“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people”, Gandhi said. No wonder it is so difficult for outsiders to understand a country’s customs and beliefs!
I wanted to live in Britain since I was a child, for reasons that go back too far for me to remember. Eventually, I went to study Business at Middlesex University in London. I floated on air for the first six months, because I was living my dream. But half way through my first year, I began to struggle. I wished I better understood, not so much the things that people said ––my English was good enough for that–– but what was going through their heads.
Much of human communication is left unspoken, we understand it only because we know what rules people are adhering to. So when an English person explained to me that in London, “if someone tells you that you must come and visit, unless they give you a day and time, it is not an invitation”, my heart sank. How was I supposed to know what people meant if I couldn’t rely on the words they spoke? A few years later, I landed in China without a word of Mandarin. But by then I knew better.
Rule number one: my country of origin is not the standard by which others should live
Every culture has some aspects that might seem rude to outsiders, but are perfectly acceptable within the context of the country. In France, everyone who walks into a store is greeted by a welcoming “bonjour”, and replies in kind. When I moved to London, English shopkeepers seemed cold, because they ignored me when I walked in. I later learnt that privacy is highly valued in Britain, and I grew to appreciate that no-one ever felt the need to poke their nose into my life.
After 13 years, the British way of thinking became my way, and then I moved to Washington DC. At first, the American eagerness to ask how I am when I step into a store came as a shock, until I learnt that I just have to say that I’m fine, and everyone’s happy. Most importantly, these days I just go with the flow. When in Rome, do as the Romans do!
Rule number two: there is a logical reason, even though I might not know it
A country’s culture is better understood within the context of its history. Laws and rules have developed over time in response to events that happened in the past. The American press delights in the French media’ s apparent lack of interest in politicians’ indiscretions. What they don’t know is that France has strict privacy laws, and that the French media expose themselves to a lawsuit if they publish photographs obtained without consent. French people believe that what goes on in a marriage, be it that of the president, is a private matter.
Americans believe that politicians who display a lack of morals in the private sphere cannot be trusted with public matters. I cannot disagree with that logic. I don’t have a problem with exposing the culprit. But I also appreciate the privacy that the French media affords the wronged spouses of politicians. If they are not the ones who had the affair, why subject them to public humiliation? So both systems, French and American, have their merits based on their own logic.
Rule number three: relax and enjoy the ride
Being in a foreign country can be a source of anxiety: what if I don’t speak the language or don’t know the rules? The worst that will happen is that I will make a fool of myself, which will make for good stories to tell my friends and family.
The important thing to remember is that people are human beings wherever I go, and that what we have in common is much more than what sets us apart. If I look for the similarities not the differences, I find that I can relate to the people around me and be comfortable in their company.
I do not need in-depth knowledge of the customs of India in order to appreciate Gandhi’s legacy to the world. The values he preached transcend every culture.