Marching to a different beat: the difference between India and the US

Statue of Liberty, New YorkEgypt. Venice. Turkey. The top three destinations on my must-visit wish list. Europe, Australia and South East Asia are some of the other places I want to travel to. The US has never been high on my list of priorities. Yet, for my first international vacation as an adult traveling on my own money, I chose New York City.

Why you ask? Well, my wee lil baby sister lives there and I have a US visa courtesy my office. The official trip fell through, but I figured the visa shouldn’t be wasted.

I managed to wrangle a 3-week vacation, and decided to spend that time in NYC, Washington and Orlando. I could have rushed through a few more places, but I wanted to soak in the atmosphere instead of checking things off an imaginary things-every-tourist-must-see-and-do list.

Picnic at Brooklyn Park

Picnic at Brooklyn Park

The differences between the US and India were palpable almost from the moment I got off the plane. Within the first few moments, I saw both the famous American rudeness courtesy an airport ground staff member who harangued a bunch of passengers who were standing unobtrusively in one corner and quickly filling out their immigration form, and American friendliness, as another staffer patiently explained the immigration process to an elderly man on a wheelchair who was evidently visiting the US for the first time.

Walking out of the airport, the first sight that greeted me was a line of yellow New York taxi cabs. That’s when the feeling of being abroad really sunk in, and the excitement mounted. So what if I never had New York City on my places to visit before I die list.

New York taxi cab

New York taxi cab

The wee sister lives in Weehawken, New Jersey. The cheapest way to get there was by the bus – the cab charges $40 from Port Authority, opposed to the bus, which takes $2.50 for the 7-minute ride – which we took from the Port Authority bus station. That was a bus station? It was HUGE! The advertisements called it a place to hang out and have fun…and maybe even take a bus. If you really wanted to hang out at a bus station, you could choose to go there for a meal, a quick coffee or deserts, and even to do some quick shopping! Plus, it was clean, and despite the huge number of people, it was quiet! A sharp contrast to Delhi’s main bus terminal (for inter-state travel), which is a huge, sprawling, littered cacophony of noise and smells.

Grand Central Station, New York

Grand Central Station, New York

Being a tourist in a foreign land with a limited amount of money means that you have to do the unthinkable and use public transport. I rarely use public transport in India. My only experience is with the Mumbai local train, which most people in my adopted city of Delhi find nightmarish. I mastered the trick of using the local early on, though. Positioning. Position yourself in the middle of the crowd waiting to board or disembark from the train, and the mass of humanity will push you in the right direction. You really don’t need to do anything else. In Delhi, though, I either drive or call for a cab. So the thought of having to use the New York subway gave me the heebie-jeebies. Until I got to the subway station. And got into the tube. No pushing and shoving. No touching and feeling. Even if the compartment was crowded and there was no place to sit. What a revelation that was! If someone accidentally bumps into you they immediately apologize and try to create some more space. Which is so welcome after the uncouth Delhi men. Though that also means that I had to be careful about invading someone elses space. Stand too close (like at an arm’s length away from someone) to a person and you’re likely to attract dirty glances. In India, we’re used to this kinda closeness. To people glancing over your shoulder at the cash counter, for example, to look at what you’ve purchased. Or to just stare at you. Yeah, that happens a lot. You just get used to it. So being ‘invisible’ in the US felt…good!

Zumba class outside Macys

Zumba class outside Macys, New York

Then there’s the politeness. Though my uncle, who has been in the US since, like, forever, calls it a ‘chocolate’ society, as a tourist, you’ll find that the people are friendly. And friendly starts from your bus driver. Who you actually greet when you get on. And thank when you get off. Amazing. Especially since I come from a country where drivers are transparent. Seriously. Though in the US, so are we women. The people may be friendly and polite and nice, but no one really looks at you. Even if you wear clothes that show more than they hide. No lecherous stares. No lewd comments. No sleazy men following you around. Liberating!

New Yorker walking her dog, Battery Park, New York

New Yorker walking her dog, Battery Park, New York

Then there’s the sense of fun. If they like something, they’re vocal about it. Like on a Thursday outside Macy’s on 34th and Broadway, there was a free Zumba class. People kept joining in. Spectators watched. Tourists took pictures. And when they finished, everyone cheered and clapped and hooted. In India, you wouldn’t catch anyone doing anything like that out in public in the middle of the day. Ever. Nor would you find couples on the street or in the park, train, shop or restaurant smooching or hugging or publicly displaying affection. Not that it doesn’t happen at all, but let’s just say that it’s restricted to high-end malls and isn’t quite that blatant.

Hanging around in the park

Hanging around in the park

Ingrained with that sense of celebration is a love for parks. For sitting under the shade of a tree (or even out in the sun on the steps of a monument) listening to music, having lunch, working, relaxing. Which is probably why you’ll find a small park on almost every street. With a Witch store selling sandwiches and coffee. And more often than not, in those parks and on the streets (and even inside stores!) you’ll find fashionable New Yorkers with their four-legged friends (almost always dogs). You can’t go more than a few steps without spotting a dog and its owner. And if you, dear tourist, want to experience what that’s like, you can buy yourself a dog-shaped balloon that skims across the road alongside or behind you. Yes, really!

