Of Elvis and Green Cards

He’s relevant, really. (Wikipedia)

“Excuse me, do you have a light?”

I was asked this while walking around one evening, a month after I came to America. I replied that I didn’t have any matches or lighters. The question was presumptuous because I wasn’t smoking. She was middle-aged and sat on her stoop tapping a cigarette on her pack as I examined my face for wrinkles and wondered if my breathing sounded like emphysema. She regarded me for a few seconds and said nice evening or something. I look Indian enough, and Indians are almost one-sixth of the world’s population, so I allowed myself some annoyance when she asked which part of Pakistan I was from. I corrected her. She apologized, but with a look of close enough.

India has symmetry. And theirs is out of scale, astronomically. (1.bp.blogspot.com)

“What do you do?” she asked.

“I’m a grad student at St. John’s.”

I knew how this dance went. First I say that I study pharmaceutics and then they say, “Oh, pharmacology!” While I was explaining the difference and ignoring the beads of sweat near my ears, I was offered some lemonade. I said no thanks; she shrugged and smiled. Always taught to decline first and relent after persuasion, the withdrawal of her offer seemed sudden to my Indian eyes. But clearly the American way was to state what one wanted, and take others at their word—a little crass, I felt, but refreshingly candid. She wasn’t done being candid.

“When you get your degree, you gonna go back, or stay here and try to get a green card?”

“I’m not sure. Depends on the job-market I guess.”

“If you stay, does that mean your parents are going to move here too?” she asked.

This was 2007—not everybody’s shit had hit the fan—and it was understandable for some Americans to think of their country as a large zero-sum pizza, where more immigrant families meant less for everyone. Actually, I liked her honesty. It’s like America was her teenage daughter, and she wanted to know my intentions. Far more respectful than the oh-we-are-glad-to-have-you-here-if only-American-kids-studied-science-as-much-as-you platitudes. I was honest. I told her that my mother couldn’t see herself leaving India, but my dad was amenable. A half-belch-half-grunt came from inside the house. There was a guy in her living room—I’m guessing, her husband. He didn’t look at me once as he was engrossed in a game I still can’t call football.

How did Americans come up with ‘Get the ball rolling.’ (eslpod.com)

“Looks like he’s engrossed in the game,” I said.

Trust me, when you suffer from an Indian accent, and have to repeat every other word, words with three consonants in a row like engrossed are to be thought, not spoken. America may have a lot of foreigners—you’ll meet most in New York—but you can spot an Indian a mile away. Of course you can, he looks Indian. But he’s also the guy who’s over-pronouncing consonants to wash his accent off, scrubbing harder than Lady Macbeth. You won’t see a Français or a Brit doing this. Their accents are sexy. Why do you think they like to get together with their kind so much? To preserve their accents. Indians in America treat other Indians like rival drug-runners pushing on their corner. (People understand me better now—it’s been five years—but I still pronounce ‘w’ like a German.)

English: Adolf Hitler

Even he sounded better than me. And that’s not fair. (Wikipedia)

“Did you hear a lot about America, in Bombay?” she asked, ignoring my statement.

How do I explain to her what America is to non-Americans? The roads looked so clean in the movies that as a kid, I thought Americans walked barefoot. USA was the Narnia where money grew on trees and everybody sat around a fire chatting about how good they have it—taking breaks to wind their clocks back or forward an hour—and they all talked funny. And their movies had real people kissing instead of the images of actual birds and bees native to 90s Bollywood. And the strangest disposal tools. Whenever my uncle visited India, dad told us to put out a roll of toilet paper for him. Why can’t he use the bidet shower spray, I wondered. Maybe Americans don’t like their asses getting wet. Perhaps dry buttocks were the symbol of Western opulence. But I didn’t want to come on too strong with how enamored I was.

“Sure. We get most of your TV shows, and we like Hollywood movies,” I said.

“And sports? Do you guys play the same stuff we play? I’m a huge football fan.”

“Well, mostly cricket. That’s what most Indians care about. I grew up playing it.”

“What about the skin flute?” the belching grunter asked from inside.

“I’m sorry, what?” I said, as the woman started giggling.

“The skin-flute, I’ve been playing that since the fifth grade,” he said.

“I haven’t heard of it. It’s a musical instrument, right?”

Their laugh still echoes in my head whenever my brain makes the you-are-such-a-loser powerpoint presentation in case I get too optimistic.

“Ignore him. What about music? Do you get our music?”

I had to be careful. Admitting that I owned two Backstreet Boys CDs had gotten me picked on for an hour the other day—by a girl. I had saved myself, not convincingly, by blaming my sister. Just like I blamed the France ’98 for my liking Ricky Martin (The cup of life, ole ole ole…nobody?). Next trip to India, I’m dumping them along with the Spice Girls albums. (Seriously, who am I to ridicule the Bieber/Perry/Swift fanboys and fangirls.) I decided to stay vague.

Elvis Presley, 1973 Aloha From Hawaii televisi...

Hunka hunka burning green card (Wikipedia)

“Sure. American music is popular in India; mostly in cities.”

“What about Elvis? Do you like Elvis?”

“Sure. My dad’s the fan though. He likes Elvis and Englebert and Neil Diamond.”

She got excited and proclaimed, “If you like Elvis, you’re cool.”

