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Posts Tagged ‘cultural differences’

One of my favorite – and simultaneously least favorite – elements of living in India is that I’m constantly being forced out of my comfort zone. And after living here a while my comfort zone now includes dirt and poverty and sweat and chaos. But yes, even after getting used to the glaring differences between the US and Mumbai there’s still a plethora of minor divergences that challenge me to let them get in the way – or conquer them and feel victorious.

I mention this because, as I wrote about previously, I agreed to do some video work for a group of non-profits and educators who were holding a conference on innovation, called InspirED. Unlike some of the other projects I’ve agreed to, this one seemed easy: I had a budget, they were overseen by great organizations, we eventually had top-notch equipment donated and, frankly, they were inside a real building (not something I ever would have considered a factor before moving here).

Of course the ‘what could go wrong’ attitude probably doomed me from the start.

After months of planning for and shooting in schools, my emergency trip home was needed right as the conference was happening. I missed the whole thing.

I tried to mitigate the circumstances by writing a long email to the people who were going to take over filming that detailed what every camera should be doing at every moment.

But when I got back, the challenges stood in front of me like a solid brick wall: the film school that had donated the equipment couldn’t figure out how to get the tapes onto a hard drive into a format that was readable. After a month of back and forth, once I got the material I realized that 90% of what I had asked to be filmed wasn’t. I had wanted to do multiple videos, one especially that followed some of the teachers I had interviewed before the conference. But they hadn’t been interviewed. The only interviews anyone had done were a series of two minute “how did you like the conference” interviews.

Let’s just say it wasn’t what I had in mind.

To make matters more complex, practically everyone in India uses Final Cut Pro (the Mac editing software). I was only used to Avid – but there wasn’t one to be found here (it’s MUCH more expensive than Final Cut). This was the ultimate wrenching from my comfort zone. On an Avid I could edit the video together in a second. In Final Cut, I’d barely know where to find my video. However, for this project and almost all future ones I’ll have to use Final Cut, so I knew I’d have to suck it up and learn it.

But this was the hand I had been dealt. It was such an India-type problem: you don’t have exactly what you want, everything’s a little broken, but we’re going to pull it all together anyway.

I wrote a script around the interviews that we had. When I got to Film City to edit, I had a 10-minute crash tutorial in the differences between Final Cut and Avid. I got to work.

It was slow goings at first. The computer shortcuts I knew in my sleep were no longer guiding me. Every few minutes I’d come on a problem that my short tutorial hadn’t covered and I’d have to test out a few theories or go to the help manual.

But eventually, I got the hang of it. It wasn’t so different to Avid once you learned the keyboard differences. And even though it took six hours to make a three-minute video (very slow for me), I did it. I did it.

I felt like jumping for joy when my draft was finished. It looked good. I had done it in Final Cut. I had a legitimate draft that I could send out.

I’ll have to get comments and go back and finish up the editing. But it was a moment of victory in a world where nothing is ever as easy as you expect. I’m used to working in a realm of professional equipment, with people to guide me and someone there to fix any malfunction or difficulty. But here, when you do figure it out on your own, you get the feeling you can do anything. This was not my comfort zone. But man, am I glad I was pushed out of it.

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Break Time

I finally got what everyone said I was in for. After four months of defending and deflecting and rolling my eyes assuming that others were just weak, I got my comeuppance.

Yes, I have finally had my India breakdown.

I had heard from everyone that within a few weeks of living in India, I would have a nervous breakdown of some kind. I would get sick, and then things would take too long, and then people would cheat me, and then everything would break and suddenly I would just be consumed with a hatred for my new home. But it didn’t happen. I loved living in India and I found it rather humorous that other people had succumbed to their frustrations. It just takes a bit of patience, I always thought to myself.

I admit that we have had it pretty easy compared to most people who move here. Delayed shipments and apartment move-in dates can cause panic – ours were only delayed a week. Unsavory drivers or housekeepers can lead to multiple firings before finding someone reliable – we had no such experience. And every little thing (furniture, household items, internet, plumbing, electric work) takes longer and is harder than you ever imagined; but somehow we were able to get everything with always only a little headache.

