July 04, 2015

Reporting from the new culture

When you move countries, you fully expect some things - language, food, places, are all part of the normal change. You get there and people say "How you going" instead of "How're you doing" five times a day and before you know it, this begins to sound normal to you. What you don't expect is a show called "Dating Naked" on primetime television, where people -you guessed it- date naked (with appropriate blurring, of course, but the purpose of this show is as yet unknown). What you don't expect is a homeless person with a board that says "I'm sorry but it's either this or crime" - which, when you think about it, is less a request and more a threat. What you also don't expect is just how scary the homeless people can be, especially if you're from India where beggars are usually over-friendly, over-enthusiastic people on the streets who believe that the best way of getting money from you to is poke you continuously while you sit in a rickshaw at a traffic light.

Which, really, is representative of all cultural crossovers. I watched something on an Australian TV channel called "Rick Stein's India" where Rick Stein (a chef) travels across India tasting food and trying to find "my top 10 curries" - an endeavour that's as endearing as it's futile because "curry" (as they call it) covers literally every possible vegetable, meat, fish and chicken dish in every home and every restaurant in India.

Of course, travel documentaries about India have now evolved from the Taj-Mahal-Goa-look-at-the-colours! approach to a more balanced Taj-Mahal-Goa-Pondicherry-weed-in-the-mountains-look-at-the-colours-and-the-people-and-the-poverty! approach - which is great except that the poor people in India are smiling into the frame in every part of the documentary: partly amused, partly confused, partly just happy to be on camera with a white guy. (This is before the same video footage gets combined with a poignant sitar soundtrack which makes you feel sad for these beautiful simple people who are neither sad nor simple nor beautiful in real life).
Photoshop - Setting you up for one disappointment after another

When Rick Stein decides to visit Dharavi (made famous by Slumdog Millionaire - of course), enters a random dude's home and has an impromptu meal that Random Dude probably intended to eat himself, you can see a bunch of people from the slums gather behind him, smiling externally but ROFLing in their heads at why someone thought a chapati and tomato sabzi (I mean curry) in someone's home needed to be videotaped. Then of course, Rick Stein goes on about how it's amazing and the best chapati he's had (clearly hyperbole is a global phenomenon, binding us all) and Indian viewers at this point are wondering how long it'll be before he gets dysentery.

At some level, Rick Stein is representative of all of us - every First World person who wants to come to the Third World "as a traveller, not a tourist" and every Third World person who wants to come to the First World "as an expat, not an immigrant" - goals you pursue valiantly until you realize their utter futility and just decide to make yourself at home being the outsider and enjoying all the benefits that has to offer - being considered exotic by the locals and being able to mask your stupidity as "I'm not from here!" for the first six months are just two of them. Maybe then you settle in (as foreigners settle into India - wary, then tentative, then interested and then just happy that they never have to wash a dish again in their life). Maybe you don't. Maybe the new place becomes as comfortable as going through a box (can?) of Pringles in bed. Maybe you hate it and can't wait to get on the next plane home.

Now please excuse me while I slather Vegemite on toast before also making a *curry* with rice that I will eat while watching Masterchef Australia before watching a Bollywood movie before watching Dating Naked.