India: Zeroth Impressions

Posted on July 25, 2017

Everyone’s been asking me how India is and has been wondering if I’ve gone exploring. I haven’t really. Sunday I was just recovering from jetlag and yesterday I had work and then I immediately had to go home and crash I was so tired: so I guess again recovering from jet lag? This would normally not prevent me from exploring, but I’m honestly a little outside my comfort zone. I am not in a walkable neighborhood of a city like I expected, but next to a huge highway. There doesn’t seem to be a “downtown” to visit at all, so taking taxis everywhere seems to be the modus operandi. I’m sure this will change very soon, but so far, in my two days (and long morning) I’ve been here so far, I’ve been to the airport, my building, and the office — and of course all the taxi trips in beteween.

I’m not completely opposed to this. I read a new Sci Fi novel, The Forever War. I’ve studied a bunch of Hindi, eaten some room service meals (if you don’t order them, they call you), and yesterday, of course, started actually doing my work — you know, the reason I was sent here.

And even with my relative reclusivity, there’ve been a lot of impressions, enough to say quite a bit about my experiences in just those locations and the thoughts I’ve had in the meantime.

Language

Before I came here, I was told that learning Hindi was pointless as everyone here speaks English. A little Googling confirmed for me that that was as absurdly false as my intuition told me, but now that I’m here, I see what they mean: everyone here speaks the amount of English absolutely necessary for me to communicate with them, in the specific capacity I’m meant to communicate with that particular person. That is to say, the concierge at the hotel speaks enough English to address hotel situations, the person who brings me food speaks enough English to sell me more food or bring me something else, the taxi drivers speak enough English to find a destination, etc. They’re right, in a sense: everyone does speak enough English that I can scrape by.

Now note that I said the amount of English absolutely necessary. My colleagues at work are fluent; everyone else I encounter, it’s a bit more dicey. It is by no means enough that I am comfortable or that I understand what’s going on. It is barely enough for me to convince the cabby who drove me here that no, he could not get away with dropping me off at a metro station near my apartment building, I would have no way of getting un-lost. It is not enough for me to explain any nuanced situation.

When someone asks “How many?” I can’t really respond “How many can you bring?” When a situation happens, I had better stick to the script. Except for, I don’t live in your country, I don’t know your script, and I have no idea what’s normal. Can you help me figure out what the script is? I didn’t know I had to pay for those water bottles (approx US$1 or INR60 apiece).

And that’s what frustrates me most about the language barrier. I often feel, even in the US, that I’m expected to follow a script that no one gave me a copy of. When I go off script, people can get confused and upset, and so if I detect there is a script and don’t know what it is, my instinct is to ask for clarification rather than try to wing it. But here, no one can understand my clarification, and if I go off script, not only do people not understand (i.e. think I’m crazy), they don’t understand (i.e. cannot process the unexpected flurry of English words emerging from my mouth).

This would be a little less frustrating if my attempts to hire a Hindi tutor were treated like reasonable behavior and not a quaint and inexplicable desire that only an unreasonable person would have — or else a gesture of amazing good will that I’m showing for some inexplicable reason. Please, can we just look past the fact that I’m foreign and let me on your secret code? I promise not to divulge the secrets!

I shall continue to report on this as the situation develops.

Food

I’ve always loved Indian food. Ever since I was a kid I have, even though Gettysburg didn’t have an Indian restaurant — didn’t and still doesn’t. The food is actually not that different from Indian food that you might get in New York City, although its presentation and the attitudes towards it are different.

Meat is very clearly indicated. Unlike in NYC, where vegetarian food has a special mark or a special section, here there’ll be a special “non‐vegetarian” section. The only meats around seem to be chicken and mutton, and mutton I’ve only seen once. This explains maybe why so many people at my office are “vegetarian except for chicken,” except for it doesn’t because why is that even a thing? I suppose pork and beef are both too religiously problematic, and I suppose we’re too inland for fish, and I suppose lamb and mutton are expensive, and turkey’s an American bird, etc. etc.

“Indian breakfast” turns out to mean a bunch of bread and a little bit of yoghurt with an inconsequentially tiny but absolutely delicious side of pickle relish of some sort. My attempt at an American breakfast (eggs, toast, and hash browns) was disappointing in that it involved a very small amount of egg (two eggs, but tiny ones) and white toast. Who eats white toast? Does anyone like white toast? I guess it’s cheaper. I’m feeling kind of spoiled now.

The food at the office is amazing and involves spicy falafel and hummus among the buffet served for breakfast (at least the first day it did). 5pm is samosa o’clock: everyone takes a half hour little break to eat samosas. Unlike the New York office, Seamless isn’t a thing here. I wonder if there’s really that much delivery food at all; it’s really hard to tell. I’m getting the distinct impression that it’s a very narrow slice of society I’m being exposed to as it stands. That is one thing I definitely need to fix.

Work Culture

Why does Jimmy feel awkward?