Culture Surprises: London - 4/12

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 4...

Every room had a heater. Still it was piercing cold. My daughter didn't have any problem. She slept well immediately. My wife was shivering. 'Oh my goodness, have I made a mistake like everyone said?!', my head was spinning. Nobody leaves with the family right in the first time. Only after settling in and being able to breathe does everyone take their family. But we? With the confirmation of just one month's stay, the entire family went thinking, 'Whatever is the experience, let's have it together!'. No other go then. We had to manage it. As we had to leave on short notice there was no sleep on the previous night and as this was the first night in a new place there was no sleep this night as well. I slept late and woke up early.

When I woke up in the morning I realized that one problem was resolved. There was no cold. The heaters had done their job well after some time. Because of the few days of gap the residual cold had its effect. Also, I had gone there imagining that there would be the kind of modern Air Conditioners that we see in India, whose temperatures could be easily controlled with a remote control. But I was disappointed when I saw those box-type room heaters, which took time to heat. Putting it simply, the expectation that a developed country would have 'everything' better than us was the biggest mistake I made. It's mostly correct. But one can't expect 'everything' there to be better than 'everything' here. I should just have understood this simple thing.

Even at 7 AM in the morning it didn't look like morning. No people movement on the roads. Once in a while someone would walk past. But we could see the cleanliness and orderliness that we generally expect in the western countries. We came to another window and saw the trees and plants. There was a fluffy squirrel playing on one of the trees. It's not only the squirrels, not just the people, everything is fluffy there. Even the vegetables are fluffy. We got all vegetables that we get in India. But they looked much better and bigger. Radish was as big as a feet. Ridge gourd was bigger than that. Bitter gourd was big too. Tomato looked like apple. One potato is sufficient for one time meal. Brinjals (They don't call them 'brinjals' there; it's all 'egg plants'!) were so beautiful. Everything must be hybrid. Everyone says nature is beauty and natural is beautiful. But science and technology seem to add more beauty to them and make them more beautiful.

When I got ready and opened the door to leave for office the cold breeze hit the face. My wife shut the door immediately in reflex. There was another pending job to be done before leaving for work. Having gone that far, when you go to work on day one leaving your family with not even a phone number to reach for emergency, can a man focus on work peacefully (I can hear you murmur, 'that's the most peaceful thing, man!')? Got down and went one full round walking. There was a small shop. There was a lady with a Tamil face there. She was speaking to her husband in Tamil. It sounded like the Srilankan Tamil. Many shops in that area were run by Srilankan Tamils. It reminded me of how I felt on my first day in Bangalore when I heard Tamil. A kind of relief feeling that I was not in a totally alien land. I bought two sim cards, came back home, gave one to my wife and left for work.

The work place was just in walking distance from home. We don't have many problems that our earlier generations had when they went abroad. You don't have to search for people to help you with address in places where you hardly find any people. There is Google Maps for everything now. I saw the place very well on the maps before leaving home itself on my laptop. Even then once I hit the road I couldn't make out the head or tail. However much technology helps us, it's only natural to get lost in a new place on day one, right? If I had GPS in my phone it would have been better. But I had planned to buy it after reaching there. Even if I had taken a phone with GPS, on day one itself... as soon as buying sim card... how can it help so much? We should understand their (technology's) difficulties also, right?!

I started walking, with the conscious feeling that I was walking on the streets of London. But it didn't give a kick beyond a point. It was not as high as how I felt before landing there. Everything is like that, right? I wanted to go everywhere just to feel like this everywhere. Everything is cleaner, more orderly and more gigantic than in our place. Gradually everything will come here also ('Gigantic' will surely come. But cleanliness and orderliness... will they come so soon?!). Within few minutes hand was getting numb in cold. Face hardened. Everyone except me was wearing winter coat for cold. I was wearing blazer. So I thought I might not need it. I realized how foolish I was within few minutes.

