I have a pretty good view from the desk at my office. I see beautiful looking people with seemingly functioning brains - jogging and exercising in the middle of the day. This is usually when I am busy eating my chocolate fro-yo. Their commitment to working out is nothing short of impressive…and very confusing.
A few weeks ago, I decided it was time for me to give this gym phenomenon an honest shot. As is standard process for all big steps in my life, I instantly started worrying about what I’d wear to this thing. Comfortable shoes and sporty attire were bought.
I started running around when I was eight months old. I’ve been running away since I turned eighteen. I’ve even pretended to play sports all through school and college. But there is something about dedicating your work life to a computer screen that makes you unhealthy and lazy. Just that — dedicating your life to a screen. Out of shape and lazy. Knowing how short-lived this frequent rush of determination is, I quickly looked up the schedule of fitness classes that are held in office. A Silicon Valley benefit with multiple gyms and a variety of fitness classes held in office—of course — you can checkout anytime you like but you can never leave. I decided to go to the one named ‘Metabolic Challenge’. I have been suffering from a challenged metabolism ever since I can remember, sounded like a perfect match.
The class is held every day of the week and I decided to sign up for all days that week. If you’re going to do something right, you ought to go all out. I reached a few minutes early on the first day and used the time to give my trainer a heads-up about my lack of experience.
She seemed unperturbed. Trainers are used to a newbie’s initial resistance to movement. I was advised to take it easy the first few weeks. It is a high intensity interval training class and they welcome students at all fitness levels. I was sub-zero at the time.
The very first class set the stage and pace for me. I was surprised that I felt energetic after class. My arms and legs were sore in places I didn’t know existed. When asked to do a push-up, I could barely lift myself off the ground. I had no idea how to use the equipment around me. I didn’t know what anything was called. Lifting a ‘Kettle Bell’ meant waiting for someone to lift it first so I could at least go and stand next to it. But none of this seemed to matter. The trainer continued to pat me on the back while gently reminding me to keep it straight.
I’ve done fifteen classes so far (I’m lying) and I already feel stronger. I look forward to the 45 minutes I spend in class. I was once crossing the gym with a friend and the instructor recognized me. She even said hi and called out my name. My friend was shocked someone in the gym actually knew my name! My back and posture automatically corrected themselves. I think I was mildly proud.
This is only one of the obvious positive outcomes of that life altering decision I made a year ago. Not breathing charcoal is obviously the other. I decided to give living in California a shot about a year ago. I came to this country with an oversimplified goal of learning what I didn’t know. What I don’t know. Questions I didn’t ask myself: How much is 8000 miles away from home in human-speak? How long before I get to see familiar faces again? Can one make friends in their adult-life if they quit drinking at 23?
It takes very long to prove you exist and mean no harm before you can make it to most countries outside India. I just Googled ‘countries where Indians don’t need a visa,’ and learnt that Grenada is the name of a country. It took multiple visa forms, validation processes, and countless idlis at Murugan Idli Shop before I was declared harmless. I moved with two suitcases containing a pressure cooker and everything else.
The first three months went by even before I could learn my preferred choice of milk. Yes, there is such a thing. And no, it’s not 1%. In India, you go to a shop and you ask for milk. You get milk. It’s an entirely unexciting concept. In a US supermarket, there are usually more than sixteen refrigerators dedicated to more than thirty two types of milk and milk’s friends. Maybe more. Bottles, cartons, brown paper, white plastic, with lactose, without lactose, little lactose, almond, soy, yogurt, Strauss, names of all kinds of family-run farms, all competing for the ‘this is from a real cow’ award. Things don’t just sound Greek — they actually are. Visits to these heavens of abundant choice are now my favourite weekend activity. I have to remind myself to carry a warm jacket for certain sections. The temperature inside is even more inconsistent than my visits to the gym.
As I started getting comfortable with the idea of making purchases, I realised I had an important issue to address. When you move from a sort of developing country to a very developed country, you have to make a conscious effort to not constantly convert currency. It is nearly 70 rupees to a US dollar. To put that into perspective, 70 rupees can buy you 3 meals, a dollar can’t. Maybe. I don’t know. I knew I needed to address this, else shopping for anything would have just been one long gasp. I found a solution I don’t recommend to anybody. I decided to think of the price of everything here as if it’s displayed in rupees. 4 rupees for 1 apple - sure why not. This has also given me GTD (Generous Tips Disease — it’s not a thing yet but I’m trying to make it). Anyway, I don’t have to rely on my mental math skills and that’s generally a good outcome for the universe.
“So have you settled in?” — the honeymoon period of giving vague smiles to that question ended quite soon. I started feeling more confident about making choices, milk and otherwise. It is far easier to get used to order than the lack of it. The clean air, great infrastructure, enforcement of rules, respect for lines, courtesy and thank you’s that follow every transaction - I hugged it with open arms like one hugs strangers here.
