of American friends who are passionate about the game, and I feed off their passion and get increasingly more involved in the game over the season. Though the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences in the Midwest have little to do with VT and the ACC, I nevertheless have watched most of the VT games and a bunch of other ACC and other conference games. I have always watched the BCS bowls/playoffs even though there was no team in there to cheer for personally.
I have come to realize that to grow an interest in any new sport, one need 3 things: a general liking to the sport itself, a team to root for, and friends to watch the games with (preferably rooting for the same team). I have been fortunate to have all of them and so I now find myself cursing, clapping, shouting, jumping around and being my usual animated self whenever I am watching a VT game. I follow fan blogs that discuss each game, the team, recruiting and all associated gossip and rumors – all clear indications that I have something personally invested in the outcome of the games every weekend!
And speaking of having something personally invested in a team, I have also realized that I have a direct affiliation to the Virginia Tech football team. I went to school there and so there is a very valid reason to root for them. Which made me then question my affiliation to all the soccer teams that I have passionately supported for well over a decade now – Chelsea and Juventus. I suppose we don’t need a reason to choose a sports team to root for, but technically speaking, I have a more valid affiliation to VT football than to Chelsea or Juventus! (I know! This is sacrilege!) But I choose not to break my head about that.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is the absence of anything NFL in my encounters with American football. I do watch the games at the bar or at my friends’ place when they are on. I will even appreciate a close/good game regardless of who is playing. But the absence of having a team to root for has pretty much held me back from following it as closely as I do for college football. Many of my friends are either fans of the Broncos or the Packers, so whenever I am watching a game with them, I end up cheering with them. I do have some affinity towards the Broncos, so if I were to really pick a team, I would probably go with them. But until I truly commit to an NFL team and start rooting for it, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about it as I do with college football.
At the end of the day, I find that I have spent many weekends watching American football with my friends to great satisfaction – bonding, cheering and even having opinions of my own about how the teams should have played. These experiences have proved to be a very fruitful, having served as an easy avenue to assimilate into the American lifestyle and to have a larger sense of belonging in a new society and culture that is half way around the world from where I grew up. I have benefited greatly from this experience and I definitely intend to keep exploring this further.
I am exhausted. And I may even be writing this just to get that point across. I am also writing this on my 30th birthday – which is apparently a significant thing. Apparently, I am now old, can be officially called an ‘Uncle’, and as my parents and relatives subtly remind me – my prospects in the arranged marriage market have now taken a deep hit. I am also writing this 2 days after my birthday celebration which involved the highest rate of alcohol consumption and (rather short lived) general feelings of invincibility I have experienced in the last 5-6 years – a combination that culminated in my very own “I AM A GOLDEN GOD!” moment (OK maybe not that dramatic). I am also writing this after a full day and a half of (completely necessary) recovery. But more importantly, I am writing this at the end of a wild, wild summer.
I AM A GOLDEN GOD!!
The idea of seasons took its time for me to get used to. It was at least 2-3 years after my arrival in the US that I realized that I cannot be as active in the winter as I am in the summer. And more importantly, that it was OK not to be going out and traveling all the time in the winter. At the other end of that realization was my effort to be as active as possible during the months of April to October. It is a change in my lifestyle that I have come to accommodate over the past few years, and am now actually quite content with the new mental states that I find myself in at various times of the year.
For the past few years, ever since I started working, I have tried to reach a particular point in my mental state around late October/early November. It is a state of mind wherein I can honestly tell myself, “I have done everything I possibly could this summer, and now I am ready for the winter.” I have been largely successful these past few years in achieving that state of mind around October/November – just in time for the winter to set in.
This year, I reached that state of mind in the first week of August.
This summer has been one long continuum punctuated with concerts, music festivals, weekend travels, night-outs at bars, work, poker, games of Settlers of Catan, games of bags (a.k.a Cornhole), lots of records and CD shopping and of working out. It has had its moments – from very intense and stressful to very peaceful and relaxing. 4 trips to Chicago, 4 to Kansas City, twice to Wisconsin (including my 4th visit to House on The Rock is as many years), 3 music festivals, 3 night-outs at an establishment that I’d rather not specify (one of which culminated in my rather memorable 530 AM question “Is that the fuckin’ sun?“), 30+ bands seen live, a month long stay in a resort at Storm Lake (for work), God only knows how many gallons of alcohol consumed, late late nights (more like early mornings) at the neighborhood bar, God only knows how many new friends made, and all this while working on a high profile highway project in the state of Iowa.
This is probably the point I post a meme summing it all up:
Yes. It was really exhausting. And I would do it all over again.
In all seriousness, I reached a point of complete exhaustion the first week of August. I had been on a non-stop schedule of weekend travel/concerts/general fun for over 3 months. And after my trip to Milwaukee the first weekend of August, I just felt I was done – which was really understandable. But the fact that I did not have any concerts/travel scheduled for the next 3 weeks made the timing just spot on. So the break was most welcome, which I spent doing exactly nothing. (OK I will admit I continued my obsession with Japanese crime novels during that time.) And towards the end of August, I got my energy back and was traveling around all over again.
In the end, I look back at these past 6 months with a sense of satisfaction that I haven’t felt in a while. This satisfaction came with a new found appreciation for just being fortunate enough to have the time, resources and physical ability to do all the things I did. It also came with a sense of pride for realizing that my passion and curiosity for exploring what’s out there are not going away. It came with the true understanding that I am really only as old as I want to be. It also came with the realization that I have a group of friends that I can truly depend on, and a neighborhood that I can call my own. This is the closest I have come to feeling like I am home here in the US, and I truly feel fortunate that I have all this.
My 30th birthday celebration was probably the last ‘exhausting’ activity this year. My concert calendar is now empty till January, and I am going sober for the next 4-5 weeks. But perhaps, more importantly, my parents are going to be here a week from today for a month. What better way to do the cool down lap this year than just feasting on mom’s food? There may yet be one final weekend trip this year where I get to take my parents out.
But all in all, I can confidently say that yes, I am indeed ready for the winter.