1632How I learned to appreciate America
- Oct 31, 2003The story which I am about to tell, really depicts an odyssey of
the soul, which my conscious self was, for the most part,
unaware of at the time.
Warning: This is not the short version. But for your convenience,
and since the story stretches over many years (well, most of my
life, really), I have broken it down into 6 Chapters. It may be a
good idea to read it in installments.
I grew up slightly prejudiced or even disdainful for American
society and culture. This is not uncommon in Iceland, but
people here tend to be either heavily pro-American or heavily
anti-American. As with all prejudices, the root of the problem lies
in seeing only the faults, but it was only 20 years later that I
Chapter 2: My disastrous first visit to New York.
Being somewhat prejudiced, even at an early age, my excitement
of coming to New York for the first time and seeing Sri Chinmoy
(but he had already come to Iceland earlier that year), was
somewhat mixed with trepidation and apprehension. Also, this
was in 1988 when I was only 10, and was only the second time I
And the trip didn't get off to a good start, really. I sat next to this
loud-mouth American kid, who was a mixture of amusement and
tiredness to behold. Then the plain had to circle for an hour in
the air before landing, only to wait for half an hour before being
allowed to drive up to the airport. It is no small wonder that my
stomach made a physical protest to this torture. I'll say no more
on that subject.
But the worst was yet to come. As soon as I stepped out of the
airport I felt as though I had walked into a wall of heat, humidity,
noise, foul smell and agitation. This was in August, and a wet
day had been followed by a hot day. I was later to learn that this
is not the best combination.
Anyway, we get to Queens and settle in and the first couple of
days pass uneventfully. I got to see Sri Chinmoy and participate
in the functions (although I must confess I spent a great deal of
these functions either playing with the other kids or playing
chess with Databir - but I got joy in my own way).
We stayed at the attic above the stores on Parsons Boulevard.
I'm sure that many of the boys remember this place, although I'm
not so sure how fondly you may remember it. The attic was
certainly a fun place that afforded the chance to get to know many
brothers from all over the world, and it was ideally located, but as
regards certain basic facilities, it was somewhat less than
It was in the attic that I awoke one night, completely delirious and
with fear running like quicksilver through my veins. I am told that
I sat up and started to pray frantically that night, but try as I might,
I really cannot remember much what happened. I certainly had
fever and later it transpired that I had the chicken-pocks - which I
had, no doubt, contracted on that fateful airplane.
Again, I cannot remember exactly how this happened, but after I
had been diagnosed with chicken-pocks and after the fever had
subsided, it was decided that the attic was no longer a suitable
place for me (or for all the others who could possibly get
infected) and I was moved to Srotaswini's garage. For some
reason I have much fonder memories of the garage than the
attic. Pujarini and Suballabha would of course come every day,
and sometimes they would bring other centre members along
and we would play cards and have fun. In short, it was an idyllic
place for a highly competitive, pale, indoors 10-year old.
The rest of the trip passed mostly uneventfully, although the
homecoming was a bit of a problem, since I still had the
pock-marks on my face. Pujarini was a bit afraid that I wouldn't
be allowed out of the country, so she and Srotaswini tried to do a
make-over. Although they managed to powder my face green, it
didn't really hide the pock-marks, but maybe some higher power
was looking after us, or maybe the customs officers just wanted
to get this little Martian out of the country, since I got back home
For the next few years I was, for the most part, unwilling to go
back to New York, because during my disastrous first visit I had
managed to grow a certain dislike for the place. A dislike for the
noise, smell and the agitation which I sensed in the people.
Everything was great as long as we stayed in Aspiration-Ground
or at PS 86, but as soon as we came out of there it was horrible
and painful. Nevertheless, I was always happy that I had come
to New York once my parents had forced me!
As the years passed, and as I started to come more and more
frequently, I started to find appreciative qualities in New York.
What I always needed was something that told me that New York
could be appreciated, and that came one night many years ago,
when someone gave that following talk by Sri Chinmoy as
"My New York
I admire New York. My eyes are enamoured of her soul's
dynamic beauty. My New York is always astir and bustling. Also,
is she marching in gigantic strides. Success emerges before
her very eyes.
The dawn breaks each day feeling New York's heart consumed
with new zeal. She hates to be absorbed in a fog of fruitless
brooding and empty inactivity. Moreover, she wants to be free,
eternally free. Never within her four corners will she tolerate the
air of captivity. If it is part of her nature to express herself boldly, I =
cannot blame her. To me, first of all she deserves this acme of
self-confidence. And secondly, God wants New York to be what
My New York has courage. My New York has confidence. The
problems of anxiety and uncertainty may cover the length and
breadth of the world, but my New York is an exception. Her
youthful certainty is my heart's delight.
