Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Culture Shock

Culture Shock. Note:The following took place in 1985 and 1986 while I was in Japan, Thailand, Nepal and India. All these countries have changed a lot since this happened in many many ways. So don't expect any of what I'm saying here to be true at all anymore.

In December 1985 I had only been to the lower 48 states of the U.S. and Hawaii, Canada and Mexico. Only Mexico and to a lesser degree Hawaii prepared me for what I was to experience in Asia. At the time I remember saying to my wife and kids before we left for Asia, "This experience will probably be the most like going to another planet that we could experience on earth." The real experience proved this statement correct and more so.

Out in the country in India away from the tourist traps people in the hundreds gathered around us to see people with green eyes and light colored skin. They wanted to touch our hair and even feel the hair on our arms. None of us were prepared for this. None of us ever got used to hundreds or thousands of people gathering in a circle staring at us. In their culture it would be impolite not to stare. In their culture it would be impolite not to try and touch.

My then 14 year old stepson said, "These people think we are gold plated E.T.'s" He was right.
Even though at the time we were just average middle class Americans from Coastal California we could not have been more different to these people than if we came from the moon. Thousands of People begged us to take them with us to the United States. Hundreds of people begged us to take their 15 to 17 year old daughters with us as au pairs for our children aged then 10 to 14. Since most of these kinds of people had no formal education or documentation of their births there was no legal way to help them even if we had wanted to. Some people we came very close to bringing to the United States with us. For example, Deshek, a 22 year old Tibetan man living in Dharmsala, India. He was an educated Buddhist scholar but we realized his vision of what the United States was really like was too much of a dream and nothing we could share could dissuade his ideas of what America really was. We sensed that he would be broken by the truth of America if he came here to live. There is this dream throughout the world of an America whose streets are paved with gold and that everything is easy. You and I who live in America know that though there is opportunity here in America but that the truth can be very difficult to deal with on other levels. In America you can get a lot but what you get can cost ones soul in some ways. People in other countries often just can't relate to the truth of what it is really like to be here and live here for real. And people who can't get to the truth of America likely would be talking to themselves on some street corner once they got here.

One of the hardest experiences was of a beautiful tribal girl that her parents wanted to give to us while we were in Helambu, Nepal trekking. We had to pretend that we didn't understand what they wanted. After that, about 1000 people from her tribe cussed us out as they passed us. We could never understand them nor they us. After the 50th set of people stopped to swear in their language at us and we politely said, "hello. How are you?" we finally got disgusted with this and started to act polite as we swore back at them. This gave us great satisfaction and we didn't get murdered. And as far as I know they didn't understand a word because they were all uneducated.

At times I wonder why it was so important for them to give us their daughter. Maybe she was being forced to marry someone she didn't want. Maybe she wanted to go to America. Maybe she was pregnant and if she wasn't married she would be killed. We never knew. These are the kinds of strange experiences one could have in the Himalayas in the 1980's. Even when I started to seriously consider trying to take her with us I realized she wouldn't have a birth certificate because of being rural and tribal. That was the end of it right there.

Then there was the beautiful 16 year old girl dressed all in white that got on the bus in Pathankot on our way to Dharmsala. I was sitting next to my wife on the bus on the aisle so she walked up to me and locked her knees on my thigh. I looked over at my wife and she sort of shrugged like, I don't know why she's doing this either. No one on the bus seemed to think anything of it. I later believed she was just bracing herself for all the bumbs and chuckholes as the bus bounced along. Later at her stop she simply got off without looking back.

Another time in New Delhi an older lady who once had been beautiful begged me for money while in some sort of gypsy costume. When I ignored her she got down on her knees and grabbed my thigh. As a westerner in this kind of compromising position I didn't see any recourse to giving her a few coins. When I gave her the coins she released my thigh and thanked me. I was very relieved because one never knows what the local customs are throughout India since there are about 300 languages spoken there and with English being the least universally offensive to all the locals.

It was a once in a lifetime experience for 4 months for the 5 of us. We spent 2 weeks in Thailand coming and another week or so returning to the U.S. We spent a couple of Days in Kathmandu, Nepal and then went to Bodhgaya, India to meet our friend. What was nice was that we met two old friends there. One of them was there that we hadn't expected from Alaska.
All five of us in my family's lives were permanently enriched and changed by this experience. Though we had to deal with dead bodies that didn't get picked up in the streets on multiple occasions, in general we were more amazed by our experiences than dismayed. I talked to an American who said, "I have a love hate relationship with India. Some of the worst things I've ever seen have been here but also some of the most wonderful and amazing things have also happened while I have been visiting here." This sort of summed up my experiences too.

The absolute worst culture shock was coming home to America. Everyone was hiding in their cars, and apartments and homes and not walking or talking or even arguing over prices on the street markets together. I found the real reality though harsh was in India and Nepal. The fake reality was here in America. Though it is much safer to live here in America it is also a lot more fake like living in Disneyland. However, would you rather see dead bodies on the streets that no one ever comes for to take them away or live in Disneyland? Most people on earth would make the same decision that you and I have and live in America.

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