The Urban Wilderness

During our first weeks in India, we were unsure of many things.  Looking back, our early forays into the urban wilderness seem much tamer now than they felt at the time.  One of our first tasks was to find dish detergent.  There is a little kiosk in our neighborhood with a little of everything tucked away on the back shelves.  The procedure at kiosks like this is to ask the proprietor for the desired item, at which point it will be provided.  You may or may not have a choice in products.  Feeling bravely shy, we stepped up to the counter and requested dish detergent.  At which point we were presented with a bag of snacks.  Obviously the latest and freshest delivery, the bag contained an assortment of nuts, grains, shoestring potatoes and spices.  We purchased the snacks, but it was not what we wanted.  This was our first experience at intercultural communication, or lack thereof. 

For several weeks we pondered what it was the proprietor (who doesn’t speak English) heard when we made our request.  We even joked about the dish detergent (that we eventually did manage to purchase) being very delicious.  It wasn’t until our tea lady, and self-appointed Kannada teacher, told us the Kannada translation that we understood.  Apparently, the snacks are called “chipsu” (obviously a borrowed English word) which sounds much like “dish detergent,” especially when pronounced with a thick American accent. 

Where is the Grocery Store?

It goes without saying that as a foreigner, the development of intercultural communication skills is a matter of survival. We have to know how to interact appropriately here.  And so we make a conscious effort towards learning about the beliefs, values, and norms of the people we interact with.  Regardless of how hard we work at it, however, we will always view things through our own lens. 

This can be as simple as finding a grocery store, our second cultural learning experience.  As you read the word, “grocery store,” what comes to mind?  In the United States it most likely is a large box store with an even larger parking lot.  It will be strategically placed on a critical intersection, as a result of sophisticated marketing studies using data from US Census, a geographic information system, and the local road department’s vehicle counts.  In India, this is what we learned: the grocery store is actually the tire store, which we had passed several times without noticing.  More correctly, grocery store and the tire store share the same name, but the grocery business was one door over.  We had failed to see the grocery store because we quit looking once we saw the tires. 

When “No” Means “Yes”

The longer one stays in a foreign country, the more one assimilates into the culture.  Some of the assimilation occurs naturally, such as picking up hand gestures, or facial expressions to convey meaning.  A simple example of this is the ability to communicate the concept of “no,” especially when it applies to eager street vendors.  There are two principles underlying this form of communication.  The first is the relationship that is established (or not) between the vendor and the prospect.  The second is how the relationship is managed by the vendor and the prospect.  As an American, if I want to emphasize the “no” aspect of the communication, I will communicate this by first making eye contact.  That is, I will establish the conditions of the relationship and then communicate verbally.  In addition, I may reinforce the message by using appropriate body language: that is, I will move my head horizontally side-to-side. 

When I do this the Indian street vendor sees two things.  First, I have established a relationship as a result of looking the vendor in the eye.  This is, of course the first lesson in sales, right?  It is also the first glimmer of hope for the vendor and he begins to believe that he can offload some of those bangles.  Hope then turns into a sure thing when I then turn my head from side-to-side.  For this gesture can be construed to mean “yes.”  Since he feels surer that a sale is imminent, the vendor becomes more insistent, and I feel more irritated. He just doesn’t get it, I have been perfectly clear about my intentions. When I repeat my intitial response, the cycle begins over again. 

Almost, But Not Quite

Even though I now have techniques for getting through a tourist marketplace (think of us as honey and the vendors as honey bees), I still get caught up in situations that are intended to take advantage of my naivety.  The closest call came in the New Delhi railway station. 

First of all, for those of you who are train buffs, it isn’t Amtrak.  It isn’t even close.  The entry way to the station is blocked by taxis, auto rickshaws, and trucks.  People and goods are being unloaded and shuffled off to the portico in front of the station.  It appears that some people have been waiting there quite awhile–for what reason, I can’t imagine, unless the station entrance has become a permanent place of residence. 

My husband and I arrive at the station at about 5 am.  Since we have our internet confirmation, we go forward to the security scanner.  It is there that we are stopped by a young man in a blue uniform.  He looks convincing, anyway.

We show him our papers, hoping to get the go ahead to move onto the platform.  After a quick glance, he begins to babble at us.  It is something about the ticket, and the wait list, and not having a seat, and so on.  At least that is what I infer he was saying.  He grabs a ticket from a passing passenger.  Her ticket is not like ours, being small and printed in triplicate.  He says we need one “just like this.”  More babbling.  .  .  I am reminded of the “conversations” I would have with my daughter before she learned to talk.  I have the urge to laugh. 

