Try a soy milk cinnamon-laced, caramel vanilla macchiato along with lightly toasted honey-flavoured foccacio bread with ham, tomato, roasted peppers and crumbled feta cheese sandwich today. That “special of the day” in my neighbourhood coffee shop is the quintessential American life — one that is filled with choices at every turn. From food to clothes, to home insurance, for every decision you have to navigate a variety of options.
As any newcomer learns the hard way, ordering a sandwich is not a simple task in the US. Often it’s downright daunting. Starting with what kind of bread you will like, to what kind of dressing, what kind of cheese, what kind of filling, all are questions that need rapid-fire response as you hold up the line in the cafeteria. Even cheese lovers are tempted to say “no cheese” just to stop the questions or like my husband, opt for Swiss cheese every time — the only one with an identifiable name — as you learn the ways of this new country. Of course as time goes by, you master the skills of ordering and figure out that the best way to answer a question is to ask one, to quiz the sandwich guy — what cheeses do you have' You learn the difference between Swiss and provolone and feta and the 10 other cheeses with foreign names and life falls into a smooth pattern. But you never fail to wonder every time you order the sandwich, wouldn’t life have been easier with a little less choice'
It’s hard to recognise the lack of choices till you are faced with a plethora of them. It’s liberating when you can choose a career that is not limited to that of an engineer or a doctor. You can opt for new avenues, and still make a good living and spend a fulfilling life. From a Nasa engineer to the school music teacher or a conductor on the New Jersey Transit trains, each can make enough money to buy a car, have a house and take vacations with the family. From the extraordinary to the mundane, choices permeate every aspect of American life.
Hair colour changes with the seasons, from blonde to jet black to brunette, followed often by eye colour. You can know someone for years and yet not know what colour of hair they were born with. Television serials and snappy advertising tempts the brave and the willing to alter their noses, chins, eyes and pretty much any part of the body with plastic surgery and tummy tucks. Nothing is unattainable, provided you have the money.
It’s a habit that grows on you, and soon you too want to know all that is on offer. Sometimes it even makes you inflexible. Try dining or shopping with American friends and you will know what I mean. They know exactly what they want and alternatives are not good enough. From fat-free milk in their coffees to organic non-animal tested lipsticks, they can do with no other.
If they want options in everyday life, could the election process be any different' Unlike India where one votes for a political party which in turn decides the Prime Minister, Americans vote directly for their President. Here too the choice is endless. For the upcoming Presidential elections, the Democrats have more than eight candidates, ranging from former first lady Hillary Clinton to the young African-American charmer, Barrack Obama, to the socialist-leaning John Edwards. Republicans are not far behind either — on offer are more than 10 candidates including a TV star, Law and Order’s Fred Thompson.
But is having choices simply a matter of quantity over quality' Like having 200 television channels and not one worth watching, for they are more of the same, as American viewers often complain. Or is it just a by-product of capitalism where markets are flooded with unnecessary choices like 20 brands of bread' What is the alternative'
Even as many newcomers grumble that America is a land of too many choices, myriad mysteries — this phone company or that, this bread or that one— and endless trials and errors, it’s a hard habit to shake off. Once you get used to it, it’s addictive.