Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Culture Surprises: 3 Weeks With A Spanish Friend!

Like 'Culture Shocks', this is 'Culture Surprises'. 'Culture Surprises' is my travelogue and peoplogue. Travelogue to discuss about all my experiences in every new place I visit and peoplogue to discuss about all my experiences with people from different cultures I meet. So, it is not necessary that I talk about only cultures here. It's about everything new that I come across. So, purists... please bear with the coinage of the title!

This is in continuation to the last post on my journey towards west. Just before starting my journey westwards, I fortunately had an opportunity to spend some good time with a westerner in India. It helped me prepare for the journey. I also wanted to show him the best of India. But, I couldn’t take him anywhere to do that. Instead, I tried to be the best of myself with him so that I do my bit to build the brand India.

I also made it very clear to him upfront that I am very crazy about learning new cultures and hence I would ask him a lot of questions (many of them would be crazy) to understand his culture. He also appreciated it and answered all my questions with the right spirit. I also encouraged him to ask me as many questions as possible without being hesitant about anything. At the end of the day, both of us, I hope, gained tremendous insight into each other’s culture.

Spanish are special for the reason that their language is the second most natively spoken language after Chinese. You could see them all over Europe and Americas. He also explained me about the differences between the Spanish language spoken in Spain and in Latin America. The same word that means "grab" in Spain means a bad word in Latin America. By the way, most of Latin American countries are Spanish except for Brazil. In fact, the Spanish population is more in Mexico and the US than in Spain.

He had spent good amount of time in Latin America and visited China before coming to India, which made him more interesting to me. He could compare Europe, America and Asia on many aspects. He was the second person to tell me that India and Mexico are similar in many ways. It is worthwhile recalling now that Indians are the second highest illegal immigrants to the US after Mexicans. The similarity is confirmed with a clear case. It’s not just illegal immigration. There are many other things as I understand. It seems the roadside selling is another similarity.

First of all, I used to think everything was perfect (rather, more things were more perfect, to be precise) in West. He said that that is exactly what the people in Latin America also thought about Europe. As we try so much to imitate them and are trained to be like them thinking that theirs is the better civilization, I thought he would have a lot to crib about India and he would look down on us. Surprisingly, he had a lot to admire us for and he also explained me why he won’t look down on us and who actually does it. May be, someone else in his place would not have been so mature. It was indeed his ability to adapt to and respect the foreign culture that made him special to me.

I used to think we were trying to get westernized with all our trainings to say ‘Hi’, ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ with an artificial smile. He said, “I love India because people are so friendly here. They smile every time you go to them for something.”! Now I have changed my stand. It’s worth smiling every time someone comes to you for something. It makes you look friendly and elevates your culture to next level. Good I didn’t take him to our government offices. And, luckily he hasn’t seen our street fights in the three weeks he stayed here on silly things like traffic problems.

But, he wanted to know why we use the horns so much while driving. He was wondering so genuinely, “Who will take it seriously if you overuse it so much?”! As I have been having the same question for years together myself I couldn’t give him a good answer. I just told him that it’s because of our over-population we are used to too much noise and hence we have to overuse our horns for them to be heard properly. He looked convinced with the answer. I am not sure if he really was. He was also scared looking at the potholes on our roads and was scared to drive on our roads after the dusk because of that.

I was always thinking “keep right” is only on American roads and the whole of Europe kept left. Only now did I come to know that “keep left” is only in UK and the whole of America and the rest of Europe keeps right. We also talked about which side the driver seat is, how they overtake and what the pros and cons in both methods are.

This is a regular surprise for the westerners who visit us and those of us who visit the west. I have already heard this from a Brit in Coimbatore once. He said, “You guys pee in public and consider kissing in public as indecent whereas it is reverse in our place”. This new friend also had the same surprise and told me, “You may even be put in jail if you pee in public in our place”. So, I should be careful when I go there. :)

He was not able to understand on what basis egg is non-vegetarian when you don’t kill a life. “Egg is egg. How does it become a life?” is his question. I told him, “It is between vegetarian and non-vegetarian these days” to easily get away. I didn’t attempt explaining him as to how it qualifies as non-vegetarian. I have been thinking myself that the animal abuse is more in milk and honey than in egg. I even tried to avoid milk and curd for few months in 2005, but unsuccessfully got back to square one or two in a short while.

He loved our Tandoori chicken. I wanted to buy him some Tandoori chicken masala packs before he left, but was unsuccessful on that also. He missed his other meat items throughout his stay here. He showed me in what proportion one has to eat meat. Our guys just eat a few pieces of them when they eat a full plate of rice. Instead, one should eat meat and rice almost in equal quantity. Otherwise, you don’t get any protein. It’s just carbohydrate. We eat more for taste than anything else, right? He was also surprised at most of our supermarkets having everything but meat. He was shocked by the hygiene in our meat shops. I could understand how difficult it would have been for him though he didn’t express it as a problem. I should salute him for his ability to eat our meat even after seeing that.