So I guess in a country of Hindus, I was bound to get hit by karma eventually. After spending so much time assuming that I was just really good at handling everything India threw my way and keeping calm, I was in for it.

And it was the perfect storm.

Our internet, newly installed after months of agony, once again stopped working. The clutch on our car inexplicably broke, so we couldn’t drive anywhere. One last monsoon shower decided to grace us with its presence after weeks of retreat, and all the cushions on our outdoor furniture got soaked to the bone. A transcription service I was using for one of my video projects informed me that they just don’t do time codes (trust me, I know most of you won’t understand why, but this is incredibly frustrating). Five of our newly installed light bulbs decided to burst.

And now, this morning, there is some unannounced construction on our building and the pounding sounds are inescapable.

So, I broke down. I admit it. I curled up into a ball and just gave up for a little bit. And once you give up, everything you miss suddenly comes pouring out. I want milk that does not come from a box. I want people to not stare at me when I walk down the street just because I’m white. I want to drink a Starbucks chai (I know that one is ironic). I want easy public transportation. I want to not have to haggle over the smallest items. I want the time difference to not impede my relationships with friends and family.

I just let myself break down until I felt good and sorry for myself. It was a bit pathetic, but I needed it. I needed to just allow myself to be frustrated with India.

And after a little while, I got out of my ball. I stood up and made myself stop whining and I went back to attempting to be strong and patient and calm.

But I felt better. I guess I needed to admit to myself that its ok to sometimes be that Western person who gets frustrated being that fish out of water.

I am not from here. It’s a difficult place to live if you’re not accustomed to it. But I moved to India 115 days ago and for almost every one of those days I have loved being here.

So it’s ok to have not loved it today.

(*Note – I had 7 hours from when I wrote this until my internet started working again. And by now I’m ready to love India all over again – until I allow myself to be frustrated the next time)

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As I wrote about previously, my friend B is getting married in March and she is (bravely) doing her wedding invitations here in Mumbai.

This is a process that has some clear positives and negatives – the main positive is, not surprisingly, that it is much, much cheaper to do invitations here. The drawbacks are that the process takes longer and sometimes you fear that important elements will get lost in translation.

But after a lot of searching B had settled on Nikunj – the only person on ‘wedding invitation street’ who spoke English well and seemed to understand what she wanted. He seemed to find us amusing enough to put up with the multiple meetings, emails, calls and tweaks that it took to get it right. I certainly enjoyed watching the process unfold – its amazing the difference between American and Indian wedding invitations.

But eventually it came together: the design was set, the paper was picked and the colors agreed upon. It was time to print.

Early on in the process Nikunj had offhandedly mentioned that they did the printing nearby and it was all by hand. We were instantly excited at the idea of seeing invitation-making in action. So Nikunj had agreed to allow us to go to the printers with him.

We set off not really knowing what to expect. We walked up a steep ladder into a muggy room with 5 or 6 sweaty men – some were standing around, others diligently working on some letterhead. It was actually incredible – one by one they were making company letterhead with ink that they would briskly push across a silk-screen. B asked Nikunj if this was expensive letterhead – after all, getting each page done by hand must cost extra.

“No, this is normal letterhead,” he replied, waving away the question as though there wasn’t any reason to think human labor was costly.

And once again there was that reminder of the cost of doing business in India. To have two actual people sitting at a contraption manually putting out these pages was infinitely cheaper than buying and maintaining the machine that could do it without any help.

But we soon got sidetracked once we caught sight of the silk-screen for B’s invitations. We watched as the printer carefully started gluing paper down – he was creating a corner to align each invitation so that everything would be straight. This was not a high tech process.

