Wednesday, June 30, 2010

US Survival Guide - Pt. 4

Well it's time again folks, for another Survival Guide. It seems like the more I feel like I have covered everything, the more I find new points to talk about. This just goes to show how much different it is just living in another country; at home, callaloo bush is an afterthought but here in the US  it is an "exotic foreign dish" that costs much more than it should and is way too difficult to find. But I digress.................

Public Holidays (or lack thereof)

Having had the pleasure of working in corporate Trinidad in the years prior to my exodus, one of the things that I always took for granted, was the sheer number of official public holidays trinis were able to enjoy. In addition to the unofficial holidays such as practically any time the West Indies or the Soca Warriors were playing, we the members of the Trini working class often had it good.

In fact, you only realize just how many public holidays we have at home, right about the time you first start working for an American company. I see the confused expressions on your faces, you're sitting there wondering "how could this be?" You can look at any calender and see scores of US holidays but while that may be true, not many of those special days are considered "national holidays" On a calender at home, if you see a special day listed on your calender, you can bet your mother that you're going to get the day off.

Sadly, this isn't the case in the US where in fact you might be lucky to get off 7 holidays each year. The firm I work for in fact gives us the following: New Years Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July (Independence Day), Labour Day, Thanksgiving Day (plus the day after) and Christmas Day. Compare these to your average trini public holiday list...........see the difference?

Shouter Baptist Day, Indian Arrival Day, nope and nope. Well how about Corpus Christi, Republic Day, Eid or Divali? The answer is quite simply no..............hell no; and no, we don't get time off for Carnival or Easter weekend either. On another note, USA played several matches in the 2010 World Cup before finally being eliminated but did anyone see staff being sent home early to watch the game? Pity.

Worth Ethic

Seriously, WTF? I now see why there aren't that many public holidays. It wouldn't matter if there were more days available, some people probably wouldn't take the day off anyway. Part of the problem stems from a decidedly evil concept known as "at-will employment." It simply means that with few exceptions, an employer could fire an employee pretty much "at will" for nearly any reason and with little warning at all. The State of Georgia which I so happen to reside in, just so happens to be an "at will" State.

As a result, employees at many firms work solely out of fear of losing their jobs. Long before the economy tanked, some unscrupulous employers had already been cutting perks and other non-essential workplace benefits simply because they really didn't need to provide them.

Birthday celebrations for staff? What for?
Company Christmas dinner? Are you crazy?

Gone were the days of company picnics, staff luncheons and Sports&Family Days. If you didn't like where you worked, no problem, you'd just be fired and they'd simply find someone else who bitched less. At home, I truly enjoyed going to work, I enjoyed working with people who were glad to be doing what they were doing and even though we were not paid a lot of money they did it anyway.

Management understood that high morale led to high work ethic and they exploited that fact. No employee's birthday ever passed without a minor office fete. Valentines day expect chocolates at each desk, lavish Christmas dinners, weekend trips "down the islands," company t-shirts, etc. all these things gave me the feeling that the company had a vested interest in me and in return, I gave my all. Some American companies attempt to achieve the same thing but with a slightly different approach..................

"You want cake for your birthday? Aww.....fuck cake, do some work or I fire you!!"
(aka the big stick approach)

One other important point that needs to be noted about the average American workplace is the fact that employees always need to look busy. Caribbean people seem to posses a "coolness" about us even when extremely busy or under pressure. Except for the fact that I somehow manage to get more work done than most, my employers have commented on many occasions that, to them, I never really seem to "look busy." How is this possible when I do the job of three people, a hybrid job that entails IT support for the building, marketing, real estate acquisition and any random task they could think of.

