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.
So finally here I am, writing this inevitable post, after I have got settled in my new home. It has been just over 2 weeks since I arrived here in Blacksburg, Virginia. Two weeks during which I came, I saw and I drank beer!
Leaving India for the first time, I somehow just didn’t go through any of the pre-departure blues that was so much drilled into my head. In fact, my last day in India was all a bit surreal. As I was done with most of my packing by then, I was never really in a rush. So went to visit a couple of my close friends and then I was all set to go to the airport. The flights-Bangalore to Mumbai, Mumbai to Atlanta, Atlanta to Roanoke- were quite uneventful in themselves, apart from of course the highly admirable Kingfisher Air Hostesses and the very very large collection of movies that was on offer in the 18 hour non-stop Delta flight. But I will probably remember the Delta flight more for the missed opportunity on my part to have free beer and wine on flight and get high-literally and figuratively! (HTF??!!??)
And since arrival, I have had much to see and do. Blacksburg, being a village by American Standards, made my transition into America much easier. Sure there are wide roads and the people are different and there is a lot more order around but it hasn’t taken me long to get to know this place well and feel at home in here. The excitement of meeting people from all over the planet never abated at any point of time. Attending the regular get togethers at the International Center has been one of the highlights over the past 2 weeks. And also due to the significant Indian contingent, I never really felt out of place or alienated.
The place as such is quite small and it took me all of 1 week to travel all around it. But at the same time, it is one of the most beautiful and picturesque places I have ever come across. Situated right at the heels of a mountain range, Blacksburg provides many breath taking views, many times right from the windows of the houses. A 45 minute drive to a nearby Claytor Dam lake was perhaps the best of it all. The weather here, is pretty much the same as it was in Bangalore, with the only difference that this place reserves the right to rain with absolutely no prior notice of any kind. And also of note, is the day timings what with the sun deciding to set only after 9 in the night!
There have been many changes that I have had to adapt myself to -inevitably. Some good, some not so good, and some bad. On the good side, there is the very useful law (and one that I have never got tired of exploiting to my own benefit) that requires vehicles to stop for pedestrians to cross. There is also this really really punctual Bus service that runs through the town where one has to actually “request” for a stop! (At this point, I am making an honest effort not to compare the aboriginal BMTC back home with its counterpart here). But perhaps, more significant than any other observation that I might have made, the friendly nature of the people here is definitely worth mentioning. Back home, we are never really used to being wished by complete strangers or being thanked for something that we are just supposed to be doing. There is a basic sense of courtesy around here that everybody respects and follows.
And now on the bad side, is the food! Where I used to eat dosa for breakfast, Americans eat beef. Whenever I had Samosa or Pani Puri, Americans prefer beef. Where I used to eat rice, Americans prefer beef. And sometimes they even eat random parts of the leftovers of the cow carcass which somehow magically metamorphoses into a conveniently edible form of a pizza. The name given to this – I think it is called Corn Dogs- is almost euphemistic in nature! And so you now see, where my troubles begin. My own cooking, I have to say, has already gone through various stages on the “edible” chart. Incessant experimenting led me to making Aloo Capsicum when I had set out to prepare a rice bath. A mixed vegetable gravy eventually traspired to be more of an Aloo Mash. Upma, the one dish that I had sworn I would never touch, suddenly became the staple food for a few days. Other staple food include eggs, bread, to an extent rice, and of course the Veggie Burger at Burger King. Also trust me when I say that the Apocalypse is indeed near. If you don’t believe me, then please look out for the mutated vegetables that one is bound to eat here. These include 1/4 kg capsicum ( and I am talking about 1 Capsicum), wax bananas, onions the size of a small watermelon and some really really long carrots! And so canned vegetables is now the new order of the house. Oh and BTW, TORTILLAS SUCK!!! For the uninitiated, Tortillas are supposed to be the Mexican equivalent of the Roti or the Chapathi-only they are NOT! It lies somewhere between a Dosa gone horribly wrong, stale bread, decayed cheese and some randomly chosen white or brown powder for flour. But thankfully, I discovered an Indian food store where I get the original roti and parathas and hence am now not in the process of asking my mom to courier food everyday.
But apart from all the food, lies the drinks. And in case you are not aware, Beer is ACTUALLY cheaper than water here!!! It is not a myth, but a solid fact. In fact, if there is one thing that you CAN convert into Indian rupees, it would only be BEER. And here is the best part: It is still going to be cheaper! And so, as a natural consequence, some extra-ordinary amounts of beer has been bought and devoured in the past couple of weeks. This included a 5 day nightly ritual of 3-4 cans of Budweiser and the consumption of a 1 liter bottle of JACK DANIEL’s by just me and my friend- with some totally delirious consequences (there are still traces of unclaimed food stains in the bathrooms!). And last night’s dance party at a nearby pub was also inevitably filled with loads of beer, and fun!
On the whole, I have to say that I am finding my feet here and am already feeling at home. Just a little more purchasing to do-including my mobile and laptop- and then I will be fully set. I have personally undergone many changes myself- in what I talk, in the way I dress and in the way I see things. It is almost that I am sensing a kind of a paradigm shift taking place. I am already looking forward for the classes to start. And of what I have been repeatedly told, “I WILL BE BUSY”. I just hope this doesn’t come too much in the way of my blogging. There will definitely be more that I will seek to write about in the near future as and when things happen.