Thursday, June 07, 2012

Cultural Surprises: London - 5/12


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!

Part 5...

The security guard standing in front of the client office received me without a smile. 'Yet another frown face?!' - I was disappointed. We provide special training to our security guards here to receive the clients who come from other countries with a smile. Seeing all that I was always thinking that all these were western etiquette. Then why is it that the security guard there didn't receive me with that kind of a smile?! This smile thing was haunting me throughout my stay there. I would check if they smile or not whenever I met someone, whoever it was. I entered the building thinking, 'Maybe there is a norm that the security guards shouldn't smile too much for a reason. Who knows?!'.

There was a senior lady in the reception. I said "good morning" with a big smile. Disappointment again. She did say "good morning" but without a smile. Even after that for the next 10 days I was consistently greeting her with my pleasant "good morning". When I say 'pleasant' it's the smile that I am referring to. 'Maybe they don't like us!', I thought. But she was pleasant with the lady colleague (she is Indian too) who was with me. What was going wrong? I couldn't understand. Was it because she is a lady too or was it because she looked more westernized or was she more pleasant to her than I was? Whatever! I couldn't understand that. I concluded that there was something wrong with my face or my language. Maybe the 'please, thanks, sorry's weren't sufficient.

It's a problem for all our guys who go there. I never used to like those who are overly-nice with people in my childhood (maybe because those who behaved like that were not really nice). Then I realized that it was okay to be so if it was sincere and it's not okay only if it was done with a hidden agenda. However, I couldn't say as many 'thanks' and 'please's as 'sorry's. I was prepared to say them more liberally once I was there. Still what they do seemed too much to me!

The way we think is like this - "Even those who do life-changing helps don't even expect a 'thank you' in our culture. We just do it as the duty of a fellow human being and move on. Why so many 'thanks', 'sorry's and 'excuse me's for silly things like giving way, sneezing, hiccup, etc.?" That's right too. But that is our 'right'. Do you know what their 'right' is? "Try being nice with people for even small things like these. You will realize that the world around is becoming better. It's for the overall good of the humanity!". That sounds right too, right?! It makes more sense when I think about those people back home who bang on me due to their own mistake or carelessness and then go onto shout at me as if it was my mistake to be on their way. If we had learnt to say as many 'sorry's and 'thanks' like them, maybe we would have had a more humane society. What say? Had I spent more time there, I would have definitely learnt more such good things from them. What to do? Life had its own plans.

Got into the workplace and the work started. Another common practice there is holding the door for others when you open it before them. This is something that was taught by colleagues who came back from onsite trips more than a decade back. So it wan't that difficult to follow. What was surprising was the fact that 'everyone' around you was doing it now. That's called culture, right?! It's not only that everyone does it, everyone who receives it also acknowledges it with a big smile and a loud 'thanks'. I even used to think, 'These guys say so many thanks and sorry. Won't their mouth pain?!'. But these behaviors are encouraged only when they are acknowledged like this. Otherwise the culture of unfriendly staring will only flourish. So, there are both types of people there - those who don't smile back when you smile as well as those who respond with a bigger smile than yours when you smile at them. What's difficult to understand for outsiders like us is, who is where!

I went to London with plans to see many things. But after sometime the only thing that I wanted to see was the sunlight. On the whole of first day I didn't get an opportunity for that. It was all cloudy. When we saw from 8th or 9th floor the city looked beautiful. Still once you have seen something you lose all the interest immediately, right?! It becomes nothing suddenly irrespective of all the imaginary admiration you had. The next day we could see a ray of sunlight from only one direction somewhere far away in the city. It was such a nice feeling when I saw that. That's the relationship we have with nature, especially sunlight!

Mid noon we came out to have lunch. It was piercing cold even at that time. There was a Punjabi restaurant nearby. We went in and sat there. The waiter (a Sardarji youngster) exchanged pleasantries and started engaging us in a chit-chat. He asked, "Which company?". We told him. He was surprised, "How come you guys here? Your office is there, right?!". Looked like he knew our history and geography better than us. That was an unbelievable surprise. That too on day one itself! Even before we asked him, "How come you know so much about us?", he started answering our question, "I did my MBA thesis in your company!". "What? You? MBA? Working in a restaurant?", we would have asked such questions if it was in India. It's not so there. We have all heard this many times, right? In every successful western leader's biography they would talk about their experience working in some restaurant or coffee shop in their student days. All such stories that we heard back home came to my mind then. Still, there is something more interesting about seeing the same thing in person what you have heard about before, right?!