By that scale, I guess I’m kind of cool. Amazing huh? Getting a full scholarship to grad school is great, but as far as assimilation goes, it pales in front of a man in a jump-suit who liked prescription drugs. Whatever works, I guess.

“Actually, I’d love some of that lemonade.”

19 thoughts on “Of Elvis and Green Cards

  1. ‘Common Man’ Americans ( are they not so unaware and dumb?) are too laid back for me….eg. like they can wastefully spend a full weekend just ‘fishing’ etc. they cannot stand bright Indians taking up space. but I have a prob with Indian Americans who live and eat like an ‘Indian’ in the US but when they visit India, they behave like an American (accent, lifestyle, using toilet tissue paper and all) – Europeans immigrated into the US long time back ..150 yrs ago and their country lifestyle is similar to what is there in the US and they are white colored. Elvis Presley was born a small town boy from Mississippi and his songs depict his humble beginnings, love, one man woman, value for parents etc. Needless to emphasize..US is a richer country but in debt all the time..anyway to cut it short, I would prefer to drink Nimboo Pani and India to live in.

    • Regular Americans are quite smart. They’re informed about things that matter to them. I knew a lot about America while growing up because America matters to the whole world. As for ‘bright Indians taking up space,’ I understand that some Americans are against immigration, but most are open to it. In fact, they’re more upset by jobs going overseas.
      Sure, a lot of Indians don’t behave the same way in America and India. Changing your behavior to adjust to America is assimilation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hardly think people change their waste-disposal preferences that much.
      USA is richer and more powerful than India by a huge margin, even after accounting for debt. I like nimboo pani too, but we owe no commitment to live forever wherever we were born.

      • Yes, nobody is tied to any place or country ! One should live wherever he or she prefers or is happy to live. But, nothing comes without a price tag and one should be ready to lose or gain as per the situation they walk into.

  2. I still have a very thick Indian accent that borders on pretending to be British, esp when I speak to Americans. Weird? I just can’t bring myself to speak in the standard American accent, much less Southern (studied in Florida), although I can pull off a good imitation! 😛 About the music, I’m more of a Classical person, so people find my choices weirder than most others’, but Backstreet Boys? ahem…ahem…really?

    • As Indians, most of our speech has British influence. I wish we could sound British (sigh). I like Southern accents though.
      Hey, Backstreet Boys and their ilk are a symptom of having a girl-cousin that I constantly imitated growing up! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

      • LOL!! Hey, don’t get so defensive. No one’s judging you. 😛 Well, despite all the hatred and disgust people spew out against the BSB, we must admit that they do have some really catchy and hum-worthy tunes.

        PS: Should I have posted this comment as ‘Anonymous’?

  3. The Backstreet Boys? Really? Are you gay? I don’t mean that as an insult as I am the ultimate fag hag, but most men who cop to owning a Backstreet Boys album had an ulterior motive for liking them – and it wasn’t their jazzy stage costumes. I’m just dissing on you because…well, I can. And because you kinda mentioned The Spice Girls. C’mon, man. Gimme something to work with here. Make me feel better by naming one really amazing band that you listened to growing up – who wasn’t Elvis (because he really wasn’t a band now, was he?).

    As far as accents go, you’re right. There is nothing better than a British accent. I always say that my husband would be perfect if he (1) loved to give massages and (2) spoke with a British accent. That said, Indian accents are terrific. They’re lyrical. Poetic, even. I don’t know why Americans make fun of Indian accents. Probably because we some of the most uneducated people on the planet. Obviously, I can’t comment on all American accents, but some are horrific. I know you appreciate a Southern accent, but that should depend on how southern it is. There are dozens of “Southern” accents – and some of them are downright scary. I’m sure I don’t need to enumerate for you the many unattractive American accents out there. Watch an episode of Jersey Shore and you’ll be set. I’m one of those people with a so-called newscaster accent – meaning little to no accent at all…unless I’m around my redneck relatives. I’m curious. What do you think of the American broadcasting accent? Is it unattractive to foreign ears. Oh, to switch places with you for a day and see and hear things with your ears and eyes!

    • Haha. For the record, I was embarrassed to have liked Backstreet Boys—a super-straight characteristic. I’d imagine a gay person waving it like flag. I did also listen to Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, so there’s that. But even those at the insistence of friends or family. I was more into Hindi music when I was a teen.
      I’ve always thought of the Indian accent as an embryonic representation of speech. If you were teaching someone to pronounce one word of English at a time, the words he timidly produces would sound like an ‘Indian accent.’ It’s amazing, there are different kinds of Indian accents even within Bombay!
      I do like Southern accents. But I haven’t heard all of them, so I should reserve judgment until then.
      I don’t really have an opinion on newscasters’ accents.
      As for seeing things through my eyes, you can rely on my writing I suppose!

  4. From now on I will trust all of Cristy Carrington Lewis’ recommendations. She is like a divining rod of blog talent. I found you via her awards post today. You are superbly talented and I enjoyed this piece very much. Witty and funny but most of all you appear to have a very authentic voice and story. I look forward to reading more and am clicking the follow button now. Really great stuff.

  5. If you were 8 years old and had a big sister who gave you the Backstreet Boys CDs, all is forgiven. Otherwise, you must wrap yourself in a velvet Elvis painting for the next week.

    Great post.

  6. I had a similar experience here in India — only I’m pretty sure the final verdict was that I am NOT cool because I don’t know enough about cricket 🙂

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