When I think of my India, it seems that she has endless time. If
she does not avail herself of an opportunity today, it will return to
her tomorrow. But when I think of my New York, it seems that she
is facing a unique opportunity at every moment. If she loses a
golden opportunity today, it will never return. New York knows
how to seize. She knows how to struggle. She knows how to
push forward. She knows how to exert herself, consciously and
dynamically. Old blunders fail to plague her. Empty of fear is her
heart, which ever grows into the fulfilment of her promising
future. Blessed is she.
My New York is not a challenge. She is not a competition. She is
not a running race. She is not a victory. What then is she? She is
a great Promise, wherein grows and flowers the infinite
"God wants New York to be what she is," says Sri Chinmoy in
this talk, and after I read it, I started to appreciate New York for
what she is.
After I read this talk I began to differentiate between the agitation
and the dynamism of New York, and, of course I appreciated the
dynamism. I began to see more and more good qualities in
New York, such as self-confidence, self-reliance and freedom,
but something more happened: After I read this talk, New York
started to have a place in my heart, and as the years passed by,
that place grew and grew.
Today, for me to come to New York, is like coming to my second
home - this has already been touched upon by several of you
here at Sri Chinmoy Inspiration. Sometimes, I would simply be
dying to get back to New York. If I heard a car-alarm, which used
to be very rare in Iceland, I would immediately think of New York,
and start pining away to get back. Once I stood behind a bus
that took off suddenly and blessed me with its foul-smelling
fumes. This made me think of New York instantly, and I was
immediately transported to the seventh heaven of delight.
My love for New York being safely anchored in my heart, started
to spread out to America in general.
It took me a while to realize this, but little by little I started to
appreciate America in general, the American spirit, or, let us say,
the good that America has to offer, for the very qualities that I
appreciated in New York, and more. So New York was the bait,
and then I was reeled in to appreciate America in general.
The dynamism as a quality that I appreciate, I have already
But there is a certain self-confidence, a certain "don't think, just
act" mentality that I also highly appreciate in America. Also the
dislike for brooding and self-criticism, expressed in idioms such
as "take it in stride" I find highly appreciative.
Finally, the freedom to be yourself, the freedom to rely on your
self, so inherent in American culture completely conquered me. I
believe it was this freedom that prompted Walt Whitman to
respond to Emerson's plea for a true American poet with the
simple "I am the one!" statement.
Apart from Emerson and Whitman I could also mention Emily
Dickinson, Robert Frost, Abraham Lincoln and Ambrose Bierce
as people that convinced me that Americans weren't as crazy as
I thought at first. They're all right, really.
The climax, where all this quiet change of heart was brought to
my attention as a real epiphany, happened at the last Christmas
First of all, Himangshu and I put up a highly successful Abraham
Lincoln play, in which I played Lincoln! At first I had rejected the
idea, thinking that only an American (and preferably a tall person)
would do justice to the part. Especially, I felt very insecure and
unworthy about doing it myself. Well, that was very European
and un-American of me! But anyway, we were unsuccessful in
getting an American actor for the role, and in the end I took it on
(and stood on top of a suitcase for most of the play, as those of
you who were there may or may not have noticed!). But then this
turned out to be such a fun play, and we got such a great cast
together that all my insecurity vanished. I have been in several
plays before, but this was the only play I've ever been in, that I felt
totally secure before going on stage - usually I'm quite literally
shaking out of stage-fright. The reason was simply that I was so
happy and so proud about every part of the play, and I was so
happy with every actor in the play. This may not be the best play
that I've taken part in, but it was definately the play that gave me
the greatest satisfaction.
Anyway, two days later, on my last day of the trip, Sri Chinmoy,
unexpectedly, started complementing me for my performance.
Naturally, I was swimming in the sea of delight. However, Sri
Chinmoy had maybe an even more meaningful comment in
store for me later that night. As he was walking to his car after
that function, he turned to me and, in the last glimpse that I saw
of him for that trip, he said: "You have so much appreciation for
And suddenly this simple statement brought it all home. It is
true, I thought to myself. America has been safely anchored in
my heart, I have changed, or, if I may be so bold to say, I have
been transformed. I will never be a slave to everything American,
this has not changed, but my prejudice has gone and been
replaced by healthy admiration, and I'm the richer man for it.
Phew! That was a marathon-letter!
But it's very therapeudic, here in Reykjavík, which is now about to
experience an ocean of night and seasonal depression.
All the best to everyone,
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