Archive for the 'Crossing Cultures in South India' Category


The Results of No Internet for a Month

I moved just a block away, but being in India, it took a month to get my internet connected again because I was in a postal Bermuda triangle.  The internet providers couldn’t agree in what sector I belonged.  It was a very interesting time for me, and afterward I considered having a Shabbat from the internet.

Being an ex-pat in India, the internet fills a special need for me–it helps me feel connected with my friends who have the same background as I do, the same memories. They take me back to my hometown without me having to mess with airport security in smelly bare feet after being ordered to take off my potentially lethal shoes.

Since I am not fluent in the local language here, I am isolated to an extent in my “real world.” Playing cultural bumper cars all day long, every day, gets tiring, confusing. Coming on to Facebook, iming, twittering, and getting emails from 10k miles away kept me centered. And then I was cut off and had to join the real world here–a National Geographic documentary that doesn’t stop and has no commercials. And this is what I learned:

1. Because I had more free time in the real world, my house was cleaner, more organized. I noticed dirt and clutter that my cyber eyes were blind to before.

2. I developed a hunger for human companionship, making me more patient listening to garbled English and more out-going in practicing what I knew of the local language. I took more time with people–just sitting around drinking tea. I couldn’t flip the web pages now. I had to stay on the same channel in the real world.

3. I cooked more interesting foods like hummus and sharma.

4. I re-decorated part of my house using clay pots I found at local markets I didn’t know existed.

5. I almost got back into drawing and painting again.

6. I started doing yoga again, and my backache from too much time at the computer was gone.

7. I spent more time with my dog, running around and playing, training him out of bad habits.

After a few days, I didn’t miss having the internet as much as I thought. I almost didn’t want the engineer to come and hook me up again. Did I really spend so many hours in that darkened dusty room?  Was I a mole?

And then, when I finally did get hooked up, I found a lot of my “friends” didn’t really notice. There wasn’t the avalanche of emails that I thought that I would be buried under. There were no desperate messages on Facebook. I was a tree that fell in the cyber forest and nobody heard.

And now, since I got an overseas contract to do some writing–I will be forced to connect my life with the internet as never before. I tried so hard to just teach English here and be with animate humans, but the pay is lower than my chances of getting the Pultizer Prize. Again, I am part of the Borg.

Since I am eccentric, only on the internet can I find people who think as I do. How many people do you know are interested in Canine Homeopathy, the Torah from a Christian perspective (especially if you live where I live), and watching Grey’s Anatomy in French (it’s too boring in English now) ?

However, the internet, just like the net that the fishermen use on the beach that I can see outside my window (not XP), it can be cut easily. Come on. You know that the day is coming where we better know how to live without the internet–when we have black-outs due to terrorism or stupid corporate cuts that lead to under-skilled engineers and poor infra-structure. The Y2K phobia might have got the actual date wrong, but we better be taking lessons from the Amish.

PS  Thanks to Alvin Saldanha for his inspiration.


Little Drops Etiquette

Before my English husband and I were engaged, he taught me how to eat properly before he would let me eat in front of his mother and father at their home in Braintree, England. He comes from what we as Americans would consider a middle upper-class provincial home. He demonstrated the European method to hold one’s fork– upside down in one’s left hand and the knife in one’s right hand.

I had to practice at home in order that I didn’t unconsciously slip into my uncivilized way of eating American style which my husband found awkward.  You see, during the meal, I would get tired of trying to balance peas on my fork and revert to the American way. Invariably, I’d get this look and a slight cough.  Fortunately, I can safely say that I did not embarrass my husbands at his parents’ home–my future in-laws. Against all cultural odds, we were married soon after.  However,  I would get my revenge 14 years later, in of all places: India.

It was New Years Day in 1996. we had been invited to a modest home in the outskirts of Madras, as it was called then,  for breakfast. One of our new friends, Pradeep, an administrator for Little Drops, (an offshoot from Mother Theresa’s work), was taking us with a few of his friends to his supervisor’s home. We had to travel over dirt roads, over-taking water buffalo pulling cart-loads of produce, swarms of people on bicycles, and the occasional automatic rickshaw that had a fare from the city. I tried to keep track of where we were but I was soon lost in a maze of back streets.

