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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Culture #5: Adaptions to a Life Crowded

Life takes interesting directions when it is crammed together close. This, I observe, results in three connected cultural traits that dominate interpersonal interactions, traffic patterns, business service and life in general here: obliviousness to those around you, a prioritization on self-preservation and a lack of personal space.

A man is backing his motorcycle up. And that is what he is doing. That we are walking behind him at the time, that a truck is coming by down the narrow street, that anything else is going on is irrelevant. He is oblivious to all this. He is leaving and hence has to back his bike up to do so and so he does. What is important to capture is not that he backs his bike without looking behind, but rather that it never crosses his mind to do so nor would anyone expect him to.

The culture of obliviousness is a hard one to capture, but is likely instantly recognizable to one who has been here. Indians simply wander around in their own world. It is very like a whole population adapted to having ipods on high in their heads. The first thought is to what you are doing. How this affects and interacts with the world around you is a far distant second. Think of how you might back your motorcycle up if you lived on a farm and knew the driveway well. Think of how you wouldn’t look to make sure there was a gap in traffic or people crossing – there wouldn’t be. You’d just walk up and back it up. That is what Indians do everywhere here in all situations despite there very obviously being a hundred things going on around them. It seems to be, again like headphone use, to be a survival mechanism to block out the crush of life around you and retain some sanity. It is quite foreign. And then again, not.

Another example is how cars, but again let me use motorcycles because they interact more with pedestrians, turn corners. All vehicles here will initiate a corner before looking or slowing down, and like a NASCAR racer, will take the shortest available line, regardless of whether they are making a right or a left. This of course brings them directly across on-coming traffic. Whether there might be pedestrians crossing, people standing on the corner, a large hole in the street or an on-coming truck is secondary. This is one of the few things I am truly able to claim is universal in Chennai. I see this every single day a dozen times. It is turn and point first, eyes glues front, alter course as necessary second. And of course whether they alter course is depending on who is bigger and whether they can get away with it. As a pedestrian, you are expected to move, regardless of whether they honked in time or at all. I’ve seen hundreds of bikers brush by without even glancing my way, 1 foot to their side. I wasn’t there, only the route they wanted to take. It is like imminent peril is the only thing that will shake them of this sunny world they are driving in to take action to avoid it. Really funny and really strange.

I think this all stems from living in over-crowded spaces. I perceive it to be if you are polite and wait for the gaps, consider all around you, you’ll never move. Think of turning a corner in a car in downtown North America: regular downtown commuters eventually learn to be more aggressive and ignorant with pedestrians because on busy streets the stream doesn’t ever stop; there are never gaps. If you don’t push your way through (despite the dirty looks), you’ll be there until midnight. Well India is like that everywhere all the time and they've adapted to it on both sides. If a pedestrian gets cut off here, they don’t shake their fists. They probably don’t think of it one way or another. If that backing up motorcycle wheels himself out just when you were about to step into that place, you simply stop and walk around. Incidentally, you are also not expected to be submissive to the bike either. If you are able and quick enough to step around the back of him, forcing him to halt his progress, that is OK too.

I understand the basic idea, but I must admit the practicality of it in traffic situations sometimes defies my logic to understand. As an example of when it doesn’t make sense to me, take this scene I saw this morning. A single pedestrian is crossing the street and there is only one bike turning. He still just points the shortest path despite the fact that a simple look (and planning any driver in the West would do without thinking) would suggest that making a slightly wider or shorter curve would allow him to pass without slowing. But instead he does what he always does and has to stop short and make an awkward loop around the now stationary person who did not have enough warning to get out of the way. I understand having to purposely ignore courtesy and take an aggressive me-first stance, but I don’t yet fully grasp the psyche or advantage of why the lack of pre-planning. Funny.

We’re waiting to get on the bus. There’s quite a crowd of us (aka normal). The door opens and the crush begins, everyone struggling to get ahead. In front of me a young man squeezes in from the side ahead of an elderly woman. He’s followed by a couple more. The old woman does not indicate this to be bothering her. When going to the bank to cash a cheque from work, I’m at the teller counter when another man wanders up and waves his deposit slip in front too. What is notable is not that he felt no compunction to butt in, but that the teller takes it without batting an eye and both fully expect me not to bat one either. He could sneak in, so he did. If I did it back, he would not whine either.

This connects with the obliviousness and is an easier one to spot and one of the first adaptations a foreigner or traveller has to make when visiting Asia in general: Asians do not queue or line up. If you want to get anywhere, you have to be prepared to push, to butt in and to hold your ground. If you wait, say for example at the bank or at ticket counters, you will never be served, simple as that. People will keep pushing past and stepping in front. And moreover they will assume that since you are not pushing up, you must just be standing there and obviously not wanting to access service. The best tip I can give is to do it calmly, smiling, but firmly. It is not a battle or a scrum, but a slow flood through or up to whatever gate is there. (The best tip for tickets and the like is to hire someone to stand in line and get them for you).

My experience has been that China is worse for this than India is. In China it was even more blatant and everyone for themselves. In India at least they seem to retain a little of their courtesy and order, at least here where I've seen (perhaps as a vestige of British culture?). I have many crazy stories from China of people shoving right in front at ticket counters literally pushing money through the window inches in front of our outstretching hands, of lines as wide as they are long pushing into the train stations and of near riots trying to get onto a mountain gondola.

Personal Space
We’re being chased around the dance floor. I’m out with friends, dancing with Leslie and being westerners and therefore the most exciting thing around, we’re getting set on by a steady string of guys wanting to talk to us. Most want to be my close friend, many want to dance with Leslie. All talk to me first (the intricacies and interesting observations of male bonding, I’ll leave for another time). We allow some to join us dancing. But they dance with you right CLOSE! like you’re about to tango. Instinctively we take a step back, to clear a little space to move. He then guilelessly steps into it. We naturally step back again with the result that he slowly pushes us circling around the room as if we are indeed leading the tango backwards. It is quite funny actually, but totally inevitable. Everything in India is crowds. Standing in one spot people will push past, no room for simply brushing. Taking the bus, the train, a movie, any line is an exercise in keeping all arms and legs inside the moving crowd at all times. And this mentality of being so close you could lick the person becomes ingrained to where despite the couch or dance floor or street corner not being packed with people, those you are talking with will still stick close enough to be your co-joined twin.

There are a hundred little examples of one or more of these three. Restaurants will have cars and bikes parked cheek-to-jowl in front not leaving a corridor for the entrance and sometimes in fact being so tight as to make getting in at all hard. If you want a table at a busy restaurant, you have to hover protectively over a table nearly done. And in a restaurant, if you are not a table of 4, you will be seated (or expected to seat yourself) with strangers to fill all available seats. I like that last one actually as both efficient and a good way to meet people. Buses in India are like the clowns cramming in the Volkswagen: every available space floor to ceiling is taken up, like a sport-hump of humanity on wheels. So even if you’ve managed a seat on the bus, you’ve got 2 people leaning over you and 2 kids propped on the women beside you. I don't mind though myself: it is great people watching.

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface. Ah, the joys of discovering other cultures and trying to reconcile them. Any insights, pass them on.

1 comment:

Erica said...

Just reading about this phenomenon made me itchy and claustrophobic. I'd kind of forgotten about the Chinese "line" system and the crushed organs that ensued.... Thanks for the interesting post!