Tips for "looking busy"

  • Walk with a "quickness" in your step at all times, don't stroll
  • Never ever organize files on your desk, the junkier your desk looks, they busier you appear
  • Always keep a puzzled and/or pained expression on your face, it gives the impression that you are working hard at solving a problem.
  • Make repeated trips to the printer, fax machine and copier several times per hour.
What is really unfortunate about this whole circumstance is the fact that in addition to all of the mentioned points, you still have to find time to actually do your work. You thus have to manage your own time as well as manage people's impressions of how you manage your time. What an odd concept but that's it for this month anyway, I certainly hope to see you all again next month.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

US Survival Guide - Pt. 3

This is likely to be one of the last of the "US Survival Guides" that you'll see on this blog; I hope that the previous two posts were both informative and entertaining. For now, I'll wrap up a few final key points that should be noted either whenever planning a trip to or immigrating to the United States of America.

Needless to say, I am by no means an expert on the subject, I only speak from my own personal experiences. Always keep in mind though that human beings are by their very nature, dynamic and versatile and thus so too are their practices, customs and culture in general. It is thus quite likely that many of the feelings and sentiments expressed on these pages, will be very different given the passage of time thus rendering this guide quite useless.

On that very same note, Trinidad and Tobago's culture is one of the most dynamic cultures I know of, and it is quite likely that after having lived here in the US for 8 long years, I too may need a guide like this in order to re-integrate into the trini lifestyle when I eventually return.......................but that's another story.

Alrighty then, let's get started..............

Taxes not included

One of the mild annoyances that I encountered early on was the fact that the prices of products, goods and services, did not include any form of taxation at all; the taxes were added in as a nice, little, nasty, surprise "fuck you" only when you got to the register. Grocery shopping all of a sudden started to feel like an advanced calculus class. Not to mention the fun little fact that different states often had different rates of taxation that often also varied depending on what you bought, I often had to walk with a calculator just to figure out exactly how much I was spending.Back home, the price on the shelf, was exactly the price you paid.

To compound the problem, states like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania (last time I checked) do not levy taxes on certain items like clothing, electronics (I think), etc but still place taxes on food and grocery items. I could imagine you'd need a PhD in economics and accounting just to read your Walmart receipt. Here's a bright idea guys, why not include the tax on the price tag? It would at least save us the "Ta daa" moments at the cash register.

Incoming calls cost you.

This one was a bit of a shocker when I first moved here, maybe I'd been spoiled by TSTT/Bmobile. Case in point, a cousin of mine moves to Pittsburgh and is pretty excited about her nice new cell. Not wanting to spend much each month and not being much of a talker, she opted for a low-cost 250 minute per month, talk plan with her friendly, neighbourhood cell phone company. Feeling rather pleased with her accomplishment, she called me up to brag.

My first thought on hearing the news? AT&T is going to rape you ( no lube). See, unbeknown to my darling cousin, in the US, minutes are deducted, not only for calls that you make, but also for calls that you receive as well. An honest mistake I suppose seeing that in Trinidad, all incoming calls are free, my cousin figured that she would have been okay as long as she didn't make calls. She promptly switched to a more appropriate 900 minute plan. Personally,  I use an unlimited talk/text/data plan so I never have to worry.

But while we're on the topic, if like me, you happen know, not be from here (USA), it might be useful to know that

IVR is the devil

I'm guessing that many of you have never heard the term IVR, but it's really just short for Interactive Voice Response. I'm also pretty sure that you've never heard that phrase before either but I am pretty sure you've been affected by it. IVR refers to the "pleasant" and extremely "user-friendly," voice-prompt system that you normally encounter every time you call customer service.

Even the whole concept of a voice prompt system is a little weird to me because at home, a call to customer service normally yields one of two things: a busy tone or a real, live person. It's still like that today too because I called the RBTT Independence Square Branch help line just a few months back and a real person picked up......I was in shock.

But anyway, generally speaking, the IVR voice systems seem to work fairly well with one key but very important exception......................the damn thing does not seem to work very well with foreign accents. I don't care where you come from, whether Trinbago, Guyana, Barbados, Jamaica, Ghana, Nigeria, etc, if you have a foreign accent, I can just imagine what your IVR experiences are like.

Hello and welcome to Friendly Company, Inc.'s automated voice menu system, please listen carefully.
Fuck, here we go
Please say your full name
James Robertson
I'm sorry, did you say Frederick Hinds?
Did you say Angela Lansbury?
No......lord grant me patience
I heard James Robertson

What confounds me is the fact that the system easily recognizes any one of a dozen or so different American accents with no trouble at all whether it's the southern drawl, the Texas cowboy, or the New York/Philly twang.