Fashionable, vibrant, bustling, always-awake New York – you own a piece of my heart!

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  1. Well it sounds like you had a pretty good time….considering you didn’t want to go!

    I have always thought it would be great to visit India. I know very little about it. I have heard some really awesome things about it….and some not so good things about it.

    • Oh yes, it was amazing! My mom kept telling me even 2 weeks wasn’t enough for New York and I would get very impatient with that comment. But now I can confidently say that even a month might be too less! 😉

      India’s a wonderful place too. Just a lot more crowded, a bit messier. But the architecture is completely different from anything you’d find in the US, and I’m sure you’ll love the color and the flavor of India.

  2. I loved reading this! You are so right about the NY immigration rudeness! And also that women are not stared at or whistled or jeered. I am English and I love it here where that doesn’t happen. Such a relief and so freeing. You were brave taking the subway. I’ve only been to NY once and walked everywhere. I hope you had someone to help you.

  3. Wonderful post, I love your impressions & thoughts on New York. I’ve experienced rudeness there & friendliness. I’ve had some be very aggressive, which was frightening, but the sights & sounds were amazing. Thank you for this lovely post!

    • Luckily for me I didn’t come across too many aggressive people, though there were certain areas where I did feel a bit afraid. Overall though, I fell head over heels in love with New York!

  4. Sounds like an amazing trip. My daughter was in India a year ago for a mission trip and she absolutely loved it! I have been to Saudi Arabia a few times and the men are the same as they are in India being uncouth and their closeness is disconcerting!

    • India is a wonderful place! If only we took better care of our monuments and didn’t treat our parks and roads as dumping grounds, it would do wonders for our cities. But I guess you also have to acknowledge the fact that it’s way more populous and there are a lot more people who live below the poverty line. Still, one can hope!

  5. It is wonderful hearing your perspective. I live in the US in the south. I moved north for 2 years. People warned me that everyone would be rude and that I’d never fit in. My experience, however, was quite different. For the most part, I found folks to be genuine, sincere, and supportive–without being syrupy sweet. But I love the south!

    • Yes, we have a number of preconceived notions about the US too, most of which I found to be untrue. I’d like to visit the south sometime, lets see if and when that happens! 🙂

  6. It is so interesting to see the differences from your point of you.
    I live in Canada , but was born and raised in Eastern Europe so it was a pretty big cultural shock when I came to Canada.

    I always wanted to visit India, but I heard so many discouraging reviews.

    • Oh really? India’s a lovely place! Don’t believe all the negativity you hear about it! Which places were you wanting to visit? If you do ever decide to come to India, do let me know. I’d love to help you plan out your trip! 🙂

  7. What a shame that you came all the way to Washington DC and we did not meet. I wish I could have had the pleasure of hosting your visit here.

    You narrated your impressions succinctly and yet vividly. I am surprised that you have not tried the Delhi Metro yet. I have heard good things about it and look forward to using it the next time I cross Delhi.

    As for the range of behaviors on the rudeness-politeness scale, I think you will find the whole spectrum in both countries. However, greeting the bus driver when getting on and off is distinctly American. (I tried buses in Brussels, Belgium today, but did not see anyone greeting the bus driver. Many people asked questions, and the bus driver answered them patiently).

    As for the difference in personal space needed, you are right on (unless you are in a popular nightclub).

    • Ah shame! Maybe next time.

      Well, I have tried the Delhi Metro once, and I have to say it’s pretty good. But more often than not I end up driving or taking a cab to wherever I need to go. The metro gets really crowded during peak times, and the metro to some of the popular places (like CP) are generally very crowded during weekends too.

      Do let me know when you’re passing through Delhi next!

  8. I am sure I already commented but my comment isn’t here? I cant wait to go to all three destinations one day, India, Canada and USA. I probably sound crazy but I cant wait to see the yellow cabs 🙂

  9. I have to echo what one of the above comments said. You described every thing so vividly. I was captivated! I’m glad you liked NYC. I’ve been several times & I always fall more in love with the city.

  10. Sounds like a super trip. I think restricting yourself to a few places was the way to go as you really seem to have imbibed the atmosphere of the place. Looking forward to more of your travel posts 🙂

  11. We live in a part of the United States (Houston, Texas) with a huge Asian / Indian population, so sometimes I feel like I live in India! Most of my daughters friends are from India, and we just attended our first classical Indian dance performance…beautiful!

    • One of my ex-colleagues/friend is in Houston too!

      Did you enjoy the classical dance performance? I had a chance to see some classical Indian dances at New York’s Battery Park Dance Festival. I have to admit, that was the first time I saw Indian classical dancing live!

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  13. Hi 🙂 Stopping by from our SITS tribe. Being a native New Yorker, I was curious to see what you thought of our wonderful and crazy city. I’m so glad you liked it and that you captured its essence in your writing. Looking forward to reading more about your travels!

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