Sunday, 9 November 2008
The Amazing Race 13, Episode 7
Why do so many foreign visitors have such extreme reactions to India?
Some visitors stay in India for months at a time, and return again and again. At the same time, I suspect that more people experience major "culture shock" in India than anywhere else, and a significant minority are so freaked out by India that they cut their planned stay short.
And this has been going on for generations, including in my own family of "old India hands".
When my newlywed grandmother "went out" to India for the first time in 1922, she landed in Bombay (now "Mumbai") by ship, and continued to Delhi by train:
Delhi was the first large town (city) we had stopped at. We pulled in there at night -- dark, a huge station, lots of smoke and noise, a lot of it coming from men carrying trays, and in one hand a torch, shouting their wares. And, worst of all lying on the platform in various places -- bodies -- bodies wrapped in white sheets, faces covered. It looked like a picture out of Hell. I really thought they were corpses!
Dad [her husband, my grandfather, whose parents lived in India and who had grown up there himself] had to calm me and explain. It still looked awful, and all the torches and vendors yelling. But it seemed the sight was normal. Indians love to travel, have family gatherings, etc. Few villagers had watches, so when they went visiting they just went to the station and waited for a train that was going their way, even if they waited all night!
[Some Memories of Marguerite Davis Velte Weir, 1986]
Today, decades later, nobody would think of calling the megalopolis of Delhi, with its population of more than ten million people, a "town". And transportation and communications have improved in India, although literacy among the poor has not. But there are still people sleeping on the platforms at Indian railway stations. More recently, my most vivid memories of Delhi include a late-night trip to the airport to meet my mother's flight from the USA, with the auto-rickshaw threading its way between rows of "street sleepers" perilously close to the traffic on both sides.
Part of the problem, as my grandmother's little story suggests, is the lack of understanding that results from a lack of knowledge of the cultural context that explains "strange"-seeming actions.
That was clearly part of the disorientation for the cast of The Amazing Race 13 this week: in one day entirely within Delhi, they went from Bahá'í House to a celebration of the Hindu festival of Holi to a Jain animal sanctuary to a Sikh Gurdwara to a Muslim tomb, seemingly unaware that these each of these had its distinct religious significance, much less what that might be.
As a result, they react with anger to a group of neighbors celebrating the spring festival of Holi in the courtyard of their apartment complex by throwing colored water at each other, when what is expected is to join in the play. (There's no Christian holiday exactly comparable to Holi, although it bears comparison with certain aspects of a May Day festival, April Fools' Day or Halloween pranks, and the Jewish celebration of Purim.) The result is what you might expect for spoilsports at a water fight: the racers become everyone else's laughing target.
At the Gurdwara (Sikh temple), Tina and Ken serve water to the "patrons" (worshippers). Ken draws puzzled looks with his loud jokes at the entrance to a place of meditation, and admits at the ends of the episode that despite the clue they were given, he didn't realize that what they were serving was holy water.
There are other places in the world as culturally distant from the USA (or from that which calls itself "Western Civilization") as India, but few such places that are common destinations for Western tourists, even for independent backpackers and around-the-world travellers. Visitors to India do go to "Old Delhi", while visitors to, say, the Philippines or Indonesia tend to spend most of their time at beach resorts or smaller towns and villages, and little in the parts of Manila or Jakarta that are just as frenzied and disorienting as any Indian city.
A major reason that India is peculiarly overwhelming is, of course, that there is too much new and different, all at once, for a newcomer mentally to digest. At the finish line for this episode of the race, Phil Keoghan alludes to the marketing slogan of India's Ministry of Tourism, Incredible India . A more precise description of the impression it makes on the typical visitor would be, "Intense" India.
The intensity visitors experience in India is partly because of one of India's best features, its relative safety, which lets visitors immerse themselves in its most intense neighborhoods. White foreigners ("The Amazing Race" has always had a diverse cast, but all the non-white contestants have already been eliminated this season) rarely wander alone, without a guide or interpreter, through those parts of African cities as dense and "intense" as the parts of Delhi that the race was in this week.
The African exceptions of big cities tourists do tend to explore on foot -- Cairo and Casablanca -- are among those that come closest to India for the incidence of culture shock that rises to the level of panic or revulsion. The difference, at least in Cairo, is that there are quiet, peaceful enclaves like Zemalek, where I stayed earlier this year, where one can get away from the frenzied street life from time to time. In Delhi, as in other big Indian cities, almost every street is alive, and there is little rest for the stranger's mind from the extra effort of trying to interpret the unfamiliar.
In a familiar place, our minds figure out what is significant in our stream of sensory impressions, largely without conscious effort, and filter out most "ordinary" things without our even noticing them. In a place where we have no body of experience by which to judge what is "normal", it takes much more effort to figure out what we need to pay attention to. The more intense and complex the set of stimuli, the more work this is. Some people enjoy that "stranger in a strange land" impetus to constant hyper-awareness, the way they would a drug like caffeine. Others experience it unpleasantly, as though they were being forcibly deprived of sleep or of the opportunity for mental rest and mental digestion -- or force-fed an excess of caffeine. It's this dichotomy, in the end, that I think best explains why India retains such a reputation as a place tourists either love or hate.
What do you think? Did you love india? Hate it? Neither? Where was your most extreme "culture shock" (other than when you returned home)? Please share your views in the comments.Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 9 November 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)