Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cultural differences

This post was written on October 1st.

Every morning, promptly at 9:10, the girls of Buchanan School gather for assembly. Picture a large hall, filled with a few hundred girls of all ages standing shoulder to shoulder, row after row. During longer assemblies, they maintain this formation, but seated on the floor.

I shudder to imagine an attempt at a similar arrangement in the United States. I recall times during my schooling when entire classes--very rarely the entire school--were made to congregate for a special occasion. Some degree of pandemonium usually ensued, if only from the chatter of hundreds of students.

Here, the girls quietly assemble in the hall in the same organized fashion every day. I'm not sure I will ever get over the ease with which this occurs.

The teachers, myself included, sit around the perimeter of the room. I wonder how you are sitting now, as you are reading this? Perhaps your feet are on the floor. Perhaps one of your legs is crossed over the other. The latter alternative is how I often sit, and this morning at assembly was no exception.

A teacher, Valsamma, after seating herself next to me, whispered in my ear: 'you should put your leg down.'  I smiled and complied, meanwhile thinking, 'Was I doing something wrong?? ...but my legs were crossed! And I'm not even wearing a skirt!' I did my best to dismiss my chagrin, though my face was probably coloring. Clearly the way I had been sitting every day, for all these weeks, was improper, and I'm sure many, the hundreds of girls included, had noticed.

After assembly concluded, I asked Valsamma Teacher to expound on what I had been doing wrong. She kindly explained that, as I suspected, it is not considered proper for women to sit with one leg crossed over the other, especially in the presence of a male speaker (as was the case at this morning's assembly). I told her I was thankful to her for cluing me in, and to please not hesitate to tell me in the future if I were to unknowingly commit any other social faux pas. And I really meant it. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate the myth of American indecency, so I appreciated her taking the time to gently inform me of my mistake.

This small episode got me to thinking about the concept of indecency, in general. It's interesting how the notion of what is proper or decent changes from society to society. Indian women look down on their American sisters for wearing shorts (bare legs, the horror!), having uncovered shoulders, or low cut necklines. In the US, such attire is acceptable; women wear skirts that show their knees to the workplace, or sleeveless shirts to school. And yet, while most dress codes for an educational or professional setting in the US discourage or prohibit the exposure of one's midsection, in India, women are most commonly seen wearing sarees, which show plenty of midsection. Can you imagine if someone walked into the office with a bare stomach?

The obvious lesson is that, like most cultural variables, it's all relative. At the end of the day, I am not indecent for crossing my legs, just as Valsamma Teacher is not indecent for showing her midriff. But depending on one's context, the former or the latter may be inappropriate. The challenge for me, in India, is to abandon ideas of what I have learned to consider to be acceptable, and adapt to the social etiquette of a new place, which might be different, even opposite, from my own. It's one of the things I love about cultural immersion, and is one of the keys, in my opinion, to assimilation, no matter what faraway lands to which one journeys.

From now on, both of my feet will be planted firmly on the floor :)

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