And speaking of accents

..............a friend of mine once asked me to identify common pick up lines that I have used in the past. In response, I told him that I never really had to use pick up lines as virtually anything I said seemed to suffice. Now before you begin to think of me as a little cocky, allow me to explain. Once in the US, a trini male's most lethal weapon is his accent; very often I never have to think of what to say other than "hi."

Case in point

Trini Male: Hi, could you tell me how to get to...........
Charming American Female: my house? I've got condoms*


Trini Male: Good Afternoon ma'am.
Charming American Female: I don't know what you just said big daddy but keep talking.*
Charming American Female #2: Oooh that accent's sexy, say something, say anything.*

*results not typical

Too often have I seen people "fresh off the boat" as they say, having never left their homelands their entire lives, only to arrive in the US for the first time and lose their accents within days/weeks. It is all well and good to want to fit in because believe me, it is tough to communicate when you sound the way we do...........but it's worth it (trust me).

Your accent is your identity, it is your link to your culture, it is what sets you apart from those around you (unless you live in Brooklyn or Ft. Lauderdale, then no one gives a shit). My wife once told me that one of the first things she fell in love with, was my accent (though I beg to differ but that's another story); half the time she has no clue what I'm saying but she loves it anyway.

In Conclusion

As time goes by and modern society and technology change, I am beginning to find that many of the problems I'd encountered in the past are no longer major issues. I vividly remember having to stick two iron pots, Golden Ray, sorrel, mauby, cheese, roti skins, etc into my traveling bags each time I made a return trip from home. Nowadays, I can find just about anything I need in many local groceries including the previously tough to find Shandy. Now all I need is to be able to find cascadura and good black pudding (I said good, not the crappy ones), I'll be all set.

I know that I raised a pretty big stink in this post regarding voice prompt systems because they really really do stink for foreigners but as of late, I have to give credit to companies like Bank of America that at least give us the option to go touch tone only instead of voice. I also have noticed improvements in the voice recognition systems themselves that allow me to speak almost naturally (almost).

But anyways, I just realized that there are few more topics that I would still like to touch on so there is probably going to be a "US Survival Guide - Pt. 4" so stay tuned.



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

US Survival Guide - Pt. 2

Well now that we've covered the basics, I would like to touch on another important issue that you the intrepid traveler would likely encounter when making a move to the US of A.


Though you wouldn't think it (especially if you're coming from an English speaking country), the language barrier in the US is one of those especially difficult hurdles to overcome and I'm not even talking accents either. You see it on TV all the time..............tourist, lost in some Middle Eastern country somewhere, stumbles into a local store only to ask:

"Does anyone in here speak American?"

Then the cheeky little person inside you cries out - "American isn't a language dumbass!!"

Oh yes the hell it is.

I'm not entirely sure when or why it happened but at some point in time the written language of the Americans changed drastically. While it might sound the same (aside from the accent), the differences between "American" and what we know as English, become very evident when you put pen to paper.

F*ck U

Now I am no historian so don't quote me on this but I've been told that sometime around the American Revolutionary War or the War of 1812 against Great Britain, that American colonists, so incensed by England's attempts to rule them, decided to drop the letter "u" from many of their words supposedly as an ultimate f*ck you to the Crown. This simple act supposedly led to the creation of an all new written form of the English language.........American.

Dubious though the origins of this story might be, it's the best that I could come up with at the moment but seriously though, this isn't a history blog and you certainly don't come here for my historical acumen (or lack thereof). Regardless of the origin, the fact of the matter is, Americans seem to hate the letter "u." Here are just a few examples of blatant "u" persecution.

         English              American
  1. labour               labor
  2. colour               color
  3. parlour              parlor
  4. behaviour          behavior
  5. neighbour          neighbor
  6. flavour              flavor
  7. favourite           favorite
These previous examples thankfully fit into the "f*ck u" theory that we came up with earlier but there are are a few more words that fall into more of a "because we say so" theory of logic.