I love this culture. We should also pick it up. It will have a lot of good changes in our society if we do that. We are so spoiled by the hierarchies that our forefathers taught us that we find some jobs superior over others. There are many jobs that are still seen as cheap. But there is one problem if this comes to India. There is already unemployment here. After this, if even the educated kids take up this kind of jobs then the uneducated will have nowhere to go. Then we will only end up with the 'tiger-deer' stories again.

When I had to come back home in the evening it was all the more colder. It gets dark by 5 PM. I tried to manage with just blazer for two-three days. But I couldn't. Legs were freezing. Body was shivering. Hands were getting numb. The face was hardening. First I thought I would get used to it after two-three days. But then after three days I realized that nothing had changed. I started setting things right one by one. First I bought a winter coat. Then I bought a winter cap to protect my ears and face. Then I bought gloves for hands. Only after buying all these did I realize that it was not that difficult to live there!

Since it gets dark early, people leave office also early. They start their work also early in the morning accordingly. Nobody works till midnight like in our place. There are security issues as well working beyond a point. As they reach home early in the evening they get some time for family as well. One can also go for shopping on week days with family. We went for shopping almost three-four days a week. If I came back before dark we would go to West Croydon, which is supposed to be the 'not so safe' area. If I came back after dark we would restrict ourselves to Eastern part of it itself.

I am always scared of streets with no people movement. That too, the stories I heard about London were not very encouraging. Especially the stories about Croydon. When I would come back from office, I would always be walking very fast, extra-cautious, looking around with suspicion of everyone and everything. Maybe if I had ended up elsewhere instead of Croydon I might not have gone this mad.

The High Street in Croydon was always busy. Every time we went there I was reminded of M.G. Road in Bangalore. I would think M.G. Road would have been like this if it were little more cleaner. It was clean with cement-mosaic floor. There were cement benches here and there for the passers-by to sit and relax between their shopping. There would always be young boys and girls sitting on them, drinking something or doing things that we won't do in public back home. You would see bear cans and cigarette butts thrown all around (I still call the place clean because you know how clean our places back home are!). But I am sure the other neighborhoods in London won't be like this. This must be a very Croydon-thing.

Though most of the countries where Indians go to are richer than India, it's not necessary that we need to carry everything from here. You can buy most of the groceries and things needed for daily use for almost the same price there. We shouldn't convert everything into Rupee and compare though. If you just look at it from the perspective of purchasing power in that particular country it won't be much different. Even there you could find all types of shops. Expensive shops, inexpensive shops, shops for locals, shops for immigrants and so on! So we don't really have to damage our suitcases by dumping them with stuff beyond their capacity. We should just take from here what we can't buy there.

I observed another interesting thing about my spending behavior. I calculate every Rupee that I spend back home. But I didn't waste my time converting every expense into Indian Rupee there. Maybe because I was so lazy to even calculate! Another thing is, their one Pound is equal to our 80 Rupees. So when you can buy something that costs 100 Rupees in India for less than 10 Pounds there, you tend to feel that it's cheaper there. 10 is smaller than 100, right?!

I am not sure if you are getting what I mean. Since our currency is weak, we don't value even our bigger denominations that much. For example, 1000 is huge number for them. Because they can even buy a used car for 1000 Pounds. But 1000 Rupees? It's an amount for a family dinner here. That's the reason. When I buy anything, I always ask myself this question, "Is it absolutely necessary?". I asked this question every time I bought something there also. But I never calculated how much it would have costed if I had bought it in India.

We could get most of the Indian stuff there. Some things were little more difficult to get. We had heard about some of those things and hence taken them all with us. Especially the stuff like cooking powder, coriander powder, etc. Even those things are available in Indian-Pakistani shops. Mixer is one thing that you don't get there so most people carry it from here. But we didn't take it from India. But, since the service apartment we stayed is an Indian one, they had it so we had no problem.

All shops (especially the small shops) have glass doors, which are always closed (not locked). They are not always open like in our place. We find them so receptive when they are always open, right?! So they didn't seem like shops for me. Same is the case with the houses as well. You can't find people moving around unless they are going out or coming back in. So even this culture of keeping the doors closed always must have come from there, where they kept their doors closed for a reason, i.e. cold, to places like ours where there is no cold at all.

- TO BE CONTINUED...

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