Culture Shock, in reverse

It had been an uncomfortable plane journey. The sleeping Sikhs next to me had been large enough to prevent me from leaving my seat, increasing my likelihood of deep vein thrombosis and blocking my access to the cabin toilet. I had watched varying portions of three different films: the first about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire, the second about a threesome in Barcelona, the third about the Nazis.

I wasn’t really looking forward to landing at Heathrow.

***

I descended the wheeled-in staircase into the chilly surrounds of Terminal 5 and felt strangely displaced, foreign. We were herded invisibly inside, and formed into queues. When I noticed a young, Indian woman in front being questioned by Passport Control – What is the purpose of your visit? Have you been to Britain before? – I decided to intervene. (India is all about getting involved; other people’s business is your business.) With the help of my less-than-pidgin Hindi, however, this woman ended up more flustered and less knowledgeable than she had started, and called over her dispersed family to help. I left in the direction of the Punjabi-cockney baggage handlers feeling dissatisfied.

On the long bus transporting passengers flying on to Edinburgh to our plane, I spotted a pasty, ginger man eating a pie in a wrapper. How funny, that someone should conform so perfectly to a country’s stereotype; it was as though he wanted to remind me what Scottish was.

***

At Heathrow, I’d felt out-of-pace. Somehow, my whole being knew when I’d touched down in Scotland. Something slid back into place. The grass at Edinburgh airport (something I’ve certainly never dwelt upon before) was that very familiar, dry and wiry kind of grass you get on the east coast of Scotland. It all seemed exactly as it should be, just as I’d left it. (At this point, I regretted my rather scathing judgement of the ginger pie man.)

But I saw the familiar with travelled eyes. Edinburgh seemed muted, its noise and colour drained away. Our old Volvo (a car which has been ‘on its last legs’ for as long as I can remember) glided noiselessly over the city’s silken roads. I was jetlagged and drowsy and the smooth, grey silence cocooned me, almost to the point of sleep. My parents’ questions and news updates prevented this.

‘Has Edinburgh got shinier?’ I asked my sister, Mary, as we walked into town together. My image certainly popped up disconcertingly in every polished surface I passed. She raised an eyebrow and ignored my question. Supposedly in the grip of the worst recession since 1929, Edinburgh had never looked better.

 In the centre of the city I was surrounded by space. Unpeopled pavement stretched before me; deserted shops; grassy parks; and craggy Arthur’s Seat. It was then that I realized: it wasn’t the shininess I found so odd, it was the emptiness.

***

While an average 4,863 people live in every square kilometre of Greater London, in Bombay the same area holds over 23,000. For most Indians, life is lived close-together and outside, on the streets and in the fields and marketplaces. It is country overflowing with visible life.

In Setrawa, the Indian village where I spent 6 months, I was extravisible. My whiteness was luminous, or perhaps it had a voice… People heard it coming and replied: ‘Grees! Grees! Hallohowayou!’ I was a celebrity and I wasn’t going anywhere.

But such openness wasn’t just for me. India is a communal kind of place. Things (prices, bus timetables) aren’t as fixed; and not as much is owned or protected. On train journeys, food is shared around the carriage and cups of chai are bought for neighbours, strangers play cards to pass the time and mothers nurse each other’s children. In one-roomed families of twelve (such as I knew in Setrawa), space is not Personal.

 Kiran Desai, in The Inheritance of Loss, describes humorously the different attitudes First- and Third-World inhabitants have towards sharing. Saeed, an immigrant in Manhattan, is talking to Biju, another immigrant, about the recently-arrived boys asking for him upstairs in the bakery where they work.

“Those boys, let them in, they will never leave. They are desperate. Desperate. Once you let them in, once you hear their story, you can’t say no, you know their aunty, you know their cousin, you have to help the whole family, and once they begin, they will take everything. You can’t say this is my food, like Americans, and only I will eat it. Ask Thea” – she was the latest pooky pooky interest in the bakery – “where she live with three friends, everyone go shopping separately, separately the cook dinner, together they eat their separate food. The fridge they divide up, and into their own place – their own place! – they put what is left in a separate box. One of the roommates, she put her name on the box so it say who it belong to!” His finger went up in uncharacteristic sternness. “In Zanzibar what one person have he have to share with everyone, that is good, that is the right way –

               “But then everyone have nothing, man! That is why I leave Zanzibar.

***

I feel it too, the sense that that should be ‘the right way’. But I admit I was glad of a bit of anonymity back home. It was liberating – especially when walking through London – to feel that no-one knew me, that no-one was relying on, or needed me. It felt good to see old friends, to talk freely in English and to be understood. To go to art galleries,  see the sea, and buy overpriced coffee. Some things I had consciously lacked and missed, others I had done without but was glad to have them back. (On my first evening at home, I read Mrs Dalloway in a bath – my first in eight months! Nothing has ever felt so luxurious.)

I have passed the time since my return: hosting an Indian birthday tea party; reviewing plays for The List, a Scottish arts listings magazine; tutoring A-Level students; and enjoying a winning combination of doughnuts and dancing at Mary’s college ball in Oxford. I have, for the past fortnight, been living in London and doing ‘Publicity and Marketing’ for a delicatessen, run by a family friend. The job is for six weeks. I would like to do something that involves writing and/or text editing, and am applying for various work placements/internships/whathaveyou.

Though choice is often overwhelming, it generally comes from freedom, and for that I am more grateful than ever. It is something of which the girls in Setrawa knew very little.

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At St Peter’s College Ball, Oxford

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on May 29, 2009.

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