The Middle Class pilgrimage these days is not to any shrine or religious place, but straight to America. Almost every middle class family in all big cities has at least one person working in America. The standard journey from higher education to IT work on H1B visa, and from Green Card to settling in America has become so common that major cities even have NRI parents’ clubs to celebrate the successes of their children and commiserate together about the complaints or the feeling of loneliness.
However, come Summertime, they all board the planes to America with new enthusiasm and spirit to see their children and of course, tour America to see her beauty and natural wonders. They also attend the Marathi Mandal functions there with pride and admiration for keeping the Indian culture alive even in America.
When that flock returns to India like migratory birds, they are full of stories about visiting Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, NY and of course, their children’s fabulous houses etc. Some of them even become experts, perhaps after repeat visits, on the good but mostly the perceived bad points about America. They are quite vocal about how Americans have no culture, no family values and respect for elders, with juicy descriptions of how they abandon their parents, etc.
By the way, they say these things with an air of authority and authenticity without ever meeting with or talking to their children’s American neighbors!
I have to chuckle, for they have never seen the real America, her spirit and what makes America great in almost every field. Even after staying there for almost 3 months, most of these ‘America Experts’ have never had an American meal, never attended a cultural show or visited any typical American institution like a school, office, police station, community hall, arts gallery or even a library!
So, what is the ‘Real America’ that we are talking about that these people missed or have never seen?
The freedom of thought and action, freedom for women to achieve their potential and trust in the youth are well known. But the key ingredient for America’s success and happiness is the practice of secularism in daily life! That is the magnet and the very idea of America that attracts people from 120 countries to come to America and call it their home.
Here, you can breathe freely with no shackles of caste, religion, ideology, mandates, customs or compulsions, and just be yourself. People of all religions and faiths feel welcome [despite Trump!]. That is the beauty of secularism practiced in daily life and not just lip service.
Americans strongly believe that religion is a personal matter to be practiced at home, not in the streets or schools or offices. That assurance of breathing freely and equal treatment attracts global talent that makes America a thought and innovation leader. But isn’t it the mighty dollar that attracts everyone to America? Well, yes but only to an extent.
The freedom and secularism here are far more important than just the money. If money were the only factor, people would have gone to Saudi Arabia; but we don’t see people knocking on their door, do we?
So, where should these NRI parents go to see with their own eye how America practices secularism and why their children are sure to settle there? It’s very simple. The proof is all around them in America, if they were aware and curious.
All they have to do is to visit any school, office or even a police station and notice what they see or experience. They can even contrast that with a similar place in India and compare in order to draw their own conclusion.
Let’s take an office, for example. I have seen Indian offices with photos and statues of gods and goddesses and people worshipping those openly. Every computer had a deity rather than the company logo as the opening screen and routine religious festivals being celebrated [like Satya Narayan Pooja etc.] instead of serving customers or doing work.
Of course, some modern IT offices may be an exception, but the mindset is still there.
Contrast that with the U.S. offices where such overt displays and practices are strictly forbidden to make sure the minority community or different faiths don’t feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. The American constitution instilled the Separation of Church and State not just as a law, but as the operating principle to make sure the majority faith doesn’t impose their personal beliefs onto other faiths and atheists/agnostics [who, by the way, are now at 23% of the population, second only to the Catholics in the U.S.] and make them feel “different” or unwelcome.
The offices are about work, not worship. That is the professionalism and civic sense that America practices in every office. Even the office Christmas party is about “eat, drink and be merry”, rather than worship.
How about the schools then? Aren’t they supposed to teach the children “good moral values” through religion? Well, they teach civics and cultivate a culture of sharing, volunteering and sensitivity for that. They teach the children to accept, celebrate and respect diversity. There are no statues of religious figures and certainly no prayers to Gods etc. going on in the school. In fact, any teacher or administrator trying to do that will be fired on the spot.
The practice of secularism in daily life is thus a core value that is taught in the U.S. schools. Can the NRI parents compare that with what they remember seeing in the schools back home? I think the answer is obvious.
Well, how about the real power center like the police station? We all grew up with stories, if not experience of such institutions back home. Hindi movies have painted a grim but not too unrealistic picture of what goes on there. I have seen some police stations in India with a mini Maruti temple near the entrance and photos of deities etc. Inside. Would people of all faiths and those without feel comfortable asking for help and justice there?
The NRI parents should certainly visit any American police station and experience not only their helpful demeanor but also note that there is not a single religious symbol, act or mandate anywhere. The treatment there is not based on any religious criteria but is equal, secular and fair.
Before anyone points out some horror stories to the contrary, I assure you that those are exceptions rather than the rule. Practice of secularism in daily life is thus a living principle in America and that is why young professionals are sure to settle there.
Another major character that makes America great is the respect for manual work and a fine confluence of intellectual and physical work that led to many innovations and progress. It’s the ‘two guys in the garage’ tinkering away with machines, tools, repairing and creating things with joy, pride and zeal. When thinking people actually get their hands dirty with physical work, they create things that help advance the society and actually erase the boundaries between the classes.
Americans take pride in fixing their homes, cars and small instruments and that is the integral part of American culture. On the contrary, delinking of intellectual and physical work because of the fossilized caste system has shaped the Indian psyche such that physical work is looked down upon and shunned.
The typical Indian middle class people have never made their own tea, let alone doing any technical work. Given this mentality, they misinterpret the Americans around them gladly doing physical and technical work—their neighbor’s children cutting grass, fixing cars and plumbing, etc. That is where innovations come from.
When thinking and physical work go hand in hand, inventions sprout to make life easier. That is the core strength of America. The NRI parents on the contrary, snicker about how Americans have hard life and have to do their chores. They even complain about how their own children have to wash their own dishes and take their trash out, lamenting that things are much better in India where their children would have lived more comfortably.
It is indeed surprising that most Indian visitors miss this unique American character all around them and in fact, misinterpret it as a sign of hardship rather than a source of innovation and progress.
Well, the next time they visit America, I hope they will see these things with open eyes and open minds so they will indeed see the real America that they missed during the U.S. visits so far.
- Sunil Deshmukh
(Author is a U.S.A. based philanthropist and Corporate leader of Wall Street. He is the Originator of prestigious 'Maharashtra Foundation Awards for Literature and Social work'. His E-mail id is email@example.com)