Wednesday, June 11, 2008

My maiden visit to the United States

I toured USA for a month and a half (end-April to early-June 2008) recently. I visited New York, several places in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Washington DC, Baltimore, Niagara, Boston, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Atlanta, etc.

As usual, I took many photos – some of them can be seen at my web albums at

This was my maiden visit to the US and I saw many new things and discovered a few things about America and Americans which a first-time visitor to America, especially from a third-world country, is bound to. Some of my impressions of USA are enumerated below in random order :

1) USA is a quintessential developed country, i.e., most of the infrastructure, facilities and services one comes across in day-to-day life appear to be almost perfect, with not too much obvious scope for further improvement.

2) People here are usually polite, and greet you with a typical "How're you doin' " or a big smile as you approach them.

3) Traffic is very, very disciplined. Roads are almost perfect with very clear signs and directions. Petrol pumps have 24-hr stores and clean restrooms.

4) USA is a very green country -- one sees trees and forests everywhere, including in areas which are residential or populated. And the trees and forests are well maintained and cared for. I belong to the state of Jharkhand in India -- a state where the name itself implies that it is 'forest land' -- but I have to go many miles away from any city / town in Jharkhand to see the kind of dense forests that I see in USA right in the middle of residential areas.

5) Anyone who loves nature would find almost any place in USA very beautiful because of lovely trees, huge variety of seasonal flowers and crystal clear ponds / lakes / rivers / streams. The kind of natural beauty one would find in some 'National Park' in India could be found along any highway in USA. And the actual parks and national parks in USA are exceedingly beautiful and well-maintained -- I have not seen anything like them in India.

6) In most populated areas in USA one is never far from a scenic ‘walking trail’.

7) Most middle class people live in individual houses / bungalows surrounded by lots of land which are invariably kept well-maintained with neatly mowed lawns, gardens and varieties of flowering plants. Upper middle class and rich people live in houses surrounded by acres of lush greenery which may include ponds, lakes and streams. Few middle (or even upper middle) class people prefer to live in flats / condominiums for personal reasons or because they are too old to maintain large property.

8) The government provides flats (condos) to poor people.

9) Apart from old age homes, there are many residential areas specifically designed (and reserved) for elderly people who live by themselves. Young people are not allowed to share such residential areas with the elderly for prolonged periods.

10) The government does not allow indiscriminate construction of houses or other buildings even on privately owned freehold property in residential / commercial areas. This ensures that there is lots of open space and greenery everywhere.

11) In many old neighbourhoods, house owners are not allowed to radically alter or modify the external design of their houses to preserve the appearance of the neighbourhood.

12) In many neighbourhoods, one has to restrict to certain specified colour schemes for the exteriors of the houses.

13) Americans waste a lot of food.

14) Since repairs are expensive, most household appliances / gadgets and electronic goods are simply junked when something goes wrong with them. This appeared wasteful to me.

15) Gasoline prices are just approaching the petrol prices in India -- but it affects the people in America more because they use their cars a great deal -- the distances are huge, cars are bigger / more powerful and public transport system is not very widespread (except in some big cities).

16) Diesel costs about 20% more than gasoline.

17) Trucks and buses in USA are huge and are kept very well-maintained. A lot of chrome is used in the air intakes / exhausts, wheels, lamps and even the nuts and bolts. Most vehicle owners in USA take a lot of pride in the appearance of their vehicles and spend a lot of money / effort in keeping them clean and shining most of the time.

18) One feels safe in most places in America going anywhere at any time.

19) Letters or packets (including those containing expensive items) are deposited by the courier companies outside the door of a house without bothering to obtain a signed acknowledgement in many residential neighbourhoods. Sometimes the occupant of a house may return after several days and find the packets lying outside his door.

20) One is never too far from a decent eating place or restroom. Unlike in Europe, one does not have to pay for using restrooms. Also, free drinking water is available everywhere (drinking water fountains).

21) Lot of waste is recycled. Every household / establishment is required to segregate their trash into categories like plastic, paper, glass, organic, etc.