          English           American
  1. tyre                  tire
  2. cheque             check
  3. centre              center
Imagine this have moved to the US to advance your education, but for most of your life up to this point, teachers have beating it into your head (literally) that certain words were spelled a particular way. Now all of a sudden, nearly everything you have come to learn as correct is suddenly wrong.

Caribbean students often have a hard time at freshman level English courses at American Universities because of this problem. I've seen many a term paper receive a poor grade for spelling "errors" that were not the fault of the student.

And just in case different spellings weren't enough to mess your whole day up, let's explore some words that have completely different meanings.

           TRINI                               American
  1. parlour                                 corner store
  2. rum shop                              package store
  3. pavement= sidewalk             pavement = roadway/street
  4. truck                                    semi/tractor trailer
  5. van/pickup                           truck
  6. breadvan maxi                      minivan
  7. roti skin, doubles bara          some sort of bread..............
I vividly recall the day I referred to a friend's spankin new Ford F-150 Lightning as a "van." The bastard hit the roof and effectively made me swear on my life that I'd never refer to his "truck" as a "van" ever again. bad homie.

At this point, I've been in the US for a total of seven and a half years and I still don't quite have them all figured out. Things get even hairier depending on what region you move to. People in the South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc) seem to have a language that's much different from Northerners. Then you have to consider the linguistic differences between East Cost and West Coast and then...............lord this is giving me a headache.

The bottom line is, the English language as a whole is a very difficult language to master even for those of us who speak it but if you plan on moving to the US though, forget everything you know about the English language it's time to learn AMERICAN...............

Check in with me next month for Part III of my guide.

Friday, February 5, 2010

US Survival Guide - Pt. 1

Planning on migrating to a different country? The US perhaps? Well here is a little guide I've put together that should help ease the transition because believe me when I tell you, culture shock is no joke. Eight years in and I'm still feeling the culture whiplash. Hopefully by the time you're done reading this, you'll have a better idea of what to bring with you, what to leave behind and most importantly, what to expect when you get here.

What do I pack?

I'm not going to get into the obvious items like clothing, toiletries, electronics etc; frankly, if I'd had to itemize those for you, you probably have more problems than you think. This is simply going to be a listing of some of the things you take for granted at home but will likely have a tough time finding in the States. As time goes by though, I've found that a few of these items have started to pop up in groceries. (like pigeon peas, Shandy and Chubby)

- DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT leave Trinidad and Tobago without a pack of curry in your bag (pray it doesn't burst in the bag). I do not care whether you know how to curry or not, believe me, you are going to learn.

Pholourie Mix - see previous comment

Iron Pot - a big one, leave all your cds and bullshit behind and make sure that you have room for this.

Naparima Girls Cookbook - I cannot stress this enough. I happen to have the original pink one that was published back in the early nineties but I also have the latest full-colour edition (the recipe for oil down is conspicuously absent).

Matouks, Grace, Swiss - Are you familiar with these brands? No? well you should be. I highly recommend a quick trip down to HiLo or TruValue and grab anything made by Matouks.......I'm talking ketchup, mustard, pepper sauce, guava jam, shoe polish (joke), tomato paste, if Matouks makes it, go get it.

Why you ask?
Don't they have ketchup in the States?

Yes, ketchup is readily available in the US but you will quickly discover what I'm talking about the first time you attempt to use US-made ketchup and mustard on your hot dog.........your friends and family would suddenly be wondering what the hell happened to your eyebrows.

Simply put, ketchup and mustard that are designed for the American palate, are much too acidic and are quite strong and bitter tasting when compared to what is produced for consumption in Trinidad.

Oddly enough, pigeon peas is readily available so I wouldn't worry about packing too many cans of those.

Maggi Cubes, etc. - again, if it says Maggi on the pack, just go on and get it.....Maggi Cubes, "Season-up de pot," Cock flavor (lord) or whatever, just get it.

Coconut milk powder - please don't plan on bursting open any dry coconut on your driveway, your neighbours will probably call the police who unlike back home, tend to show up the same day/week/month, often within minutes. Save yourself the trouble (and embarrassment) by stockpiling packs of coconut milk powder.

