Friday, December 30, 2011

Of Awkwardness & Ambiguity

People always say that learning begins at the end of your comfort zone.   And as a person who finds awkwardness in nearly every situation, well this zone isn’t particularly wide.

Growing up in Jamaica and slipping in and out of different cultural communities throughout my life, I learned my first lessons on this.  But now my experience here in India is propelling me even further along this path, teaching me anew (and with it, reinforcing some of the old).

Lesson 1: Building a systematic understanding
I like structure.   Need structure.  And over-information.
But now, I find myself part of an entirely new system:  an intricately woven web of social norms, where standard protocol is defined along the lines of caste, gender, and tradition.   I’m trying to learn the rules.  Catch on to the subtleties and nuances of daily life here.   

And so, I ask the silly questions that seem so obvious to any native resident, like: why would a married woman not be able to walk freely around the village?  (Here many married women only walk outside their house in the company of their husband or other family members, and when they do they must observe purdah – covering of their body and face.)   And as I ask these questions, I find (or rather, lose) myself in conversations where I am really working to understand not just the literal language (thank goodness for, but the social subtext as well.

Lesson 2:  Finding the right balance
No doubt a Jam-indian girl with a thick Amriki accent will stand out in a small Indian village.  But, I embrace full immersion.  I try to make the adaptation as seamless as possible – changing my jeans and t-shirts for kurtis and leggings, seeking to adopt local customs, mimicking body language, etc.  It’s inevitable though, that my foreign-ness slips out, and reveals itself.  And while I would normally find myself irritated – really, embarrassed - I’m slowly learning to just accept it.  I still wholeheartedly strive to immerse myself in my new community (and I’m eagerly awaiting the day I can take a rickshaw without immediately being quoted an NRI price), but for now I will just let this process take its natural course.

Lesson 3: Pushing through communication barriers
Growing up in the Balani house of nomadic chaos, clear and succinct communication has always been critical.  And now here, faced with: phone calls dropping mid-conversation nearly 80% of the time, different levels of education and understanding leading to varied personal interpretations of a conversation, and the common habit of speaking over and on top of one another to be heard, clear communication has become more essential than ever.  I’m learning to embrace the confusion, though, as I study this essential art in another language (really, adha-Hindi, adha-English).  And along the way, I am re-learning the value of patience and the importance of admitting when “I just don’t get it.”  Sure, the joke isn’t always as funny after the 3rd round of translation and explanation, but even this process can provide its own comedic relief. J

Of course, the lessons are endless, and the above is just a sampling.  More to come…

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