their New York struggle, part I: impressions on the ride from the airport

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.

“Wall Street Area”, photo by Tiya

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.

Photo by me

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.

If you like this post (and the reader contributions below) you’d like our upcoming book: a humorous travel memoir of expat life in New Delhi. Send us your email or follow us on Twitter so we can add you to our mailing list!

35 responses to “their New York struggle, part I: impressions on the ride from the airport

  1. The concrete roads that I saw right after exiting DFW airport. That looked pretty foreign.

  2. Great exercise. I am interested but my inputs won’t count as I shifted to Zurich few years back.

  3. The first thing I noticed after coming out of the airport at San Diego was how organized, clean & wide the roads were. After spending more than 1 year in the US cumulatively in the past 6 years, everytime I drive on the road here I have to think this… “How on earth can a country build so many, so big, so good roads? Its impossible. How the hell was the road/infrastructure/whatever department able to reach to a consensus on such an even design for the roads all over the country?”. I mean look a city in India. You will find a thousand different designs (if I can call those designs! They are more like an afterthought) for the footpaths, road dividers, signals.

  4. I landed in Dulles at DC. My first impression of America was disbelief at how unbelievably crowded, and slow immigration was. Took me 2.5 hours to get through, as opposed to half an hour in India. Exited immigration to find bags strewn across the hall! This was totally shocking, particularly given how many Westerners I’ve heard complain about Indian airports. Not what I was expecting from the airport of the capital city of the US!

    But airport aside, my first impression of America was absolute wonder at how HUGE the vehicles were. Of course, the roads were excellent, but the cars, trucks, SUVs were just so damn huge. The row houses also did amuse me, particularly in the Maryland suburb I went to first. I couldn’t get over the perfectly manicured lawns, with white picket fences, and tree-line roads. It seemed right out of a movie.

  5. Great post!

    We were so exhausted and jet-lagged that it was kind of a blur (our first trip to our new home in Delhi) but I do remember the overwhelming-ness of it all … that completely assaulted our senses. The weaving traffic (no mind to the yellow dashed lines), the crowding on a bus (whether or not there were available and empty seats), the sheer number of people still awake and moving about even at 2am …

  6. During my first visit to the USA I was put up at Hotel Hilton Garden Inn in Atlanta…being from India where generally there is only one hotel of any chain no matter how big … it was a shock for me when my cabbie drove me across the city for half an hour and I spotted 7 different hiltons before I reached the one where I was booked. I could spot the same pattern repeating every few miles … same Mc Donalds and KFC’s … same walmarts, circuit city and best buys …. it was very weird

  7. First thing on my mind while driving from JFK to New Jersey was: how much further IS this place and WHY is this normal for 100s of people travelling between NJ and NY everyday! (When I was told how long it could take – something becoming way too common in Delhi too with respect to the increase in the time it takes to reach anywhere within the city itself!). Then I focused on the expanse. Then the traffic jam. Ultimately, I gave up and took a very long nap in the car to compensate for the jet lag.


  8. My first arrival into India was at the Delhi airport in October 2004 for a six month work assignment. My immediate impression was that it all just felt very compressed; people pressed against the dividers at the arrivals hall, holding placards and noisily waiting for loved one’s. Luckily, we found our names quickly and were whisked into a hotel car. Once in the car on the hotel, it still felt like the world was closing in around me. I remember feeling like we were trapped between slowly moving oddly painted trucks and that there just seemed to be people out everywhere and anywhere, and this was at 3:30am. As comfortable as I feel in India now, having spent 20+ months of my life here, that initial introduction to how I my perceptions to personal space needed to change are what sticks with me.

  9. I had spent almost one month in Montreal before we decided to drive down to Dallas to visit extended family. So infrastructure wise, US and Canada both ‘looked’ pretty much the same.

