My Few Months in the US – Part 3: The American Way of Thinking
No, I am not claiming to be an expert in American psychology. I am just sharing my own perception of the way Americans think.
After my previous article, a reader commended me on my “jugaad” method of getting A-s with minimum “majoori”. In a way, it implied that I (together with Sammy) was smarter than my classmates.
It is not that Americans are dumb. If anything, they are naïve.
A story.
My daughter joined U-Penn/ Wharton for a double degree undergraduate programme, which was considered very selective and prestigious. 
At the time, we lived in Oman. None of her friends even knew where Oman was on the map. So, my daughter decided to spin them a story.
Oman, she said, was a desert country with only sand everywhere, and the only way to get around was to ride on a camel. She had her own camel called Abdul, and she had a very pretty red saddle for him.
Every morning she would saddle up Abdul, ride to school and let him loose to roam around on the sand patches. In the evening, she would ride him home.
This is such an absurd story that any 18-year-old, let alone one clever enough to join U-Penn/ Wharton, should realise that it is just bunkum. But no, all her American classmates listened to her in wonder and believed her 100%.  Only her special friend, a Chinese girl, had caught on early but had kept mum.
Regarding my ‘jugaad’, no American student would have ever wanted to take such a shortcut. You see, Americans think differently about college.
In India, we treat college as a necessary evil, something that you have to go through as an essential step in growing up. If you didn’t go to college, you were a nobody.
In America, at least in my days, if you did go to college, you were somebody.
If you see a college education from these perspectives, you will understand the difference in the behaviour of college students in India and America.
In India, we don’t go to college to learn anything. We go to get a degree. The more glamorous the degree, the better the job you might land. Thereafter, what you learnt in college becomes irrelevant because at work, you need a completely new and different set of knowledge and skills, particularly people skills.
After all, which job values the knowledge of Ashoka’s conquests or the analysis of Shakespearean drama?
In America, getting a college degree is not essential for a good job and a good life. That is because jobs that are looked down upon in India, say a plumber or a truck driver, pay very well, and you are not “low-grade” in society.
Going to college means that you are looking for much, much more. You are investing three-four years of your life and forgoing your income during that period to get knowledge. 
The money aspect is important. Indian parents are ‘obliged’ to put their children through college, even if the accepted goal is “settle ho jana”.  
American parents are not expected to do so. They expect their children to be independent at 18, after high school.
That is why Americans take college classes seriously and not bunk them as we Indians do. They want to extract full value from the money they have paid to enrol in college and learn from the teachers. 
In fact, I think Americans treat college education as serious work, while many Indians treat it as a ‘time pass’.
Work starts early in American life. An example.
In Rochester, it snowed four months a year, and temperatures were routinely below minus ten degrees centigrade. Three feet of snow would be piled up on the sides of the paths in the area where I lived. In this weather, a little boy, aged perhaps five or six, used to deliver newspapers when it was still dark. He pulled a little cart piled with papers, and his sister, younger than him, used to throw the papers into the yards of the houses as they went along the path.
This is not child labour, which is shamefully prevalent in India. This is how children earn their pocket money.  Apart from acquiring a work ethic early on, children learn to value money, hard-earned money.
All very laudable, you may think.
Unfortunately, things have changed massively against college education in the US.
Way back in 1974, say about 50 years ago, a ‘Big Mac’ cost $0.95, petrol cost $0.7 a gallon, and the minimum wage was $2 per hour. Today, these numbers have grown to $6 (6 times), $5 (7 times) and $7.25 (3.6 times), respectively. Wages have grown at only half the rate as the cost of day-to-day items.  
The cost of a college education has grown even faster. I paid $4,000 per semester at the University of Rochester for my MBA programme, roughly 1,300 hours of work at the wage I was getting for washing dishes - $3.07 per hour. I could pay my semester fees by working eight hours a day for six months.
Today the numbers are - $50,000, $8 and an ‘impossible’ 6,250 hours.
Bottom line—college fees have grown so fast, faster than almost anything else, so much so that very few American parents can afford to send their child, let alone children, to college. Working one’s way through college is also virtually impossible.
What option, then? Student loan, of course.
Many Americans borrow hugely to pay for college, which leaves them with a massive debt burden, sometimes as much as $200,000, at the very beginning of their working lives. When you add to it the ‘normal’ loans that most Americans take—for a car, house, etc.—you are in a debt trap for your whole life.
In conclusion, all I can say is that Indians and Americans look at study and work from different perspectives. 
Who am I to judge if one is better, and if so, which?
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
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