Maybe this isn’t the best time in my journey to talk about cultural differences, because so far the “differences” have mostly come to light through difficulties that I’ve encountered. I don’t want this to be seen as a Negative-Nellie post, but I think it will be interesting to revisit this in 6 months and see if I’ve adapted or learned to understand things differently.
So, to start things off… remember when I complained about the noise here in the office? A lot of it has to do with phones. The problem (at least, part of it) is that voice messaging is not enabled. The phone just rings and rings and rings and no one answers it. I don’t know if, for the caller, there’s a set amount of time they’ll allow this to go on before giving up and ending the call – for me, it’s about 8 rings, but obviously there are people out there who have much greater stamina than I. People will answer each others’ phones as well (for example, if their colleague is not at his/her desk and the phone is ringing, someone else will answer: “Tom’s desk, Jerry speaking”). I thought this was weird until a phone nearby started ringing and went on for about 3 minutes. That’s a lot of rings. I don’t know why the caller stayed on the line letting it go that long. And I don’t know why an organization like CARE doesn’t have voicemail! Cell phones are the same, no voicemail, and people will ALWAYS answer the call. People will actually answer a cell phone DURING a landline conversation and just hold a phone to each ear and tell landline caller to hang tight for a minute. Any face-to-face conversation can be interrupted during a phone call at any time, there’s no call waiting or screening or anything either. And the expectation seems to be that you’re constantly reachable by phone; if you don’t answer because you’re talking to someone else or busy, you will be asked later if there’s a problem with your phone.
A lot of roles are very specific in the non-professional side. Like, we have some CARE drivers, some messengers, custodians, some guys in “pantry” (kitchen – they bring coffee to meetings and sometimes pass around snacks), a guy at the travel desk, and a few security guards. The whole office has only about 50 people, so that’s a lot of “other” jobs. These workers aren’t busy, they’re here all day, probably don’t get paid all that much, but when they’re not actively performing their function they’re just sitting upstairs or beside the kitchenette. In the West, those roles would likely be combined, contracted out or not even performed (it’s expected that we get our own coffee and make our own travel arrangements). Perhaps because there are just so many people of working age here the labour market is very different; they don’t seem to be looking for ways to improve processes or increase outputs, I don’t think it’s seen as necessary when there are so many people willing to work for relatively little.
I had some confusion with non-verbal communication when I got here, and I’m still figuring it out. I’d heard of the famous Indian Head Wobble, which is a basically moving the head repeatedly in the frontal plane (tilting the ear to the shoulder); it’s sort of like a “yes” or “ok” of comprehension (I think). People also don’t smile as much in conversation. Back home, for example, usually at the end of a conversation there’s a slight smile and nod, which shows your understanding and agreement with the verbal transaction. You know the conversation is over at this point. But here, that doesn’t happen. I kept looking for a glimmer or recognition that the other person understood what I was saying and was ok with it, and didn’t get anything. So I just kept smiling and making eye contact like a doofus until they basically walked away. They also don’t use please/thank you/you’re welcome as much, particularly in the retail and service industry. I don’t think it’s meant to be rude or anything, and I don’t think it’s just me being white because I see it happening in front of me too. It’s just that the purpose of the interaction is purely financial; they’re not concerned with making you a happy customer.
People don’t necessarily assume the best about you or give the benefit of the doubt when you ask a question. My second day here, I asked about all these piles of crumbling bricks around the office neighbourhood and was told to keep an open mind and not be too judgmental. I was asking about the piles (is there a brick company around here? Is there a lot of construction or something?) but it was interpreted as if I was commenting on the shoddy state of the bricks. If someone from India came to Quebec and asked about our famous potholes, I’d explain the concept of frost heave, not assume they were making snide remarks about our government turning a blind eye to the Montreal Mafia’s involvement in our construction industry. I think this just shows how our background can really shape our outlook and assumptions about different groups. I usually try to assume the best and I’ve assumed in turn that others will give me the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve learned that’s not the case and people can be pretty defensive over totally innocuous things. I’ve started prefacing a lot of my questions with “I know this is probably a stupid question, but….” to try not to offend people, because I’m not an offensive person!
At the same time, while I’m asking questions about India and other random things, not very many people have asked me at all about Canada, or anything about me personally. I don’t know if they don’t care or if it’s considered rude to ask. I know if we have visitors from afar, we tend to ask a ton of questions, and like to talk about the similarities and differences in our countries and cultures and we consider it polite to show a genuine interest in their background. It does feel as if they don’t really care to know or remember; in Hyderabad, they kept introducing me as “from Atlanta” (the CARE head office) when I kept saying Canada and explaining I was a Pfizer Fellow. I had to explain it was a different country, and someone actually waved a hand and said Canadian and American was the “same thing.” I had to bite my tongue to not comment sarcastically on Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh all being the “same thing.” The only question that was really asked about Canada was in reference to Canadians’ attitudes and perceptions of India: “What do people think of when they think of India?” I wonder if some of this comes from the fact that this is a poorer country with a more recent colonial experience, and people are just automatically a little less trusting and don’t really want to get to know someone from a richer country, or if they really are much more autocentric.
So that’s the highlight reel from my cultural experience so far. I’m having to grow a thicker skin here and I’m learning not to let things bother me. Overall though… glad to be Canadian. I have no intention of “forgetting” how to be polite and considerate while I’m here, but I probably will be learning some other interpersonal skills! Don’t be surprised if I come back and start answering your phone for you if I think you’re taking too long to get it! 🙂
Last night I moved to GK-1. It’s a nice apartment, the AC works really well and the windows seem to be sealed better so hopefully no more sandstorms in my home. The bathroom fan is likewise sealed, so no more pigeons in the bathroom. The kitchen is smaller but somewhat better equipped, so I can start cooking a bit more now.
I successfully found the Kailash Colony market from home and got some produce from the “veggie wallahs” (roadside carts) on the way home. [Lee Ming, this section is for you] Produce is really cheap. I didn’t want to carry too much home since I was walking, but for 130 rupees (less than $3) I got:
2 small eggplants
1 green pepper
1 hand of ginger
A bag of baby potatoes
Grocery stores are really small and don’t have nearly the same kind of variety as we’re used to in Canada. Prices are variable; for more commonly used Indian things it’s really cheap and for things that are more foreign or for prepared things (canned sauce, condiments) it’s a lot more expensive. For example, a half liter of yogurt is less than a dollar, a liter of tetrapak milk just over a dollar, half dozen eggs just over a dollar… small box of Bran Flakes around $10. Dried lentils and chickpeas and rice are super cheap, Indian spices are also pretty cheap. I love trying new things in the kitchen, but there’s no oven and just the typical 2 burner gas stove (like car camping!) so I don’t know how fancy I’m going to be getting here. Plus, cooking when it’s hot is no fun, even with the AC. And I still haven’t found garlic, which is ridiculous because it’s used in everything. I need a garlic-wallah! I don’t think there will be a lot of “leafy greens” or salads featuring either, since a) greens are really wilted even if you CAN find them and b) it’s hard to wash the E.coli off. Maybe saag since it’s cooked. While I’m looking forward to some experimentation, I do find when I look at all the Indian recipes that they’re calling for the same sorts of seasonings all the time. I like variety… we shall see how this goes. There will probably be some bizarre combinations and substitutions. No laughing at me!