Culture Shock Revisited (Leaving Mumbai/Returning Home)
All good journeys must come to an end. This story is about my struggle to return home in time for my friend’s funeral. He had drowned while swimming in Thailand, so I decided to go back to the United States — where I had the greatest culture shock of my life.
Mumbai can be a ruthless city. No wonder it changed its name from Bombay. Maybe it’s trying to change its reputation. The airport and the movie industry are the two main draws to the city. Both can serve as a microcosm to the worst things about India. For example, the movie industry is the envy of other Asian countries but it is rifled with corruption. Bollywood actors, directors, and producers are getting kidnapped and killed for political reasons or part of extortion scams.
Since 1995, director-producer Rakeesh Roshan was shot outside his office in Santa Cruz; producer Ramesh Sharma was shot in Bandra; producer-music company owner Gulshan Kumar was gunned down outside a temple in Juhu; producers Mukesh Duggal and Javed Riaz Siddiqui died from gun shot wounds; and producer Manmohan Shetty, director Rajiv Rai, and actor Feroze Sarfraz Khan have all escaped violent assaults. Even actors living outside of Mumbai are targets. At the time of this writing actor Dr. Rajkumar remains kidnapped, after well over a month, by the Tamil terrorist Verappan (poacher, sandalwood smuggler, and mass murderer), who remains in hiding in a national reserve. Verappan wants over a hundred Tamil prisoners released and other political reforms as ransom, while Mumbai Mafioso are seeking video production rights to control overseas distribution.
The atmosphere near the airport is also problematic. It is located far from relevant parts of the city, it is perched near enormous slums, it is greatly polluted by motorized rickshaws, and it is home to many hustlers and con-men. The western flights for some inexplicable reason almost always seem to be after midnight. Jet lagged arrivals are dazed at the responsibility of finding a place to stay so early, and weary-eyed departers walk zombie-like waiting to leave. At these odd hours tourists are vulnerable. They can either wander around in circles at the airport or risk the elements lurking outside.
The sharks come in many forms. They can be hotel employees that hike up quoted prices with tips, taxes, tricks, and special after hour charges. They can be street tough children sneaking hands into your pockets or trying to grab your bags and run. They can be vendors who give incorrect change or substitute different products than that purchased. Near the airport, tourists are encapsulated in potentially bad situations no matter how cautious.
One becomes a defensive tourist in India who weans themselves from sympathy with the locals. After several months in India I became hardened and cold-hearted. I gave one third of my money away to people in great poverty, and I gradually learned to stop caring about them. The pleas for assistance never ended and those I did financially assist always seemed to try and work even more cash out of me. I offered beggars conversation and cigarettes but the second they raised the concept of money I would leave.
It is very hard to break through the economic factor and meet vendors on a friendship basis. Economic class doesn’t translate well cross culturally. My economic class back in the United States was irrelevant, here I was always the wealthy foreigner. Likewise, I gradually lost kinship with those in poverty. I felt I couldn’t trust them and that they were insincere about their interest in me. I gradually felt that there wasn’t much difference between being cheated by a local vendor, and being exploited by a western corporation. Toward the end of my travel I started to spend more time with westerners than locals. I started to dislike the way that I was becoming in the global village. When I received e-mail that a friend had drowned while swimming in Thailand, I knew that it was time for me to leave. I took advantage of my brother’s discount “buddy pass” and bought a ticket home to attend the ceremonies and pay my respects.
With a purchased ticket in hand I paid for a rickshaw to the airport. I made one last run for foreign coins for my brother. India being an important historical trade country, which once had ties with the silk route and pre-colonial European markets, is a good place for finding the style of old worthless coins that my brother likes to collect. I found old coins from India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Norway, Israel, and South Africa. With a handful of coins in hand I made way to the airport.
The problem with a buddy pass is that it is only a standby ticket and you’re not guaranteed a seat. The first night at the airport I was turned down. I was not able to board and I was stuck at the airport at 2:00 am. After a 24-hour bus ride to arrive in Mumbai I was exhausted. Still, there was nothing that I could do. I had to run the gambit of touts that cried out, “Rooms for tonight”. By 3:00 am I had settled on the cheapest offer. I was too tired, I reasoned, to worry about quality. I could easily sleep for a few hours and return to the airport the next day. Luckily, I could store my luggage at the airport where it would be safe. A shuttle bus drove me to my hotel as part of the deal. The hotel, as it turns out, was the same one that I had stayed at when I first arrived, only this time the rate was only $10 rather than the $35 that I originally paid the first night. I was learning the tricks of bargaining.
