Now, acclimation (getting used to the climate of a place). Of course it is never just the physical climate alone, but a whole lot more. Do not forget this was 1982 and the only TV we got to watch in Bengaluru consisted of a few hazy blue-and-white images for a few hours a day. DoorDarshan. That’s it. So, any images of the USA that I had, came from movies and magazines (chiefly LIFE and National Geographic). In general, my circle of acquaintances in Bengaluru were not very knowledgeable about the USA.

One family friend said that it will be cold there, and you will never have experienced cold like that in your life before. So, I will give you my thermal underwear that I had bought when I went to Germany. You wear that and stay warm. A very kind gesture, indeed. I had carried these with great gratitude.

Well, on my first day on campus, I wore the thermal underwear. Athens is a ‘university town’ – the whole town is pretty much centred around the University.  People walked most everywhere. The streets were extra-ordinarily clean. I marveled at the safe and dependable foot paths (‘side walk’), and the orderliness of everything.

What was the most amazing thing was the silence – blissful glorious silence. No one honked their horn. If anyone did, it was a short beep to attract someone’s attention, that’s all.

So, walking was brisk. When I had to cross the road, I automatically went to the pedestrian crossing where no vehicle moved when the pedestrian signal came on. This was, to my Bengaluru mind, totally amazing. If I didn’t want to wait for the normal cycle of the signal, I could press a button on the pole at the zebra crossing and within 30 seconds or so, the vehicles would get a red and I would get a green, and I could just march across the road.

This brisk walk warmed me up quite quickly. I walked into the building where I was supposed to meet my Professor to let him know that I have reached and to find out what I was to do next.

We got talking and in about 5 minutes, I started feeling extremely hot. Sweltering and itching all over my legs. Once the meeting was done, and he advised me to speak slowly, I left the building to get on with what I had to do. The family friend who gave me the thermal underwear did not know, nor had I found out, that no matter how cold it was outside, inside the buildings it was quite pleasantly warm. Thermal underwear was overkill! That was the first and last time I wore them.

The cold was not just a question of the atmosphere and how one dressed. I wanted snow! It just refused to snow! I got increasingly peeved at whatever forces were responsible for snow. One Friday evening, someone told me that it was likely to snow that night. I stayed up well into the night. Looking out the window frequently to see if it was snowing and at about 12:30am, I saw it was!!

I quickly stepped out on to the porch of that old house and ventured a few feet outside to feel the snowflakes falling on me. What joy! Yes, joy then, but walking the next day was quite an adventure. The terrain in Athens is quite hilly and I skidded a lot, holding on to buildings, electricity poles, and parked cars.

I soon had to go to a department store to buy three things. And this turned out to introduce me to the acculturation process while dealing with acclimation also.

The three things: banians, lip balm, and facial tissue. The air was so dry that my lips were cracking and my nose started bleeding on and off. So, the lip balm and facial tissue were bought. No problem. I didn’t know where to look for the banians.

Helpful lady employee walked up and asked, “May I help you?” (a phrase that I still makes USA endearing). I said, “Yes, please. I am looking for banians. Where would I find banians?” She looked very puzzled. “Banians?” “Yes”, I said, “Banians.” She could not understand. I decided to escalate this a bit. I reached behind my neck, under my shirt collar, and pulled up the label of the banian I was wearing. I could see she was suppressing a strong impulse to giggle. She said, “Oh, undershirts? Follow me.” When I eventually came to the check-out counter, she came back, gave me a big smile and asked if I found everything I needed.

It was months later that I realized that she had heard it as “bunyans” – a painful growth that people sometimes get on the soles of their feet. She must have been quite befuddled why I would want to buy bunyans!

In order to help us get familiar with American culture, customs, and language, international students were introduced to host families – American families who would interact with us in various ways to help us acculturate smoothly. So it was that I got to meet Mrs Evelyn Baumgartel. One of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. She and her husband (a medical doctor) were host family to nearly 15 international students! So, we were all invited to dinner – a mix of newbies and oldies.

Amazing spread. At one point, a cheese and broccoli casserole was passed around. I loved it. Later, it came around a second time. I declined and it passed to the next person. But I had actually WANTED it and had expected the hosts to insist that I have some more. No dice. I still regret I didn’t know the dining etiquette that night.

With time, the acculturation progresses. The immigrant becomes more and more part of the ‘host’ culture – changes in the way language is used, the accent, the choice of expressions, the correct use of slang and idioms, gaining a taste for local foods, etc.

In time, I applied for and obtained a Social Security Number (akin to the Aadhaar card in India), opened a bank account, enrolled in a club or two on campus, and so on. These are all part of the process called assimilation.  I became part of ‘the system’ in the USA.

Years later, as a graduate student at another university, I experienced my first incidence of structural assimilation when I was elected (by a landslide, thank you, thank you) President of the Geography Graduate Students’ Association. Subsequently, I became a full-time faculty member (elsewhere), was elected to the University Faculty Senate, was appointed to several Faculty committees, etc.

Thus, as an immigrant to the USA, I experienced these geographical concepts – acclimation, acculturation, and assimilation. All these processes were extraordinarily fun and often funny. They also led to many changes in my relationships with USA and with India. I became more aware of my own topophilia for both countries. They remain to this day.

It is fun to have, in one’s heart, two places to love and call home.

What you can do:

  1. Try to find out if anyone you know has migrated. Construct questions that will tell you how they went through the three “A” processes (acclimation, acculturation, and assimilation). (Remember, migration may be within a city, state, region, country, international, etc.)
  2. If you could live anywhere you wanted, where would you live? Why? This will help you understand your perception of the other place. This will be a particularly interesting exercise if you have never visited that place.
  3. Find out what you might face in going through the three “A”s. This will give you some practice in asking geographic questions through primary and secondary data.
  4. Likewise, if there were one place you would never want to live in, which place would that be? Why? What is the basis of your answer? This will help you reflect on dislike of places and how you formed your opinion.
  5. If you were to migrate to another country, what  five things you would take with you from home? Why? How would you use these five things. This will help you understand your own topophilia.

(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 29 January 2015)



2 Responses

  1. Dear Balachandran

    Read your article. I am tempted to think of suggesting you to write something which students of my home village /small village can work with.


    • Dr Srinivasan,

      Thank you for your comment. I will try to come up with something that such students can relate to and work with. Thank you for that suggestion. If I am to write it in Tamizh, I will need a lot of help! 🙂

      Let me think about a suitable first topic.

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