Not just winter coats. They were all wearing caps covering their ears, scarfs covering the neck and gloves for hands. Most of them were keeping their hands inside the coat pocket or pant pocket (This is an important thing to be noted. See, this is what has become style in India later. Whatever they did for a reason became style to us for no reason!). All these including the shoes fully covering the foot made perfect sense for them. But why are we following them all so religiously here? I had a long discussion about it within myself. If they designed their clothes to survive in that freezing cold, our forefathers have also designed our clothes to be in sync with the weather and conditions of our land, right?! Aren't we supposed to stick to our own open slippers for foot, open clothing like dhoti for lower half of the body, even the thread we wear around the waist to hold the dhoti, simple cotton clothes and the towel to wipe off sweat every now and then? Why are we then struggling with the sweating shoes, pants, belt, coat and tie (Tie is another winter-specific thing!)? We have been subjected to a 'Whether you like it or not, you have to do it' kind of conditioning. That has then become a thing of choice for everyone.

Like the politicians who want our votes sticking to the clothes of the land, we who want the western world's money stick to the clothes of their land. Whom are you dependent on for your livelihood, you better please them is the unwritten rule, right (In fact, they have become written rules now in companies!)? Wearing their own clothes is an important part of that adherence. Most of us have started wearing pants more than dhotis and shorts more than lungi without anyone compelling us to do so now. Even those who do cultural policing come in the western outfit only while they come out to do their duty. Another reason why these clothes were accepted so well is that they are more comfortable. So if it is making us comfortable it's okay to copy something from some other culture. But the blind following is what needs to be watched out for.

I have even heard that the companies in Middle East don't appreciate people going in multiple layers of coat-suit clothing these days. It's a good change. One doesn't have to be adamant about keeping his culture alive despite its irrelevance to the day. Doing what makes sense for the time is a smart thing to do. Even I used to like dhoti a lot earlier. I used to wear it often just for the love of wearing it. I used to prefer lungi more than shorts. Just because I used to think I had a moral responsibility to preserve these things! It sounds so funny when I think about it now. But it was a forced marriage. After shifting to shorts fully at some point in time I don't think I miss lungi now so much. But even now I don't like wearing suffocating shoes, strangulating tie, the third layer of coat on top of the inner wear and shirt in summer. I can't say I will ever like them even if I get used to them over time. We are wearing these just because we have to wear them. But I may never say I like them.

Let's get back to the streets where I was walking. I had to check with people for the address I was looking for. It was all white faces mostly. Here and there I could find some 'our' faces as well ('our' means it includes all 'our'!). The consciousness of walking on the English streets kept popping up. Everyone around was walking briskly blowing smoke out of their mouth. Like I said earlier, some are 'this' smoke and others are 'that' smoke. The street that I was supposed to go was right there. Still nobody there knew it. It's a problem that I have had even in Bangalore and Chennai. So, this is not a culture surprise. It's a global problem. Unlike in our place, the name boards on shops don't have the address mentioned in it. I used to wonder why people write everything including the pin code on the name board of commercial buildings. That too, in my place, I have even seen boards that have taluk, district and all as if it is some Government record and everyone going past will note down the details and write them a letter later! Now that we are used to it I missed it so much while struggling to find the address on a foreign soil.

Within few minutes of walk, I could see a few trams as well. When I saw that in Calcutta 10 years back it looked like one of the seven wonders. What is a tram? Railway lines in the middle of the road; a mini train with just two coaches (like a long bus) on it... That's tram. It's a combination of both bus and train. When I saw that in Calcutta, I was told, "It was one of the many good things that the Britishers did for India. But the trams were introduced only in Calcutta!". This time I was happier to see that in their own place. There is a difference though - It was black and dusty and moving like a tortoise in Calcutta; but in London it was green and beautiful and was zipping through (By the way, I didn't mean black is dusty and green is beautiful. Color and the other description are two different things!). On the left extreme of the roads (next to the platform), they have left 4 - 5 feet for bicycles with clear demarcation. I could see this separate track for bicycles throughout London. Equal respect for everyone! That's nice, right?

Observing all these and with many other meaningless stray thoughts I was straying up and down in the same area for a few times. Finally I caught hold of an Indian face after a long struggle. Another disappointment when he opened his mouth. He spoke in the British accent. Must be a guy born and brought up there. He tapped his phone and thanks to GPS, he said, "This is the street that you are looking for. So the place you are looking for is somewhere here only!". It looked as if he wouldn't leave me until I found the place. He was so keen to help me. But I thanked him and saw him off. Poor guy, he would have his own headaches to handle, right? Within next few minutes I found the place that I was looking for. Even there I had a lot of interesting observations. Wait for some time. We will discuss them as well.



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