CROSS-CULTURAL CONFUSION

*long post alert – necessitated by Code Freeze*

I went to UK 6 months after my husband did, and in our fledgling 1.5 year old marriage  where earlier we had lived in a very basic rented flat in Kolkata, his hospital accommodation of a terraced house was pretty well-laid out. In the kitchen were things one had never seen before. All we used in our homes here were actual cloth-wipes, which one cleaned, laid out to dry and reused. But here there were green and white striped rolls (now we get them here too, oh-how-the-times-have-changed) stuff which could be reused, but only so many times. My husband told me I should use them to clean. He had a 6 month advantage over me, who was I to refute? He had that slightly pitying-but-loving-nevertheless look about him, (somewhat like, aww, you poor inadequate thing, no worries, I will show you how to live in the first world). There were things in the kitchen I never knew existed. All manner of boxes and packets. I saw a bread-bin for the first time, and I still wonder why it’s called that. And then there was cling film. The only similar things I had ever seen were the stuff they wrapped bodies in when the murderer in films tried to do away with the body in the car boot. All I had seen in India which served similar purpose were aluminium foils and even that was in the house of my favourite-but-posh-as-Grace-Kelly-aunt. My mother still bought her bread daily and packed sandwiches in our ‘tiffin’ boxes. How on earth did my husband even realize this was a necessity, I asked him. He answered that he had seen it in the house of a friend he stayed with. And I taught it to the two who stayed at my place, and so on and so forth.

Thus the culture and knowledge of cling films were passed down generations of medical students from Calcutta. Cling films, ice-cube bags, aluminium foils, sponge, using a vacuum cleaner, realizing the world had an entire range of chips, of various favours (while here we still only had the movie-hall-special-salted ones), and oh, by the way, they were not called chips, they were crisps. Chips were what you had your miserable tasteless fish with. And sneakers is very American, the Brits called them trainers.

It was December, and in what I realized was an annoying Western habit (yes, alright, I am stereotyping, but heck I am right), everyone only wore black or dark blue or dark brown. I often stuck out like a sore thumb with my burgundy parka as I walked down slushy, black-iced footpaths all the way to the town centre to stare at shops. The prices made the mind boggle, but I was young and Indian and teddy-bear-aspirational enough to look longingly at the shop windows. Finally, I think I (intentionally, maybe?) stared at one hard and long enough for my husband to buy me one. In my very middle-class upbringing, the only teddy- bear I ever had was the one my friend who went to study in Smith college got me the first time she came back home, and I still have it. And in a family of brothers whose sole reason for existence was to ensure my existence was miserable, even the mention of a teddy bear would have brought on guffaws and catcalling. Anyway, I digress.

I had old men calling me sunshine and sweetheart and I realized I was not a slightly grown up Lolita to them, but that was the way the British spoke. I forgot the irascible tempers of our bus drivers here, (although heaven knows the traffic, the heat and the sheer number of people they had to deal with was enough to drive them to murder.) Point to be made -we have been back over 15 years, and I or my husband have never driven here. Not once.

I got used to people genially smiling at me and peppering their conversations with  what sounded like, “ta, loo”, which I later realized was “Thanks, love”.Desperately needing a haircut, it was a few months before I got my first hair-cut. The rupee-pound conversion was just too daunting. One of the other doctors who was staying with us then went to a shop which had written on its window, “5 Pounds for a haircut, 2.5 for OAPs”. He went in and smartly told the chaps inside he wanted an OAP, figuring what else but a haircut could it be in a hair-cutting saloon. We were laughing as we recollected how embarrassed he was to realize, after much scratching of the same hair, that OAP stood for Old Age Pensioners. Years later, when I was being inducted into my first job in an IT company here in India, the chap went on about ‘verticals’ and ‘horizontals’. I still don’t quite get the terms, but I stopped even bothering when, in a training on budgets etc, after three days, I was told, that all the budget for horizontals were notional. Imagine that, three long days of reports and formulas and figures and then they tell us it’s notional? We could have just had a nice offsite meeting, no? Without all this financial mumbo-jumbo?

Cut to when we moved to Wolverhampton, a city near Birmingham. By now, I had what was a cash card, courtesy my husband. I still did not have a job, and was slowly getting resigned to a lifetime of trying to look pretty when my husband came home and drinking sherry in the afternoons, reading books to drive boredom away. That was the other thing – there were so many books, and each place had a library everyone could access. I was braver now, and one day, – and it was the first day – I took the train to Birmingham. And, flush with funds in the cash card, I went window shopping with a better sense of purpose. I was young, and the backpack still looked hip on me. I wandered in a shop called Debenhams, admiring their finest crystals, wine glasses placed in a pyramid on a huge round table. One tiny touch of my backpack and the whole pyramid, of scores and scores of glasses fell like a house of cards. I stared at it, my face flaming with horror, wondering whether they would allow me a call to my husband from the lock-up. I think a set of 12 glasses then cost the 200 GBP my card would allow me to withdraw. And I had broken at least 20 such sets. There was a flurry of activity as I saw a sales lady walk up to where I was. See, here is a point completely antithetical to the essence of this blog. A big reason why one should stay in a place where everyone is the same colour is because in such places, one could at least make an attempt to slink away and vanish. But I was so freaking brown! Where could I hide? I scanned the faces of the people hurrying towards me, but they were singularly without rancour. As I mumbled nervously that I would go and bring 200 pounds, and my husband would come and pay the rest later, this lady put a hand on my shoulder and told me, “Shush, love, it’s fine, don’t worry, the insurance will pay for it”.