The farther we  got from Madras, the more we were in the real India. In just a few miles, the suburbs quickly disappeared and we were suddenly in the villages. As soon as we left the city, gone were the five-star hotels, the British Raj edifices, the ambassador cars, the shopping malls, and the fine restaurants which could lull one in thinking that India was not so different from back home. While peering through the open window of the car, Stephen told me that he felt as if he had changed the the channel to a National Geographic documentary. We watched darkly tanned ladies coming from the local well, gracefully balancing shiny brass jugs on their head, effortlessly as models going down a runway in Paris. Their saris billowed in morning breeze, looking more colorful and striking than Coco Channel’s spring collection. The sun, no longer blocked by tall city buildings, shot bright yellow spotlights on the ladies through the palm trees. So bright was the day that the raspberry colored borganvilla plants appeared to light up on their own, as they fell against the fences and walls around the villages. Their aroma was one of the myriad of powerful scents of South India that came through the open windows of our car. While enjoying the borganvilla, my husband caught a waft of burning cow dung that the women use for fuel. On the side of the road, we watched one woman making uniform round brown patties of dung. I found that she would later put them on a wall to dry, giving a new meaning to residential recyling.

As we arrived at a modest group of houses, the car came to a stop. As we walked up the stairs to a small flat or apartment, Paul gave us a hearty hello. His balding crown and graying hair couldn’t belie his child-like and free spirit. Full of gaiety and warmth, his observant round eyes still took the time to take in our every detail.

He showed us into his living room, or hall, where an older man who had apparently suffered from leprosy greeted us. Although cured, the ravages of the disease had left him with stubs for fingers. His nose had also been affected.  We shook hands warmly with him and soon learned that the leprosy had not impaired his voice. He was going to sing the grace before breakfast. Although we didn’t understand a word of his Tamil, never do I remember hearing such depth, resonance, clarity, and fullness of song. Afterward,  he quietly left. He was fasting that day.

On the table was a breakfast made on special occasions: lamb stew in a coconut gravy. After such a long and dusty trip, we all took turns washing our hands in the bathroom in cold water, the only tap. Instead of using a towel, we “drip-dried,” flinging water at one another. As we sat down, there was just about enough room for all of us to sit around the table. From my vantage point, I could easily view the streets below and catch a breeze. An older woman who I learned was their servant for many years dished up the stew for us. I had inquired where Paul’s wife and children were and found that Shelia hadn’t yet finished her morning prayers in her bedroom. Their two children were also in the bedroom, a little sick from eating too much food from the carnival that Paul’s ministry had arranged the day before as a fund-raiser.

Once the lady served the stew on top of mountains of rice on our plates, except the native from Braintree, we all began to dig in–literally. In South Indian fashion, one eats with the utensils that God gave: the fingers. Now, as with all ancient customs in India, there is an art to this. I had already learned this custom by watching how my Indian friends ate from the corner of my eye while ostensibly listening to the conversations around me. I quietly surveyed South Indians mixing the gravy and the rice together, careful not to allow the food to rise beyond the second joints of their fingers.

As I attempted to eat this way myself, I found it very liberating. I’m not sure how long one is suppose to swish around the rice with the stew, but after a certain interval, I learned to fan my fingers. Without bending them, bringing them together, and mold a nice mouthful of food. Indians do not look down at what they are doing, but are constantly talking, unconsciously swishing their finger about the plate, preparing that perfect morsel. Perhaps this creative sculpturing helps them make better conversation.

Once South Indians feel that they have sculptured a nice ball of food, they pick it up delicately with their fingers, then flick it in their mouths, using the thumb as leverage. If they are really adept, fingers hardly touch the mouth, and there are no little drops of rice falling in the plate, on the table, or on the lap. By careful covert observation on this day, I learned to press down on the plate while squeezing the food together to really get an effective mold. Once I learned this process, I successfully popped the morsel in my mouth with total South Indian decorum.

I was ready to swish my finger around again to make another bite when I realized that my poor husband was at a loss. He had never bothered to watch how South Indians ate, maintaining that he would most definitely never eat with his hands. He thought that Americans were uncivilized enough when they ate with only a fork. I remember after living in England for three years, our coming from JFK Airport, we stopped for a pizza at a rather basic eating establishment. My Braintree husband  insisted on having a knife and fork with which to eat his pepperoni pizza. Later, when we ate steamed crabs in Baltimore, the waitress literally circled our table again and again, watching my husband eating a steamed crab with a fork while the rest of the restaurant banged the crabs open with a wooden mallet and picked through the shells for the meat.

