“GAVAKADCHI AMERICA” (COUNTRY LIFE IN AMERICA)
For Indians, at least for the well educated, middle class Indians, United States of America is no longer a novelty. Presently there are more than 2.7 million people of Indian origin in America. Even though this represents merely 1% of the total US population, the rate of this population growth in recent years has been phenomenal. Today, of all the people of Asian origin in USA, only Chinese and Philippinoes outnumber the Indians.
In the past several years, for hundreds of thousands of Indians, getting admission in one of the thousands of colleges and universities for higher education and/or landing a job (via H1B visa) have become the two most trusted and well trodden paths to reach the shores of America. In fact, according to the report of U.S. Institute of International Education, based on survey of some 3000 U.S. educational institutions, 94,563 Indian students came to USA for higher education (in year 2007). In fact, India held the top rank in terms of number of students coming to USA for higher education from year 2001 to 2007. [However, in 2010, China sent 127,628 students (18% of all foreign students) and managed to push India to second position with 104,897 students (15% of all foreign students)]. Of The annual allotted 65,000 H1B visas, the highest numbers go to Indians. In 2009, 48% H1B visas were grabbed by Indians, with the second numbered Chinese managing to get only 10%.
The people of Indian origin in USA broadly comprise two categories. One category is represented by highly educated, well qualified people who have reached the pinnacles of their chosen fields and left their mark in their respective spheres. According to some estimates, nearly 38% medical doctors, about 36% of NASA employees, and approximately 12% of scientists in various research/academic institutions in USA are Indians. Contribution of Indians in the Silicon Valley is even more remarkable. Indians make nearly 25 to 40% of the work force of companies like Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Google and Intel. Several Indians have started and made a success out of their own ventures in the Silicon Valley. Vikram Pandit of Citigroup and Indra Nooyi of Pepsi are just two of the most prominent and recent examples of Indians having reached the top positions in the best corporations in diverse fields. Hewlett Packard’s Rajeev Gupta, creator of the Pentium chip; Vinod Dhaam, creator of Hotmail; Sabeer Bhatia, AT and T Bell’s Arun Netravalli, are some other prominent names that come to mind instantly.
Indians in the second category are business people – mostly motel or gas station/ convenience store owners. Quite a few of these are well educated but have chosen the business option instead of following a corporate ladder. Irrespective of the category, however, in general, Indians have an image of being well educated, hard working, and conservative in their money spending habits. Besides these positives, their command on English language has proven to be a valuable asset for the Indians. Armored with this arsenal, Indians in general have an edge over immigrants coming from several other countries. Considering these facts, it is not surprising that Indians in USA today are among the wealthiest ethnicities.
After establishing themselves in their respective fields and followed by the financial stability, the next step is social contribution and forays into political arena. Quite a few Indians have been influential in social as well as political fields. Some prominent individuals of Indian origin who have made a name in the political arena include – Swati Dandekar (elected as Iowa House of representative in 2002, 2004, 2006 and Iowa state senate in 2008), Bobby Jindal – Governor of the state of Louisiana and more recently, Nikki Haley – Governor of the state of South Carolina.
In short, by following the paths of education, business or career, more and more Indians are pursing the American dream. Several Indians have their children settled in USA today. In order to meet their children, grandchildren or simply as tourists, scores of Indians are visiting America on a regular basis. Of course, as most of the Indians in USA are well educated and are in medical, engineering, information technology (IT) or banking fields, they generally reside in more industrialized states or in urban areas of less industrialized states. Therefore, Indians in USA seem to be concentrated in certain states or metropolises. States that have a high concentration of Indians are – California, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Illinois. These states are closely followed by states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and Ohio. Metropolises with high Indian populations are – New York city, San Francisco – San Jose – Oakland, Sandiago, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington – Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Houston, Dallas – Fort Worth, Charlotte and Atlanta.
In short, most Indians in America reside in highly advanced, urbanized and affluent areas. People who come to visit them, those who come on business trips or to attend conferences/ business meetings, or those coming simply as tourists also visit these urbanized pockets and sightseeing places of tourist attractions. As a result, mere mention of America brings forth a vision of a magical and mystical dreamland. Skyscraper buildings, a network of top class interstate highways and fast cars, huge shopping malls, palatial houses, widespread automation in every walk of life, home of Silicon Valley and NASA, land of Hollywood and Disneyworld, birthplace of giant fast food chains like McDonald and Pizza Hut - all these images are crystallized in our mind after reading, listening, experiencing and watching Hollywood movies.
