Friday, 6 September 2013

The State of the States: My First Fortnight in Utica

The name-badge pinned to the hefty chest of the man at the customs desk told me his name was Krom. Krom, the first man I met in the states, was a heavy guy, probably somewhere in the late thirties; he had a crop of shortish black hair and a horizontal, unsmiling mouth. I strode up to his desk, handed over my passport and papers and, already jet lagged, tried hard not to curl up into a ball right there and then and drift off to sleep. It had been a long flight sandwiched between queues, and, by local time, it was only eleven in the morning. 

Krom began to tick through what I guess was standard procedure for a teenager with a visa. Thumbprints; paper-checking; having a staring contest with a stalked camera with wires buried somewhere into Krom's PC terminal. I started to buzz with a tired satisfaction. Soon, I realised, I’d be through, off to start my student exchange properly. I let my mind slip to a kind of dazed planning area. I’d have to catch a train to New York City first. Grab a coffee, perhaps have a wander through central park. Take another train north and up to-

“Where are you staying?” Krom's sharp New Yorker’s accent, surprisingly high, sliced through my thoughts. “What’s your purpose of coming here to the U.S?”

It was an easy question, needing less mental processing power than what did you read on the plane or David, why were there so many typos in your blog posts anyway to answer. For whatever reason Krom's question took me totally by surprise, and I spent at least three seconds standing silently, staring just below the little ‘tache where the question had come from. Krom wasn’t amused.


I let my mouth clunk open to allow what felt like the entire universe poured out:

“Sorry just tired I’m an exchange student here I mean an exchange student from the United Kingdom coming here I mean New York for two semesters which starts on wednesday at Utica College and-”

“Where did you say you were studying?”
        “-Sorry I though I said I’m studying at a place called Utica-”
        “Where did you say that was?" Concern in his face.  "New York?”
        “-Yes Utica College New York-”

The man’s eyes burrowed themselves into concerned slits - he'd clearly no idea where I was talking about. Properly awake now, I wondered what happened to persons suspected of making up their destination. A quick google check? A more serious conversation in a darker room? Would Krom just press a hidden eject button and watch the spring-loaded floor launch the liar back across the Atlantic? Probably not, but I thought best to brace and prepare for take-off just in case. There was another few seconds pause, then Krom’s face slackened and his mouth dropped to a small oh. “Oh!” he said. “You don’t mean Ewe-tick-ah. You mean You-deh-ca!” 

It took everything within me not to say “No, you-deh-ca!”

I smiled, relieved and happy that we understood each other now. Krom handed my papers back to me, flashed me an official - but not entirely cold - smile, and beckoned me past into the land of oppurtunity, where, somewhere, the wake for the letter T was being held.

It’s been two weeks since I’ve arrived in the country. I’ve savoured (or savored, depending where you’re reading) the delights of Taco Bell and Dunkin‘ Donuts; I’ve been to Wal-Mart and gotten lost, twice. Since meeting other international students I’ve been partially cured of my geographic ignorance and can successfully locate Finland and Serbia after a minute or six with an atlas. The reason I start right back with Krom and You-deh-ca, though, is that my first conversation with my first American was enough to recognise there are some details to American culture that I’ll never properly get to grips with. Pronunciation, as it turns out, being pretty far down the list. 

For example, the fist bump. In the UK, the knocking together of two fists only ever occurs as a joke. Here, the fist bump is completely interchangeable with a handshake. It’s not hallowed territory, but it’s not taken ironically either. I can’t get used to it. When somebody greets me with their knuckles all I can do consistently is flinch.

Or, take the driving culture. In Utica, nobody walks. No-one. One day, early on, a few internationals ventured out for a snappy five hour stroll and we couldn’t see a single other human being on the pavement (slash sidewalk) that whole time. If Neil Armstrong was so desperate to step on fresh, unexplored ground, he could have saved himself a lot of man-hours by visiting central New York. The lack of pedestrians is so disconcerting, actually, I’ve started referring to off-campus meanderings as going through the graveyard - it’s got that same you’re-doing-something-wrong sense coupled with the eery certainty that somebody, somewhere, is watching you. 

Also, the parties. Well, the party - singular. I’ve only been to the one, a college-organised affair that I assumed would be fairly safe to drop in on. Imagine the look on the face of the almost-entirely inexperienced, bespectacled teenager who still cherishes his childhood toys, therefore, when he walked onto the dance floor and saw a hundred or so Miley-wannabes bent over and gyrating around the middle of some classy gentleman, most of whom looked unsettlingly pleased with themselves. The windows were drenched with sweat, keeping out any light that wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I turned to a friend and tried to calmly explain to her we’d somewhere walked past the dance floor and somewhere into orgy central, but she just laughed. “Oh, that’s just how we do it here!”, she said, moving off into the crowd. I didn’t dance very much that night.
Just three differences between cultures, enough to make the point. Still, the fist-bumping kerb-hating dance-mating qualities of my new home make it all a bit more interesting, I think, and practically every day a new nuance presents itself for inspection, too many to be referenced in a post like this. From now on I’ll try keep a daily diary of my time in the land of the free post chunks of it up between (more sporadic) regular posts. Watch out for the first lot of entries in a week or two. See you then - in the meantime, if you find yourself at a US college party and feel like dancing, bring protection.

Since my last post I’ve been reading
Nineteen-eighty Four - George Orwell
Memories of Ice - Stephen Erikson
Howards End - E.M Forster

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