Never Too Cool For School | Pride and prejudice

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Even in our increasingly globalised world, you get thrown into situations that test your own open-mindedness — like, when someone tells you that you speak good English for an Indian, should you inform them that they are an ignoramus, or not?

Calling out stereotyping isn’t a finger-pointing exercise. Ok, yes, it is, but if it helps us find the missing piece, the heart of unprejudiced humanity, isn’t it a dirty game worth playing?

Let us imagine that you have shifted base. Everything is new to you, and it takes a while for you to find your bearings. Even though this may be a world that you may have seen (on the big/small screen), read about, whose citizens you have interacted with, or heard about from a dear one, this is the first time you are soaking in it yourself. Fortunately, I had my prior experiences to bank on, having lived away from my near and dear ones for multiple years in different places.

For instance, this time around, I wasn’t going to be stumped by how much detergent I had to buy — though I would be befuddled by the new forms of detergent. Back in 2002, the first time I had lived by myself, I had bought the 2-kg detergent pack and the biggest blue bar my money could buy because that is what I had seen my parents buy. Imagine my surprise and displeasure when the bar turned all blue-y-dough-ey in humid Surathkal! Thankfully, despite the conducive atmosphere and circumstances, none of my friends attributed my impulsive purchase to a wannabe dhobi’s itch back then.

In the setting that I have moved to, one cannot easily avoid interacting with people who have vastly different nationalities, cultures, accents, and upbringing. Naturally, you may have pride in your own culture and upbringing, and feel some sort of urge to serve as an ambassador of your people back home. However, at the same time, there is an innocent curiosity that accompanies every potential interaction with a new connection. The thrill of meeting new people and finding things in common with them came back to me — my expression changed instantly when I found that the person I had barely known until then had the same experience as I had — having followed the same sports team, read the same books, listened to similar music, watched The Office, and so on. But what happpens if, amid the pleasant conversation, a cultural faux pas presents itself to the situation? How do you then balance curiosity and sensitivity and avoid sounding like someone who is prejudiced or over-sensitive?

For instance, during one of the classes, the data from a problem clearly suggested that people from a certain background had lower scores than average on a particular parameter. Many fellow students avoided talking about the obvious observation. This was finally acknowledged and called out by the professor, after which everyone was happy to dive in and discuss further.

On the other hand, some faux pas are entirely predictable and understandable, and you aren’t surprised in the least when someone makes them. One time, a friend of a friend innocuously remarked (in a tone that conveyed pleasant surprise) that I spoke good English. I was amused because I knew he meant it with a well-meaning beverage-laced candour, but did take the time to remind him that India had more English speakers than the UK did. In another conversation (involving arranged marriages), when I sensed the conversation moving in a certain direction, I made the effort to tell my friends that an arranged marriage didn’t necessarily imply a forced marriage. So far, so good.



And some of them came right out of the blue. I vividly recall playing a game of “Codenames” with some people I had just met. For the uninitiated, the gameplay of this wildly popular party entertainment involves two teams trying to out-guess the other by deciphering the clues given by their teammates (spymasters) identifying “their words” (before the other team identified theirs) from a visible 5X5 layout. The clue given by the spymaster has to be a single word, followed by the number of words on the board linked to the clue given. A skilful spymaster can resolve ambiguity with a masterful clue that connects, and thus reveals, only his/her own team’s words and avoids the other team’s words from being guessed.

In one game, which was closely contested, our team had to guess the three remaining words to overcome a deficit and win the game. It was looking bleak. In the heat of the battle, suddenly came this clue: Slums, 3 (meaning, there were three words on the board that were related to the word “slums”). As we were working out the possibilities, my heart sank. No, it wasn’t because we couldn’t locate our words; after we huddled and consulted amongst ourselves, we presented our answers: Disease, Thief, India. Easy victory. Insensitive, yes, but a brilliant (and insensitive) clue, no doubt; and having played “dumb” charades during my school and college days, I could appreciate the way this person connected the three words and conveyed it to us in a simple clue. Everyone else patted this person’s back in approval. But no one but me seemed uncomfortable (even though there were two more people from a similar cultural background). Seeing this cultural disconnect, I wondered if I too had ever consciously or unconsciously said something or behaved in a way that may have caused others to feel similarly.

Another situation turned out to be a lot more light-hearted. One of my friends let it slip that he was mortified about having inadvertently mixed up the names of two classmates of similar ethnicity and had called one person by the other’s name. When he repeated this with two other classmates (they were from another ethnicity, but he was probably seeing double at the time), it became a recurring gag replete with mock-anger, invoking the handicap of not being able to easily recognise people from another race/ethnicity (a trope also used often in various sitcoms to great comedic effect). This finally culminated in a gift — a nameplate with one classmate’s name on it and he had to guess the right person to whom he had to give it back to. And normalcy was restored.

Having seen some of these situations, I am certainly a lot more cautious than I used to be — I try to clarify and preface my words to make sure my intent isn’t misconstrued. On the other end, to begin with, I always assume that the other side never intended to offend me, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

(In this series, a 35-year-old chronicles his experiences after moving abroad for an MBA, taking on conventional wisdom, grande-size debt, and a harsh winter.)

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