With 83% of its total population living in metros, cities or towns, America is a predominantly urbanized country. Surprisingly though, three fourths of this ultra-modern and sophisticated country is considered rural. Of the 3141 counties in the country, 2052 fall in the rural category. However, our perception about America is so rigid and blinkered that we hardly care to see or know beyond our truncated vision. “Is there another America beyond the flashy, jazzy, materialistic dreamland that we see or perceive?”, “Is there an America where common people lead ordinary lives, dirty their hands working in fields, mines and farms, where people have financial and real life worries, where people have not travelled much beyond their counties/states, where people still enjoy simple, rustic rural life, where people are religious…….?” – We normally do not entertain such questions.
Ordinarily, such thoughts would not have crossed my mind either. However, being in the field of animal science and agriculture, our entire stay of almost ten years in the USA has been in rural, semi-rural areas. Of the three states that we lived in, two (Iowa and Pennsylvania) are to a great extent rural, while Connecticut is more of an industrialized state. However, being a student of Animal Science in a land grant university (University of Connecticut – UCONN), our stay in Connecticut too was in a semi-rural area. For work and for sightseeing, most of our travel was in neighboring states like Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri – which are also rural or semi-rural states. In short, America that we saw and experienced was mostly rural or semi-rural and overwhelmingly from Northeast and Upper Midwest regions. To extrapolate our observations from these regions to the whole country would be stretching the limit a bit too far. Moreover, for a country three times the size of India and full of geographical/cultural diversity, any attempt of capturing the essence of any facet of life is a tall order.
It would be ridiculous for me to claim having completely grasped the life in rural America in these past few years. This is not a scholarly exercise in depicting the socio-cultural aspect of rural America nor is this a technical comparison of agricultural/livestock farming between India and America. This is simply a curious observation by an Indian who happened to pass this way. I did not come to America with the intention of writing this book. I am not a professional author seeking an ‘off beat’ topic to write something about. So this is a book by accident and not by design. As we continued to stay in these rural surroundings, over the years, interesting facets of American country life started unfolding. I was fascinated by this entirely different world. I don’t think many people would like this kind of slow paced, laid back, low-tech life.
As we happened to be among the handful of Indians who get a chance to live and experience the real American country life, I started toying with the idea of extending the flavor of this experience to others. I had two audiences in my mind for this book. One was, those Marathi people (people from the Indian state of Maharashtra, who speak Marathi language) residing in American metro areas and have little exposure to this aspect of their adopted country. The other was, those Marathi people who while living in India, keep dreaming about a distant dreamland that is urban America.
I grew up in Mumbai (Bombay) on Western coast of India. The weather there is very hot and humid year round and the winter is few fleeting days in December and January where you can pass by wearing a half sleeve sweater. Coming from a part of the world where most days of the year are bright and sunny and it is always lush, green around, the wonderment of changing seasons in North America was enthralling. From the evergreen monotony of tropical subcontinent, the prospect of four seasons, each with its own beauty and appeal was an exciting change.
The genesis of this book was rather unusual. It started out as simple daily observations jotted down in a journal with the intention of creating a written account of seasonal changes in the surrounding nature. The recording of seasonal changes during daily commute on a beautiful stretch of road also made me fall in love with that road itself and its surroundings. That inanimate object became my daily lively companion, so much so, that I almost became possessive about it. Travel on this road for three years, gave me two articles, a seed of a thought and momentum for writing more.
So I started writing ahead. This book is a collection of articles which I hope, could make sense as ‘stand alone’ pieces. They all pertain to some aspect of ‘country life in America’. However, in my opinion, to do any justice to this mosaic of country life, it has to be seen as a whole. To create the ‘big picture’, I wanted to put together articles on different aspects of American country life. So here I am, with this potpourri of articles -
Following is a brief account of these various articles -
1. Nature Through The Seasons
After completing my Ph.D. in Animal Science at UCONN, we were living in Clarks Summit, a small town in the Northeast corner of Pennsylvania, close to the upstate New York border. This area (Pocono Mountains) is very scenic and is a part of Appalachian mountain range. U.S. Route number 6, which was the first major highway running from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Long Beach, California passes through Poconos. It is 3205 miles long and passes through 14 states. In 1987, Harley-Davidson had declared route number 6 as one of the 50 most scenic highways in the United States. Similarly, the part of this road passing through Pennsylvania has been voted by the ‘Car and Driver’ magazine among the 10 most scenic roads in USA. Clarks Summit was on route number 6 and my lab was on the same route, 30 miles away. Due to nature of my work, I had to commute between my home and lab at odd hours. That gave me an opportunity to travel on this scenic road at all times of the day in all the seasons. I could enjoy the unfolding beauty of nature through the changing seasons. The rolling hills and mountains, woods, beef and dairy cows grazing in the pastures, villages by the road side, meandering Saskuhana river accompanying the road, all these produced a vivid montage that accompanied me throughout my journey.
