The surprise of reverse culture shock. Returning to Australia as a NRA.
The surprise of reverse culture shock
Over the last 15 or so months I’ve blogged extensively on our company intranet (aconex) about what it is like to be an Australian in India. I moved to India 16 months ago with the family to take up a great opportunity to be the Program Director for our Indian Operations. This essentially meant working with the local Engineering team as well as the other teams here.
In December, we returned ‘home’ for a visit for the first time in over 15 months. The kids had been very excited about visiting old haunts and of course Christmas.
What surprised me was how quickly we adapt to ‘foreign’ cultures. I watched with amusement and interest as my kids (and us grown ups) had to re-discover Australian culture. There were all these cultural traits we’d forgotten over the last 15 months which led to some interesting interactions and observations.
Our ‘home’ in Australia is in Newham, a tiny hamlet, near Hanging Rock (around 70K Northwest of Melbourne, pop: 800). We have friends housesitting, so we needed to stay somewhere and got accommodation in the heart of Melbourne. This of course added to the feeling of being ‘visitors’ in our home city.
On our first day back in Australia, I went downstairs from the apartment to the 7/11 to buy some basic supplies (weetbix, bread, vegemite, milk). I went up to the counter to pay and noticed the man serving, was, of course, originally from India. Wanting to show off a little I asked where he was originally from, which turned out to be Hyderabad. I than told him about our home city being Bangalore and we discussed the IPL and had a dig at each others teams (as you do).
He rung up the items and my first purchase of only a few things came to $50 dollars. The shopkeeper was watching me as I pulled a funny expression and said, “Word of advice, stop converting to Rupees while you’re here, it’ll terrify you!”. Too true, for those of you in the know, a loaf a of bread, a jar of vegemite, some milk, sugar, tea bags, cereal and jam came to around 3000 Rs. Holy crap, this was terrifying.
So, Monday arrives, and I leave the apartment to walk up to the office. One of the things I’ve really missed in India is the great Melbourne coffee. So, less than 50 Metres from the apartment there’s a Degani’s, they’ve franchised apparently. I pop in for a coffee and at the counter the ‘Barista’ asks if I’d like some sugar. I give a polite head wobble (side to side Indian style) which has become a habit after 15 months. The Barista looks at me quizzically and hands over my coffee, WITHOUT SUGAR. God damn, didn’t she know I meant, “Yes please, if it isn’t too much trouble, some sugar would be great”.
The head wobble is one of those trademark Indian gestures, it conveys so much information and is entirely context driven. Like saying ‘like’ in every sentence whenever you’re in the presence of teenager the head wobble is also incredibly contagious. Before too long, living here, your head wobbles naturally during interactions with people. It’s a much misunderstood gesture in the west, where we take it to be the ultimate symbol of non-committal.
I too carried this assumption with me, how wrong I was. An expert head wobbler can construct an entire conversation with miniscule movements of the head. I’ve seen people push prices right down in the ubiquitous bargaining here merely by left to right movements. Using their head wobble they can indicate everything from, “You’re joking, that’s crazy” to “Now we’re getting somewhere”, “Hmm, I might be tempted” to finally “You’ve got a deal”. To the untrained eye the wobble doesn’t change, but subtle variations indicate everything from scorn to agreement. I love it.
It took me a couple of days back in Melbourne to return back to the Australian method of being super direct. Nod of head for Yes, shake of head for No. Damn, I really missed the shades of grey that I had been empowered with, it’s actually very powerful. It also provides a great insight into Australia’s ‘direct’ culture and India’s more ‘polite’ ambiguities. Just be careful not to confuse the head wobble with a lack of commitment, it is way more meaningful than that.
Indian’s are rightfully proud of this highly nuanced gesture. However, they’re also well aware of the confusion it causes in foreigners and love to poke fun at themselves and others,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRWu8cy2s0E here’s an example.
During that first weekend, the family went for a walk into the Melbourne CBD. We ended up in Bourke Street mall, as you do about this time the kids cracked the ‘sads’. So we decided to head back to home base, about 2 Km away in Docklands.
Melbourne has a fantastic Public Service network, however, they use a system called MYKI, however, you can’t pay cash to use the public transport system. MYKI requires travellers to pre-pay via MYKI Cards and swipe on/off when using Public Transport.
As we had no Myki cards, to get a set of 4 was going to cost a minimum $60 bucks ($6 for the card and a minimum $10 fare on the card).An outrageous price to pay for a single tram ride (that’s around 3000 Rs to go 2 Km) At this point, Jasmine (5) was complaining bitterly and asked why were there no ‘Auto’s’ In Australia. I have to admit I wondered that too.
My next anecdotes about being a NRA (my Indian readers may recognise the acronym – non resident Australian) occurred in traffic. We rented a car and I had to remember how to drive, which, after 15 months off is harder than you think. We picked up our car and upon reaching my first intersection, I found myself merrily honking on the horn as a friendly gesture to my fellow drivers.
In India, the sound of car horns is ever-present in traffic. Indian drivers do this largely to let other drivers build a sense of the traffic around them. Without having to turn your head, you get an aural picture of the immediate area. We Australians interpret car horns in a completely different way.
A horn mostly means, “Get the hell out of my way!” or, “What the hell are you doing, are you mad!”. The first few days in India, I had low level anxiety because I thought everyone was shouting at me,. After a while of course you run out of adrenalin and you stop noticing the horns, or use them as a passive radar.
Anyway, my own attempts to inform other drivers of my whereabouts on the streets of Melbourne met with glares or looks of fear. I soon learnt to ease off the honker. However, my hand kept hovering over that horn button for the whole trip and it was only sheer force of will that kept me silent.
To break the silence, I switched the car radio on, we were on our way down the Great Ocean Road to meet friends. A local radio station was having a phone in, were listeners were encouraged to ring in and ask a friendly lawyer some questions about legal issues they were having.
A lady caller rang in and was recounting a case she currently had pending with her local council. She was walking down the footpath to the local shops, had trip on an uneven paver and dropped her glasses, smashing the lenses. She was asking for advice on how to sue the council for the damage to her glasses and her loss of dignity (apparently she’d been embarrassed as some onlookers had witnessed her clumsiness).
I thought to myself as I thought about the pavement outside my house, or the office in Bangalore. When did we Australians stop taking responsibility for “Looking DOWN to see where we were going!” The best thing about crazy pavements, they make even a short trip down to the shops an adventure, you never know what you’ll find.
|Okay, this photo is not outside the office (or my house) but|
I’ve certainly travelled across footpaths like this.
Finally, the last night we were in Australia, we stayed in Brisbane near the airport. Next to our hotel there was a small park and we took the kids out for a play. It was 6pm on a warm night, perfect for park play. So, below is the sight that greeted us. It was like being on the set of a Dystopian Sci fi film. The only thing missing were tumbleweeds and shambling zombies.
I actually found myself feeling nervous and looking around hoping to see an Ice Cream seller or coconut vendor to break the eerie silence. After 3 weeks away, I was really looking forward to the hustle and bustle of Bangalore and that first Masala Dosa.