For three-and-a-half years, this site has viewed Delhi through New York eyes. It’s time for the opposite: New York as viewed by Delhiites.
Because for every planeload of Westerners desperately memorizing the Lonely Planet as they fly east, there’s an equal and opposite jet heading west. One such recent plane contained Tiya and Divya, two students at Teachers College at Columbia University, one of the city’s most prestigious institutions. And their experience mirrors ours: wide-eyed wanderers in a foreign culture, with camera in tow.
We have never met either girl. Tiya recently wrote in to join the mailing list for our upcoming book, mentioning in her note that she was living in New York. We responded by asking her for an analysis of our culture to contrast with our analysis of hers. Tiya drafted Divya to add her thoughts; and in the first part of our interview, we focus on first impressions.
Specifically, the drive home from the airport — the journey during which so many first impressions are formed, and so many minds are made up.
I initially arrived in Delhi a week before Jenny did, so our first impressions are not shared. (Her impression, as recalled over instant messenger a few moments ago: “Over-stimulated, overexposed. Dry, pungent, bumpy, crumbling, chaotic, thrilling!”) My first impression involves flashes of landscape snatched during my conversation with Mahua, my company’s HR representative, who picked me up at the airport and instantly became the only human being I knew in all of Asia.
This was before NH-8 was complete, so our route to my temporary home in GK II took us through Mahipalpur. Like Jenny, I recall flickers of imagery more than any one image: bright signboards with unfamiliar script; painted walls; flashes of bright saris; and a road that seemed far too narrow for all the cows and people and cars and bikes and rickshaws simultaneously traversing it.
Mahipalpur at sunset, off the main road. Photo by Flickr user SteelboneLex.
As the picture makes it clear, first impressions often don’t entirely reflect reality. For instance, Divya debarked the plane and drove directly to the relative tranquility of New Jersey. So her first impressions of the US were pastoral.
“I landed and went straight to New Jersey with my family, which seemed like a beautiful countryside somewhere in the Northern part of India. This was extremely amusing for my family, who was nervous about me feeling unsettled and alienated.”
I imagine Divya is referring to this aspect of New Jersey…
Photo by Flickr user carroll.mary.
… and not this aspect of New Jersey.
Photo by Flickr user jeremylogan2.
Tiya, on the other hand, drove from the airport directly to Manhattan, so her first impression was quite different. And what she told us reflects an immediate insight into our city that’s far deeper than our first thoughts of hers.
“My friend came to pick me up; and between all the chatter, I struggled to focus on what we were driving past. But I distinctly remember hundreds of little rows of houses that looked exactly the same. ‘Organized, yet lacking identity,’ is what I thought. Which is ironic, considering the culture is all about individualism.”
For some perspective, here is an example of the kind of housing Tiya probably saw on her way towards Manhattan:
Photo by Flickr user Rego-Forest Preservation Council
And here’s the building in GK II where I spent my first month.
Comparing those two pictures, Tiya is right: which architecture seems more at home in a culture that’s supposed to be renowned for its rugged individualism?
Tiya and Divya will share other observations in the next installment of this interview. (A preview: “The way people talk here. They ask how you’re doing without really caring about how you’re doing. And some are excessively polite and/or diplomatic, so many times I find it difficult to discern what the person’s real intention is.”)
But first, I’d like to open this up to Indian readers who landed in the US, or Americans who have visited India. What impression did you receive from that first drive home from the airport? Please add your comments below.