Monday, March 7, 2011

opposite world

If I bothered with tags for my posts, this one might fall under "learning to live with culture shock" or "culture shock that just won't go away."  The truth is, I've been in shock long before I reached India.  It began last June, as soon as I left Colorado, and it goes on and on and on.  That has been a surprise because I was expecting moments of shock, not one long continuous season.  I could have written a similar post about my (non) adjustment to NYC. 

Anyway, this very long ailment seems to have taught me a few survival skills and maybe I'll write about that sometime if anyone wants to hear about it.  But right now, I am just going to try to itemize a few of the things that happen in India that would happen in the exact opposite way in the US.  These are not meant to be judgments, just listing of the facts, as one girl sees them.  Turns out, different people do things differently.  (I learned that in Anthro 101, thanks Dr.B.!)

Here goes:

- If you invite someone to lunch, instead of engaging in small talk and chitchat, you should respect their privacy and speak as little as possible. 

- saying "Please" or "Thank you" is not important. 

-If someone asks for directions, you might wave vaguely and say something like "left, left, right then go a bit further then left."  No street names, no landmarks, no further information required.  Definitely don't use a map.  (Jeremy ran into an Indian who had briefly visited Chicago and the man told him the story of how shocked he was that folks would immediately pull out a map when he asked them for directions.)

- If you run into an acquaintance unexpectedly, you might greet them but you will not smile.  In fact, when in doubt, frown or look generally serious.  (speculative note by the author: grinning might be seen as undignified or something.  maybe?)

-If you are meeting someone for the first time in a professional setting, you might want to list all of your achievements to date including schools you went to, universities you graduated from and their rankings, books you published, medals you've been awarded, etc.  Tell them all of it and leave nothing out.

- Openly stare at strangers.  It is not rude.  Once, fifteen people gathered around me and the kids as we waited on J. to do an errand.  They just stood there, in a half circle and not saying anything, for about a quarter of an hour. 

- Relationship and status are most important, not one-size-fits-all-rules.  VIPs and not-so-VI-Ps get whisked through lines while others wait their turn.  Children of good and respectable people are allowed to play where they want; other kids are not.

-In public restrooms, just walk up to a sink and use it even if someone was there first.

-Get on the elevator before letting people off it first.

- Put your hand on a stranger's shoulder and gently move them out of your way if you need to squeeze by.

- If someone asks you something and you don't want to answer, just ignore it.  If someone is talking to you and you don't want to answer, just ignore them.  If, halfway through a conversation, you don't want to talk anymore, just stop talking and ignore them. 

- Be composed and quiet in public.  If you're a woman, try to be dainty.  Do not attract attention.

- Wear you best clothes and jewelry to amusement parks.

- If you have put your lips to a cup or bottle, no one else can use it anymore and it must be discarded (smashed is more appropriate, even) immediately.

-Besides cups, never throw anything in the trash that might still be able to serve some purpose. 

- Frowning and head-shaking can mean "yes, you're very welcome" or "right away, sir" or "I would be happy to do that for you."  A click of the tongue (which to my ears communicates irritation or exasperation---is that an American thing or a remnant of my days in Morocco? I don't know) actually means "no problem whatsoever."  Cheerfulness or agreeableness has very little to do with facial expression.

- Ease your way into the pew at church and slide the children onto their mama's lap so you can sit down.  Empty seats in the row in front are irrelevant.

- Do not greet random people when you walk into a store, a room, an office.  If you are a shopowner, do not greet customers and don't smile at them.

- Never complain about being inconvenienced.  Expect it and then deal patiently with it.

- Do not wait in line at a cashier, just walk up and hand the money and wait for change.  Pretend that no one else is standing there.  (Again, this is not considered rude; it is simply the way things are done.  On some occasions, we've done it ourselves or we'd have stood there for hours.)

- Traffic usually moves on the left side.  Not just road traffic, but also pedestrian traffic.  (I always mess that one up)  Also: pedestrians never have right-of-way over any vehicle, ever.

My upbringing in North Africa and a few Anthropology courses have taught me enough where I know, intellectually at least, that in most of these scenarios, it is not empty space, but there is actually something else going on.  I am aware that I am ignorant of many codes and rules of verbal and non-verbal communication and so I miss a lot of what's being "said" by not knowing how to properly interpret gestures.  Still, when there are so much that happens that goes directly against what we Americans do, it makes me wonder what it must be like to be Indian and step off a plane in the US.  I guess if there is a moral to this story it would be in the form of a note to self: be gracious to rude foreigners, cause you never know.

1 comment:

  1. Crazy, crazy stuff. Love the staring. You should teach the kids to dance like monkeys and beg for coins. I like how you end this post - with kindness to strangers. I'm gonna be non-PC here and say that the people group I have to remember this about are Koreans. Any and all interactions I've had with Koreans in the US have been strange. I just keep telling myself that it's a cultural thing...