In spite of the impending departure, he looks at me and says, “Just relax, there is plenty of time.”   Seconds later he whisks my husband’s bag from him and leads us from the station.  On the way out, we pass by two official windows labeled, “Tickets,” and “Enquiries.”  Things don’t seem to be adding up, and that is our first clue. But we go along with him because we are neophytes at train travel, not very effective in pushing our way to the front of a ticket window throng, and time is of the essence. 

We are now being led through the gridlocked station entry way, across a busy (also gridlocked) street, to a small official looking tourist office.  Our escort drops us off and leaves, but not before informing me that I must provide a tip for his efforts.  When I give him a small amount, he seems genuinely grateful and disappears.  That is, of course, the second clue. 

The ticket agent explains that we should have called five days ahead and that it looks like we are wait-listed and that we won’t have a seat on the train.  I was incredulous.  This is a trip that has been planned for more than a month.  The tickets were booked by a reputable travel agent. 

He makes a phone call.  The other ticket, the return one, is just fine and no other action is needed.  It was just this one, the one for the train that leaves in 30 minutes.  “Do you have the travel agent’s phone number?” The third clue rears its ugly head.  Possibly he is betting that I won’t be able to hold him accountable. 

We have been in India long enough to know that if we are supposed to call five days in advance, then it would be written down somewhere.  That is why the internet confirmation is so long.  Minutes are passing quickly now and we need to return to the station.  “Can you show me,” I said, “where on the five pages of documents we have given you does it say we need to call five days in advance?”

He doesn’t answer but remains on the phone.  Meanwhile, I have pulled out my cell phone and after a minute find the home phone number for the travel agent.  It was given to us the very first day we arrived.  Thank goodness I hadn’t deleted it!  “Here,” I say, handing him the phone, “call this number.”  Suddenly, everything is ok.  With a flick of the wrist, he initials the documents.  We are good to go. 

On our way back to the station we see other harried passengers being led into the office.  Interestingly, they look much like us.  I wonder how many of them made the train and, tangentially, how much money they had to pay to fix their tickets.  Back at the station, khaki-uniformed-guards-with-rifles are now manning the security scanner.  No one checks our documents.  The young man in the blue uniform is nowhere to be seen.


We have been in India long enough that we squirm when we hear American voices.  They seem so out of place, so loud, so not what we view ourselves to be.  While I am unable to put words to what American culture is, I do know it when I see it.  Specialists in intercultural communication define what we are experiencing as a three step process: stress-adaptation-growth.  As newcomers, we were stressed by the new environment, feeling culture shock, and wanted to avoid future dish detergent episodes (fortunately the bottle we purchased will run out at about the same time we do).  To feel comfortable here, we have had to acculturate (learn new things) and deculturate (discard unnecessary habits and thoughts).  Ultimately, this results in personal growth and, for me, explains why this journey has been profoundly rewarding.

It Happens at Home

But intercultural communication is not limited just to being in a foreign country.  It occurs in our own country as well.  Most of us are so comfortable in our own skins that we don’t really question why our interactions are generally limited to those few who “think like us.”   Since I am a 16th generation American constructed out of a blend of Anglo Saxon European type genes, I have always struggled with my cultural identity.  If you ask me to come to a potluck with a dish that represents my ethnic identity, I will show up empty handed, or not come at all.  Sometimes I am judged for being “white,” just as other races are judged by their skin color, but I can’t describe what that really means.  I have learned to associate it with cultural guilt. 

In the end, I don’t think I can divorce myself from my biases.  But I find joy in understanding where they come from and how they make me who I am.  It is like figuring out a giant jigsaw puzzle, a process that results in those amazing “Aha!” experiences. 

I like to write about topics that show how change starts from within and, as a result, models the societal change I would like to see.  I wish that more people in American society understand the importance of learning how to communicate effectively, especially with those who think differently than them.  It is apparent that we have a long ways to go in this respect. 

So here is the starting point:

  • Be respectful, every day in every way.
  • Listen, watch, and understand before speaking.
  • Seek to learn more about the other person, banish assumptions.
  • Be empathetic.
  • Be a role model for others. 
  • Identify communication goals and interact so that you can achieve those goals.
  • Accept ambiguity.
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