    While crossing into the US, we were stopped at the immigration check point and waited in line for the authorities to stamp our passports before proceeding into the US. What should’ve been a straightforward experience turned into something that has stayed with me even after four years. We were a party of 4 ppl – my aunt n uncle, my mum and me. My uncle carried a briefcase with him which had all important immigration related documents. I’m not sure of the sequence of events, but sometime during our passport examination, my uncle needed his briefcase to pull out another piece of document that was required by the authorities. I was standing right behind him in the queue and almost instinctively reached out to get the case to help him out. What followed can only be described as nightmarish! One of the immigration officers placed one of her hands on her gun, while shoving the other one in front of my face in order to warn me to back off.

    I was SO confused as to what had happened! There was chaos and confusion all around, everyone seemed to sit up and take notice, it was almost as if I had walked into a room about to explode! I could hear the lady officer screaming at me, but I was so lost I don’t remember a word of what she said! Now, you have to understand why all this was so mind numbing for me. I have never been spoken to that way before. Or since. Helping people who’re older, is just a cultural thing. Its a way of showing respect. As far as I was concerned, I saw NO reason for such an outburst!

    My uncle intervened, said I was with him. Explained to the officer that I was merely trying to help. Things settled down. And that particular officer was soon sent to another room just to normalize the situation. Another officer came in to see my passport. He made a couple of jokes while at it. They all seemed like they were embarrassed at what had just transpired and tried their best to make things better. In about five minutes, we were on our way to Dallas.

    I hold no grudges towards that officer. I don’t blame her. Its tough to be in a situation where you’re dealing with potentially dangerous situations and difficult people everyday. She reacted out of fear. To me, the one thing that keeps popping up over and over again, is this fear that people seem to have in the US. They’re very cautious. Conversations and debates seem to be centered around fear of something. About how things are likely to go wrong. I see advertisements which further propel this idea that one should be prepared for the worst, scenarios that are unlikely to happen in most cases. I don’t know how else to put it. Did you guys notice this difference in behavior while you were in India? I’d love to know!

    • Oh my goodness I could not agree with you more! I just got back from my first trip to India, which led me to this site, but I had noticed in other countries as well, how much less concerned people are with possible threats, accidental or not. It is quite a huge problem here in the United States and I don’t think most of us realize how it affects us! Like I already mentioned, I noticed how much less afraid people are in other countries, but India seemed even less afraid, it was quite nice, but definitely contributes to the much lower life expectancy in India. Just please don’t mistake that statement for my thinking there’s anything okay about how irrational Americans can be when it comes to danger. We all have to live our lives! I loved India, by the way! Do you guys ever get bored in the US with the lack of animals? That’s something no one mentioned in this thread! I would be so sad to go from lots of monkeys to no monkeys, lol.

  10. We are Indians living here for over a decade now. There is one thing that jumped right at me during our initial days. When I would ask someone for directions they would reply with “I would take x street or I would turn left….as opposed to, in India wen would very authoritatively say ” take x street or turn left” 🙂
    and the way people smile at you in trains or streets…..I would be halfway forming a smile in response but by that time they are already looking somewhere else….:-) and I look like an idiot smiling at no one !!!

  11. I got off the plane (TWA — whatever happened to that airline?) at JFK 30 years ago this year! Seems like yesterday. I was stunned by the highways and the cars, yes. But my strongest memory, for some odd reason, is when the friend of a friend who picked me up and was driving me home in his battered Chevy stopped suddenly saying he needed some money. I looked around. Not a bank in sight, and anyway it was nearing dusk. Where was he going to get cash from at this peculiar hour?

    But no, he ducked into a door in a nondescript brown building, punched some buttons on something I couldn’t see clearly, and emerged nonchalantly a few seconds later with a fistful of dollars. Wow, I thought. What a country! Cash from a machine!

    To this day I think he didn’t really need the cash; I think he did it just to impress this wide-eyed Indian heading for grad school! And it worked. Poor chap died suddenly a few years later, so I never did get this clarified…

  12. I felt totally completely helpless when I came here. My feelings were that I did not know how to manage in this country. Everything worked differently!
    The first things that struck me..a TOTAL LACK of PUBLIC PHONES. I wanted to call home to tell them i had reached safely- where were the STD PCO’s that one finds in every corner of India? Had to request people just so I could call back.
    And nobody said- call me or talk to me- everybody said “Send me an email” I was flabbergasted! And the silence. I had no friends, nobody to talk to, and there was complete utter silence all around. The lack of noise made me even more unhappy (this was Ann Arbor, before school began in the Fall).

