Tuesday, January 12, 2010

From Handshake to Hugs

I got a request from SK, a fellow blogger, that I should write about the cultural shock that Indians get when coming to Germany. I think this post is a lot less relevant these days with westernization moving at an exponential pace in India. Since this is confined mostly to the cities and there are others who come to Germany, I think some of this probably still makes sense (or it simply makes for an interesting read :D). Of course the culture shock can take varying forms, depending on the sex, background, personality and the overall mindset of a person.

I am going to begin by listing some of my experiences, and I am going to be as frank as I can (as is permissible in a public forum). It should be noted that I came here in Feb 2003 and that was the time when MNCs had not ventured into India in full force, take-away pizzas were rare, dating was unheard of (and those who did date did it like the CIA and guarded their secret like the FBI) and there were no ‘educational’ movies like Dhoom 2 or Race or Kandhasamy to learn from.

It was my second day in Germany. As I was sitting with a bunch of my classmates, 2 Spanish students joined us. They introduced themselves as newcomers and began by shaking hands with everyone. As the first one approached me, I put out my hand (a little reluctantly, albeit with a big smile) and before I knew it, he gave me a hug!! I was still in shock when the second guy gave me a hug too! To me it was completely unexpectant and in fact, quite bewildering. Then they sat down and began merrily chatting with all of us.

Physical contact: The first thing that bothered me was the hitherto-unused-to physical contact – handshakes, hugs and sometimes even a kiss on the cheek or on the hand. Although I have been born and brought up in Chennai with a number of male friends (some of them really close that they meet my parents now and then even when I am not in town), both from school and college, there was somehow no physical contact in the friendship. I have lots of cousins and I am close with them and excepting those, physical contact with guys was completely foreign to me.

It was my first month in Germany. I was in the S-Bahn (local train) and the only one in a 4-seater, with 2 seats facing 2 others. In one of the stops, a young couple boarded the train and sat in the seats exactly opposite to me. As soon as they sat down, they began kissing vehemently. I was completely embarrassed and didn’t know where I should look since they were in my line of sight, I looked outside the window for a while and stared at the train ceiling for a while and all along, I had this creepy sensation of two people being tongue-tied next to me. At one point, I could take it no longer and so I moved away to a different part of the train. When I mentioned this to one of my friends, he said, ‘Nee james bond movies parthadhu illaya??’ and I retorted ‘sure, but ivalo close-upla, ivalo livea naan edhuvum parthadhe illa’!!!

Public displays: It is very common to see couples here holding hands, hugging, kissing etc. in public places (right from a shopping mall to an elevator – no exceptions!). This has embarrassed me quite a few times but I slowly learnt to live with it or rather ignore it. Over time, I have grown up to an extent that public displays of love sometimes make me smile. What bothers me most is when there is a public display of lust. I saw a lady step down from a train, and nearly run to hug her husband and kids on the platform – this falls in the former category and is heart-warming while seeing 2 teenagers lip-locked in front of my building is not!

I was waiting to withdraw cash from an ATM and in the queue, there was a desi guy and ahead of him was a German. When the German got his turn and was at the machine, the desi guy stood very close behind him (like we do in queues in India fearing that if we left a gap, someone would come and fill it !) and the German turned and stared at him a couple of times and finally said “Könnten Sie bitte Abstand halten” i.e. “Can you please maintain some distance?”

Personal space: People need their space be it a queue or public transport. I have noticed people standing even when there are seats left in a 4-seater since they prefer standing to sitting in close quarters with strangers. In general, no one breaks a queue anywhere, so people maintain a good distance from each other.

I was in Amsterdam for a weekend and as I turned around a corner, I almost ran into two people kissing. I was flustered and looked up to apologize, but the two blonde men (yes, men) hadn’t even noticed me !

I was on a work trip to Canada and although I was traveling alone, I had a spacious suite with a living room, dining room and a huge bedroom with twin beds. One of my colleagues who was leaving Canada that night missed her flight and had to spend the night. While she was thinking of hotel rooms, I suggested that she stay with me instead of spending money. She happily agreed and when she came to spend the night, she had brought her own sleeping bag and slept in the living room although I told her more than once that she can sleep in one of the beds

Same sex interaction: Interaction between similar sexes is pushed to extremes here. When on the one side, there are same-sex couples, on the other side men are totally against any physical contact with other men like hugging or having one’s arm over the other’s shoulder and they are completely shocked when they see desis do all this (I had a couple of people, who have seen guys sharing a bicycle – doubles – ask me if they are homosexual). In case of women, there are some who would hug and kiss (or rub cheeks, I really do not know the right way!) when they greet and some who shy away from it.

I was in the University when one of the guys who worked with me under the same professor as a RA (research assistant) asked me if I would have coffee with him. I was under the impression that coffee meant ‘just coffee’ until he had this sheepish grin on his face.

I was coming home after a b’day party and as I was waiting in the train station, an unknown guy approached me and asked if I was interested to have some drinks with him and some “fun”. I pointed to the ring in my finger and I said that I am married (although I wasn’t then, the ring is sure helpful!) and not interested. He walked away.

Accosting people and dating: Men accosting women either for dates or ‘otherwise’ is quite common. The key is to assess the situation and react accordingly without going into panic mode. Being accosted by a drunken gang in a station at night is obviously much different than being asked out by a guy at work. In one way, I feel this is better than being gawked at all the time. People generally take ‘no’ well too.

It was my first summer here and it was extremely hot (touched 40 deg C on one day). My apartment in the university was just behind the woods and also had considerable stretches of greenery on the front. Women in bikins and men in trunks (Irrespective of their figures, all people who sun-bathed would be clad in similar costume) sun bathing was something that happened everyday. I did get used to seeing it pretty quickly but what always bothered me was some desis and people from other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, staring open-mouthed at these people.

It was my first time to the University swimming pool. When I went to the women’s bathroom, to take a shower, I was in for a shock. There were no curtains, no partitions – it was just a huge room with a number of showers and everyone in there was naked. I was the only one showering with a swim suit on and excepting a couple who gave me a weird look, no one else cared.

‘Freedom’ w.r.t clothing: I need not elaborate on this. What one must understand is that everyone has his/her own opinion as to what and what not to wear. This is almost akin to vegetarianism for me. While I do not eat meat, I do not make faces when someone next to me does. So be yourself and let others do what they do. People here are used to seeing women in skimpy clothes, so someone wearing a swim suit does not attract as much attention as it would in India. While this works to the advantage of desi girls, guys get in trouble ! For guys (and sometimes, even girls), sight adichufying is different from gaping at someone. Alavodu jolli valamaga vazhga !

Many universities like the University of Stuttgart, offer integration programs that discuss various aspects of the Cultural shock, not only to arriving desis but also to Germans who have to interact with them.

It all comes down to living and learning and giving people the benefit of doubt. Do some research on dos and donts and exercise discretion and you should be fine. At the end of it all, you would definitely have some interesting stuff to share like I do :). But, please, please, bear in mind that while in Germany, you are an Indian ambassador and anything/everything you do will go into a German's definition of an Indian. So do your bit to make this definition better and not the other way around.

For more information about ''what is typical in Germany'', read this post.

SK, let me know if there is anything else you want me to elaborate on.

PS: Finally, the cultural shock I had in Nov 2005 when I came to India after 2.75 years was much bigger than the shock I had when I first came to Germany ! Maybe I should write about that too...
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