A little cultural awareness
One of the best things about India is that nothing is as you would expect. Body language, tone of voice, and how people relate to each other is very… Indian =) And although I always feel like my patience is being tested often, I need to take a step back and realize that things are different here. Then I start to learn how to adapt my behaviour which helps me better understand my surroundings.
Being stared at here is constant unfortunately (if you ever want to travel to somewhere other than the western world this is something that you need to accept and not let it bother you). Being watched and having photos taken of me doesn’t usually bother me. Out on the street and when I’m with the group it’s normal, and you can always walk away and ignore it. But on the train, it does bother me a little. On the train you are stuck in your bunk and can’t move for quite a few hours. And therefore, people (usually men), can sit there and watch you do everything. Read, write, listen to music, and sleep. I’ve tried different tactics in avoidance – I even tried giving them the stink eye. In Canada, when someone stares at you with a mean look in their eye with a mean look on their face, the other person usually gets the message and looks away. That doesn’t happen here – for a number of reasons I’ve concluded. First of all, it’s not as typical in India as in Canada for women to make eye contact with men and hold it for a period of time. If they do, it usually means they are “interested” – in which case my tactic of giving the stink eye to men gives me the opposite reaction to what I want. Instead I just have to drop my eyes, avoid looking at them and let them stare, hopefully they’ll become bored and stop. As well, being a female unaccompanied by a male is also something that never usually happens in India so that stands out in itself.
Culturally, women with lighter skin in India are either on t.v., they are models, they are tourists who come and get drunk, or they are in Indian porn films. It just so happens that I am none of these things, but because I am pale I can be attributed with these elements of Indian white culture. Of course, these are generalizations but they do give an idea of how Indian men relate to lighter skinned women. Sometimes when I’m on the train I wished I had an invisibility cloak – even just to hide my skin, face, and hair – my most distinguishable features. Being stared at over all hasn’t been a huge problem, but sometimes it can be irritating – honestly, it’s something that would happen no matter where I went.
In India the rickshaw drivers and store clerks hustle so hard – and never stop. Cochin was a very touristy town so most things were geared toward tourists and making money. Even in the service industry I’ve found that the expectations and service has been different. For instance, we went to a restaurant and the server didn’t tell us that he actually did not have the capacity to serve us. So instead we waited 3 hours for 3 meals (there were 13 of us). Often a rickshaw driver will tell us they know where the place is we want to go eve if they don’t. So they drive around lost asking all their friends on the way. It seems like they would just earn the business and the money than admit they are unable to serve us. This can get frustrating but it’s another aspect of culture that’s important to remain aware of. About 80% of the students on this trip are in International Development so everyone is pretty culturally understanding which is great.
One aspect of Indian culture and body language that I love is the head bob. Instead of nodding or shaking their heads they have this great head bog that seems to be a mix of the two. They are so intricate it’s hard to replicate exactly. When I was sick all the head movement made me feel nauseous, but usually it’s great =)
Experiencing and living in a different culture is very eye opening and I find that I learn a lot – both about the world and even my own culture that I am accustomed to. Watching people interact is a great stepping stone to cultural awareness. Of course being culturally aware does not include accepting inappropriate behaviour. It’s also important to know when we as visitors to a foreign country need to be more culturally aware and when we need to stop inappropriate behaviour. It’s all a learning process =)