But on this New Year’s Day, 1996, as we ate our first meal of the year, there were no waitresses who could procure knives, forks, or spoons, even plastic ones. The servant lady looked and looked but there were no eating utensils in Shelia’s kitchen. Paul and Sheila simply didn’t own any. Because Paul works for Indian Airlines to earn money for his Little Drops Ministry, he knew a little about British foreigners and immediately understood my husband’s predicament. Sensing his supervisor’s wishes, Pradeep immediately jumped up and ran out of the apartment to buy a spoon for Stephen. Knowing their modest means, Stephen did not want them to spend their money for a spoon that would not be used in the household again. Stephen was finally prepared to start a New Year with a new way of eating. Through the windows, Paul called Pradeep to come back.

As Pradeep returned to his chair, the fun began. Everyone at the table stopped swishing and eating to watch my blushing British husband baptize his hands into the meal, resulting in a great shout from all and laughter following. India had won! This little town near Madras had done what America, another British renegade, could not do: vanquishing an Englishman’s reserve. Once immersed in the stew, with no way out, Stephen joined in the merriment and enjoyed himself, slapping the food in his mouth with abandon, oblivious to the little drops of rice falling everywhere. If his mother in Braintree could only see him now! Certainly she would have told him not to play with his food.

As Paul looked on with something more than simple merriment, he quietly said to me, “You know, I have been to your husband’s country. I know how they are and how they eat. I know what great character your husband has. He is eating like my son did when he was two years old. He has no idea of the proper way, but he tries and that really touches me more than anything else.” Paul was not impressed that I had learned how to eat in the proper South Indian manner. He was more touched by my husband who did it all wrong. I knew that we would have much to learn from this man who had heard Mother Teresa that it is the little drops that make an ocean of difference.


Ten Signs that Showed Columbus He Wasn’t in India

Over 500 years ago, if Christopher Columbus had observed these signs, he would have known he wasn’t in India.

1. There was no sign of the British Raj. There were no pink men going around in tin hats speaking bad Hindi.

2. He saw women. The women of India would have been in purdah. The women he saw were wearing something like today’s  beach wear at Club Med. The women in India were/are wrapped in saris.

3. There was not the smell of curry. But to be honest, chilies hadn’t reached India either.

4. There was no Bollywood music blaring from a loudspeaker. But then in the West Indies, they would have had reggae music, no?

5. The beach wasn’t littered with trash from last night’s snack and drink like at Marina Beach.

6. When he got off the boat, there weren’t cab drivers offering him the scenic route and places to buy carpets.

7. No one tried to get him married to their brother’s sister cousin.

8. No one insisted that he and his crew come to their house for a masala dosa on a palm leaf (although they had the palm leaves).

9. There was no Keralite selling tea at a tea stall.

10. There were no off-shore IT businesses trying to recruit his crew.


Why Westerners may not understand Indians

India Linguistic MapIn India, Sociolinguists become little children in a big candy shop: spoiled for choice. Languages crisscross India like the fabric on a Scottish kilt or the Madras cotton print saris. Languages are like brightly colored stripes that blend into another color when they intersect, then continue merrily alone as they were before. There is little if anything homogeneous about India. It is a bouquet of cultures, classes, and religions. It is a linguistic kaleidoscope. To the visitor, it can be chaotic. This confluence or “sangram” of languages in India means that no Indian will understand the language of all Indians.

Imagine if you were visiting Europe. Each country would have a different language and culture. In India, many states have a different language and culture. So what happens when Indians move or shift as they say to another place in India? What happens when they have to deal with someone from another religion who speaks a different language or dialect? They adjust. Indians are far more sensitive to what linguists call paralinguistic features or body language than most Westerners. Indians are not as limited to language as citizens from a mono-lingual nation. From childhood, they did not always understand what people were saying around them, so they learned to read faces, the tones of a voice, the nod of the head, the windows of the eyes, the quick wave of a hand, or the stance of the body.  As children, we were all like this, but Indians needed to keep these skills.

Words don’t mean the same thing or have the same value in a multi-lingual society. So when a Westerner trainer or business person works with Indians, they are sometimes under the illusion that their words are doing all the communicating. They forget that the body language is signaling a lot more to the participants who can be confused when the words don’t match the body language. Learning doesn’t take place in seminars. Ideas are not exchanged in meetings. Directives cannot be obeyed because they weren’t understood. The speaker may say, “You’re doing a good job,” but the body language shows a tightness and insecurity, and the listener isn’t sure if the words are true.

Many westerners, especially those who live in urban communities, have lost the instinct to pick up non-verbal signals from others. What can be done? Relax.  If you have that peace of mind,  then you will give out the right signals.  If you are calm, you can pick up non-verbal communication in others and respond accordingly.

Comments are more than welcome.  I would like to learn more about this subject from you.