    After my first week here, I was so miserable, lonely and depressed that I decided to go back. And you know why I did not go back?
    Yes- I was that clueless. And I had nobody to ask.

    My first few months in the US were definitely the most miserable and traumatic of my entire life.

  13. Though I’ve never lived in the US myself, i do know a friend who lived/ studied there for 4 years(in Minnesota, if i remember right) . Though i don’t know what her first impressions were(i didn’t ask), i do remember her telling me how shocked she was at how silent/quiet it generally was there. Not like in India, where even in the confines of your own home, you can hear “life” outside your home(on the streets). She was terribly homesick and lonely for her first 3 months in America. Gradually, as she started making friends at college, she eased into her life and surroundings. Another funny thing she told me was that how annoying she found it when entering a shop(esp clothing stores). It would take only a few seconds before a saleswoman would walk up to her & ask her right away(even before she had the chance to start looking at the clothes) if she needed any help. My friend thought it was a really stupid thing to do considering she’d only just entered the freakin shop. I agree with her. Which made me realize how lucky us Indian shoppers are (here in India). The sales staff usually don’t bother us. We know to ask them for help when we need it. It must be annoying to have someone or the other come up to you constantly(when you don’t care for their help).

    • No longer so in India. If you go to any of the newly built malls, you will have an entourage of store employees following you and asking you if they can help. In fact, in US chain stores, I am yet to be approached and be offered unsolicited help!

  14. I don’t remember much except being disappointed at not seeing crowd, chaos and skyscrapers like I had imagined. Apparently I had only seen NewYork in the Indian TV channels :). Also it was 2 a.m when I landed. In Ohio!
    A few days into it after I stopped getting lost finding way to my own apartment (which was identical to hundred other apartments similar to your pic), I liked how Americans focus on individualism on the really important things and how the not-so-important things are automated (buildings, appliances etc). The truly rich do have their own home style and design.
    I never missed home then except when it came to cooking and food. Now I am back here after living there for almost 8 years and I miss the really nice, healthy food there, produce as well as restaurants!

  15. We landed at IGI in Delhi late at night (June 2010), over tired, with two small children in tow. I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the airport as everyone had warned me how “disgusting” it was. Out of the airport we were hit by the heat, the dust, the noise, and the neon. My tired eyes couldn’t take all the neon between airport and hotel. I just remember feeling extremely over-stimulated.

  16. The first thing that I noticed after leaving ORD (Chicago airport) was that the roads were extremely big and there were too many cars on the highway! When we reached the place where I was staying, I was shocked to see no people either walking or strolling around. I was terribly home sick since I could hardly see any people around. All I could see were endless amounts of cars on the roads, no kids playing around. It was like a mechanical world! Now, that I’ve been here for more than five years, I get the concept that people like malls more? Or walking short distances is outdated? Im confused still about it

  17. I did not know America was known for individualism. Which is odd since I was born, raised, and lived my entire life across America. I’ve always seen it as uniform, dejected, and scared. Lots of dead streets and those outside are either hurrying to some other place to be inside or up to criminal activity.

  18. 1) Landed at JFK, and was completely awed by just how many cars there were in the parking lot.
    2) Funny style of eating, getting ketchup/mustard on the corners of the lips and dabbing them away with a tissue after every bite.
    3) How much food got thrown away. Sacrilege!

  19. I have visited US once and some of my early impressions

    1. How big the whole place and and also very green
    2. People are very confident and do not hesitate – they do not mumble 🙂 or wander around. It probably comes from a lifetime of demanding and getting what you want
    3. How empty the place is – hardly anyone walking around and the silence of it all. Even the Malls were bare with hardly anyone around
    4. Probably the best thing about US is the Universities – Loved the bustle of the campus and went to a college football game. A Truly american experience – really enjoyed it after the silence on the streets.