What B really wanted was to check that the ink color matched her swatch – so we stood by and saw as the men mixed ink together, bit by bit until the colors eventually fit the swatch. You could tell this was something they could do without really thinking about it. Or as Nikunj said, “they can mix the colors with their eyes closed.”

Modern ink was being poured onto machines that clearly had been used for generations. The silk-screens were carefully cleaned by hand after each test batch of color. Fans whirred away as we stood watching. I was glad we’d been allowed into this very specific world of printing.

But I was also a little bit disappointed when, as we were walking out, Nikunj mentioned that in a few years he hoped to be able to buy machines to do the printing. His logic was that it would be faster. In the monsoon they wouldn’t have to wait for everything to dry. There would never be imperfections.

I couldn’t help but think of the men who could mix ink with their eyes closed and our wonder at watching them whisk the ink over the paper like magic. Maybe that’s glorifying a sweaty workshop a little too much. But I started to feel like we were getting to watch an art that may not be around for too much longer.

I think it might be time for me to order some new stationary.

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I’d like to think that the name Pitlochry is difficult for almost anyone to say convincingly. It took me a good number of years living in Scotland before I could pronounce many of their town names.

So why is this the name of a building around the corner from me?

I know I’ve written before about the interesting trend of not having real addresses in India. It is true that I do not really have a street address- only a building name and a naive hope that friends and delivery-people alike can somehow locate my abode.

Our neighboring building

But the more hilarious (sad? preposterous?) part of this equation is that most of the building names are not easy for any Indian person to pronounce. My building is one of the more innocuous ones — La Paloma — and even that is difficult for most people.

The building next door to us is called Chez Nous. Imagine not knowing English or French and then trying to pronounce those letters together. Two of my neighbors who live in Chez Nous often describe their pronunciation to delivery-people as “Chez Noose” (with a hard C-H like chair and a full pronunciation of the Z). It’s all they can muster to get anyone to find them – otherwise their pizza will be carted around by a person looking for a building with the words ‘Shay Noo’.

C'est mo

Down the street from Chez Nous is another inexplicable french masterpiece: C’est Moi.  Do they think it adds a touch of elegance to the dilapidated exteriors to make their names unpronounceable but foreign? The funniest part of C’est Moi is that the I has fallen off the end of the sign – so if you lived in that building you’d probably have to describe your place as ‘Sest Moe’.

It would be funny if we weren’t already on the one-way street with no discernible landmark without a main road to turn off of. We live in a bizarre European hamlet that no one can find with buildings like Chez Nous, Suares and Rendezvous.

Oh well. C’est la vie.

Another aptly named building

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So a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim stood around talking about Hindus…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was just a regular day in our household. On this occasion, Nisha and our driver (who are Muslim and Christian, respectively) were trying to explain to me why I should not participate in Ganesh Visarjan, the end of the Ganpati celebrations where millions of people crowd Mumbai’s beaches to immerse their statues of the god Ganesh into the water.

The Ganpati crowd at Juhu beach

“You will not want to go there ma’am,” our driver said, “It will be all crowds and drunk people.”
Nisha concurred, “People there are crazy, you don’t know what can happen.”

I didn’t want to mention to Nisha that this was what the driver had said to me about going to Muhammad Ali Rd during her holiday of Ramzan.

I spoke to my friend D (who is a Jain Indian raised in America but has a lot of family in Bombay) — she said everyone was telling her not to go as well. “They all think unless we have a rooftop to watch from we shouldn’t go – it’ll be too crazy and dirty.”

This is the funny thing about Bombay – everyone lives in harmony until you start talking about people of a different caste or religion. Then suddenly everyone of the opposing caste or religion is a drunk dirty lout.

I, however, was not going to miss Ganesh Visarjan. It’s one of the most exciting days in Mumbai and I wanted to see it for myself. Six million people take 200,000 statues of the god Ganesh to Mumbai’s various beaches and immerse him in the water – setting him on a journey and supposedly taking the misfortunes of his followers away with him. All week I’d seen the Ganesh statues, large and small, with people dancing throughout the streets. And I wanted to watch as the festival came to its glorious end.

