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Adjusting to Cultural Norms of United States

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Satinder Mullick received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1965 in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, with a minor in Economics. He was Director of Economic Planning and Research for Corning Inc., where he worked on different consulting assignments for improving growth and profitability for 30 years. Later, he helped turn around Artistic Greetings (40% owned by American Greetings) and doubled the stock price in four years. He received Lybrand Silver Medal in 1971 from Institute of Management Accountants.

I left India in April 1960 for West Germany after getting my engineering degree, and a couple of years of experience working for Rourkela Steel Plant construction. There were some differences between Germany and India in foods and cold weather, which were challenging but not drastically different.

However, when I moved to the United States of America, I ran into different norms that took a while to fully adjust to.

First was the language. British English is different than US English, especially in Industrial Engineering.

Words like Schedule threw me off completely in first few days. I kept asking what is Scheduling Technique but after I saw it spelt out, then I realized what my professor was talking about.

But what really made it difficult to adjust to was calling my bosses and superiors and seniors by their first name.  After I joined Corning Glass Works, I was addressing my senior vice president who had asked me to help him on a new products project. I kept calling him Mr. Dawson for a few weeks. However one day, he looked straight at me and said, "Satinder, I am Al. Mr. Dawson is my father. So please call me Al."

I knew that everyone called him Al but I could not do it because of Indian cultural norms, where you are supposed to address your bosses as Sir or Mr.   Even in Germany, you are supposed to address them as "Herr".

Anyhow I gained courage and started calling him as Al and others by their first abbreviated name. I even started called my direct boss as Jack rather than Mr. Chambers.

The next big adjustment was trying to explain how we find a wife to an American.

Since I was a foreign student, Johns Hopkins University offered me a chance to be welcomed by a local family on the first day of my arrival in Baltimore. Mrs. Fisher picked me up from Baltimore railway station, after I had reached New York city by a ship from United Kingdom. From Stuttgart, I had taken railroad and a ferry to reach London. My ship sailed from Southampton to New York city in the fastest ship that makes the journey in five days.

From New York City, I took a train to Baltimore where Mrs. Lucerita Billings Fisher picked me up and took me to her home. Later, I found out that she and her husband belonged to a very famous Medical doctors family of Baltimore. Her husband was a famous doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was the daughter of a famous cardiologist who developed EKG, and a sister of Lem Billings - roommate of John F Kennedy at Prep School whom JFK ‘s father called  his second son.

I met Lem and their mother Romaine LeMoyne Billings at the Thanksgiving dinner in 1961. Mrs Romaine Billings lived in a posh home near the university  Homewood Campus. She invited me to a private dinner at her house and we got to know each other better. She had a maid and a cook who had prepared a very nice dinner for me.

During the conversation, the topic of marriage popped up. I told her that after my graduate studies, I plan to go to India to get married. Mrs. Romaine Billings assumed that I had a girl friend but when I told her that my parents had not started the search as is true in most of arranged marriages in India, she laughed at the thought. She found it hard to comprehend that I would marry some stranger.

Later when I got married in 1966, Mrs. Fisher invited us for 1966 Thanks giving dinner at their house in Ruxton, Maryland where we met her mother and her brother and her own children. What struck me about this family was their international perspective. Her children served in Peace Corp, and older daughter and her husband spent a year in Calcutta where he ended up fighting Malaria epidemic besides his speciality of Cardiology which was his focus of study in 1963. Both of them were gracious enough to carry a "baby doll" for my niece who lived near India Gate in New Delhi. This way they met my eldest brother and his family.

Moving To Corning, NY offered big challenge for my wife on her first few weeks. Luckily, I rented an apartment from Mr. and Mrs. Jim Sims who had three sons but no daughter. They liked my wife and said that she is like our daughter. So they took care of her while I was at work. A small city or town has its advantage of friendly community.

Later we met another nice couple - who had provided their house for younger students from foreign countries over the years. Mr. Al Werner used to say, "I have 15 daughters from different mothers." Mrs. Helen Werner was a professor  at Corning Community College. She taught my wife traditional American Cooking especially for Thanksgiving. She also taught Piano to our daughter. Through them, we met many people of different nationalities. Of course, our Indian culture prevailed on us, and we chose to call them "Mother Werner,  Father Werner " out of respect.

So we melted into the American Culture over the years and gained a new positive perspective of United States of America while still trying to maintain our respect for elders and bosses.


© Satinder Mullick 2018

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