  20. On my first visit to the US, I landed at Newark. What I recall clearly is my surprise at the size of the cab waiting for me (it was a Concord Limousine Lincoln Town Car). It was so intimidating I remember asking the chauffeur if I could sit up front alongside him (he smiled and said no).

    And when I headed out to Manhattan (first of many trips- I was doing some serious photography) I wanted to see how high I would have to crane my neck to look to the top of the skyscrapers 🙂 I even did some mental trigonometry while still on the plane!

  21. First ;
    a.) The tip I had to pay( $ 1 for my bag) when I let a skycap carry it to the curb..remember I had all of $ 75 in my pocket, then.
    b.) The speed of traffic and the sheer number of cars moving without an accident.
    c.) Not seeing a person walk along the expressways..
    d.) Looking around for a water tap in the toilet !

  22. It has been over a dozen years for me now in the US. I landed in EWR and was picked up by company car-service to where I needed to go.

    My first impressions:

    1. Highways were filled with cars and SUVs and couldn’t see a single two-wheeler.
    2. Nobody honked.
    3. Everybody stopped at the traffic light on red. No exceptions. I was used to quite a lot of exceptions.
    4. Nothing was chaotic, everything was orderly.
    5. In the relative silence of local traffic behavior, ambulance and police sirens sounded really loud.
    6. Officers (police) looked nothing like the ill-trained, under-educated clownish bunch I had seen before. Every officer had his own car, impressive looking uniform and a loaded gun. First impression: awe.
    7. Nobody talked about politics or religion at work.
    8. When people called you “sir” in a certain way with a certain intonation, it was not necessarily a good thing.
    9. I forced myself to quickly learn to say “you are welcome” in response to “thank you”s. People rarely verbalized their thankfulness in India but when they did you knew for sure that they meant it and that those were not empty words. Here it was rude not to say thank you but meant nothing much at all when said.

    But the most hilarious one would be from an idot ex-boss of mine. Having watched one episode too many of “Baywatch”, he actually expected to be whisked away by hot sexy girls waiting for fools like him at every street corner….ha…ha..ha. Must have been a hard landing.

  23. Hi Dave aur Jenny. this is a unique blog. must say, a treat to read. Interesting posts. I’ve started following you…ll come for more updates.
    Take Care

  24. After reading your great blog, finally I am participating actively.

    I landed at the O’hare airport, Chicago on a very cold 3rd Jan in 2003 (Incidentally after a day of delay at New Delhi and then one more at London). For somebody from very hot western part of India, that cold was just unfathomable – my first thought when I got out of airport and climbed into the car with my fiancée (who had come to receive me) was – how can it go SO cold and people can still live normally?

    But the first big change I noticed was how clean the air was. It smelt of, well, particularly nothing. (Yes, I understand that the air near O’hare might not be particularly that clean, but it’s all relative, esp given the context here). I was surprised to notice how accustomed I was to pollution in India!

    And it was not for the last time – now, every time I travel between the two countries, I always notice the quality of air.

    Of course, rest of the usuals followed – noticing number of cars on the road, lack of honking, discipline of traffic.

    And Snow!! A white carpet everywhere – I was ecstatic – for it was first time I saw snow ever. The silence, fresh cool (or very cold) air and snow – I was thrilled. The peaceful night was a bit unsettling at first – for how can it be so quiet?

    Of course, I was two hours out of Chicago by then, but I think my first impression would have been more or less same irrespective of my destination that day.


  25. I chanced upon your blog a while ago and it got me hooked because I wanted to know what non-Indians, especially Americans view India. Well, my first visit to the US landed me in San Francisco and since it was a short trip, I was super excited! We drove from SFO to San Jose, and I really couldn’t notice much as it was dark at that time. But I was notably impressed by the roads and a handful of tall buildings. The days that followed were really a dream. I was meeting my family after a long time and I didn’t really prepare myself for the awesomeness that was California! So it was a superb trip at multiple levels.