Rolling Ganesh towards the sea

So after a bit of planning we decided to go to Juhu beach – it’s not too far from Bandra and its one of the less crowded areas. When I say less crowded this just means there were probably tens of thousands of people crowding the beach instead of potentially hundreds of thousands. There are 27 immersion spots throughout Mumbai, but the ones in South Bombay are the most crowded. We figured it would be best to stay close to home and out of the massive crowds.

A few friends and I went to a bar on the beach and grabbed a table early. The real festivities start at night so by 3pm when we arrived there were just a smattering of people with their idols. But as the sun got lower more and more and more people began to show up with increasingly large Ganesh statues.

The Ganesh that we followed

Imagine looking out and seeing a sea of people going from the end of the beach all the way up to the water. Everyone is excited, many people are singing, and every so often you start to see a large portion of the crowd begin to move like one, with a big Ganesh in the middle as they all head towards the sea. You can watch the people and the Ganesh until it suddenly sinks and cheers go out. But when you look somewhere else the same thing is happening all over again.

D and I decided we wanted to follow a Ganesh from beginning to end. So we spotted a big one, left our table, and went out to join in. The crowd surrounding it was huge. The Ganesh was taller than any man and everyone was surrounding it, singing, and celebrating. They then lifted our Ganesh onto a cart (slowly but surely) and began to wheel it toward the sea with everyone still singing and celebrating. We ran with it, joining in and letting ourselves get caught up in the moment.

Our Ganesh going out to sea

I was so caught up I didn’t realize I’d gone right into the water up to my thigh. I turned around and saw D had not followed me – Mumbai’s beaches are notoriously dirty. Oil and other unpleasantries mix to create a blackened version of the sea. With the many Ganesh statues the water becomes an even more dangerous place (There are many people here who are understandably against Ganpati because of the horrible implications of thousands of plaster and chemically painted statues being left at the sea floor). I stepped back, ignored my dirty legs and watched as our Ganesh was taken out to sea. And then, in and instant, he was gone. He had gone to the bottom of the ocean and everyone was cheering. We’d been allowed to share in this one group’s moment of their Ganpati and we felt it was ours too (To watch a video of ‘our’ Ganesh and his journey, see below).

The crowd growing as night falls on Juhu beach

We went back to the bar, exhilarated and excited. We stayed awhile longer, watching the crowd swell more and more as time went on. We left after it got dark, but for most real celebrants the night was just beginning. As we drove home, one side of the road was closed as thousands of people were in their own processions with their own Ganesh, making their way towards the sea.

I asked our driver how his night was. “I hadn’t seen the Ganesh immersion since I was a boy. I always avoid it now. But you know, it was really fun to see it.” Yes it truly was.

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I’ve always gotten a kick out of seeing young girls hanging out of a rickshaw on their way to school with Hannah Montana backpacks over their uniforms, or watching a family strolling down Carter Road with small pink spoons dipping into a Baskin Robbins cup. The Indian interactions with American products and companies are often jarring and comforting all at once. In a foreign setting it can make you start humming “one of these things is not like the other…”

But it’s often even more interesting how lower-end American brands can become upscale here. McDonalds and KFC are ubiquitous and are often seen as a sit-down restaurant (and yes, you can get a McCurry but no beef burgers here).
So when everyone started talking about the new California Pizza Kitchen coming to town, I wanted to take a seat and watch the action. Who could resist seeing what happened when an American pizza chain decided to plant itself into a city that has it’s own odd love affair with our cheese, bread and tomato concoction?  Watching cultures collide, and having at least a small understanding of both sides of the coin, is part of the fun of being an expat.