Golden Ray - No..................your pelau will never ever taste as good as your grandmother's but a little Golden Ray certainly helps.

Snacks & Cereals - Sunshine Snacks should be your best friend so I highly recommend that you get everything......Frosted Flakes, Nutty Flakes N Honey, Zoomers, Cheez Zees, Cheese Stix, the works, etc. While you at it, load up on red mango, chiney mango, Bourbon Biscuits, Bobby, tambran balls, chili bibi and don't forget your Diana Powermints and dinner mints. You probably won't see these things again for a long time (unless you're moving to Brooklyn) so a sizable stockpile is highly recommended.

Just a point to note, Trinidadians seem to have a higher tolerance for all things sweet and salty than their American counterparts, which is why I've recommended all of the above snacks. The US public is extremely health conscious and thus their salty snacks like Cheetos, Pringles, etc will never quite taste as good to our Caribbean palates as say Zoomers or Cheez Zees. The same goes for the sweet stuff; when I ran out of Sunshine Snacks' Frosted Flakes, I switched to the Kelloggs brand only to find myself having to add several spoons of sugar to it.

Moving on.........

Now that we at least know that you're not going to starve to death, it might be time for me to lay down a few ground rules regarding acceptable behaviour. Ideally speaking, there are a few habits that we as Trinbagonians have picked up over the years that might do more than just raise an eyebrow or two (jail probably) if done in the US.

Ground Rules

Do not kill the wildlife - You cannot kill and/or eat (well not in public anyway) any wild animals that happen to find themselves on your property; civilized people apparently get their meat products in a grocery or something. Be prepared for traffic that is due entirely to a flock of geese deciding that right then was a good time for a nice stroll across the public roadway instead of fly. I couldn't imagine us having this problem back in Trinidad, the geese know's like they're asking for a one-way trip to a pot on Caura river.

Do not urinate openly in a public space - I'm almost embarrassed that I have to mention this but yes, trinis do happen to have an unfortunate habit of relieving themselves where convenient even if it is in public......public walls, public street corners, public parks, trees, bushes etc. This is frowned upon, so please, if you really have to pee that badly, just find a public restroom, believe it or not, they're usually clean and normally rapist free.

Do not attempt to cross an Interstate on foot - for one, this is illegal, and secondly, it will probably get you killed. This is not the Churchill/Roosevelt Highway, and lets face it, we don't even have that much of a good track record running across a two-lane highway. With all the people that are killed each year even crossing the Beetham, what makes you think you can time a run across six lanes? Enough said, it's dumb, don't do it.

Do not attempt to fit more people into a vehicle than the vehicle is designed to accommodate - simply put, if your vehicle is designed to carry 5 people, then there is no reason why you should try to fit 12 people in there; you're just asking for a ticket (which American law enforcement are more than happy to write for you).

Do not drink while driving - while it might be commonplace back home to have a beer in the car with you while coming back from a riverlime, beachlime, fete, church, etc, such behaviour will land you in prison (with a suspended license) over here. In fact, any alcohol in the car, whether the driver was drinking it or not is going to lead to problems.

Don't plan on drinking in public either - I always wondered why American "rumshops" were called "Package Stores." I'm beginning to believe that it has something to do with the fact that if you plan to drink it in public, you'd better keep the brown paper packaging handy. It is unlawful to openly consume alcohol in a public space.

Do not send your children to purchase alcohol/cigarettes/porn for you - "Grandpa sent me to get his puncheon" simply does not work in the states. It is illegal to sell alcohol, cigarettes, M-rated movies and M-rated video games to minors......bummer.

Speed Limits signs are not just elaborate roadway decorations - pay attention to the speed limit signs, they're not that hard to spot, they are large, white and say "Speed Limit" on them. Some trinis have a habit of driving as fast as the car will go but such behaviour is frowned upon and will usually earn you a ticket........or a ride in the back of a police cruiser.

I take it I've given more than enough food for though in this, the first segment of my survival guide. Check in with me next week for more.