'Welcome to Canada' said our friends, relatives and, the immigration authorities when we landed in this country in 1993. It took us a few weeks to figure out what they really meant:
'Well, come to Canada, but don't stay too long.'
1993 was peak recession time in Canada, and the country was not very warm towards newcomers. So, we took the hint and moved on to Anchorage, Alaska, where jobs were more plentiful. We did eventually, make it back to Canada, but our entire sojourn in North America has been a roller coaster ride.
The first challenge was getting used to the driving conditions in this weird country. In India, where we came from, there are only two rules for driving ' drive on the left side, and, stop when the guy in front of you stops. Other than that, it's a free country. In North America, not only do we have to drive on the other side, but the road is sub-divided into lanes, and we are expected to stay in one of them The first reaction of the Indian brain is 'Lane driving is insane driving' but ultimately, I got used to it.
Speed limits are another matter. Initially, I would drive well below the speed limit and I remember proudly tell my friends that I drove from Ottawa to Toronto in just seven hours! After many years in this country I now realize that speed limits really indicate the minimum speed we should be driving at. To drive any slower is madness and could well cause an accident.
Then, there is the strange world of traffic signs. In India traffic signs come in two or three languages, and to read them while driving is a recipe for an accident. But, in North America, we are expected to literally follow what the signs say. The hardest one, for me, is the STOP sign. Taken literally, it means stop your car at the intersection. There is no corresponding sign that says GO, so if I really followed the sign I would be stuck at an intersection forever.
It takes a long time to master the social customs of this strange land 'in fact, I haven't been able to do it even after 14 years. In India, social life is easy, you just go over unannounced to your friend, relative, or neighbor's house and chat over a cup of tea ' it's that simple. But in North America, you have to wait to be invited formally, along with a hundred other people. There is also this strange concept of punctuality. So you arrive punctually at 7 p.m, get bored in a large crowd, have a drink, get bored, eat, get bored, and, leave after midnight. And then, it's your turn to invite the same hundred people over to your own house, for another round of socializing.
Marriage is another strange custom in North America. In India, there are only two types of marriages ' the arranged marriage, and, the love marriage. North America has another variation ' the deranged marriage. The couple falls in love, but when its time to get married, they want all the extravaganza of an arranged marriage. In India, we attend a marriage to socialize and have fun ' not so in North America. The host tells you with whom to socialize, by telling you where to sit, as in a business meeting or a seminar. In fact, the bride and bridegroom even tell you what they want as a wedding present, in a strange custom called the gift registry. Everything happens on schedule, and, there is none of the spontaneous confusion of the typical Indian wedding.
I recently figured out why marriages in North America are less enduring than their Indian counterparts. We got a wedding invitation that said 'No children allowed'. This is not just strange, but, super strange, since the whole point of a wedding, as far as I know, is to have children. How can the marriage last when the wedding card itself states 'No children allowed'?
It took us quite a while to get used to the North American style of marketing. In India, cheating is very straightforward ' people will just charge you more for a product, or, sell you an inferior product, there is nothing dubious about it. In North America, we have all kind of deals and ploys ' two for one deals, one-and a-half for one deals, sales and 'specials' where you get something for free. Essentially the specials boil down to this: you can buy fries and get the hamburger free, or, vice versa. I keep looking for a deal where you can get both free, but it hasn't happened yet.
The word 'sale' is a well established marketing tool that has been around for decades. But it is still a magic word and it works every time. Some of our friends and relatives save thousands of dollars every month on sales, but it generally takes two incomes to keep up with their savings.
But the hardest adjustment is learning to live with the people who inhabit this foreign land. The message was brought home to me very sharply when the door bell rang at our house last week. My wife opened the door, and then called out to me 'Love, we have some foreigners at the door, trying to sell us something'. I had to correct her very gently '''''''''''Love, it is we who are the foreigners here ' not them'.