The next day I wandered around side streets taking photographs until I started losing my sense of direction. I decided it would be in my best interest at this point to catch a rickshaw to the airport. The day was uneventful: I stumbled onto a barber who cut my cheek with a used razor and a vendor who doubled the quoted price of a coconut after I had already drunk its juice. Other than these activities the day was going smooth, the rickshaw driver stuck to our agreed price – I gave him a tip for his good ethics.
That night I waited again. This time I had company, however, and they were also hoping to depart on buddy passes. This time we were promised seats only to be turned down once again when the time had come. A huge group had arrived moments before with a mass of luggage. We all lost our seats and accused them of corruption. The problem is that after a tourist has experienced it once then they are more prone to make accusations later. One of us claimed that he saw one of the passengers hand the official some money. I dismissed this at the moment but, considering how the night progressed later, I started to wonder. The seed was planted.
I was particularly angry this time because it meant that I would miss my friend’s funeral reception. Most of my friends will have left for Seattle before I could meet them. I considered changing travel destinations so that I could at least meet my friends in a different U.S. city to show my support. I had no choice but to take a taxi back in the city for another night’s rest. This time I decided to go into the Coloba District of Mumbai because it was closer to my travel agent. Again I haggled with taxi drivers until my decision was reached. Unfortunately, I broke my cardinal rule to never accept rides from the most aggressive driver. I also made the mistake of going for the lowest offer.
The driver turned out to be a tout who was only leading me to the actual driver. We waited 15 minutes for the driver to arrive. In the meantime he tried to persuade me to buy hashish and to exchange currency. There was no way that I would have been interested at this point. When the driver arrived, the tout insisted that he join us so that he could collect his baksheesh. This is one example of an occasion where one should follow instincts and leave, but my mind was too preoccupied over my friend’s funeral and I wasn’t paying any attention. Half way through my ride, after we took routes that disoriented my sense of location, the driver pulled over and decided to get out. He informed me that he would leave and the other driver would take me the rest of the way. They demanded that I pay them up front before they went any further. I refused because I was uncomfortable with the idea of paying them when I didn’t know where we were at and I had not arrived at my destination yet. Anything can happen between point “A” and point “B”. I had no reason to trust them.
The conflict was resolved by their decision that both would continue together until we got there. Instead of dropping me off in front of my hotel they drove me a few blocks down the street where it was darker, claiming that it was illegal to park at night in front of the hotel. At this point I just wanted to pay them and leave. I was drained and absorbed with the thought of my friend’s departure. When I paid them they thanked me, but as I opened the door the tout blocked it. The driver turned around and claimed that I only paid him 10 rupees. He demanded that I give him 500 more. I knew that he was lying because I had marked the bill before I gave it to him.
I asked him to show me and realized that it had been a set-up when he did. They insisted on going through my wallet. I was pinned into the car so I couldn’t get out without a fight. What can I say, I gave them my wallet. However, I was laughing inside when I surrendered it. The joke was on them. Ever since I was robbed in Thailand on Christmas Day I have become wiser. At that moment I had all my U.S. dollars hidden: I had pockets sewn on the inside of my pants, a neck pouch, an ankle band, and other hiding places that I am unwilling to give away. The wallet was a decoy. I placed enough cash and scraps of notes in the wallet to make it convincing. It is never pleasant getting mugged but I am thankful that this time I survived with no major repercussions.
The next day I decided to give it one more try at the airport. I decided that if it didn’t work out this time I would go to Korea instead. It was my original destination and I still had the return ticket. I would go to Korea and accept a job offer that had been waiting for me. I was greatly prompted by the fact that I had given away all my spare clothing earlier and everything leftover had already been worn a couple of days. I would have to see my American friends at a later date. Nonetheless, I was going to give it one last shot at getting a seat. This time I decided that I would bribe the airline official. The first night I tried to persuade them by dressing up nicely in a western suit, the second night I donned Indian traditional clothes, and the third night I wore my dirty threads and went for the persuasion via baksheesh. While going on my morning stroll I talked with a few random westerners about it. They supplied me with plenty of suggestions. They all had experiences with it. I settled on the following technique. I inconspicuously placed some U.S. dollars in the sleeve of my airline ticket. I folded the money so that it wouldn’t be obvious, but the official would clearly see it. If he wanted the money he would take it; if he didn’t accept it than it wouldn’t be so obvious that it was a bribe either.
