A new immigrant in a new country has a lot to learn. The practical things are easy to master. It is the cultural differences that is the real challenge.
I grew up in India where sharing a cup of tea with someone is a much revered tradition. When you visit someone, your host is not just offering you a hot cup of beverage, he is offering you his time and attention. He is letting you know that you are worth his indulgence and are welcome at his home.
What I didn’t know was that an invitation for tea or coffee at your house could be inferred to be much more. This knowledge I gained through Hollywood, google searches and one real life incident.
I was interning in a new city. My mentor and his wife had invited me over for dinner. I was just settling in, when in walked another guest. It was an Indian man who worked with me. I will call him Young Man. Young Man looked equally surprised. It was clearly a match-making ambush arranged by my gracious host.
I don’t remember much of our conversation at dinner. I was more worried if I was using the right fork for salad. Afterwards, Young Man gallantly offered to drop me home. After a long uneventful drive we finally reached my apartment. I stepped out and thanked him. Then, of course, remembering my manners proceeded to invite him, “Would you like to come up for some tea or coffee?”
Young Man looked at me mouth agape. Shock and confusion clouded his face. He gulped fearfully, bid an urgent goodbye and drove away like the wind.
It was days later that it all made sense. I was watching a movie that had a similar invitation by girl to boy, but with very different outcomes. This was followed by some frantic google searches and the final realization of the folly of my words. I turned red and was very glad that by then, Young Man was working in a building far away from mine.
Understanding that old cultural norms sometimes don’t translate to American soil can challenge immigrants, no more so than when an invitation to tea is just an invitation to tea.
With a Perspective, I’m Sandhya Acharya.
Sandhya Acharya grew up in Mumbai, worked in corporate finance and is now a writer and mother in the Bay Area.
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