The crowd waiting to get a table

And the collision was massive – we went for a weekend lunch day and it was packed. Every table was full and by the time we left there was a line out the door. But the most jarring piece of the puzzle, was that this American chain had an oddly wealthy clientele. The pizzas were on average around 400 to 500 rupees (or a bit more than $8 – $10). That might not sound crazy, but considering most other sit-down pizza places sell for 100 to 200 rupees, it’s a bit steep.  So it shouldn’t have been surprising to see well dressed grandmothers in pearls doting over pizza-hungry grandchildren or teenagers toting their Louis Vuitton bags – but it was such a weird disconnect. We were in California Pizza Kitchen! This just wasn’t normal.

We got to talking with one of the ‘Franchise Management Specialists,” who basically spends his life overseeing the openings of California Pizza Kitchen’s across the world (who knew that was a job?). Due to India’s heavy import taxes, they’d had to find a way to make every element in the restaurant feel authentic while being purchased locally- except the oven. Apparently no CPK pizza could be complete without its specific oven.

The team on hand had come from their California headquarters to train the Indian servers. It apparently had been tough to instill their values: don’t bring appetizers and entrees all at once. Assume people aren’t sharing all their food. Service with a smile. Could Indians really emulate Californians?

It was all such an odd pairing – sure, you could get guacamole, but it was made with the less fleshy Indian avocados that don’t taste quite right. You could certainly order a classic pizza, but there was also an option for curry pizza (really?).
I was happy when my pizza came – for just a moment it was good to step out of ‘learning and exploring’ mode and just allow myself to enjoy the familar. It’s always nice to find small oases of home in a unfamiliar place. But I like my Indian things to be Indian. The cultural collision isn’t quite as interesting as the actual culture, although it seems like the Mumbaikers around me would disagree- they want that piece of California.

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Chaos. Vibrancy. Overstimulation. I’d missed that potent Mumbai blend. I wanted to be thrown right back into it.

So on our way home tonight I asked our driver if we could stop at Muhammed Ali Road. Most people only see it from above the flyover (or raised highway) on the way from South Bombay heading toward Mahalaxmi. It’s one of the Muslim areas of Mumbai and normally not particularly notable. But at night during Ramazan (the way Indian Muslims pronounce what we know as Ramadan) it comes alive.

A view of all the action on the road in the dark

Because Muslims fast all day during Ramazan, at night it’s time to celebrate. And Muhammed Ali Road is the center of Bombay’s Ramazan action. And tonight was the last night before Eid (the celebration of the end of Ramazan) so I knew we’d have to make it a priority today (jetlag be damned!).

Nisha, who is Muslim, had told us this would be a great place for us to go. She thought we would have a lot of fun. Our (Christian) driver was not so convinced.

“Ma’am, they are all gangsters here. They all get together to beat people. Look at the drivers in this area – no discipline. Why do you want to come here?”

“I don’t think it’s that bad in the main areas,” I said, trying to be tactful. I knew plenty of people who had ventured out perfectly safely to eat and celebrate. I had a sense that while there may have been some grain of truth to parts of what he said, it struck me as probably one of the many stereotypes fellow Bombayiites had about other castes and neighborhoods that they probably knew very little about.

People crowding into stalls

Besides, there was nothing but excitement and food and salesmanship surrounding us. Everywhere you looked, food was cooking on indoor and outdoor stoves, men sold bangles and kufis, stilettos and hijabs. Sellers negotiated animatedly with potential buyers. The scene goes on and on like that for miles. You can stay on the main road or venture down side streets where the food can range from typical rice dishes to the more adventurous (brains and tongues and any other animal part you can name). And if you’re driving in, don’t be in a rush. It’s wall to wall traffic as everyone tries to push their way through the crowd.

It’s hard to describe the feeling that was in the air but I guess as a Jewish person I could relate to it somewhat – after all day of fasting on Yom Kippur I’m usually giddy with excitement to eat. If I could multiply that by an entire month of fasting each day I can’t imagine how elated I would be every night just to eat and soak in the energy. It seemed sort of fitting that we were going to see Ramazan’s end right after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New year. For us and everyone around us tomorrow is a new beginning.

It was a good welcome back.

One stall with one tiny light

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