As I took the train back, I still could not fathom what had happened, how I could have been let off so easily. But years later, in Cambridge, we saw the other aspect of insurance, when we saw lager louts get into the Co-op shop having its closing down sale and just throwing bone-china plates around. Guess insurance paid for that too.

Acronyms. I had no clue what asap meant. Well may you laugh now, in your age of btw and lmao. I would send job applications to adverts which asked for the resume to be sent asap. I searched the dictionary for the word and did not find it. I was too proud to ask even my husband – I was beginning to get depressed about not getting a job anyway. Much later, after hearing the word spoken, I figured it meant what it does. If there is someone reading this who still does not know the meaning, may I have some of what you are smoking please? Years later, in my job near Cambridge, I would often hear the word pdq. “I want it done PDQ”, someone would holler. Again, no clue. I was by then confident enough to ask around, and one lady told me she did not know for sure either but they used it for “pretty darn quick”. Go figure. Also, my close friend later told me she found our use of the word ‘thrice’ very sweet and quaint. Fancy that.

We were in an England, where each place we visited had a story to us all. Cambridge was close to Newmarket, which was a horse-racing town which we had read about in many novels of Dick Francis. An England which disliked Cliff Richard, whom we had grown-up loving, an England where the only time you heard Jim Reeves was during Christmas. We made special trips to Tintern Abbey, and no one we were asking knew why we would want to visit that place. Like the quintessential Indian, I sat on the couch which belonged to Wordsworth and took a picture, where it was clearly written ‘do not sit’. How the else heck was one supposed to show folks at home I had visited the place? Our bucket list had these places to tick off. This was an England we learnt about in our entire childhood reading of  Enid Blyton, but here it was not politically correct to praise her, because while we were sleeping and growing up in India holding on to her books, it had been decided here that she was racist and that was proved by her character of ‘Golliwog’ and sundry other reasons. Enid Blyton was anathema to this changed new world. But she is who taught us about the villages and cultures and food of England, through her characters and stories. When I was first leaving for UK, I was sobbing copious tears, and the last thing my brother told me as he hugged me goodbye was, “Get me some scones, OK? Never had it!”

Scones, clotted cream. A friend bought mince-pies from the superstore thinking it had mince-meat inside, imagining it would be a nice complete dinner with ice-cream later. Only to realize mince-pies had minced fruits in them. Oh the confusion all of this wrought in our developing-country souls. And the wines. From having saccharine sweet Lambrusco, and loving it, as we went up the food chain, we graduated to less sweet and then dry wines more. I used to laugh at my close friend Cathy who would only have Lambrusco, despite being British herself. Jacket potato, bidet, (OK, probably those two things needn’t have been placed together). We got used to using toilet paper because the toilets did not sometimes even have a tap in them. The butt-shower we have here is such a welcome device, nobody gives its invention enough credit, I have noticed. We enjoyed their food as much as they enjoyed ours. Linda had bitter gourd and mustard at my house first, when other than chicken, nothing else was on offer, as she is a vegetarian. She had it, politely at first, and then she said, “hmm, interesting. Tell me Lali, why would you want to have this?” She was right – I had hated it too, along with so many other vegetables and food items, but then nostalgia (and age, I am sure) took over. I would smell mangoes in the supermarket – these were Gambian or Puerto-Rican ones – and one day a lady asked me why I smelt them. I remember the confusion in me as I tried to understand her question – what on earth is there if not the flavour? We found our Pakistani shops selling ‘our kind’ of mangoes, and I remember bringing a box for Linda, and I remember the expression on her face as she took her first bite. “Oh my god, this is like a different fruit altogether! I love it!” And I introduced her to the shop in Mill Road. Now of course the world is smaller and things reach faster, and I feel happier that my friends there can have real mangoes.

I too began to treasure my personal space, which one lacked so much in India. Here, at least around that time, you would be considered selfish, if you wanted to sit with your book and a drink and did not want to watch TV or play with your child for a few hours. I began to abhor the needless curiosity people in our cultures have. I began to respect people for who they were, and not for their age; realized it was no credit that the person was born a couple of decades before me. If that makes me rude, tough. Our cultures – at least a lot more then – was one of destructive transparency, where no one thought anything of coming to a bride and fiddling with her jewellery and asking who gave what.

We got confident enough to mock and ridicule some of their mores. Everyone at my place of work admitted I knew better English than all of them. Between being confused about why they called dinner tea and tea too tea, and between them calling me too posh for them, between them understanding terms like xerox as a verb, the same way I learnt hoover as one, I made some of my closest friends there, friends who would mortgage their houses for me if I needed it. Friends whom I would call early in the morning after a sleepless night of dealing with a sick son. Between struggling through lighting a barbecue and mocking the potato salad that went with it, we somehow saw that Cathy, – my very British friend, -liking red onions and cooking with them. Between realizing the irony of us liking roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and them liking chicken tikka masala more, we found our families in lands thousands of miles away. Linda and Cathy would love my son more than most people; they do even now. These were friends I could call and they would be there in a heartbeat. Friends who stood in a sort of circle, at Heathrow, holding on, shamelessly crying, sobbing, as we left to return here. My chest still feels tight with how much I miss them.

It is up to us to keep building bridges to bring the world closer together, and not destroy them to divide us further apart. We can pave new roads  simply by understanding other cultures. Our travels and our reading have taught us to judge, but only with our hearts. It is quite similar to how you might hate the clothes your siblings wore, but still had a healthy respect and love for them. Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.

Friendships, even long distance ones, do not have to be about irreconcilable cultural split.

 

 

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