I am sorry; please forgive me. I was wrong.

submissive-tigerThese nine words don’t seem to be too common in colloquial Indian English especially in the workplace.  When preparing  material for an International Business English seminar,  complicated grammatical points and new vocabulary are not the main points.  These nine words will be challenging enough.  Yes, all the participants know what the words mean.  they know how to pronounce them. Then why do participants find it so difficult to say these words?

If I want to have fun, and I always want to have fun,  as the facilitator, I have the participants pair up for role play.  They must act out a scenario where one person has made a mistake and must admit it to the other.  Otherwise articulate managers will suddenly stutter and go silent when they need to say these words.   Some are able to articulate the words, it will be a little above a whisper and lost in the drone of the AC motor.  Others will say the words clearly but add many caveats on how it wasn’t really their fault and the cause of the mix-up was really the other partner’s mistake.

At times, I feel like I am doing speech therapy, helping the participants form the words, coaxing them to articulate.  For Indians, they will suddenly look as pale as an Englishman in November.  They will either freeze or one part of their body will start to jump–a whole leg will start to twitch, fingers drum on the table, and the eyes blink rapidly or stop all together to present the glazed gaze.  Suddenly a pen will taste very good.  One may suddenly need to go to use the facilities.

If I really want to challenge the participants, I will pair up a man with a woman, or a subordinate with an upper manager, or a Tamil with a North Indian.  There will be appropriate scenarios where the manager made the mistake and has to apologize.

We also do virtual team meetings reenactments with Western counterparts.  Participants learn that in business cultures where direct speech is common, they must outwardly admit when they have made a mistake. How much money can be saved when team members learn to say and use these nine words?  How many projects will escape long-term delays?  How many relationships can be repaired?  How much trust could be established?

So why aren’t these nine words heard more often?  Because the root meaning of these words have a different meaning in Indian English.   It’s a different value system.  Words have meaning in that particular cultural value system.  To some Indians, to admit that he was wrong is a sign of weakness, defeat, and vulnerability.   It would be taking on the submissive role of exposing his throat as when two tigers fight.  He feels as though he will lose credibility among his peers and with his boss.  He fears that if he takes the blame for that one instance, he might be the scapegoat for any problems related to it.  To admit that one is wrong, one can lose his status.

When American businessmen read this they could easily think that this cultural attitude is due to pride.  It is not as easy as that.  It is simply not part of the mentality, meaning that it is not a conscious decision.  Deep cultural characteristics are in the subconscious.  The participants are not aware that they are trying to pass the buck.  They are using normal negotiation tactics in their culture.

In most Western cultures, the person who needs to apologize will do so because he has faith that when he does, he will be repairing the relationship and perhaps making it stronger.  The Indian doesn’t necessarily have that assurance.  He may feel that it is safer for him to lie or cover the truth in order to keep the relationship.

This little blog cannot do justice to this subject.  I write it only as a talking point for others to add their wisdom and experience.  And if I have written something in error, then I’m sorry; please forgive me.  I was wrong.

(To learn how to write an apology email, see this sample:


Ten Things Female Indians Should Know About American Bosses

p1010039Sometimes, American bosses are almost totally different than Indian bosses. The American business game is a level playing field. It is important for you to play your part with confidence and accuracy.  During your next meeting or interview with your overseas boss, consider these points:

1. Lack of hierarchy: He sees you as an equal and expects you to participate in discussions. If he has said something in error, he may expect you to correct him in a polite manner. He is not into status; he is into getting the job done, the project finished successfully.

2. Be aggressive: He knows that there are aspects of the project that he will not understand, so he expects YOU to explain them to him. Be concise and accurate when presenting your information.

3. The truth: Do not tell him what you think he wants to hear. He wants the truth; the more accurate you are with your answer, the more you will please him.  Do not tell him what he doe not need to know with unnecessary background information to show off all you know.  Stick to the point.

4. Don’t be afraid to admit that you are wrong: apologize. If you have been the one to make the error, don’t hide it. Own up to it. He will have more respect for you. But it would be good to have a solution or work-around to fix what you did.  You will build a relationship of trust which is worth more to him than the mistake that you made.

5. Learn how to say no. If the answer warrants a no, say it. He may be jet-lagged and not fully comprehend your indirect, round-about answer.  If it can’t be done, tell him and explain why.  Try to offer other solutions.

6. Don’t take the casual banter too far. Once you see that the American boss is easy-going and genuinely wants to hear what you have to say, don’t make the mistake over going past your limits as a subordinate. He still expects a certain amount of respect.  American banter is deceiving to the foreigner–it will seem casual but it is business-casual.

