Recently, Sasmita and I were eating dinner. About halfway through, her eyes got big, and she excitedly told me that she saw ‘a big creature’ today, in the yard by the mailbox.
Intrigued, as always, by such pronouncements, I told her to continue. She told me that it stood as tall high as my knee, with a fluffy striped tail. I smiled, prodding her to continue with silent attention. I still did not understand which animal she was referring to.
Then she added, ‘it had weird eyes.’ I pressed her, ‘what do you mean, weird eyes?’
She told me the animal had black color all around its eyes. I immediately understood; she saw a raccoon.
I pulled out my phone, typed ‘raccoon’ into Google. I handed the phone to her. ‘Is this what you saw,’ I asked?
Raccoons do not live in India and she’d never seen one. It was another reminder of our vastly different backgrounds.
She confirmed that she saw a raccoon, and asked me the same question she always does when viewing an unfamiliar animal. ‘Does it eat people?’
Laughing, I told her raccoons do not eat humans. But it was best to stay away from them because they can be mean and aggressive.
One aspect of American life, which Sasmita initially found quite strange, but is slowly understanding, is America’s obsession with animals, especially pets and particularly dogs.
Until she immigrated to the US, animals fell into two categories: ones she ate and wild ones. Except for India’s cow, the country treats animals poorly. There are a variety of wild animals in India that people exist with. They stay out of their way. Tigers fall into this category.
This list also includes dogs. India has more stray dogs than anywhere else in the world. Millions of wild dogs wander India’s streets. Delhi alone, sterilizes thousands yearly and yet the problem continues. Savage dogs, some former pets of Delhi-ites and feral ones alike terrorize India’s biggest cities.
And no one has dogs in her village Alligonda. Having any pet, especially dogs is unheard of.
When she first arrived, dogs terrified her. We actually crossed the street when we saw them walking towards us on the sidewalk. You can imagine how difficult that was in an urban city like Washington, DC.
When we attended street fairs or similar public gathering, dogs would come near her legs and she would look at me with a mixture of disgust and fear. She stood perfectly still, until the owners either recognized how uncomfortable she was or more often, just pulled their dogs away, having no idea the trauma their dog caused her.
She is no longer scared of them and started petting our friend’s dogs. One time last summer, we were at my buddy Jay’s house. Sasmita was deep in conversation on their couch and did not notice his dog Maggie was lying down. Maggie’s body partly covering Sasmita’s feet. When Jay and I recognized what was happening, we told her and she could not believe it. This was a huge step for her.
People who say they do not like dogs or appreciate their near ubiquitous presence in all forms of American life can quickly get labeled as ‘strange.’ But for Sasmita and many US immigrants, their upbringing and society’s attitude towards dogs is the opposite of America.
Dogs are sacred animals to large segments of people here, and to speak against them or voice dislike is uncommon. But to Sasmita, the idea that a dog would be a part of a family; that people would let them sleep in their beds or couches, allow them to lick their face or even bury a dog in a cemetery were foreign concepts to her.
For her and many people outside the US, dogs are dirty, smelly animals that no one wants.
When I told her that Americans spend more than three hundred million dollars on Halloween outfits for their pets she was shocked. She found that number particularly obscene, coming from village Alligonda.
How could people spend so frivolously, she asked me, when global needs are so great? She has a point.
But while she slowly learns to live with dogs, she has a strange affinity for all creeping insects. I suffer from severe arachnophobia and many friends and family have embarrassing stories about my fear.
Sasmita conversely, refuses to kill bugs or any other crawling thing, except for ants or an occasional roach. Everything else, she tries covering with a cup, sliding a piece of paper underneath to trap it and release back into the wild outside our door, including spiders.
I am sorry, I love my wife, but I am not saving spiders under any circumstances. I kill them mercilessly and gleefully, provided they are not too big. Asking me to look at one, and preserve its life is just too much to ask.
She always gets a little upset with me when I squash spiders or other insects. And she consistently refers to insects, spiders and flying bugs things as ‘she.’
As in, ‘AJ, stop trying to kill her’, she is not doing anything against you.’
I always ask someone before we go to their house for the first time if they have a dog. Then I tell them about Sasmita and how she is slowly getting used to them. They are universally understanding, frequently offering to keep their dogs locked in a separate room. But I quickly tell them that is unnecessary. Sasmita does not want her visit to change anyone’s lifestyle in their own home.
Her adjustment to American life continues, and for Sasmita and many immigrants, that includes dogs.