I came to Canada from India in 1967, and to USA from Canada in 1979. The first advice I got at Montreal airport was to speak slowly, and it was worth its weight in gold. It was a much taller order to think slowly and creatively on my feet, as I found out.
In 1967 I was an impetuous young graduate student. I was angry when someone said that people “breed like cattle” in India. I told him that the birth rate hadn’t changed, it was the death rate that changed drastically due to better hygiene and antibiotics, but I was angry when I said it, and I am sure the words sailed right over his head. Then a friend of mine told me that his landlady in Saskatoon asked, “do Indians still live in trees?”. I liked his response, “yes but now they use elevators to go up and down”. It was even more hilarious because that lady appeared to believe him. I realized that ignorance was human, and I’m sure people in India had their own ignorance and superstition issues, but if I was going to be happy here, I had to give up anger.
An opportunity to do so appeared sooner than I expected. Back at my apartment building, my parked car was making it hard for my neighbor to access the adjacent parking space. I happened to see him and there were angry words, at the end of which he said, “I will send you back to Pakistan!”. “Why thank you, I’ve never been there” was my answer. He looked at me quizzically for ten seconds before breaking out in laughter. We were finally communicating! He became a close friend in time. I’ve had other angry confrontations over trivia and I’ve always been able to defuse them with humor.
Not long after that, I began drawing daily cartoons on my blackboard at work, entitled “Thought for Today”, which became popular during my eight years in graduate school. Sometimes I would write a funny comment on a photo or report in the press. My biggest hit was a photograph of Richard Nixon smiling broadly while Chinese premier Chou-en-lai stares at him blankly. My caption had Chou-en-Lai saying “Why is this man smiling?” taken from a popular beer ad on television. Sometimes I wonder if that funny line, which had students laughing then, had a prophetic tinge.
My 23 year old daughter is an engineer like me and an only child. It has been 40 years since I was her age. She is proud of her birthplace, which once boldly and uniquely declared independence from dogma and oppression, but I am worried – about its growing dependence on foreign energy, foreign money, foreign-educated workers and foreign manufacturing . I wish there was a way to laugh it off.
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