Thursday, April 12, 2007

A life called Infosys - The American Reality

This post has not much to do with Infosys, except that Infosys sponsered my Ticket to the USA. After looking forward to the "Great American Dream" ,mentioned in the previous article, when the dream finally comes true the experience is totally different. It is almost unexpected. Right from the time one lands on the airport to the point when one leaves the country for the trip back home, its a mixed bag of experiences. Some which one cherishes others which serve as a reality check.

The first thing one would notice at any US International airport is that it is a country which is now a home to, in a sense, a whole world. Thus one sees Africans, Asians, Europeans and of course Americans all in the same place. Its afterall it is a country built through several hundreds years of immigration. Immigrants who came in search of their own Great American Dream and then became a part of it. Diversity is nothing new for me, as a Mumbaite and an Indian but this diversity of the whole world is definitely a different experience.

The next thing I observed was wide, flat roads and speeding cars. After being so used to the bumpy rides all over India, it was a welcome change to be able to move around in a car without risking a sprain in the back. However while there were such wide roads and fast cars, I soon realised one big thing missing. There were almost no people moving around on the footpath. From a country which was densely populated with people all around, this was a change that was definitely not welcome. I guess as social animals, being around people is quite important for us. It was a strange and eerie feeling to be not able to see people walking around. Its almost as if all those fast roads and comfortable cars had made people forget what walking was all about.

A few days into the country and i came to know some important definitions. Definitions that marked the presence into a country which seems to value people so much, Yet the full life revolves around materials.

1. SSN
The Social Security Number is a unique number identifying every US tax payer. However its beyond just being a number. Its almost a number without which, as a foreigner, one cannot exist in US. Whether it is opening a bank account or getting a drivers license or even a mobile phone the SSN is a must.. In short if there anything that either identifies you or is related to your finances .. you don't exist until you have an SSN. The physical presence and passport identification don't seem to be enough to change that lack of existence...
However, Pubs, Discs and Gentlemen's club allow entry with just a passport..Had it not been these -- lack of SSN makes it feel as if its a dog's life ... The scariest part especially for some one on a work permit is that the Salary reportedly cannot be credited without a bank account and a SSN . Thankfully though I got mine quickly.

2. Credit histroy

Now even if one has an SSN, in a country where there is perhaps more plastic money than paper money... it is again difficult to imagine making do without a credit card. Its a country that's almost driven by Credit.. So much so that there is whole credit history which is maintained against an individual and his SSN. This history is queried by anyone who is considering lending money or a service that involves credit payments.. Be it a bank loan or even the mobile service provider every one checks your history... Paradoxically however, without having availiing any credit one cannot build that history.. There are of course ways to do that, like secure credit cards .. but it is a long and painful processes to be recognized as a credit worthy individual. The ironical part however is , once established as one, the people extending credit (retail banks) won't stop haunting you to take more credit.

3. Shopping Malls and Mega Stores
As I write this post, India is changing. There are shopping malls everywhere in India. However when I made my first trip to US, shopping malls were an alien concept in India. There were huge stores which called themselves malls and there were true shopping malls in some of the metropolitan cities. However none of those compare up to the sheer size of a Walmart or a Sam's club or some of the Shopping Malls that house these Mega Stores. As one enters one of these malls, a realization dawns. This place has practically everything from a safety pin to large furniture. For a shopper its a paradise... Several racks full of merchandise to pick from. They also define the competitiveness and commiditization in almost all goods. The malls are a defining moment of America to an Indian. As a friend put it "For me the defining moment of entry to America was when we walked into that store picked up the TV, table, kitchen stuff and other things, and walked to the checkout counter to finish shopping with a swipe of a card" ....
So simple huh ....

4. Bills.
Bills stand for a lot of things in this country. If you are paying the bills its a great thing because it also means that you are earning bills .... The statement might sound illogical or paradoxical but its true. Almost every service that is provided and involves credit, has an associated bill that the service provider sends to you. You have to pay the bills to make a good "Credit History" and enjoy uninterrupted service. To pay a bill, of course, you have to be earning money. To pay a bill you have to shell out bills .. the Dollar bills.. What we,in India, call as currency notes are also known as bills out in the US.
For any person, within a month or two this list of bills becomes quite long ... so long that life seems to just revolve around "Due dates".. To name a few bills - telephone, mobile, credit card, internet, cable tv, DVD subscription (movie buffs .. take a note) ... and so on ..
After all its a country which runs on Credit ....

5. Laptop with wirless lan
If you are a techie or for that matter even conversant enough with computers to be browsing the internet then there is a good chance that this point applies to you. Soon after entering the country and settling down in an apartment, you would realise that you need internet. Afterall chatting with your friends and family back home is important. If you can afford it you'd choose broadband which of course is not too costly. This is also one country where laptops are quite affordable. Thus almost anyone who can afford it has one. If you are a IT employee like me then add to the list a company and possibly a client provided laptop too. Once you have a laptop and broadband you want to be able to connect to net from the comfort of your bed ... There you discover the convenience of wireless LAN. If you are a corrupt DESI like me, you probably discovered that convinience without even having to buy a wirelass router .. God bless those non techie neighbours for setting up unsecured LANs..
Soon you would realise that every waking moment that you are seated home and not doing a household chore .. you are in fact accessing the net .. mailing, chatting, browsing, reading, "Dealing" (more on this in the next para) .. Soon your main means of communication to the outside world becomes the net ... For all you know, you are in an interesting conversation with a chat friend and you figure out that it is none other than the next door neighbour you never care to say "hi" to when in person... Remember Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in "You got Mail"... That's the power of Laptop with wireless Lan.

6. Dealing.
I think this is one an art rather than a concept and that it is more common to Indians in America than Americans themselves. The American salesman has a unique way of making sure that the consumers buy 10 things they don't need. Its called "Deal". Put simply they would offer various options like instant rebate, cash back, mail in rebate (you are paid back by check if you care to send them a snail mail saying you are entitled to it), buy one get one free,coupon discount, and so on.... These are advertised as deals.. Not only that these deals are advertised, there even websites that bring you information from the various stores, service provides, sellers, companies etc, about deals on a product that you choose to search on. Thus you can find out the right deal from the comfort of your bed (Laptop with wireless lan). Talk about lazy shopping. Then there are the highly marketed Deals on the big shopping days like the day after Thanks giving day sale.
I have to say though that if you are a patient and smart shopper, all these deals mean that you can actually get hold of something that you have a fetish for, at almost a throw away price. The key is keeping a track of all the deal sites, on a regular basis, watching the objects of interest and making notes. That is the art of Dealing. I remember I had quite a few friends who were quite skilled at this art. One of my collegues was so preoccupied with this art that "Deal" became his middle name. Need I say more on this art...

7. s***p Clubs.
No comments... Lest I blow out my truth.

My next post would be life after coming back to Mother India ... the homeland

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