As much I appreciated the beauty of surrounding nature, I knew that if and when we moved to another place, these memories would eventually fade. I wanted to capture them fresh and preserve them to reminisce in future. So I bought a small voice recorder and started to carry it with me in the car. From time to time, I started recording my observations while driving and then I would pen them down in a journal. I did this religiously for a whole year and tried to capture the captivating magic of seasons. As I was compiling these pieces together to create a mosaic, I started feeling that this could be a fascinating account for the city dwellers who bypass the simple joys of outdoors.
2. ‘My’ U.S. Route Number 6
Travelling on that small 30 mile stretch of route number 6 for three years made me so familiar with it that it became part of my daily life. For a person from a megapolis of nearly 18 million people and who had been used to commuting in suburban trains packed with people like a can of sardines, commuting alone in a car on a practically empty road was unimaginable. For that stretch of road to happen to be one of the most beautiful roads in America was just a huge gift.
3. Our Farm Life
I am a trained veterinarian from India and after working there for 14 years in different organizations, I decided to come to the USA at the ripe old age of 38 to do my Ph.D. in Animal Science at University of Connecticut (UCOON) in 2001. Considering my background in veterinary science, right after my 1st semester, my advisor decided to send me for specialized training and further research to ‘Trans Ova Genetics’, the largest cattle reproductive biotechnology company in USA. This company’s headquarters was located in a small town called Sioux Center in the Northwest corner of Iowa. Soon after coming to Sioux Center, my wife Mrunalini and our six year old son Siddharth joined me from Mumbai, India. For a middle class, Indian family from a megapolis of more than 18 million people, a move to a small Midwestern town of 6000 people was a huge cultural and demographic shock.
After living in the town for a year, we decided to spend the next year on the company’s farm house in the actual countryside. The house was old, huge and surrounded from all sides by cattle pens (yards) and corn fields. From any window of the house, all we could see were black cows and corn fields. The nearest neighbors were a mile away. Coming from a huge city that never sleeps and whose roads, trains, busses are overflowing with people, the quiet and solitude of a farm house was almost unimaginable. To our surprise, our son adjusted to this country life quite well and with his local American friends, enjoyed a completely fun-filled, different and rustic farm life. Our year spent in this farm house was certainly one of the most memorable ones and the American friends that we made here made our stay here thoroughly enjoyable.
4. First Thanksgiving Sale
As we were settling down in Sioux Center, we were unbelievably thrilled to know that there was another family from India in the town. What were the odds of two Indian families to be in the same small, obscure Midwestern town of 6000 people? It was a great pleasure to meet and befriend the Solankis, who had moved from Indiana just a year ago for Mukeshbhai’s job. Their three kids and Siddharth became good friends. This family really was a great help in settling us down initially but unfortunately, they moved to Ohio within six short months, leaving us as the only Indians in the town.
Sioux Center is close to the border between Iowa and South Dakota. Sioux Falls, a city of about 150,000, in South Dakota, is the biggest city in nearly a 200 mile radius area encompassing the states of South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. So we started frequenting Sioux Falls and met a small Indian community there. Some of them became close friends and we started participating in cultural events and Indian festivals in Sioux Falls.
We were completely unaware of ‘Thanksgiving Sale (Black Friday)’ and it was only through our close Indian friends in Sioux Falls that we could dare to participate in that unique experience. From an outsider’s perspective, the whole ‘Black Friday’ sale is a very amusing and bewildering exercise. After that first experience, we have never dared to wait again in those long lines through the dark, cold November night to participate in the mad rush to grab a few items on sale. But the memories of that one time event in 2002 were good enough for me to pen down and ruminate over each subsequent Thanksgiving.
Even for the new comers from India who straight away come to reside in major urban areas in America, getting used to big malls, smart shopping and all kinds of sales, is a fast process. For people like us, who get stuck in small towns in rural areas, where it is common to have just a convenience store or a grocery store and having a Wal-Mart in the town is a luxury, going for sale in a big city itself is a major attraction. So this account is of a small town countryman going to a city for the biggest shopping event of the year.
