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Cultural Misinterpretations

Recently I’ve been reading a number of blogs written by travelers on their first trips to India. Some are interesting, some breathless, some cringeworthy, but all fairly crackle with the excitement of first contact with India. Despite little or no prior research on the culture, and with some having only a rose-colored glasses tinged romantic notion of what they’re getting into, most of the bloggers are having fun most of the time. Perhaps one of the reasons can be explained by what my Indian friends told me on my last visit:  In India, the guest is god.

Indians are generally happy to see foreign visitors in their midst, and they look out for them better than St. Cristopher. If you’re a foreigner in India, Indians will help you, rescue you and take care of you, even if they don’t know you. After waiting in line over two hours for the elephant ride at Amber Fort, where everyone was a captive audience for the constant pestering of touts hawking their wares, my patience had worn thin. Inside the fort, a few followed me around, not taking no for an answer. About the third time I heard, “Madam! Madam!” I snapped.

“Chalo! Chalo! (Go away!)” I growled.

“Madam, excuse me,” the earnest voice continued. “You don’t need to climb those stairs. There is a ramp on this side. It may be easier for you.”

I felt like a giant ass.

If they do know you, Indians’ hospitality, warmth and kindness is boundless. On the other hand, some will grope you, cheat you, annoy you and beg from you, just like some of your own countrymen at home. And then there’s the staring, which many travelers find unnerving. Indians do that. I’ve never noticed it. I’m too busy surreptitiously staring at them.

Happy Shopper

Happy Shopper

While on a bumpy rickshaw ride through Delhi’s Chandni Chowk neighborhood, I momentarily locked eyes with a lady shopper, and her whole face lit up. I hoped it was because she was happy to see a female foreign visitor in her usual shopping stomping ground. Yeah, let’s go with that!

Sharing the excitement of the maiden visit to India on these blogs is fun. I wasn’t immune to a huge amount of breathlessness in my emails to close friends while on the road experiencing massive daily doses of exotica, but by the time I had the time to blog about it, a good chunk of it was replaced by a more measured analysis of what I had seen and experienced. Too much breathless blogging is exhausting if not annoying to the reader. And although much of my first trip was overwhelmingly dazzling and wonderful, not everything in India is, like, totally awesome. Not the extensive, heartbreaking poverty; not the maltreatment of animals; not the pollution, litter and carelessness about the environment; not the repression and mistreatment of women; not the spate of brutal rapes and murders of women and children in the news over the last six months. India is not just a tourist’s magical wonderland. It has its problems and its dark side, just like my own country and every other country in the world.

What was cringeworthy was some of the ignorance. One blogger was surprised that traffic is on the left side of the road. History was always a painfully boring subject when I was in school, and I may not have paid a lot of attention at the time. But not to know that India had been colonized by England for, oh, a few years (almost a century) and to be unable to put two and two together is just embarrassing. Everywhere I go, the fact that people I meet know more about my country than I know about theirs motivates me to read more and research more about the places I go so that I can show them that not everyone in the U.S. is an ignorant clod. We in the U.S. really need to do something about our crappy education system and put more emphasis on learning about the rest of the world.

Even more cringeworthy were some of the cultural misinterpretations. We all analyze our travel experiences based on what we know, on what is familiar:  on our own culture. But these analyses — even with the benefit of research and other travel experience — are often grossly wrong. What you experienced and how you felt at the time are about the only parts of the experience that no one can argue with. It’s when you start trying to figure out what is really going on — and especially the why — that things really go off the rails. Sometimes a little research will shine a light on the mystery of an odd experience. Sometimes you’ll never figure it out. Better to wonder why than try to explain why, even to yourself.

I’ve been to India twice. I’ve had intercultural training in college, lived in another culture, done a bit of travel. I’ve read a lot of books about India, haunted India travel forums where I picked up many useful tips on Indian culture, and have learned some interesting cultural facts from my Indian friends. To mix a metaphor, I’ve barely scratched the tip of the iceberg. Despite my background, there are going to be oceans of things I don’t understand on future trips, and I’m sure to make some idiotic and embarrassing cultural mistakes because of my cluelessness. Happily for me, Indians will see the good intentions in my heart and forgive me as they will all the other blissfully ignorant foreign travelers.

Posts on this blog from my first India trip are sure to contain their fair share of cringeworthy cultural misinterpretations, some of which I may not even recognize for years to come. I haven’t decided whether to reread them and correct some of my ignorant first impressions. Guess I’ll just eat my shame sandwich and leave them there. I hope they at least provide plenty of comedy for the many Indians who read this blog, who are far too kind to correct me in public under the comments section.

Whether we misdescribe, misinterpret or misunderstand what we see and experience, we are all nevertheless much richer for having done it and having shared it.