"Is today a holiday?" asked an American student at the university where I work as a Fulbright language exchange teacher. "No," I replied. "Then why are you wearing your national dress?" he asked.
I was wearing a sari, an Indian dress for both formal and informal occasions. I explained to him that there was a formal luncheon that day and I was to represent my country, hence the traditional garb.
"Well, it is nice. I like it!" he responds candidly. Friendly and frank - that's an American for you.
I heard the same reaction from total strangers who stopped me and asked about the sari. And here I was thinking that most Americans would be familiar with India and most things Indian, since there are a lot of Indians living in this big melting pot called the United States.
If this is the extent of people's knowledge about India, it comes as no surprise then that my colleague from Uzbekistan has problems telling people where she is from. When asked, she tries to speak as clearly as possible and invariably hears, "ah, East Pakistan," in response.
I am sometimes asked, "Do you have electricity in India?" or "Do you ride elephants to work?" No wonder one of our lecturers told us, "Don't get too worked up about the presentations you have to give on your countries. No one knows about them. Even if you show a mountain upside down, they'll simply accept the fact that it must be so in your country."
Yes, the world of an average American revolves mainly around the US, but there are still plenty of those who challenge that stereotype. I had the pleasure of traveling in a train with a professor, a self-confessed bookworm, who rattled off facts that I never expected an American to know.
And then, my own sign-language teacher here at the Governors State University surprised me, when she finished the class with folded hands and said 'Namaste' like an Indian. She went on to say that it was her favorite sign, because it means "All that is godly within me greets the godliness within you." I don't expect all Indians to know this, much less hear it from an American.
America never ceases to surprise. I suppose that is one of its strengths, in addition to amazing opportunities and a good standard of life.
On the other hand, when Americans take themselves too seriously, there is a risk of underestimating other countries. "Why do you want to go back? Do you enjoy the same amount of freedom in your country that you do here?" an American asked me.
"Yes, I do," I replied without pointing out that I live in New Delhi, the capital of India, the world's largest democracy. "Moreover, I miss my family and friends, I miss celebrating the festivals, the people, the ambience, the language...."
And yet, I find the familiarity that I miss in the most unexpected places. The other day I met an old man on a bus who asked if I was from India. We talked and it was fascinating and amazing to hear about the Hindu philosophy from him. We branched out on other religions and I learned a few things from him about Baha'ullah from Iran - the founder of Bahai faith that urges the followers of different religions to put aside their differences.
One way to put the differences aside is to get to know one another. And Fulbright grants enable many people to do just that.
I realized this when some American friends asked me on Diwali (festival of lights - India's biggest festival) if they could come and watch me perform some of the rituals. I was pleasantly surprised and invited them home.
They watched while I lighted a candle and folded my hands and prayed for everyone. It did not take long, but I will forever cherish the memory of that beautiful evening spent together with them.
Neither will I ever forget the enthusiasm of my students learning Hindi. Who says Americans don't like foreign languages?
When I go home, I will not carry the extra burden of a lot of stereotypes. And though it is not easy, I hope the US stays as it is: land of opportunities, land of the brave, and most of all, land of the free.
God bless America ... and the rest of the world.
• Poonam Saxena teaches Hindi in the College of Arts and Sciences, Governors State University, Illinois.