5. American Agriculture – A Historical Perspective
Area wise, America and India both are huge countries, although America is three times larger in size than India with one fourth (300 million) of India’s population (1.12 billion). Of the total available land, 41% in America and 51% in India, is being utilized for agricultural purpose. According to a 2007 survey, there are some 2.2 million farms in America while in India that number is 120 million. The huge discrepancy in numbers is easily explained on the basis of the average farm size; in America it is 418 acres while in India, 3.3 acres. Presently, about 60% of Indian population is dependent on crop or livestock agriculture, where as in America, this proportion is only 2%. Moreover, on a world scale, the productivity of Indian agriculture and animal husbandry is quite low.
It is intriguing to know, how a primarily immigrant community, transformed a vast and essentially virgin forest and grassland in to a massive breadbasket for the world, in a little over 200 years. History of American agriculture is intertwined with the history and geographical expansion of the country itself. It embodies all that is truly American – a free spirit, a risk taking attitude, hard working ethic and ingenuity. The small farms and use of animal power in farming during 19th century, Westward expansion and resultant large farm sizes, creation of an extensive railroad network, technological innovations of 20th century, gradual mechanization of farming operations, government policies and laws that helped agriculture over the years, all these are contributing factors that took American agriculture to the pinnacle. No narrative on this fascinating subject will be complete without giving it’s due to the Land Grant Universities, the youth programs like 4H and FFA, and that all American invention called the county fairs.
6. American Agriculture – Modern and Future Trends
Over the last century, American agriculture has undergone tremendous transformation. At the beginning of 20th century, of the 7.6 million total American population, nearly 50% was rural. Of the total workforce, almost 41% was involved in agriculture. Farming was essentially a family centered, laborious activity carried out all over the country on millions of small sized farms. Though not exactly a backyard operation, most farms were involved in mixed farming – growing some crops, orchid, oilseeds, a few cows, some hogs, chicken, etc.
Agriculture in 21st century is a far cry from that low tech, laborious, small scale operation. Today’s huge farms are run on mechanization. The scale of use of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation are enormous. The mixed farming of yesteryears is replaced by huge tracks of monocultures. The same mechanization, economy of scale of operations, vertical integration, professional management, use of computers and satellites have transformed the animal husbandry too. Small family farms are increasingly being replaced by large commercial operations and consolidation in to a fewer powerful corporations has become the norm.
Genetically modified (GM) agriculture and cloned, transgenic animals is one end of the spectrum while organic agriculture is the other. How the American agriculture achieves the balance between these trends will shape the future of global agriculture.
7. Life in Small Towns
With nearly 250 million (83%) population living in towns and cities, America is a highly urbanized country. Till few generations ago, a much larger population was rural and life in small towns had its own charm. After the end of the second world war, industrialization and rapid urbanization hastened a steady stream of young people from small towns across the country towards larger urban centers in search of more opportunities and possibly a better life. A majority of the small towns today (especially in Midwest) are facing a declining population. Many small towns seem kind of run down, with fewer opportunities, less facilities and with an ageing population.
From a city dweller’s eyes, such small towns appear like out of this world. They seem to cling on to old values, present a friendly and helpful atmosphere, and seem to embrace newcomers. These towns are a small world themselves. Their small police department, voluntary fire fighters, smiling postal staff and bankers, friendly gas station attendants and helpful grocery store clerks all seem to make you feel at home. But they also seem to live in a small bubble. “The outside world is a little far away and all is well within the boundaries of our town”, is the impression one gets.
8. Religious America
While in India, my knowledge of Christianity was limited to only two major sects – Catholics and Protestants and all I knew about America was that Christianity was the major religion in the country. That there are numerous sects and sub sects in Christianity was a surprise to me.
Irrespective of their particular faiths and beliefs, overall, America seems to be a deeply religious country.From outside, one perceives America as a land of all glitter and technological marvel. But under the façade of modernity, there is a core of piousness was a revelation to me.
9. Country Music
I am a huge fan of old ‘Bollywood’ (Indian Hindi movies) music from 1950s and 60s. Before coming to America, I had little exposure to Western music and had not even heard of Country music. While working at Trans Ova Genetics, I got used to working in the lab with the radio going on in the background continuously. Many times, it would be a station airing Country music and before I knew it, I fell in love with this music.
