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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Conversations #2: Exchanging

“Are you married?” I’m waiting for my colleague in the morning, catching a ride to work today as we are going direct to a meeting, and have struck up a conversation with a stranger, an older man buying breakfast in the stall beside me.

“No,” I reply, knowing where this is going...

“Why not?”

What do mean why not, I think, what kind of question is that? Do you want the answer involving not being ready blah, blah, the one involving tears that no one will ever love me or the one sermonizing about many fish yet in the sea? I’ve had this sort of question here before however so am not actually as sputtering inside as I may make it seem and I know he is not meaning to be rude in any way.

“I haven’t met the right girl yet, I suppose,” I answer vaguely.

“What do you think of local girls?”

“They’re great, lovely.” [It pays to compliment the locals I’ve found.]

“Would you like an Indian wife? You would like one; she would feed you and be subservient.”

...And there it is. I balk, eye's going a bit wide. (well, to be honest, I had started balking at the start of the line of questioning).

This kind of exchange is actually not at all uncommon here. I often get asked by strangers what I think of local girls or would I like to meet an Indian girl/wife. The problem is that I am not sure with this man here if this is idle questioning or if he might actually be rolling to hitch me with a specific Indian wife, likely a daughter or cousin, which is not as fanciful as it might sound. The patriarchs of the family are always looking. Danger Will Robinson! Danger!

...And at this brief moment, I’m faced with that critical of choices in cultural exchange: keep this a one way street and go along with whatever I think he wants to hear, closing down the conversation or present a differing viewpoint and see where it leads, which could of course be into trouble. I’m certainly against going to a foreign country Missionary- or Colonial-style, selling ones ideas in totality at the expenses of the local customs, but the flipside of that is the lesson that your own set of customs and values are worthy too and you shouldn’t abandon them simply to pander to the locals. It should be a blending, an exchange and I’ve come to understand that people talk to me because the very fact that I am a foreigner and they want to exchange. It is a give and take and a vibrant one, one little bizarre conversation at a time.

Being naturally cheeky and curious, I am briefly tempted to say, “Yes, do you have a girl in mind you could introduce me to?” just to see what he would do, but that is playing too much with fire I decide. This particular bizarre conversation is good-hearted and honest so I go with being honest (such as one can be when answering what is a rather disquieting question in the West) and choose to politely disagree...

“No thank you,” I explain laughing, “I actually do not really want a subservient wife. You see, in my culture that is not common or as accepted and I think it is not for me (fiercely independent would better describe my dating history).”

He smiles back, OK with the very simplified answer and thankfully not forcing me to invent on the spot what characteristics I would want in a wife or to try to explain the various socio-political changes in the West over the last half century or so that has brought us to our current value systems. We continue chatting about less controversial topics such as the goodness of the food in said nearby stall. I thank him for the tip after trying a generously offered sample from the owner. It is good. I will have to remember this one for the occasional Sunday when I’m out and miss lunch.

“Where are you from?” I ask as it becomes clear from his praise of the Keralan food stall that he is likely not from Chennai.

“Kerala. Have you been there?”

“No, not yet”

“Why?”

[Always with the why!]
“I haven’t had time yet due to work.” I reply.

“You should see it. It is very beautiful.”

“I’ve heard that. I definitely want to see it in April when I have more time. Do you have suggestions of what I should see there?” [always good to get advice from a local]

“You should come visit my family. Do you want me to help you book a ticket? I’ll come with you.”

[I’m a little confused by that one. Book a ticket? For April? Ack, I just wanted a couple tips!]

“No, I’m sure I’ll be alright. I don’t know when I can go yet”

“We could go next week.”

[I think he’s missed the part about April, which certainly happens given the difficulties in comprehension that arises between accents]

“Thank you, but I’m busy with work until April. I can’t go until then” I express, trying to say it a bit slower and clearer than perhaps I did last time and to convey that I am flattered at the offer, but still able to back out slowly.

“OK” he smiles.

We continue to chat about Kerala and food and how long he has been living in Chennai. He lives just down the road with his family.

My colleague comes by, apologizing for being held up. I thank the man for the conversation and the stall for the snacks and leave thinking of how strange a mix of openness and probing conversations can be in another culture.

3 comments:

Erica said...

Great post! Awwww... I miss the often absurd and culturally-landmined conversations with locals. Thanks for sending some of the road back home!

nemesis said...

What does a cultural exchange in the South of India have in common with snarky little nine-year olds?
Prior to the Christmas holidays, my boss' nine year old summoned me to her birthday party. We were to be the spa ladies that painted their nails. We were pre-warned in advance that her daughter wasn't going to really have enough time to hang out with us. Through the course of nail painting, a particularly precocious little nine-year old said, "I hate to be mean. But, why aren't you married?" Where do they learn this? They proceeded to spend the rest of the day strategizing on how to find me a man. At Santa Clause III, I was set up with the Chef Boyardee sample guy who was 16 with pink hair and a lip ring. In the movie theatre, they met me a single dad with a two year old. Turns out the mother was in the washroom. I think a preoccupation with people's relationships and fixing them up, under the guise of concern is universal.

sKIM said...

Tee Hee!

If you were married they would be asking you how many children.

If none yet, why not? At least you don't have a womb that strangers are trying to tell what to do with it.

Keep up the stories.