Getting my Social Security Number took less than 30 minutes; I bought a newish car online, entirely online — that I can actually afford one here is perhaps a bigger achievement; public services don’t just exist in theory, there’s a well-stocked public library that’s open to all, free to use, and nobody ever steals from or lives there.
Before I moved here, I flunked both the written and practical test for my driving license in Gurgaon. This was after 8 years of successfully navigating through people, road rage, cattle, holes and a#$holes in five different cities in India. I lost my original license and apparently there is no other way to get a new one but to follow due process (yeah, right). I won’t tell you the details of that story. But I’ll tell you that I spent a good part of the weekend studying for my written test here. I failed the practical driving test the first time for not turning my car’s rear defoggers on. It was raining. I didn’t know what rear defoggers are. The examiner’s name was Harpreet. I assumed she’d be nice to me. It was a critical error. I failed.
But it’s not all been a bed of Californian poppies (I actually looked up the name of CA’s official flower for that. Applause for research.) Beneath the surface, I have encountered cultural differences, both in life and at work, that have found a permanent place in my book of lessons to remember.
It was at a meeting at a partner’s office almost a year ago that I received my first dose of straight-to-the-face feedback. I had been asked to go to this meeting to learn and get up to speed on things. Four of us entered the meeting room and exchanged pleasantries with the partners. I found a seat in the corner of the fairly large and typical tech company conference room. I knew I would not be saying much, or anything at all. It was my job to listen. In tech, it’s entirely normal for people to place laptops in front of each other in meetings. It is sad at some philosophical level but true and very efficient in reality.
One of the partners opened his laptop to look at the agenda and kicked off the meeting. The other one opened his laptop to feel secure. I opened mine to take notes. All of us seemed to know our roles and were playing our parts quite well. Or so I thought.
A few minutes into the meeting I got a message from a fellow colleague saying, “Stop! Are you multitasking?” I replied innocently, “No, just taking notes. Is it disturbing you?“ She didn’t say anything. I shut my laptop and switched to taking notes on my phone, thinking that maybe I was typing too loudly. I sometimes forget that I am typing and the keyboard is not a piano. We were done an hour later and got out onto the windy streets of San Francisco.
My colleagues got busy trying to call an Uber, moving pins to exact locations, as one does. I was still looking into my phone trying to organize my notes when this colleague said we needed to talk and took me aside.
Maybe she wasn’t yelling, maybe it was the breeze amplifying every word of her lecture. I was too shocked to comprehend what hit me next.
She told me it was rude to open a laptop in a meeting and asked if it was my first time participating in a client meeting. She said this type of behavior could bring shame to our entire organization. When I tried to explain that I was simply taking notes, she said she doubted it and that it just looked like I was distracted.
I grew up a teacher’s pet. I was always good in class and waited for Parent-Teacher Meeting Day. It used to be my day to shine. I would hold either parent’s hand and waltz into each class gloating, merrily taking in the praise showered on my impeccable performance and behaviour in class.
This was a strange moment. I was being yelled at and my parents were not around. I felt a deep sense of loneliness in the pit of my stomach. Too exhausted to explain, I held my head back a little and managed to control the deluge that was threatening to unleash itself. With all the courage I could find, I said, “Jen, I didn’t realise my note-taking was causing a disruption. I should have probably carried a notebook today. I’ll keep this in mind.” I didn’t wait for her to respond. I couldn’t face more humiliation for nothing. I walked to the cab with my heart in my mouth, and her words still ringing in my ears. Once we got back to the office, I rushed to the restroom and called my sister and bawled my heart out. When I was done, I started laughing about crying for being yelled at. Sister SOS calls can fix anything. It did. I wiped off any trace of a reaction from my face, held my head and chin up, and practiced a smile. On my way out, I met Jen in the corridor again. She had been looking for me. She apologized and admitted her feedback and (more importantly) the delivery was not helpful.
A year later, I am grateful to Jen for soaking me in this direct feedback marinade. Without meaning to, she prepared me for a long list of unfiltered reactions to triggers. When something goes awry here, you call it out, fix it, and move on. It’s pretty straightforward. I think in India we tend to spend a lot of time constructing the criticism, sometimes behind the person’s back with not much hope for a resolution. Sugar coating might be the Indian marinade. I grew up on that.
These things take some getting used to. Nothing shocks me now. Even the time someone showed me the middle finger for driving at 65 miles an hour — the official speed limit that I was told I should not cross at any point. I was in the left most lane on a highway. There is the law that needs to be followed and then there’s the human interpretation of it — that comes from experience. Another incident involved someone spitting watermelon seeds on my windscreen for the same thing. Bizarre? No longer.
