Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Waking up in India

I often wonder why exactly I and everyone else here from a "Developed" nation has to go through this process of giving up on that idea of "what's wrong with those poor people's society," and how it should be changed. I took two months, but I am quite clear now on the level of my understanding of life here (better than zero, but not much). Even the smallest of things have different meanings here. Take for example two tiny words, that sort of mean the same thing, but don't really. The english word "sir" and the Hindi word "ji."

"ji" sounds like "g," or as I most often like to think "G." It's a suffix really, and it gives a meaning of respectful address. You attach it to the end of a name or mother, or father, or to the end of a positive or negative answer. So it gets translated at "sir" mostly. Unfortunately, "sir" doesn't really mean much for me, as I throw "sir" about with complete abandon at home, and often sarcastically. I also do the same with "G" with friends. In fact I think "G" probably is more respectful when I use it than "sir" as it carries a bit more closeness.

Here though, my tendency to use "sir" to address people has actually given me a lot of help. It's a magic word. Here, "sir" is "ji" and immediately makes you a very polite gentleman (unless you use it on a friend who wants you to treat them as an equal or familiar). Teachers certainly bother me less, and officials leave me instantly out of the ugly American category the moment "ji" or "sir" escapes my lips.

In the end, while I recognize that this is a bit strange and ridiculous to me, on the other hand, a respectful society is certainly a nice idea. People are generally friendly here. I get a lot of privilege because of my age, skin color and gender combined. It's ridiculous, but I am not about to knock it.

The women on this trip have a tough time getting around, and saying it sucks is a bit of a callous understatement. It more than sucks. However, it doesn't suck because of something inherently wrong with this society. It sucks mostly because it makes it nearly impossible for young women to assimilate safely into this society at large. Where my skin color makes me a target of useful attention (to a point) theirs certainly does not. Add to that the general notion of Western women as immoral. All of the things you're supposed to be able to do in the States are gone. I say "supposed to be able" because it's not a sure thing at home either, and it's easy to forget that here. I haven't run into a foreign idea about women here. It's the same old crap at home that ignorance creates. This is the root of the problem here for visitors. For the most part, women and men are completely foreign to each other, because that is the way the culture works here. It's got its problems, but so does our culture (if you can call it that... I'll get to that another time), and we only have a third of the people to deal with.

For a while, it seems like a good idea to categorize and judge this or that about this culture. I think though that it is unwise. Especially if you are at a disadvantage here. Continuing to keep placing the people you meet into the category of "other" is going to keep them as enemies really. At least, these are the things I tell myself. Respect is key to survival.

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