He was surprised at the way our guys eat rice with hand. I asked him if he could do it. His hand didn’t come anywhere close to our style. May be, he should have stayed here for few more months to learn it. Fortunately, we never went to any typical south Indian restaurant that serves food in plantain leaf and considers eating with spoon and fork as against the culture. I did show him how to eat with hands at ease although he was not comfortable doing it or even looking at it.

He asked me if curd rice is our dessert as I was having it every day as part of my lunch. I nodded and thought if other things that we usually have after our meal such as saunf (fennel seeds), beeda or petal leaves, payasam, or any other sweet could be qualified as desserts. Some other time, he asked me why we don’t eat desserts after meal and I asked him why they do it when my turn came. Both of us had the same answer - “It has just been our culture”. I was happy when I heard that pizza mania is not part of their culture. It seems they have their own foods. I was happier when I heard that buying guns like cigarettes is not part of their culture.

This is the highlight of all our discussions. On the day when we tried to discuss about the most complex issue in any part of the world, i.e. men-women relationship boundaries in both our cultures, he simplified the whole thing with a simple sentence. “It is very common for a girl to have had three or four boyfriends at the age of 25 in our place. If a girl says that she hasn’t had any boyfriend so far the girl is considered to have some problem there and boys run away from her, whereas here if a girl says that she has had three or four boyfriends so far she is considered to be having some problem and your boys would run away from her.”! What a wonderful observation and simplified way to express the cultural difference?! :)

I was telling him that even shaking hands with opposite sex was not there in our culture two generations back. He smiled mischievously and said “Oops. I did something else with your girls in my batch on the first day.”! What is that? Kissed all of them and said “Don’t worry. I am from Spain. It is very normal there!” looking at their uneasiness. I had heard from someone that he was very popular among his batch-mates. Now I understood what made him so popular. :)

He was amazed by the way our construction workers stay in the quickly made ad-hoc homes. He found their dress (lungi) interesting. I told him only a small number of people wear it in our cities and he has to visit our country side to see the popularity of that dress. He couldn’t understand how we complete constructing our buildings without using any of the tools that are used in their place. “Everything is manual here and yet they are completed and usable!?”!

He said that the Europeans wear all light colors and tight clothes unlike some of us and Americans who wear hard-hitting dark colors and loose clothes respectively. Good he hasn’t seen some of our movies. He may have had another reason to admire us looking at some of our actors wearing orange pants and shiny green shirts.

He was amazed by the advertisements for creams that help one get fairer in so and so weeks, as he takes sunbath to get his skin darkened. He wants to know why we want to look fair. I had no politically correct answer. A simple commonsense based answer I have is, “the fair wants to get dark and the dark wants to get fair” though I didn't tell him. It's still not a complete answer. To put it simple, we could say that it is just an attraction towards the opposite. Let both meet somewhere in a midpoint at the earliest and all color based problems get solved forever.

I was surprised to know that he was aware of the caste system in our country. He said, “I heard that though it is not there in workplace or schools it is given lot of importance when it comes to marriage.”! I guess it’s mostly or partly correct depending on ‘who we are’ and ‘where we come from’. And, I heard from him that there is no such inequality in his place based on the work one does and I am still wondering how it was possible there and not possible here.

Like eating with hand, he also talked about some immigrants in his country staying in huge numbers together in small houses and sleeping on the floor and how difficult it is for him to even imagine doing it. Good he hasn’t seen some of our platforms in the midnight. Thanks to his fear of potholes.

It seems praising people just to make them happy is very common in their culture. Like we say ‘hi’, ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ when we meet someone, it is their custom to call every girl (irrespective of how she looks) ‘hey, gorgeous girl’, ‘hi, pretty girl’, ‘hello, beautiful girl’, etc. He was worried if our girls took it more seriously than required. Anyways, he was happy to have made them all happy!

It was an interesting news for me that all country names and place names are called by different names in different European languages. For example, London and Spain are called so only in English. They are called Londres and España in Spanish respectively. In fact, Spanish itself is called Español in Spanish.

I knew that the superstitions were not just our birthright and it had strong presence in the West also. Still, I was surprised to know that sitting under the staircases bring seven years of bad luck in Spain and dropping the comb accidentally brings many years of good luck.

I understood the European map better. I understood how close Europe and Africa are. Morocco and Spain are in just swimmable distance. I understood that their country also has the problem of terrorism. I understood that they also have a lot of villages and small towns where everybody knows everybody and farming and agriculture are the main businesses (like the place that I come from). I also got to know that they have some kind of custom in which they spend an entire year making some idols and burn them all on a particular day and celelbrate it as a major festival. I could see some similarity with our Ganesh Chathurthi.

At the end of the day, as he himself said once, we both understood how different we are and yet how similar we are!!!

* I still feel that I have forgotten a lot of stuff. Will keep updating the post as I recall each of them one by one.

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