5) The People
One of the more colorful aspects of any country is the people themselves, and in a country as particularly diverse as India, it’s kaleidoscopic. Sometimes those colors are soothing, sometimes jarring and at others entirely displeasing. Let’s delve into some of the more interesting trends and behaviors I encountered.
The most notable idiosyncrasy by far, is the head nod. It’s brief, yet sharp. Quick, but with a momentary pause. They start with the head upright, and move it 45-degrees to the right (I tended to notice) and then back upright. There may even by a noticeable radial difference in the angle of the neck, given the level of agreement to whatever it is they are nodding to. I most often saw it after picture taking, but it was to truly anything that they needed to approve or disapprove of. I don’t know all the intricacies of the nod, but I could generally tell if they liked our picture or not.
I will say nothing more of the vigorous nodding you will see. For that take 105 seconds of your life and go laugh at a YouTube video on it.
The one thing I noticed (especially vis-a-vis China) was that everyone wanted to take a picture with us. I thought that was a Middle Kingdom only thing, but nah. Apparently South Asians are all about it, too. Every single touristy place there would be a bunch of people trying to take our picture. I could only acquiesce so many times, as they liked to take every permutation of shot possible with their group. Line up: ABCD, the BACD, then maybe BCDA. Then throw in person E: front, right, and center. Then maybe a different background, lighting or angle. Then do all of that over again at a 45 degree angle.
My lord, do they love the 45-degree angle. We wanted a picture at The Gate of India, basically one of the icons of New Delhi, and they gave us this super tacky, off-kilter photo. Even photo editing couldn’t line the pic back up right. Luckily, we met up with some other folks who were equally perturbed by a similarly awful photo taken of them, and we offered to take a straight-up shot and they happily reciprocated. Be very specific with your instructions.
Another thing, especially compared to China, was the holding of hands. I’ve commented before how women of all ages, school girls to coworkers in their 40s and 50s, will hold hands or lock arms as a show of affection in China. It’s 1000% platonic, and non-foreigners tend not to think a thing of it. This is much the same in India, albeit with the guys. I asked a friend, and he said apparently dudes holding hands means two things. One: they’re good friends. Two: they’re from the countryside.
And as some men break American constructs of normal with hand-holding, the entirety of the country’s men are dressed to the nines. Button downs, collared shirts, khakis, slacks and a slew of other dressy clothes, virtually always. Save for the children rocking athletic wear and the ubiquitous rubber sandals, the guys are all impeccably dressed. (The sandals are kinda necessary. It’s preferable to wash your bare feet every time it rains than to have grotesque water soak into the fabric or leather every few days.) You’d be hard pressed to not find a collared shirt, which is different from the American dress code of dirty sweats and a wife beater (being hyperbolic for comedic purposes here).
Indeed, the women are dressed nicely, too, I’m just understandably ill-informed in the fashion world of saris and pavadas. But in general, it appeared virtually all women were traditionally dressed, while the men could wear westernized clothes or “traditional” Indian ones, as well. I tried to pay special attention to how women were treated or their behavior, given India’s notorious reputation. I don’t like to rely on western media, as we tend to have bias – as do all humans. I like to see things for myself. I do have to say though, for a country with this rep, they’ve already had a female prime minister (as have Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kyrzyzstan, nations not known for that kind of thing. Step it up United States…).
There was also the woman I encountered who was leading a throng of protestors on the street, in defiance of the aforementioned new sales tax. Women obviously have their fair share of respect, but to what degree I obviously am not fit to say. There are clearly problems in the country with the treatment of women, but simultaneously I saw many strong women, running shops or protests or speaking neither up nor down to (what I assume was) their husbands. However, maybe it’s telling that 90% of the people on the streets at night were men, not women, but I’m sure the percentage is definitely above 50% in the US as well.
One stereotype that was repeated by many was that northerners tend to be colder than southerners in their behavior. Store owners in New Delhi will grunt and name you the price. They might even move one of their facial muscles if they’re so inclined. Those in Bombay will gladly greet you at the door and be slightly more cordial, if not with the ulterior motive of selling you something.
But I have to say the most pervasive feature I noticed in so, so many Indians, was an inherent desire to sell. Yes, I’m stereotyping and, no, I don’t believe in racial theory – that all South Asians are born to sell. (Indeed, former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore would even suggest the opposite, that ethnically Chinese are born with an innate entrepreneurial spirit, and Indians are naturally suited for other occupations.) However, because of the poverty in the country and the influence of the influx of tourist dollars, there is a constant bombardment of selling. And let me tell you: it’s infuriating.
From the moment we touched down, people were trying to sell us stuff. We would be literally shuffled into a corner to a merchant (with goods that everyone else had), they would tell you how their brother makes these by hand and throw them in your hand. Then you would stand up and leave, and they would forcefully sit you back down. Perhaps I’m easy prey (I am) and conceivably have a reluctance to say no to people (I do). But it was incessant and stressful. Any tourist destination (which was truthfully much of where we went) where there were tourist shops, children guilt tripped you into a visit. If I lived in India longer, surely I would adapt and just pay no mind. But for those ten days in India, it was incessant nagging by salesmen, so much so we couldn’t even get to the beach in Goa without them asking us to buy “the best squirt guns.”
I do have to say, that on the whole, I didn’t have that many colorful individual interactions, especially compared to other countries I’ve been. Further, I speak the same language as everyone here, so that certainly isn’t an excuse. I’m not sure if there is just a vastly different sense of humor here, seeing as how I thrive off dry puns and/or silly dad jokes. Perhaps there’s a conservatism that just doesn’t allow many crazy interactions to occur organically. But I will say in spite of this, meeting my friend’s cousins was indeed both fruitful and insightful. Finalized theory forthcoming.
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