22) In many residential neighbourhoods (most places that I saw) the electrical distribution network is overground, i.e., conductors are strung on wooden poles erected along the roads. Connections to individual buildings is underground but small distribution transformers are pole-mounted. This makes an otherwise picture-postcard like neighbourhood look ugly. Also, extremes of nature being high here, sometimes trees fall over the distribution lines, causing power outage.

23) Yes, one does see extremes of nature -- sub-zero temperatures, thick blankets of snow for months, tornadoes / twisters, floods, hot / humid weather like Bombay, etc. in many parts of USA. Hurricane prone cities (like Miami) look ‘flatter’ because of less number of highrises.

24) Timber is plentiful. Most houses are built of wood (except the foundation, which is made out of concrete). There are some standard designs and it is easy to get a house constructed quickly through a builder. Many parts of a house like bathrooms / showers are available as modules. There are huge hardware or 'home-improvement' stores where one can pick up large varieties of items for house construction.

25) Labour is costly. This motivates many people to take the DIY (do-it-yourself) route.

26) Most houses are picture perfect -- both inside and outside. The finish is excellent -- because of modular design, ready availability of ready-made or prefabricated construction material, etc. People use decorative wall papers and wall finishes a great deal. Needless to say, people also spend much more money per squarefoot of their houses.

27) Americans are generally hardworking and sincere about doing justice to their job / vocation.

28) American workers are very conscious of their rights and while they try to do full justice to their jobs, they will not go out of their way to do more work than what is contracted just to impress their bosses.

29) Americans seem to be good at balancing their time between work and family / leisure. I felt that the average Indian executive (in private sector in India) puts in much more hours per week than his American counterpart.

30) Almost everything in America is highly computerised / automated -- gizmos are in use everywhere.

31) There is massive use of credit cards in USA, cash is not used that much. Almost every dispenser (like petrol pump), vending machine, public telephone, ticket booth, etc., has a slot for inserting your credit card.

32) Americans are quite patriotic and proud of their nation. One sees the US flag flying everywhere -- in front of homes, offices, stores, on car antennae, etc.

33) Car driving is part of high school curriculum.

34) One sees very few 2-wheelers as compared to cars. Most 2-wheelers are powerful motorbikes. All the motorbikes I saw on American roads appeared to be at least 1000 CC.

35) Most gas stations are 'self service' -- one pumps his own gas. However, in some states (like New Jersey) it is mandatory for petrol pumps to employ attendants who fill gas in your car (like in India).

36) People are fond of reading. One sees many people reading while waiting in a queue or at airports, etc.

37) As far as the next Presidential elections are concerned, most people seem to be highly anti-Bush due to the Iraq war and economic recession. Though McCain has a clean image and is well respected as a war veteran and seasoned politician, the anti-incumbency factor may weigh heavily against him. Americans want change and Obama is making just the right noises. It seems to me that he has a good chance of becoming the next President unless he is felled due to the race factor or internal divide within the Democrats (they were split almost 50-50 between Obama and Hillary).

38) Americans love barbecues, whether at home or outdoors.

39) Americans eat a lot of salad.

40) During the last few years the availability of ready-to-cook Indian food has greatly increased, thanks to some enterprising Indian businessmen. One can buy aloo / mulee paranthas, matar paneer, butter chicken, rotis, etc., off the shelf -- they require minimal cooking or just heating. 'Deep' is a well-liked brand of Indian foods.

41) There are lots of illegal immigrants (hispanics, east Europeans, Bangladeshis, etc.) everywhere in USA. However, the authorities cannot challenge anyone to prove their bonafides without any valid reason as civil liberties are very strong in USA. Another hated word is 'profiling' (one cannot ask a person to prove his bonafides just because he looks like a Muslim or Mexican). Only when an illegal immigrant commits a crime or breaks some law can he get into trouble for illegal immigration as well.

42) Illegal immigrants provide cheap labour by doing odd jobs like lawn mowing, snow clearing, etc., and as plumbers, electricians, masons, carpenters, etc.

43) There is lot of diversity of food in USA. Anyone from anywhere in the world can find something to suit his palate.

44) Many people spend considerable amount of time commuting alone in their cars. Audio Books are quite popular amongst those fond of reading. They borrow the audio-book CD from their neighbourhood library and hear it thro’ the car’s music system.

