Author: Abbakka Prerana.
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As I was reading the chapter व्यवस्था और अव्यवस्था (Order and Chaos) of the book विभिन्नता (Being Different), it reminded me of the few years that I spent in the US. We frequently get to know of experiences of foreigners visiting India and their experiences with the Indian chaos. Here are some experiences of an Indian with the orderliness in the US. Before I begin, I would like to note that some of the descriptions are observations about the general population and might not apply to 100% of the population.
As a Student…
Order 101 (my first lesson in Order) –
I was walking around a library in the university and a person from the library asked me what I was looking for. I explained to him that I was not looking for any specific book, but I was just looking at different books to see if I find any of them interesting. He told me that it is not the proper way and I should check the list of books and decide what I want and only then look for that book. I was left wondering for many days, why it is wrong to just go around checking a few pages of different books.
An Indian in the US gets as baffled with the orderliness as much as an American does with the chaos in India.
As I was learning, I would have questions too – Why do all the undergrads seem to have teeth which look perfectly same, as if they were dentures manufactured on the same assembly line? Probably, the cosmetic dental industry was doing its job of bringing order to things. There are people who want perfectly straight hair and others who want to perfectly curl them, or someone would want to first straighten them and curl a few of them. So, what is wrong with the natural amount of curls and why does their hair look निर्जीव (nirjeev) to me? No need to mention cosmetics, tanning and cosmetic surgeries.
After some lessons, then came an assignment – the career fair. I got to know that there would be representatives from different companies, and we could introduce ourselves and hand over our resumes. Then I got to know that we need to wear a formal suit including a jacket. It would be extremely uncomfortable wearing these clothes along with a snow coat and all the winter wear. Is all that necessary? Just to hand over a resume? “They could decide on the spot whether to call you for an interview”, I was told. So, I just need to prepare to speak about my skill sets. Why do I have to wear so much of extra clothing? “You could lose a job opportunity if you do not turn up in formals.” The warnings rang all around me. But what happened to the famous American meritocracy? Ok, ok, got it…. I need to first prepare for the attire-cracy.
I went through the same kind of questions before the graduation day. Why does every student need to be wearing the same robe and hat? The culture of formal clothing was hard to imbibe having often heard from my mother …
ऊस डोंगा परी, रस नोहे डोंगा । काय भूललासी वरलिया रंगा ।।
It is a line from a composition of Sant Chokhamela which means …
A sugarcane looks crooked, but its juice is sweet. So why do you get fooled by external appearances?
The Negative side of Order….
One such experience was in the ER of a hospital… I wanted some small help, but the nurse for my bed was nowhere to be seen. I stopped a nurse passing by and asked for help, she said something like “your bed is not my job”. Then I stopped another doctor hoping that he might ask some nurse to help but got a similar reply. Lesson learnt – orderliness takes precedence over helping a sick person.
Imposing Order on Others ….
One day I was shocked to hear that foreigners need to “remove their accent”. What does that mean? Should I stop talking? Then I got to know that Americans consider American accent as neutral accent. So, everybody in the world has an accent except for Americans who are blessed with the special ability to not have any accent!
Even more outrageous is the expectation that foreigners should change their names to English names. But mind you, they are committed to fighting for justice if a woman must change her name (or last name) after marriage.
And then some more questions – Why are people so obsessed with mowing lawns and chopping off shrubs rather than letting them grow naturally? Why do houses look almost the same with no scope of appreciating someone’s creativity?
Lack of Freedom ….
The meals are served in courses so you must first finish what is on your plate and only then you will be served the next dish. That felt like I was going back to my childhood days when I was told – “you will not get the ice-cream/chocolate until you finish what is on your plate!” That was something which made me feel at home…. just joking.
I had been driving in India for some years. But when I learnt to drive in the US, my biggest fear was – if I live here for a long time, I might turn into a robot – reading instructions and executing them all the time. That is not to say that the traffic in India does not need any improvement but that is how it feels to someone who has the habit of using her own judgement while driving, walking, or doing anything else. So, whenever I visited India, I made sure to drive on the busiest road in my city so I could enjoy some freedom. Not joking.
Questions – Why is age so much of a secret? Is there any perfect age? Which age range is everyone trying to be in?
Why does it take me more time to reply in English? Is it just because it is not my mother tongue? Or is it because order is imposed in the language? The order of words in the sentence always must be subject–verb–object. E.g. “I ate banana” cannot be said any other way. Whereas in Sanskrit and other Indian languages, we can use any of the 6 permutations of those 3 words. So, we can start with any word that comes to our mind and then go on to finish the sentence as opposed to constructing the entire sentence before speaking.
Such experiences made me wonder why western people lack freedom in their daily lives even though their forefathers have been fighting for liberty and personal freedom for at least the past few centuries.
More about Dressing….
Most interesting is the obsession for matching colors – whether it is within different parts of clothing or clothes with shoes or matching clothes with weather! This is not to be misunderstood with wearing cardigans or winter wear, but the colors and design on the clothes. “Seasonal collection” could be a marketing strategy of the industry to get people to buy new clothes every season, but the fact that people follow it, tells us that they like someone imposing order on them. I gave it a thought because we have a tradition of wearing black clothes on Sankranti which helps to get warmth. But the color combinations and designs for the season did not seem to have any logic.
And I could not let go of my Indian freedom, having heard my father often end his advice by quoting the Marathi phrase ऐकावे जनाचे करावे मनाचे – which means listen to everyone but do what your मन says. (I would let the word be in devnagari because writing it as “mind” does not give the right meaning and writing it as “man” would make the sentence a gender issue.)
Thankfully, nobody complained about the disharmony I was creating – their clothes were perfectly matching the weather whereas mine were perfectly unpredictable.
Weddings are another representation of the society. The entire event will be rehearsed including details of walking. Bridesmaids (or groomsmen) need to wear the same dress. Guests cannot wear white because the bride wears white. To the Indian drishti, it looks like a stage performance rather than a wedding. Sometimes even guests will be told what to wear. In contrast with Indian weddings which a veritable riot of color, where the hosts work hard to make sure guests are comfortable and enjoying themselves.
At any formal event, tables will be arranged with names written on each seat. This forces people to sit at allocated seats rather than choosing their own. Why do people arrange theme-based parties, giving instructions to guests on what to wear? What is wrong if everyone turns up in whichever dress they like to wear?
But everything is not about order, they also “love surprises” and it makes me wonder if that is because they lack the experience of natural surprises in daily life or is it a way of imposing order on surprises. E.g. Unannounced guests are not ok, but they would “expect a surprise” birthday party.
The oxymoron explains it better. In countries like US, there are gift registries for events like weddings and baby showers. On the other hand, there will be people wanting surprise gifts!
Surprising! Isn’t it?
Abbakka Prerana is a finance professional. She likes to live a yogic lifestyle and considers allopathy as “alternative medicine”. She has been working on decolonization of mind since she came across Breaking India while passing time on an airport, a year ago. (View More)