I had no idea that such a small step could be so liberating. It’s as if I have found myself again in the last few months. When it came down to it, it was all about taking control: getting behind the steering wheel.
I had driven in circles all over an empty parking lot with my loving, over-protective husband standing in a corner, waiting and watching. But navigating the streets on my own took a little push, or rather a shove.
My story mirrors the experiences of so many other Indian immigrants that it’s as if we come from the same mold. I had a chauffer back in India and was content to be driven around. For the last two-and-a-half years, since I have come to the United States, my husband, friends, and the Valley Transport Authority (VTA) have helped me travel all around the Santa Clara Valley. I appreciate having such a helpful support network but sometimes it seems as if my life is circumscribed by VTA schedules.
What’s holding me back is not the lack of a driver’s license. My license has been sitting in my purse since last July, waiting to be used. And before that the permit gathered dust for nearly a year and was about to expire before I finally gave the behind-the-wheel test. You see, my husband is rather possessive about his Volkswagen Jetta, which he refuses to let me touch, afraid that I will scratch it or dent it or something. As if it doesn’t have scratches, dents, or dings already! At least it’s not just his wife that he is over-protective about.
On reflection, the whole process of learning to drive was filled with twists and turns. At first my husband volunteered to teach me the basics. After a dismal hour of tense moments and frayed nerves we both decided it would be best for me to get a professional driving instructor. There was also the constant advice from well-meaning friends and family that a husband teaching his wife driving could potentially lead to a divorce!
A friend even recommended an instructor, a brash Indian-American fellow, who left no stone unturned to make my very first lesson a scene straight out of a horror movie. His constant barking and scolding were enough to put me off driving lessons for a long, long time. I did give him a piece of my mind and I have a feeling that he has been barking less ever since.
It didn’t make things any easier that cars in America have the steering wheel on the left whereas the rest of the world seems to be happy enough with it on the right. And then, why on earth do Americans call both petroleum and the accelerator “gas”? Yes, I know that petroleum is called gasoline and all that, but at times that minor detail just slips my mind. Like when my second driving instructor, a rather nice Chinese-American guy, started yelling “Gas! Gas! Gas!” as my car slowed down on an incline. I did press on the accelerator finally but was completely clueless about why the poor old man chose that very moment to chitchat about petroleum.
And then, of course, the supportive family isn’t far away. An uncle of mine quipped that San Jose drivers should start paying higher insurance rates since I’ve been let loose on the roads!
To top it all, I believe that I’m directionally challenged, apart from being completely paranoid about cops. I confided all this to a friend who has been driving for nearly 10 years and concerned, he advised that I consult a psychiatrist. Hmmm. A pretty self-assertive person otherwise, I could merely murmur that I believe I should just try driving before trotting off to the shrink.
But I had my reasons to procrastinate. I tried to convince myself that my refusal to drive was part of a noble attempt to conserve gas.
Nor was I the alone in my predicament. There are more than a score of Indian-American women I know who don’t drive and don’t seem to be bothered about it. I even met an Indian-American lady in her 60s who has been in the United States for more than 20 years and managed to teach middle school in Pennsylvania for more than a decade without ever having to drive.
A friend of mine who is yet to get her driving license insists that she saves a whole bunch of money by not having to pay those insurance bills.
Then there’s the cousin in Washington, D.C., who insists that the DMV there told her that her passport isn’t enough documentation for her to get a permit.
It does seem scary how some of us try to come up with inane excuses for not getting behind the wheel. Maybe visiting the shrink wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.
In between juggling VTA routes and school assignments I started wondering about my lukewarm interest in taking control of my life. I guess it just seemed to be too much of an effort to take that extra step towards self-assertion.
Since then my very own Toyota Corolla is here, the insurance papers are in order, and the days of excuses are gone. I’ve just had to buckle up and make driving my top priority. Surprisingly, it really isn’t as big an ordeal as it had seemed.
And as I cruise to the neighborhood dhaba for some papri chaat on my way back from school I wonder why I didn’t start driving sooner!
Sudeshna Sen Gupta is a graduate student of mass communications at San Jose State University.