When immigrants came to America from different countries, along with their distinct cultures, they brought their own music too. Irish fiddle, German dulcimer, Italian mandolin, and Spanish guitar were the European contributions while African Americans brought the banjo with their musical roots. As these different communities started intermingling, music was a common thread binding them together. Country music is a potpourri of several different musical streams. It originated in the 1920s, around Appalachian mountain ranges and in the Southern states and traces its origins in the folk music, Irish Celtic music, Church music, etc.
Except Johnny Cash, unfortunately, I haven’t got much chance to listen to the past greats of the country music. But in the contemporary scenario, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Allan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley and others have been instrumental in making Country music more and more popular.
When I think, I find parallels in Indian music and country music. After all, music of any genre transcends the boundaries of countries, languages, cultures and touches a deep chord inside all of us to bring us all together.
The free pioneering spirit of American people is reflected in their adventurous nature. And we must not forget that this is the country that created the first national park in the world. Conservation of natural heritage and its preservation for future generations is a uniquely American idea.
It is not surprising that people living in rural and semi rural areas are closer to the nature. As an extension of their lifestyle, domestic animals as well as wild life have become a part of their life. City dwellers may be enjoying fancier vacations but people in the countryside are more into hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and such rugged activities. What is admirable is how systematic the whole approach is. There are clear rules, regulations, well defined hunting seasons, hunting permits, fishing licenses and so forth. These people enjoy their outdoors and at the same time are extremely conscious about maintaining the ecological balance, preserving habitats, conserving endangered species and in general handing over a better place to the next generations. There is a lot to learn from them and hopefully implement in India.
11. Rural America – Problems and Solutions
Though considered urban and ultramodern, of the total American land mass, nearly three-fourths comes under the category of rural. Of the approximately 3000 counties in America, roughly 2000 are considered rural.
Till the 1950s, out of every ten people living in rural areas, four used to live on farms and of the total employment in rural area, one-third of the jobs were agriculture related. Present day rural America is vastly different from the one in 1950s. Today, out of every ten people in the rural area, barely one person lives on the farm and only 14% rural jobs are related to agriculture. A rural economy which was once heavily dependent on agriculture, has now turned to other sectors. In almost 80% of rural counties, industrial production, mining, services and government projects/jobs have become the major economic drivers. Of all the geographical regions of America, only in the Great plains states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma) there is still a predominance of counties with agricultural based economies.
Educational backwardness, technically less qualified work force and the resultant less paying jobs, inadequate medical facilities, less developed infrastructure and fewer recreational amenities, are common denominators in most of the rural counties across all regions. Mechanization of agricultural operations has made a large rural labor force redundant and it is not surprising to find a large chunk of rural youth migrating to the urban clusters in search of opportunities. Declining population and inadequate facilities seem to form a vicious circle.
The urban – rural tussle has a social aspect too. Larger urban areas are flexible and cosmopolitan enough to accept newer immigrant crowds from different backgrounds. Closed communities in smaller towns are less equipped to accommodate the strain of new arrivals which add to diversity.
Improving infrastructure, enhancing educational standard, creating more flexible (work oriented) curriculum for rural students, creating more and well paying jobs, providing better medical facilities, using natural resources (wind, solar energy, biomass) to accelerate economic growth, are some of the solutions to address the problems facing rural America. If they work, perhaps they may be able to halt the exodus of rural youth to urban clusters and who knows, in future, the trend may even reverse.
(All the data are taken from various reliable sources. Comments about rural education standards, infrastructure, medical facilities etc. are from these various sources – they are not mine).
1. United States Census (2010)
2. Current Status and Future Trends in American Agriculture by J.E.Ikerd (2010)
3. National Rural Health Association website - www.ruralhealthweb.org
4. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Economic Research Service website - www.ers.usda.gov
5. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Economic Research Services Report summary on Ethanol and changing agricultural landscape (November 2009)
6. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Economic Research Services Report on Transformation of U.S. Livestock agriculture by James M. MacDonald and William D. McBride (January 2009)
7. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – National Agricultural Statistics
Services Publication - Census Of Agriculture (2007)
8. Amber Waves – The economics of Food, Farming, Natural Resources and Rural
America – (May 2007 – Special issue)
9. United States Fish and Wildlife Service - Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program
- National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife associated recreation (2006)
10. Carsey Institute Reports - New Immigrant Settlements In Rural America –
Problems, Prospects and Policies by Leif Jensen (2006)
11. United States Census (2000)
12. Heartland of a continent – America’s plains & prairies – Ran Fisher
National Geographic Society (1991)
13. Reader’s Digest : The Story of America
Great People and Events That Shaped Our Nation (1975)