7. Knowledge give and take: Because he may not know all that you thought he would know, do not dismiss him as being weak. Remember that American bosses do not think it is a sign of weakness to display their ignorance. If they don’t understand something, they may admit it in order for you to bring them up to speed.

8. I don’t know. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. Your instinct will be to cover up your ignorance with false innuendos. Don’t do this. Ask questions. It shows that you are more interested in learning and doing a good job than losing face.

9. Don’t lie. Don’t make promises that you know you can’t keep simply to be nice. Your word is your bond. He will judge your character on how well he can trust you. If you lose your credibility, then you will lose.

10. He will see you as an equal to men. He won’t understand if you are quiet around other men. Speak clearly and slowly and probably more loudly. You may feel frightened and intimidated but do not speak softly with your eyes averted. You may speak English fluently, but he may not understand your accent. To him, you may be speaking too fast.  On the other hand, if you don’t understand what he said, ask him to repeat it. He may do the same with you.  Do not feel bad, but concentrate on getting your point across, your information communicated accurately, and your ideas elucidated.


Ten Things American Bosses Should Know About Indian Women

When an American executive comes to visit the on-site off-shore body shop in India on a fleeing visit, he comes across women that might leave him puzzled and confused.  Now of course all women have this affect on most men, but we will consider the South Indian Women in the work place in accordance to her culture.

1.  When you see a female employee dressed in the traditional sari or sawar kameeze (tunic and trousers), do not assume that she is straight from the villages or extremely orthodox.  Outside of work, she may wear jeans and a tee shirt just like your daughter in Kansas, but perhaps she is obliged to dress the way she does due to her parents or husband.  She may feel that she would lose respect from her on-site boss and male colleagues if she would wear western clothes.

2.  Simply because she has a shy and quiet demeanor,  don’t assume she cannot be assertive.  If her on-site boss or more senior colleages are present in the room, she may not want to express herself freely in his presence.  She may not excell at small talk, but watch her at work with her team when she doesn’t think you are looking.  She may know the project better than her more aggressive male colleagues.

3.  If she does not have eye contact with you the way you would like, it is not because she is being dismissive of you.  She is being polite and respectful.  If other colleagues would judge her too forward with you, she could lose her reputation.  If she is single, this could limit her marriage proposals.

4.  When she was born, the first thought her family probably had was that they needed to save for a dowry.  She is used to being in the background, ignored, or worse.  At home, the best food is served to the male members of the family first.  She may not even eat with them and will have her meal with her mother afterwards.  So the male colleagues at work may mimic this behavior.

5.  If all of the team members are women, they will have a different persona.  They will be extremely direct with one another–to the point of what you would consider rudeness.  But they will probably be close and stick together if gossip does not poison them.

6. Jealousy is particularly dangerous among Indian women and can jeopardize the success of a project.  Competition is fierce.  Young brides are forced to leave their homes and live with their in-laws.  The mother-in-law did not choose her husband and may actually feel closer to her son.  When he is married, this can be problematic.  In a country where survival has never been easy and there are too many over-qualified professionals, team work is not a concept that is part of the culture.  The female boss can sometime take the place of the mother-in-law for the hapless young professional woman.  It can be a Cinderella situation at the workplace.

7.  As little girls, many of these women were not taught to say no.  They have been expected to be obedient.  They suffer greatly from sexual harassment at the workplace.  Most of the time, they are ashamed to speak of it.

8.  It has only been a few years since it has been common in India for women to work full-time in the office.  Many are still expected to prepare complicated Indians meals for their extended families when they get home.  They may have to tutor their children due to the highly competitive educational infrastructure.  Indian education is based on memorization, so if parents want to see their children succeed at an early age, they help them memorize a great amount of information.

9. Your female Indian employees will probably know more than you think.  It will be up to you to creatively elicit the data from her.  The best way to do this is to create an atmosphere of trust and acceptance.  Don’t use yes and no questions.  Facilitate the conversation so that you are sure she is not telling you what she thinks you want to hear.

10. Some Indian women can endure more than you can imagine without complaints.  They will be your hardest workers and you may never know unless you look beyond the glossy words of their male counterparts. Others are spoiled and come from elite households where servants do everything.  They are not working for money but as a timepass until they get married.  They may be unqualified for the job but got it because their father knows someone who knows someone in the company.  Her team will consider this normal and cover for her.

Bonus: Indian women can be more trainable than their male counterparts.  They are taught to adapt.  They don’t think they know it all.  They will respond when treated with respect and go the extra mile when you are ten thousand away.