    My second trip was a year later to Williamsburg, Virginia where I was to start business school. Again my ride from the airport was in the night and I couldn’t notice much apart from the trees, which I really liked. Williamsburg is a quaint colonial/college town and is not the idea of US towns that many Indians have.

    Many Indians (even the educated, well-read, urban), including me until a few years ago, believe that the US is a place of skyscrapers, glitzy malls, busy sidewalks, McDonald’s and jeans. Well most of these will be true if you visit the downtowns of the big US cities. But what I realized is that downtowns are only a teeny part of the vast land and most of the rest has flat, one-floor structures, non-glitzy outdoor strip malls, and business suits (gasp!! who would have guessed?!?).

    So the US does give a different picture that is contrary to most Indian perceptions. I can go on so much about this topic, but will now put a stop to my verbal diarrhea 😉

  26. A German immigrant to Canada once told me that a big difference in the two cultures was that in Germany, if you asked someone how they were doing, they’d actually tell you, sometimes in great detail; whereas in North America, the answer to the question was never revealing, was, in fact, a non-answer.

    Like most Canadians, I’m a U.S.-watcher. Although the media love to promote American individualism, actual Americans seem to be quite conformist. Now, I’ve never found real live Americans to prattle about individualism; it seems to be more a media theme than a common topic of conversation. Perhaps it’s a hold-over from Cold War propaganda, the individualistic U.S. versus the evil collectivist Soviet Union.

  27. When I set foot at the Dulles airport in DC, the immigration/customs guy asked me how I was doing and I was taken aback. Am I supposed to know this guy? Does this guy know my cousin, and so, knows that I will be here at the airport today? Did my cousin ask him to take care of me until he could pick me up at the airport? If so why didn’t he tell me? I looked like a deer facing headlights.
    US blew me down when I visited the Niagara falls on my third day (the first two being spent traveling to my final destination – Syracuse, and throwing up/sleeping at odd hours thanks to jet lag). Before I was fully awake, I was bundled by the other Indian Grad students in Syracuse to Niagara, and I fully woke up to America at the grandeur of the horse-shoe. I’ll carry that image with me to my grave.
    I love the US. I hate the US. I love it for the independence it offered me. I hated it for the impersonal/cold aftertaste it leaves.
    That said, my five years in USA helped me grow more than my 20 years in India did. What I am now, is not little due to those five years.

  28. I landed in Winnipeg , Canada in Sept. 2008 aftre having spent 30 years in India , the last 12 of it in Delhi. The first thing that hit me was ofcourse the ebautiful fall colors. Soon winter was upon us and I realised that snow looks beautiful only from indoors. And having never seen sub zero temperatures I hated the – 40 degrees here. Alsom it didn’t take me too long to figure out that I had moved to a village comapared to Delhi, no street food almost killed me. And no I don’t call hot dogs street food coz they are mostly beef(which I don’t eat yet).
    I found it strange too that everyone from the cashier to the cab driver will ask you how you are ; however, soon enough I realised that it wasn’t from the ehart, so why ask ???
    I am what I call myself “a love immigrant” , but I would move back to Delhi in the blink of an eyelid, unfortunately the other half does not share the feelings.

  29. Pingback: their New York struggle, part II: American pleasantries | Our Delhi Struggle

  30. Pingback: Random Thoughts » On pleasantries and other experiences

  31. Quite an interesting series this is going to be. Loved reading the comments on this one.
    And one interesting observation (using tissue after every bite) up here made me remember Dave’s one-tissue post from the archives 😀

  32. Pingback: their New York struggle, part III: not-so-cheap labor | Our Delhi Struggle

  33. My first impressions as I got out of DFW airport at Dallas a few weeks back:
    “Hmmm… Roads are wider than in India. Cars are bigger than in India. But where the hell are all the people???” I thought it was quite late in the night when I landed (@ 10 pm) to explain the lack of people.
    And the same thing continues over the past 6 weeks. Hardly any people anywhere I go! Totally unlike Bombay, where you can get caught in a traffic jam getting out of the airport even at 2 am!!
    But thankfully for me, I am staying in Irving, Tx, which has a sizable Indian population. And lots of Indian restaurants!!!

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