It didn’t take long to start introducing my ‘quirks’ to this world. I am vegetarian by choice. I have a clichéd no-meat decision story. My father took me to a butcher shop when I was at an impressionable age. I felt bad for the chicken. And have not been able to feel anything else (like the urge to eat it) since that day. I don’t drink alcohol by choice. I have a clichéd hangover story. I once drank so much in Tokyo that I was hungover for an entire week. I might have even got alcohol poisoning. It is hard to explain that kind of persistent nausea.
We had an official team outing in San Francisco one evening. The rebel in me detests official team anythings. I try hard to feel sick on the day I have a mandatory team event. This one was supposed to be a gourmet meal in a makeshift garage, cooked by a trifecta of Japanese chefs. Of the 16 people on my team, 14 are from the US, 1 from France, and then there’s me. Soon as we had quorum, wine bottles were popped open. Everybody collected a goblet. I was busy nodding and providing no input to a conversation about a teammate’s Mustang rental aka a red car. Someone noticed I was glass, class, and wine-less and got up to get me a drink. I politely declined and said I’d go check if they had anything non-alcoholic. I checked and was told they didn’t have anything but water. I walked back holding this giant tumbler of water like one holds on to hope - failing miserably at any attempt to camouflage with the walls of the garage.
It was now time for dinner. We were seated on a large dining table. I buried myself on the last chair at the far end of the table. I have a thing for corners. The chefs came out and introduced themselves. They told us what they were going to cook and explained how they were going to do it. Somewhere between the tuna and pork short ribs, I zoned out. Just as I was getting used to life in vacuum, I noticed everyone at the table staring at me. I realised one of the chefs had just said he was informed there was a vegetarian amongst us. I am not sure if it was required but I raised my hand up sheepishly, as if to own up to the crime. It was considerate of the dinner organizer to keep my dietary restrictions in mind. I hated the attention. They brought me a delicious vegetarian Japanese meal. I don’t know why but I longed for some company at the table. I sent my mother a picture of my avocado-cucumber sushi and she sent me back a ‘Yummy!’ Balance was restored.
Kale, arugula, steel-cut oatmeal, granola are no longer things other people eat. I never thought I’d be the one choosing healthy food over something dancing in oil. There have been days when I have eaten only leaves and gone to bed. When humans have things in abundance; they go back to wishing they had less. As much as we’d like to believe it’s a straight line, it really is a very round circle.
Food aside (I wish), there’s the work life balance and respect for me-time you get here that is unparalleled. I don’t get a single work email or task on weekends. Okay, a few, but I don’t check them, and that’s the more important thing. I can spend all day in bed, reading books, binge-watching some senseless show, and eating frozen TV dinners. I tried getting inspired by work colleagues who spend their weekends sliding on slippery slopes or biking on treacherous terrain, but it’s just not my thing. I treat my Saturday and Sunday with utmost care — all hours are spent on ‘pause’.
Fridays are different too. One can feel a tangible happiness in the air at work. I’ve learnt that ‘What plans for the weekend?’ and ‘How was your weekend?’ are merely Friday and Monday icebreakers. Initially, I would go into the depths of my laundry basket to describe how my weekend was but now I’ve learnt to summarize. Time is scarce.
It’s not to say people don’t like to talk here (they do!) — it’s more about what is said. The literal meanings and human interpretations. If you’re not discussing the weather fifteen minutes into a conversation, then you Sir, have managed to scratch the surface. Everybody greets everybody with a smile though — in elevators, on streets, in corridors, in shops, between bathroom breaks, twice in a span of two minutes, all the time. Sometimes, the ‘Hey’ is followed by ‘How’s it going?’ The code is to move your head up, keep it there, give half a smile, and smartly bring it down— all in under a second. That’s the appropriate response. I’ve had no luck finding an audience to describe how it actually is going.
I’ve always thought my written and spoken English is slightly better than my spoken Hindi (even you’ve forgotten how to write Hindi okay, don’t judge). I am not proud of it and I am far from fluent in both. But I’m learning a new language here — it sounds like English but I usually have to look up meanings while pretending to understand what’s being said:
‘back half of the year’ = first half of the year, just tilt it
‘in the weeds’ = details, details
‘we can quarterback on it’ = American football remains a mystery to me
‘School of Mayans in Colorado’ = School of Mines in Colorado
‘I’m spitballing here a little bit’ = throwing something out for discussion
‘the meat and potatoes of it’ = most significant part of something
‘changing the wheels while the car is moving’ = getting ahead of yourself
‘stepping hard on the gas pedal’ = going all out — gas is petrol is normal
‘throwing a baby out of water’ = I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear this correctly
‘background on how the sausage was made’ = how something was created
It’s only been a little over a year but each day feels like the start of a new rollercoaster ride. And I generally hate rollercoasters. But this has been okay. It’s made me fall in love with the idea of living in a different country. It teaches you things vacations just can’t. The hope is to fill the next few months in places that are hopefully not on either coast —moving, eating leaves, and smiling for no reason.