I happened to have a discussion last night about cultural shocks, and hence my head went flying back to a decade ago when I, as a nerdy looking high school kid, decided for all random reasons to go on an exchange program to the US.
I remember being given a pre-departure orientation on how I could use “western” toilets, which come complete with, umm, paper? And you don’t squat, don’t clean your parts with water taken in small buckets from a big bucket which was stored since of course you never knew when the taps would stop to run water. Then you have a flush, a button that when pressed magically removes every trace of everything that you wouldn’t have wanted to see. You have a shower, where you have a choice of water of the temperature you like. “Oh hail the western toilet!”, I remember my self saying as I struggled to unpack its technological methodology.
I remember landing in DC for my arrival orientation, being put at the fancy Hilton, and how I went for days without a shower just because I couldn’t figure out how the damn shower worked. More drama awaited at Hilton. I remember that our Indian group arrived late in the day, and I missed dinner because I spent to much time figuring (actually not figuring out) the shower and being jet lagged. The breakfast brought a surprise: 10 different kinds of cereals, round colourful things with holes in the middle (turns out they are called donuts), coffee of the kind I am not used to, breads in colors and sizes not seen before. Most of the things seemed not accessible, either by their bright colours or the meat, for I had left home promising my family of continuing being the good Hindu vegetarian nerd that I had infinitely been before. For lunch, I remember seeing a pile of leaves (turns out it is called lettuce) and I remember sharing a comment with another Indian kid on exchange about the non-fineness of American food. “Such people from the jungle,” I remember commenting, “that they sort to eating leaves.”
I took my boyfriend home to Ahmedabad this summer to introduce him to my family, and it brought back the same form of situations but put the other way round. My mother kept asking him everyday what his staple food back in Quebec is. My mother was continuously amazed that he never had a response that would match her expectation of the world like ours in India, where everything was pre-defined, where you had no choice because everything was decided for you by your norms, where you ate roti, sabzi, daal and bhaat (Indian bread, cooked vegetables, legume soup and rice) every meal of the day. The variety and choice that my boyfriend indicated amazed my mother. I was amazed by the same idea in US, this grand idea that I had options and that I could choose and that nobody and nothing could govern what I needed to do every moment in my life. I remember my host mother in US being frustrated by the fact that I had no opinions of mine while I was there, that I had a hard time making a choice, that I would try as much as I could to push decision making to others. I had never made decisions in my life before. The decision to be there on the exchange program was sort of already made for me the day I found out about its existence: if I were to get the chance, I would go. I would go not for my own choice of it but because I believed that that would be the imaginary consensus of the society over it, because they would see it as right, since I had failed anyway in what was seen by society as being a good woman. I had failed because I was a shade darker than everyone in my family and hence considered ugly, and hence I could redeem my social status by being academic and pursuing high intellectual goals in US. I was going to US for the education I said, because that was what I believed as the reason that allowed my family to ever agree to letting me go.
And thank goodness that options and choice are a part of my everyday game today, just like toilet paper!