45) There are lots of ducks / geese / deer everywhere. Due to the lack of natural predators, the population of deer sometimes becomes excessive and then the local government allows hunting or resorts to culling.

46) Most pet dogs are well-trained – they rarely bark or cross the boundaries of their gardens to stray into other people’s property. Invisible electric fences are set up by dog owners around their property to train their dogs suitably.

47) The average American child appeared better mannered and better disciplined in public places as compared to the average urban Indian child.

48) Most ethnic groups tend to socially interact within their group only.

49) Buying on the internet is very common.

50) Basements are very common in houses.

51) The railway system is not very widespread across USA. Amtrak is expensive too.

52) GPS in automobiles has become very popular and is a truly useful gizmo. Prices of portable GPS start at about $300. Those who do not have GPS routinely use Googlemaps or Mapquest to plan their route.

53) Mom-and-pop stores have mostly given way to large shopping malls. The few mom-and-pop stores I saw were speciality stores catering to specific ethnic groups (like Indian, Chinese, etc.).

54) There are ‘Dollar stores’ everywhere – everything in these stores are priced about $1. Most of the goods in these stores are Chinese.

55) Chinese goods are to be found in plenty not just in Dollar stores but in the best shopping malls too.

56) In USA one may return almost anything to the store one bought it from within a certain period (say, one month) without giving any reason and get a full refund.

57) Most Americans are basically very conservative and believe deeply in religious and family values. Abortion is still a very contentious issue.

58) A typical white American is referred to as a WASP – white anglo-saxon protestant.

59) Inter-marriage between whites and blacks is uncommon.

60) American education system, both in school and college, seems quite methodical and logical to me. Every child has free access to good schooling. Lot of government money is lavishly spent on schools. The good universities have amazing infrastructure and facilities.

61) Getting into top universities like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc., is very tough. University education is expensive too. However, children of parents with income below $200,000 can study almost free even in the top universities (as long as they qualify).

62) The average American university student appears to be hardworking – many are in jobs that require several hours of work everyday. Paying for one’s own university education is common even amongst the progeny of the rich.

63) Many Americans complain about their health system. Apparently, unnecessary tests / procedures are frequently advised just to make money.

64) Healthcare is very expensive.

65) Except for a limited number of OTC medicines, one cannot buy any medicine without a proper prescription. All prescription medicines are supplied in bottles / jars with the patient’s name, dosage, precautions, etc., clearly printed on the label.

66) As compared to UK and UAE, there are hardly any speed cameras in US expressways. Overspeeding by a margin of about 15% seems to be ‘allowed’. Many vehicles have detectors to warn them in advance of speed-detecting police radars.

67) Flexi-timing and working from home is becoming increasingly common among the working population. One finds many people working on their laptops in trains or public places.

68) Food is not costly -- in some cases only marginally costlier than India. Definitely much cheaper than any country in Western Europe. Apart from food, many other things like cars, cosmetics, clothes, hotels, entry fees to parks, museums, etc., are cheaper as compared to Europe. Cars are cheaper in USA than in India!

69) There are several toll gates on expressways and most regular commuters use electronic devices (like ‘EZ Pass’) stuck on their windshield whereby the toll is automatically debited from their account as the vehicles passes through the toll gate without stopping.

70) If one has to see how machines can make life easier and more productive for man, one should visit America. Almost everything is mechanised.

71) Affluent Americans like to live very lavishly with magnificent houses, yachts, cars, etc.

72) Americans do have brains – going by the sheer number of inventions, discoveries, theories, etc., credited to them. Between 1900 to 2000, some 258 Americans won the Nobel Prize (36.4% out of total 719). Far behind in the second position was UK with 92 (13%) winners, followed by Germany (10.5%), France (6.9%), Sweden (4.1%), Switzerland (3%) and Russia (2.5%). The lead of the US is even greater in the scientific categories where it accounts for about half of all prizes awarded. Undoubtedly, US is the world’s most powerful country primarily due to its knowledge power.

73) Telecommunications are very advanced and reliable. Most people subscribe to schemes which give them unlimited talktime within USA and Canada on their landline or mobile phone.

74) I came across some Indians subscribing to schemes from Reliance for making international calls.

75) People of Indian origin have less number of children per family as compared to WASPs or African-Americans.

