01.09.2013 - 13.11.2013
I had thought that my friends and I were as pretty cosmopolitan bunch - we've lived across the world, travelled a lot and come from various different backgrounds. And I guess we are, in our own very European ('Western'? I'm never sure what the best way to phrase that is) way, but really we come from a pretty closed milieu. It’s only during the last 5 weeks, while I’ve been living with rural Indian communities, that I’ve realised just how much it is possible for attitudes to differ, particularly regarding manners.
It took me a good two weeks to reset my rude-ometer, preset to its customary British levels of politeness, and not be affronted every time somebody (often perfect strangers) grabbed at my possessions or waltzed into ‘my’ room to stretch out on ‘my’ bed. I’ve talked about privacy and personal space before, but I’m just going to reiterate for you: there isn’t any. Even when I’ve had the luxury of locking the door, if somebody wants to get in then they’d just bash away until I opened it. I learned pretty quickly that it was less hassle to leave it wide open.
Then there’s the volume level. I often totally failed to realise that people were talking to me, even in English, because it sounded like they were conversing with somebody three rooms away rather than somebody right in front of them. Which brings me back round to language again. I know I bang on a lot about understanding the local language as being the key to understanding a culture, but it’s absolutely 100% true. As a Brit, with our very particular way of dressing requests up in layer upon layer of niceties, it’s genuinely a shock to be told ‘Get out of the car’ or ‘Move that bag’. Until you can work out what locals are saying to each other, you just won’t realise that here there is none of the ‘Would you mind...?’s or ‘May I...?’s. Imperatives are the order of the day (pun 1000% intended).
But the spitting. Oh, the spitting. Now this I really struggle with. That now-familiar sound of ‘hkhaarrkharrrraarghhhh-phut-splat’ (pronounced as written, ish) is just delightful to my ears, and even more so to my eyes. (This is India is my mantra. This is India.) In fact I did a class on manners and etiquette with my more advanced group and drew up a guide for Indians visiting the UK – one suggestion was ‘Don’t spit in front of you, do spit to the side.’ Nice try, kid, but no cigar this time. And there’s a lot of stuff I could go on about, but I’m not going to because I don’t want you to get the impression that all this is a problem. Although it all takes a lot of getting used to, that is precisely the point. It is up to me (or any foreigner visiting) to make the effort to get used to it all and to suppress the instinctive look of disgust or offence, because here, quite simply, none of this is disgusting or offensive.