One of my personal goals for the Social Sabbatical was to learn more about the fascinating culture of India and improve my cultural awareness in general.
While I have been observing different behaviors and practices, when working in my “normal environment” with colleagues from other countries for many years, working and living in a country for an extended period provides you with a more comprehensive and immersive experience, perspective and insights.
Looking at the common culture shock phases, I also realize that I am past my initial phase of curiosity (or “honeymoon”) with India, in the adjustment phase and my mind continues to focus on the differences between my current environment and my usual environment. I would like to share some of those observations with you.
One of the early observations that struck me, was related to body language and people behavior. When we visited the schools that CHORD (our NGO partner) established, I noticed that the kids would always stand up and then immediately cross their arms in front of them, before either asking or answering a question. In the western world this is typically interpreted as a sign of reservation or protecting yourself. As this happened consistently in all the schools we visited, I asked our counterpart at CHORD and he explained, that crossing your arms is a sign of respect for the person you are talking to.
While all people we have met have been sincerely friendly, I keep struggling to accept and adapt to one particular behavior: The redefinition of the FIFO principle from “First In First Out” to “Fastest In First Out”, meaning don’t expect others to wait in line or follow the sequence. Whether you are waiting for the restroom, to buy a ticket, to get off a plane or to check out at the supermarket, it happened to me everywhere that people jumped right in front of me, just about when I thought it was my turn. And nobody seems to have a problem with it, neither the person jumping in front of you nor anybody around you observing that behavior. This type of behavior is commonly considered egoistic, rude or entitled in Europe and the Americas. I personally interpret it as a lack of respect (the other person feels their time is more important than mine), this is why it is hard for me to accept compared with the first observation. However I also learned that India is truly a land of contrasts and this might just be another example.
Filling gaps quickly and jumping right in front of you, applies also to traffic for drivers as well as for pedestrians crossing roads, reminding me of the classic video game Frogger, only that I haven’t come across a river, yet I had to cross. Who would have thought that playing Frogger as a little kid would prepare me for my trip to India?
Another observation that is hard for me to accept is the amount of trash and dirt you see everywhere. And this is not just limited to the slums or empty properties that are often filled with make-shift living arrangements like shown on the left. While I have seen trash and dirt in developing countries before, I have never seen it so consistently and widespread. The trash, combined with the air pollution, dry air and heat as well as noise when you are outside for the first time in my life brought me to the point that I preferred spending time indoors over outdoors. As I am moving forward in the “culture shock curve” I have fortunately gotten past that point.
I want to close my blog entry today with another set of questions and several of the pictures I have taken over the past 3 weeks:
Have you ever had a hard time to accept and adapt to a behavior that is different from yours or an experience that made you change your lifelong preference from A over B to B over A?
Did you successfully overcome these situations and what did you learn from it?