76) Quality of food (in a grocery store or eatery) and level of hygiene in eating houses have to adhere to very strict standards which are strictly enforced.

77) Police command respect. Laws are strictly enforced for everyone, regardless of social / political status. Getting away by bribing the law enforcers is next to impossible.

78) America is a paradise for the handicapped / differently-abled. Nowhere else can they find better facilities and infrastructure to cater to their special needs and live a life of dignity.

79) Property / municipal taxes are relatively high. These taxes help, amongst other things, to pay for school education which is almost free.

80) Any American citizen may be called upon to do jury duty.

81) Volunteer work is given a lot of emphasis right from junior school. Many churches, schools, universities, neighbourhood associations and NGOs co-ordinate volunteer work.

82) Americans give away a lot towards charity – not only within their country but all over the world.

83) One of the major sources of funds for some of the top universities is donations from their alumni.

84) Almost every place in USA has suffered drop in real estate prices during recent years. In some places like Florida and California the devaluation has been as high as 50%.

85) Many affluent people living in cold Northern states maintain flats (condos) in warm places like Florida for use during winter.

86) Time share is a common concept.

87) Hotels usually don’t charge extra for more people staying in a room (except where buffets are included in the tariff).

88) In many public places like hotels, airports, theatres or shopping malls the airconditioning makes it too cold and necessitates light warm clothing even in summer.

89) There is a lot of emphasis on practical work and educational visits in schools.

90) Atheism is looked down upon.

91) In most places where one pays by credit card, there is a keypad for the credit card holder to enter his PIN number.

92) Most Americans have a great sense of humour. They are also quite articulate (good language / communication skills).

93) There are hardly any public holidays (and, of course, no bandhs) in USA. But most people do a 5-day week.

94) Overall cost of living is much higher than in India – of course, much higher standards of living (more expenditure on house, gardens, interior decoration, furniture, cars, fuel, clothes, household appliances, entertainment, HVAC, food, etc.) contribute to this. Higher standards of living also lead to greater wastefulness and frequent changes of cars, etc.

95) There seem to be no ‘small farmers’. All agriculture is large scale.

96) I hardly saw any cows or sheep during my tour (and I travelled a lot by road). This was a major contrast as compared to my visits to Europe.

97) I did not see any stray dog, cat or cattle. I also did not see any cockroaches or rats. In a tropical botanical garden in Miami I was bitten by mosquitoes which are so small that they are called ‘no-see-em’s.

98) Most houses are fitted with fire-protection and security systems.

99) Tipping is common. Most waiters in restaurants expect at least a 10% tip. I found that most of the drivers, guides, etc., in conducted tours expect a tip too. Another term for tip in America is ‘gratuity’.

100) Any person who is difficult to deal with is said to have ‘attitude’.

101) Americans care a lot about punctuality.

102) There is very little dust / grime. One’s clothes remain clean for much longer without washing. One rarely sees land / soil which is not covered by grass or some other vegetation.

103) Some desis (persons of Indian origin) strive decade after decade to cling on to their old Indian culture, traditions, food habits and values. Some other desis feel that the more quickly they integrate into the ‘American’ way of life the better it is for themselves and their children. Usually, these two different desi stereotypes avoid each other.

104) The Red Indians (Native American Indians) have been provided with reservations (large tracts of land) in various parts of America by the government. As these reservations are exempt from taxes, many Red Indians have set up casinos, hotels, bars, etc. there. People patronise these services for tax free fun. Many tribes have become quite rich from these businesses.

105) Some enterprising people of Chinese origin have set up a network of bus (coach) services -- Chinatown Bus. Their overheads are very low and so they are able to offer very cheap fares. I had done all my bookings by Greyhound (the big daddy of long-distance bus service) before I came to know of Chinatown Bus. But once I needed to travel from New York to Washington DC and I booked (online) by Chinatown Bus for $21. The experience was not bad -- the coaches are like Greyhound and they adhered to the schedule. The main downside was that they don't have bus stations and so one needs to wait for the bus on the footpath (like waiting for a city bus).

106) Americans really know how to respect their war veterans and honour their dead (soldiers, astronauts, freedom fighters, leaders, etc.).

God bless America.

Labels: , , ,