Tired of having to spell out my name every time to the receptionist at the other end once, I said, “It is Basab; ‘B’ as in Balakrishnan; ‘A’ as in Anantaraman; ‘S’ as in Subramaniyam; ‘A’ as in Aishwarya and ‘B’ as in Biharilal”.
Once I tried to attend a ticketed “Indian Ceremonial Dance”, which advertised “Admission is free for Indians”. To the guy at the entrance clad in colorful feathers, I said I should be admitted free because I was Indian. He looked me up, “You may be an Indian, but you are the wrong kind of Indian”. Mad, I told him, “No, no. It’s you who are the wrong kind. It was all a big mistake by Columbus”. That did not help me to get in.
By Basab Dasgupta
When I tell the story of my life as a first-generation Indian immigrant engineer to others, they all laugh. There is really nothing funny in my account of struggle in order to get myself adjusted to this society. I am fairly certain that many of the older, first generation readers would identify with my experiences.
From the very first day after arriving here I have been so tired of spelling my name “Basab Dasgupta” every time I make a phone call to make an appointment or reservation. I would go “B as in Boy, A as in Apple etc.” Finally, I had it. One day, when the receptionist at the other end said, “Would you please spell your name?” I said, “It is Basab; ‘B’ as in Balakrishnan; ‘A’ as in Anantaraman; ‘S’ as in Subramaniyam; ‘A’ as in Aishwarya and ‘B’ as in Biharilal”.
I was single when I first came to the USA and had never cooked before when I was in India. So, I relied heavily on those frozen dinners, typically chicken curry or fish curry, from a local Indian Grocery store, and heated them up in a microwave for a few minutes. I shared some of these with my American friends. The dishes were so spicy for them that they promptly labeled them “Hurry Curry”.
Being a Hindu I am not supposed to eat beef. I was so frustrated by the mouth-watering aroma of grilled burgers coming from various hamburger joints like “Burger King”, “McDonalds” and “Wendy’s” that I would occasionally go inside a Wendy’s and scream “Where is no beef?”
Once I started to eat outside, I used to have lunch every day at a corner deli just outside my apartment and always had chicken-noodle soup. There were other delicious looking food items on display in show cases, but I did not know their names. One item, consisting of a pile of sliced eggs, pieces of bacon and chunks of other vegetables on a bed of lettuce looked especially appetizing. I asked an Indian friend one day to find out what it was called. He said “Oh, just ask for Chef Salad”. Next day I ordered a Chef Salad. “Would you like that with Blue Cheese or Thousand Island?” the girl at the counter asked. Without having any idea about what she was talking about, I said “You know; I changed my mind. I think I would have the chicken-noodle soup”.
Once I took my American friend to an Indian restaurant, called “Gandhi”, which was famous for its all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. The restaurant had a big sign with its name alongside an image of Mahatma Gandhi with his cane, clad only in his usual knee-length dhoti displaying his skinny body and bare chest showing ribs. My friend asked, “Did he get that figure as a result of eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet”.
It always bothered me when I went to a bar with my American friends and they would not finish their drinks before we left. One day I could not hold it anymore when a friend left behind a glass almost half full of wine. “Finish your drink”, I shouted “Don’t you know that there are people in India who are sober?”
After finding food and housing, my next challenge was finding transportation. When I went to buy my very first car, the car salesman was pushing me to go for a Volkswagen Beetle. “What is so special about it?” I asked. He said that it had a trunk at the front. “Great”, I thought, “my years of experience in riding an elephant would pay off”.
Once I had a car, I was ready for a date, or so I was told. Coming from India where “date” means a dried fruit, I had difficulty in getting used to the dating custom. Eventually I did succeed in dating a few women, but the only women who were willing to go out with me were all very old. Based on that experience, I still believe that “date” means dried fruit.
My main problem was that there was nothing in my physical appearance that stood out. All the American girls, especially the white ones thought that we, Indians, all looked alike. So, one day, I went to the washroom after I came home from work and took a good look at my image in the mirror. Those girls were right! I exclaimed in surprise, “Mahatma Gandhi, what are YOU doing here?”
My other problem in finding a girl was my height. I am fairly certain that my short height is the result of my mother using generous amounts of shortening in her cooking when I was growing up. My short height is not appealing to women in this society dominated by tall men. Once a friend set me up with a blind date. When the lady showed up, she took one look at me and sang out the Steve Winwood song “…bring me a higher love”.
Since I am not that young, I often seek advice from my American friends about how to spice up my love life. One such friend had a very simple advice: “Go Vi-agra”. It was indeed good advice. My annual visit to India was just around the corner and I was going to Calcutta via Delhi. Going via Agra, as my friend suggested, would remind me of all the love and passion emperor Shah Jehan had for his begum Mumtaz and probably elevate my own passion.
Another friend was telling me that I did not need to get married; I could become a “sugar daddy”. “What is a sugar daddy?”, I asked innocently. My friend winked and said, “You know, the one who provides sugar to the young girls”. He did not know that I have type II diabetes and do not take sugar. “Perhaps, I can be a nutra-sweet daddy”, I said.
I thought that I would have better luck with black girls. You probably know the expression “If you go black, you are not going back”. After I started dating black women, they started saying, “If you go Basab, you are going to run fast to wherever you came from”. I do not know what any of these comments mean and so please do not ask me to explain.
One summer I went to visit the Wisconsin Dells. There was a huge tent with a big sign “Indian Ceremonial Dance: Only $20”, followed by a smaller sign which said “Admission is free for Indians”. I approached the guy standing at the entrance clad in colorful feathers, holding a spear and beating on a drum. I claimed that I should be admitted free because I was Indian. He looked me up and down and said, “You may be an Indian, but you are the wrong kind of Indian”. That made me mad; I said “No, no. I am the right kind; you are the wrong kind. It was a big mistake by Columbus”. That did not help me to get in.
Once I went to meet an Indian boy from the local middle school who just won a “Spelling Bee” contest. I asked his mother, “What got him interested in spelling?” The mother smiled and said that it was probably his name which was: Chandrashekhar Srinivasaraghvan!
My boss, John McDonald, who was a golf fanatic, told me, “You Indians must just love sex. Otherwise, how can you guys produce more than a billion people?” I told him “Mr. McDonald: Indian people are very poor and sex is the only recreation available to them which is free. If they had money, of course they would play golf instead just like you.”
It really bothers me that most people stereotype Indians like me as the ones who only know how to fix computer glitches. They do not know that I can do so many other things. For example, given a chance, I can manage three 7-Eleven stores.
I still do not understand the meaning of some English words used by Americans. One such example is “sucker”. What does it even mean? However, lollipops are also called “suckers”. Shouldn’t they be called “suckees” because we are the suckers who suck on lollipops?
In any event, I was slowly but surely managing to get by with my life in this wonderful country, but my story has a sad ending. I was recently laid off. My job was outsourced to India.
Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.