India – the land of ‘why not’, part I

Western logic does not apply.

In my years as a consultant I’ve visited many cities and a few countries. Just a year ago I told a more experienced colleague that I envied his consulting stints in several exotic places and that I would love to get some exposure to completely different cultures. A few months later, that desire came true.

When I got a call from a Director of my company offering me a place on a project in India, the decision process was quite straightforward – a chat with my wife and that’s pretty much it. It was a conditional ‘yes’ – time-limited, as I didn’t want to be on a long-haul assignment for longer than 6 months (on a 3 weeks abroad / 1 week working from home schedule). In those six months I also got to spend 5 weeks in China, but the main bulk of work was done in India – specifically Hyderabad and Bangalore. And boy oh boy, this was a real roller coaster. I’ve got two main takeaways from that assignment – welcome to part I.

Mac vs Windows

If you are working on a Windows PC / laptop and want to open a file with your keyboard, you select it and press ‘Enter’. Follow the same process on a MacBook and you’ll enter file-name-editing mode instead of opening the file. If you want to open a file using only your keyboard, you’ve got to use a combination of two keys.

Now, as a Windows user you can say ‘that’s stupid, it doesn’t make sense’. ‘Enter’ should logically result in file opening, that’s even in the name of the key! But what you’re effectively doing is you’re applying a Windows logic to a non-Windows situation and then you’re surprised that the result did not meet your expectations. If you drive in mainland Europe, you are on the right side. Try driving on the right side in the UK and see where that will take you.

Another example of employing one’s current logic to a context in which that logic does not apply is house numbering in e.g. Poland (because that’s the example I’m sure about) and in Japan. If you walk down the street in Poland, on one side of it houses will have ascending / descending odd numbers and on the other side you’ll have ascending / descending even numbers. Both sides will ascend / descend in the same direction. If you’re at the beginning of the street and want to find house no. 33, you locate house no. 1 – which will be at the beginning of the street – identify which side of the street it is on and you can bet that house no. 33 will be on that side further down the road.

Now try applying this logic to Japan and you’ll quickly fail. In Japan houses are not numbered by their geographical position / relative position to other houses – they are numbered chronologically, in order of when they had been built. Apparently it’s not easy to find an address in Japan if you don’t know already where you’re going! You can be disappointed / angry / agitated / unsatisfied about it, but that’s just the way it is. You can either adjust your expectations and get on with it or still try to apply your ‘logic’ and remain discontented with the fact that reality ‘isn’t what it should be’ according to you or what you’re used to.

Gloves and waffles

The analogies above perfectly describe my experiences in India. And it literally started when the plane landed. The Indian passengers immediately got up and started queuing up to the exit. Everybody was literally in physical contact with the person in front of them. My concepts of a ‘proper queue’ and  ‘personal space’ were instantly challenged.

Queue, anyone?

Then the immigration experience and further figuring out what the Indian definition of a queue was – or rather if there even was one, as people seemed to just pile up into the bottleneck represented by the immigration officer. Then there was a hand luggage scanner – why? What could we have possibly put in our luggage between the trip from the plane to the immigration exit that needed to be checked for? (This point actually goes into part II of this story and how the real question in India isn’t ‘why’, but rather ‘why not’. More on this later). And all of these challenges to my ‘Western’ expectations and logic even before leaving the airport, the place which ‘normally’ (another expectation) is the most cosmopolitan and universal public space in any city!

Then came the traffic. You might’ve heard about this aspect of India, but I guarantee – hearing about it does not really prepare you for the sheer reality of it. Just take what you heard and multiply it by 10. The cacophony of car horns is unimaginable – the funny thing about it is, though, that they are being used in the ‘appropriate way’, as per the Highway Code:

Use only while your vehicle is moving and you need to warn other road users of your presence. Never sound your horn aggressively.

The drivers of cars, motorcycles, scooters, buses, trucks, tuk tuks and other vehicles are just constantly warning others of their presence!

Some say that the Indian national sport is cricket. How about how many people can fit in one tuk tuk?

If you put your ‘Western lens’ on and try to understand & evaluate Indian traffic – you’re doomed. You’ll be frustrated that everybody seems to be in a rush and that crossing the road requires trusting others that they will swerve around you (or stop if it is only absolutely necessary). On my first evening I had to ask a local to help me cross the road. But then I learned that it is a matter of walking slowly and consistently – basically making yourself predictable and somehow the organised chaos of Indian traffic, in which deaths should occur literally every second by Western standards, will not hurt you.

I could go on and on – let me give you one more ‘horror’ story (that is, if you look at it from a ‘Western’ perspective). I spent my last year’s birthday in Bangalore – a friend took me to a waffle place for a quick celebration before dinner. The pictures of the waffles were spectacular and salivation-inducing, the staff (five gentlemen – a little bit too many, given that they had one other customer) looked professional – there was segregation of duties, i.e. the guy handling the money didn’t handle the food and the guy who was supposed to deal with food had plastic gloves on (the type you get at petrol stations). So far so good. I can’t remember what I ordered, but two of the gentlemen proceeded to prepare the waffle. After a few minutes in the waffle machine, they tried to take the waffle out of it and began to struggle – it got stuck. Whether it was the case of too little oil or faulty machine – no idea. The guy with gloves on tried to get the waffle out and finally got it out and put it on the prepping part of their till. The glove-less gentleman started touching the waffle, so – to the amusement of my Indian fried – my Western standards kicked in and I started complaining – “He’s touching the waffle! He’s touching the waffle! He doesn’t have gloves on!”. He let go very quickly and hid in a mini-staff room.

To appease me, they started to prepare another waffle. Same story – it got stuck again and once they got it out, it turned out that it wasn’t properly cooked. So they offered a third one and we declined. When we were leaving the waffle place, the gloved guy started cleaning tables. In gloves. The same gloves he had on when he was handling the waffles.

It’s highly likely that the glove-less guy had more clean hands than the gloves of the other guy.

It’s not the reality’s fault; it’s your expectations that are screwing you

“10 rupees, you and me?”, offered a lady outside of a restaurant. I politely declined, realising that she hadn’t always been a lady.

This sums up the first part of my India post best. If you go to India and expect a certain standard or a logic, you are in for an unpleasant treat. India makes you appreciate the ‘Western’ things we take for granted – including e.g. (clean) toilets, traffic rules that people actually adhere to, clean-ish streets and many more. India is a hardcore mindfulness training camp and if you give into the different emotions related to the dissonance between reality & expectations, it will chew you up and spit you out brutally like a garlic naan.

How’s your anxiety?

It also holds a mirror up to your face and asks “how self-aware are you? How long will it take until you give up the responsibility for your own mood and start blaming everything around you?”. Even if you think that you’ve done good progress on your self-awareness & mindfulness journey, India will show you your place. At least it did with me.

Did I mention mini-showers next to the toilets instead of toilet paper?

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