Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Impressionism of India - Part Two: Feeling Connected

In Part One of my trip through India, there was a sincere feeling of being an outsider.  I had to acknowledge and embrace that I knew nothing of the customs, none of the languages(s), nor anything of the experience that was in store for me.  It was resoundingly apparent that I was different.  Yet, as soon as I had comfortably settled into my own peculiarity, I found myself feeling a serious sense of connection with all of those around me.  Perhaps it was simply the fact that accepting ourselves is what opens us up to these types of connections, but it still felt profoundly unique.

The last post was in the form of “Lessons Learned” because that’s what happens when you feel different.  You are taught.  However, feeling connected is much more of an egalitarian task.  It’s less about someone teaching you and more about discovering for yourself.  It is for that reason that this section consists of four key discoveries from my time in India.

Discovery #1:  What it means to be taken care of

From the moment we arrived, we were attended to, shepherded, and guided in the most wonderful of ways.  Upon stepping off the plane in Chennai, I was mildly concerned about finding my way. This feeling quickly devolved into a state of panic as I thought, “Oh my God, where am I and where do I go and how do I know if I am safe?”  But only a few minutes into my own downward spiral did I discover someone waiting for me with a sign saying “Rasanath and Hari Welcome You!”  After arriving to the hotel late at night, we were awoken in the morning with a gentle knock and a warm cup of coffee by the groom’s sister.  When I arrived at the wedding venue hopelessly wrapped in an unattractive swath of saree fabric, two girls who spoke absolutely no English overcame their seemingly paralysing shyness by helping me pin my saree into a stunning display of color and sequins.

The groom’s cousin quickly befriended us by explaining what the hell was going on, taking us shopping for the right type of Indian clothes, and arguing with the auto rickshaw driver to make sure he didn’t rip us off (even going so far as to take a picture of his license plate to ensure he didn’t pull a fast one after we left).  He allowed us to hotspot our phones from his to maintain some semblance of connection with the outside world.  He even invited into his family's home, fed us delicious fruit and nuts and Sprite, and shared his (only mildly embarrassing) childhood photos.  Thanks Aswhinn :)

There was something so beautiful, unselfish, and unconditional about this hospitality and generosity of spirit.  In every moment in which we interacted with a host or hostess of some kind, it did not feel like an obligation or an imposition.  Instead, it felt like an authentic desire to share in the experience with us.   There was a two way connection; one in which we got to feel included and aware, and our hosts got to rejoice in relegating this experience to more than just a ritual.  Indeed, for all of us… it was reminder of the meaning behind it all.

Discovery #2:  Indian Humble Pride

When I travel, I always find it fascinating (and telling) to observe how natives perceive and communicate their own culture.  There is a sliding scale between those who love their own culture and believe it to be superior to all others, and those who hate their own culture and assume that as an outsider, you are lucky to have come from somewhere else.  India falls somewhere in between. 

My first experience living outside of the United States was in France.  Living with a Parisian family in Paris was enthralling, rich, and complex.  It did not take long to realise that the French genuinely believe that French culture is the absolute best.  They see themselves as every bit as intelligent, enigmatic, and alluring as popular culture depicts (and frankly, they are!).  This unquestionable pride in their own culture is enthralling and inspiring, but also offputting because you know that no matter what, the assumption is that you, as an outsider, are inherently inferior. 

Contrast that with my current reality, living in Hong Kong.  Whenever I meet someone from Hong Kong, they ask me, “How do you like Hong Kong?” to which I reply enthusiastically: “I love Hong Kong!”  Without fail, this results in a look of disgust, surprise, and confusion, “Really?!”  Amongst the local community, there is often a confusing disdain for Hong Kong/Chinese culture.  This humility is charming in its own way, but also leaves me feeling a bit sad.  Yes, there are elements of Hong Kong and China which are dirty, crowded, loud, and inconvenient, but that does not mean it isn’t a wonderful place to live or to come from.

India was a melange of these two sentiments.  Upon being greeted, we were frequently asked with an engaging enthusiasm, “Is this your first time to India?” — to which I replied, “Yes” and the unequivocal response was, “Aren’t you LOVING It!?”  Without hesitation, without arrogance, it was simply a given that I would love this place.  Yet, there was also an open acceptance of its negatives.  Everyone acknowledged that, “You must be careful.  There are good people in India, and there are also many bad people,” or “It is very dirty and hot.”  But these were simply facts of life, they did not mean anything about the inherent value and reverence for Indian culture. 

Discovery # 3:  Food is Important

During each day of the wedding, we were served three meals of traditional South Indian food, or rather “prasad”, meaning it had been deliberatively and lovingly prepared and blessed for our consumption.  Served by a crew of men wearing really funny chef hats, the prasad was lovingly plopped upon our moistened banana leaves, and eagerly consumed by our carefully cupped right hand.  It was not only a spectacular delight for the senses, but also somewhat of a cultural artifact as there was significant meaning behind each ingredient and spice.  

I quickly learned that even if you don’t want more, or if you even try to think about being full... You. Are. Wrong.  Continuing to eat brought such unfettered delight to whomever was serving me, I felt obligated to stuff my face five times over.  When I tried to deny a second helping, the servers would wait a beat until I turned my head or looked away, and then sneak a bit extra on my plate… only to turn back as they moved onto the next banana leaf with a knowing grin as if to say, “Yeah, you’re welcome….” 

Discovery #4:  The Head Bob

As it is the most notorious and well known idiosyncrasy of Indian culture, I had been fully debriefed and prepped for the head bob.  Yes, I know, when someone bobs their head side to side - it looks like “No” but it really means “Yes”.  They will even say the word “Yes” while shaking their head saying ‘No’.  It will be confusing, but I was prepared.  Or so I thought.

Regardless of how much I thought about this, I was still confused when it happened to me.  I couldn’t help but open my eyes wide, pause, and say, “Wait, what?”  Though I understood it intellectually, I still could not physically keep up with what was happening before my eyes.  And yet, somehow, at some point several days into the trip, I found that I started making this gesture myself.  Without even realising it, I would bob my head side to side as to say, “Right, sure, whatever you say.”  This continued well into the following weeks once I had returned to Hong Kong.  Mid-conversation, my fiance would lovingly whack me on the arm saying, “You’re doing it again.”  It’s silly, of course, but I can’t help but interpret this as a subconscious connection that continued beyond the point where I had physically left the country.   

Indeed, what started as painful recognition of my “otherness” unexpectedly gave way to a profound feeling of connectedness.  As the trip wore on, this continued to evolve into what can only be described as a feeling of ultimately being the same.  To be continued in Part Three….