The three of us westerners lined up once again. I was first in line. The other watched to see if it worked. I showed the front desk my airplane ticket and waited. When the airline official examined it he smiled. He had a look of hesitation as his eyes quickly looked in both directions. He looked me in the eye and said, “Here is your ticket, seat #25”. When he gave it back to me I waited until I was almost in customs before I peeked. There were my ticket AND my money. When I woke in the United States it was my yesterday in India.
Jet lag is over-rated. Tourists pamper it too much. It should be embraced as a genuine surrealistic experience that one is powerless to overtake. There is nothing to do about the abrupt time shift and disorientation of contrasting cultures, but to wait it out until nightfall and to try to enjoy the unusual first night. I always feel the culture shock strongest whenever I fly back to Utah, my original birthplace in the United States. Even when flying from within the United States, the state of Utah skewers my perception in all directions. I always feel like I’m at Disneyland. Opening the newspaper during the fist two weeks back home I had my share of culture shock. A polygamist marries the 14-year-old daughter of his wife. Legislators attempt to make it a major felony for a movie theater usher to even unknowingly allow a youngster entrance to a rated “R” film. A forty-year-old, never married, virgin is appointed as a pornography czar who will determine what constitutes normal community standards of sexual representation. A politician is paid nearly a third of a million dollars to leave her elected office.
At the Federal level, the candidate for U.S. president that wins that majority of popular votes actually loses the democratic election. My homeland has a range of absurdity and corruption that would have even stunned India. Perhaps more than a few people living overseas are wondering how the United States, in all its power and global dominance, will set an example for the world to follow.
Once back in the U.S. I decided to really go for the full culture shock and look it straight in the eye. By a stroke of fate, friends offered me a free ticket to a Stone Temple Pilots rock concert. The concert was very asymmetrical. Forty-eight hours earlier I departed India after taking a long drive across Mumbai. It was hot and humid, cows walked down the middle of the street, and the variety of sounds and smells combined like an abstract painting by Jason Pollack. Popular Indian movie music blared out the taxi as we drove by miles of ghettoes. Now I experienced autumn snow, freezing air, distorted guitars, facially pierced youths, and tattooed teenagers. Affluence, neon, and junk food could be seen everywhere.
Inside the concert hall I thought of how shocked each nation would be if it witnessed the opposing country. Those from the United States would not have understood the omnipresence of domestic livestock on the roadways, the chaotic rule free street traffic, and an incarnation of God with an elephant head. Likewise, Indians would have been shocked to see the wide variety of beef products, the slam dancing, the open consumption of marijuana, and the sight of the band’s lead singer wearing nothing but an American flag before dashing offstage naked. Both countries have fundamentally different ideas about freedom and limitations.
Still I could see many threads that linked the west and east together. Many women at the concert wore Indian henna, punk rockers sported tattoos of Japanese calligraphy, and the smell of sandalwood and patchouli oil from Asia permeated the music hall. I could pinch a single thread and follow it to Asia without difficulty. Some fans wore silk while others probably ate Chinese food before the show. Cultural icons could be studied in reverse. The western musical instruments I could hear at the concert have all been adopted throughout Asia. The silk audience members wore might have been designed by an American company or manufactured in Mexico. The western fans at the concert often eat with chopsticks these days, while their Asian-American counterparts often prefer forks and knives. Culture can be dynamic. Perhaps something will be lost or unrecognizable due the clash of global cultures.
In an age of rapid cultural changes and intercultural merging it is difficult to predict the outcome. As cultures collide traditions will tear, split, and fold into new forms. Will the results look like a horrid car wreck or the beautiful origami of a swan? Will the outcome of the global village continue to be based on the exploitation of the third world by western nations or can a fair balance be established? Will the world’s countries find a common denominator to bond us or will nationalism continue to divide? I can not answer my own rhetorical questions because I simply do not know. I feel that I can no longer control the behavior of my country’s government or its multi-national corporations. I can only vote, petition, and protest domestically. However, I can begin by looking at my own actions overseas and holding myself accountable to them. If I only have weak influence at the macro-level on global politics and business, I can at least make improvements at the individual level by looking inward and making the appropriate changes to my role as consumer and tourist.
For me globalization will always be about the threads linking us. I can have impact on the threads even as an individual. They can be almost anything: music, education, travel, work, the love of family, a sense of home, streaks of random luck, language, communication, or human warmth. When something feels foreign to me in the United States or when I feel out of place overseas, I always examine the threads. In these threads I can always trace a path that links us together.