Thursday, December 6, 2012

License to jest

“In India even the most mundane inquiries have a habit of ending this way. There may be two answers, there may be five, a dozen or a hundred; the only thing that is certain is that all will be different.” - Eric Newby, Slowly Down the Ganges

Whenever a group of Indian friends gather for a party, there is always plenty of food and much laughter. We laugh about the many things that are oh so wrong in the country we were born and raised in. Our conversations are loud, lively and range from politics to phone-plans. Nothing escapes our critical eye. And the 'criticalness' increases exponentially when they join forces with twenty more pairs.

We criticize with abandon and pounce on all that is bad. And because we don’t see ourselves as perpetrators of the hopeless problems there anymore, we relinquish all responsibility. It is so much easier to cry foul and pass judgement from the comfort of our homes thousands of miles away when none of the problems affect our day-to-day living.

For most of us immigrants, the place where we raise our kids is now home. All that ties us to the land of our birth is our immediate and extended family. We dread the expense and the long tiresome journey that we embark on every couple of years or so. We do it nevertheless. We do it so that our kids will know where we come from. So that they can experience and learn from a country that is worlds apart. And of course, to quench our nostalgia.

There is just one little implicit prerequisite to be able to join in on the bashing - you have to be at least part Indian. Many of us are not as accommodating when the criticism comes from someone who wasn’t born or raised there. We never fail to find humor in our faults and eccentricities as a group. But we tend to be sensitive to derogatory humor and judgmental comments from someone who hasn’t lived there. I wonder why. Is it because it is part of our heritage and so an innate reverence to the land of our birth is assumed, regardless of which country’s citizenship we now hold?

Some of us get defensive when we have to explain why we are the way we are. It irks us that we are perceived as an unsophisticated culture. There are a billion different reasons why we are so different and by the same breath, same as the rest of the world. The way we bobble our heads to show consent; the way we relish using our fingers to dig into the food; the way we talk out of turn; the umpteen different languages and dialects; the spicy food; the smell; miserable roads; impassable traffic; bovine and pedestrian ridden highways; power outages; exquisite clothes; opulent weddings; multitude of musical traditions; rules and regulations that one would never know even existed; the gaps - more like gorges actually - between the poor and the wealthy; the mysticism; the scandals; the yogis, yoginis and god-men; secularism amid communal discord; the martyrs; the history; the ancient temples; grand palaces; dazzling movies and even more dazzling movie stars; noisy, smelly bazaars; mosquitoes; idyllic landscapes; the heat and dust; dirty public transport; brainiacs; artists; intellectual elites; ambitious over-achievers; chronically lazy under-performers; pollution; corruption; cheap labor; abject poverty; compassionate activists; committed nonprofits; for profit clinics; philanthropic celebrities; innovative entrepreneurs... We have them all. And so do most countries, well maybe not the yogis.

We expect the outsider to take the quirks and faults of the country and its people as part of the fabric of the culture. Just like a seasoned traveler would take everything he or she encounters in a foreign land as part of the rhythm of the place. Run it through a sieve and only praise the best of experiences and ignore the bad, and maybe acknowledge it, if they have to, to be fair.

I don’t take it personally when I have questions posed to me that would surely ruffle a more sensitive immigrant. I believe that objectivity helps people understand a different culture. I don't consider it a personal affront when someone jokes about our ways. After all, I too have assumptions, curiosities, prejudices and criticisms of cultures that I don’t know much about. If I don’t ask questions and am not curious, I am bound to stay ignorant.

When my non-Indian friends come across anything even remotely Indian in the media or elsewhere, they ask me about it. It could be a movie, a dance show, a calamity or a bunch of pictures depicting the craziness and chaos of the place. There is one popular picture that does the rounds. It is a picture of an utility pole with a huge tangled mess of wires and cables at the top which then miraculously find their way out to provide service to the neighborhood. To me, it is a perfect example of function amid the chaos. I enjoy these questions. I feel that the more open we are in our conversations about our differences the less chances there are of misunderstandings.

Travelling is the best way to learn about different cultures. But there are a million other ways as well. Like watching movies from all over the world. Especially independent movies. My husband and I started watching them a little over a year ago and we seem to have only skimmed the surface of this beautiful world of art. So far we have watched movies from Iran, Korea, Italy, France, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Spain, England, Israel, China and one most recently, from Iraq. While watching these movies, we find that many times, we can relate to the sentimentalities, humor, hardships, class struggles and the immigrant experience in any culture.

I find that the more we are exposed to different cultures the more tolerant we become of our differences and more adept at recognizing commonalities. We loosen up and learn to laugh at our strange ways. It is when we see ourselves as a misunderstood community that we are susceptible to be hurt from seemingly insensitive remarks. That’s when we find the humor directed towards us crude, arrogant and disrespectful.

It is hard to belong when you look and speak different from almost everyone in the community. But if we are not comfortable with where we come from, the color of our skin and our idiosyncrasies, then we lose sight of the fact that we are only a small part of the multitude of colors, languages and cultures that make up this world. So dear reader, here is a question for you... when someone pokes fun of your culture, language, food, mannerisms, whatever, do you feel the smoke shooting out of your ears or do you good naturedly join in and debunk the weirdness?

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