I believe that traveling needs to be hard sometimes. If we want to get to know a different culture, we have to expose ourselves to unfamiliar situations and insecurities. Another culture is like a different language: We need to interpret what others want to tell us and we need to learn the rules to apply them. Sometimes, the rules are really hard to understand. How do I say “No” to food, for example?
Language and culture
I do believe that many Germans and generally Northern Europeans are pretty straight-forward. It might also depend on your class, on the area where you live and if you are from a city or the countryside. I grew up in a social space, where people let you know, if something about you is bothering them. Annoy someone and you will soon be reminded of the other person’s opinion, maybe with a little physical threat. If there is one attribute, which I would use to describe the character of my region, it is “direct”. You look a little ill? “You look like shit today.” BAM… Someone will tell you right in the face. The closer you get to people, the more open they will be. My mum lets me know if she dislikes my hair even before she says “Hello”. That’s cool with me, I understand it not as hatred but constructive criticism. (Maybe I am just an optimistic idiot, though)
As I said, I am quite familiar with Hindi after having spend a few months of travel and research in South Asia. I can solve every day-issues more or less with ease and also discuss some deeper topics with the help of my hands and feet. I know that the translation of “N0” is “Nahin” and think that my pronunciation of the word has become quite close to how Indians say it. I also know that all people understand the word in its essentials. But the further implications make communication become a struggle.
No means no?
Yes, I copied these words from another discussion. Because it is a spicy issue. It should be easy to understand, but we often forget that communication has to do a lot with interpretation. Sometimes the meaning of a word is more open than we think, because it depends on the circumstances. And sometimes it should be understood in its essentials. It can come to a “no means no” debate, not just because men are all ass-holes, but also because they might be told by books or movies (especially, but not exclusively Bollywood) that they have to conquer a girl. We need to learn that there are moments, when it is necessary to be more careful in our interpretation, rather than being careless. Everything is dependent on the situation. If it wasn’t, the discussion about this issue would have never come up.
Let’s leave this issue to people who know more about it than me and head towards an area, where I am an expert: Being a guest. Being a guest in India means to relax and do nothing, while everyone is working for you. If you have really good negotiation-skills, you might be able to help during some preparations for food or tea. I tried for several month to engage in just putting my dishes into the basin. Eventually, I was allowed to peal peas. Yeah! It was a matter of persistence. And here communication starts: If someone tells me not to help them, should I really not? Or is it just politeness.
Politeness drives me crazy
Politeness is one of the things which drive me crazy and are source of most of my misunderstandings. As I mentioned earlier, I do not have this polite thing. You have an issue? Tell me! I will definitely let you know somehow, if I have one. But politeness is not just about complaints. It is also about modesty. Who can’t relate to the following situation? A friend has some chocolate and asks you: “Do you want a piece of chocolate?” Out of some stupid modesty you reply: “No thanks.”, while your mouth is watering. Your friend says “Okay.”, puts the chocolate away and you die a little inside. But you learned to not make that mistake again and say “Yes.”, if you have cravings the next time.
In India the situation is different: “Do you want more food?” You are already too full and reply: “No, thanks.” – SPLASH! A full big ladle of rice and Dal arrives at your plate, while your host is smiling. You want to be polite and eat. “But really, this is the last. There is no space left.” You finished and didn’t pay attention, because your tummy already hurts. When you look back onto your plate, there is another serving. You start crying a little, because your grandma told you to eat all the food on the plate. While you are eating, someone mentions the upcoming desert.
Defend your plate – a physical “No”
If you do not want to eat anymore, you have to fight. You also need a non-eater credibility! The Hindi-words for “enough”, “I am full.”, “There is no space left.” have all been tested and failed. I spend hours of stomach-ache and congestion to figure out how to reject food. You have to fight. It is like a tower-defence computer game: You have to do everything to defend your empty plate. Verbally and physically. Once you failed, you should also never visit the place again, because you lost your credibility. When people see that you continue eating (damn, grandma, it’s your fault!) after rejecting food, they will think, you are just acting polite. Start with the food umbrella: While you say “No, thanks.” 20 times, put your hands over the plate to protect it. It can really help to prevent your tummy from overfilling. Yet, it takes a lot of energy.
All this sounds a bit funny, but it is very close to reality. I literally found myself having lunch two times at different places, because people could not understand my “No.”. And it sounds like the most hilarious white-privilege, first-world problem on earth. But trust me, it is an issue if you can’t stop people from making you eat, what you don’t want. Constantly asking yourself, why no one takes your rejections serious, also makes you doubt your sanity a little. The only good part is that if I had to have too much food, it should be definitely Indian! Enjoy your meals.