Wednesday, September 22, 2010

colonial collapse or my thoughts on culture shock

the headline in wednesday's local paper, the tribune, read of a collapsed pedestrian bridge which injured 23 workers in delhi. the bridge in question connected parking garages to nehru stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 commonwealth games are scheduled to take place. the article used this incident to further explore issues surrounding the games, namely international displeasure with the state of certain venues and athlete's accommodations. foreigners (in this case english, canadian, and scottish delegates) have spoken out, for example, against "filthy and disgusting" toilets, stray dogs, and administrative details. the article reports that "sources said that some of these teams [are] so upset that they are toying with the idea of pulling out of the Games altogether."

reflecting on the article i am frustrated and saddened. i am confused and confuddled (is that a word?). i am a ball of conflicting emotions as this story aptly recapitulates my 140hour relationship with india.

let me explain:

rich, "western", athletes arrive on the scene to partake in an event solely for their benefit, and immediately see fit to dictate their standards. in this self-centered discourse these individuals forget that the realities which so offend them are facets of daily existence here which will not be rectified in a matter of days because they so desire them to be. the pouty "make it better" syndrome seems to deny the complex factors which have brought to fruition the current state of affairs, not least of which is the colonialism of their respective and shared motherland (after all, this is the commonwealth games).

this hits home because i am the foreign athlete. although i am not here to compete (run, jump, swim, etc.) i am here for me - to partake in a new culture and new activities; a medal of my status as a middle class young canadian. and like the athletes in the article, i am continually confronted with wanting to have things my way. while i haven't vocalized my opinions in the way they have, i am mired in an internal battle of judgment and material ethnocentrism; that is, i cannot help but think that canadian/english way of ordering roads, buildings, and so forth, is better than that which presently surrounds me. indeed, this culture shock has, in its most intense moments, led me to think i would be better off at home.

indian streets are filled with garbage. fires burn at random. animals meander highways, whilst rickshaws, transports, cars, bikes, and pedestrians scramble to their destination. road-lines are merely decoration and signs urging obedience to traffic laws are (ostensibly) comedy. people stop and use the washroom where they see fit. questionable construction abounds, with bamboo and twine as scaffolding. the smell of propane, exhaust, and spice cannot be escaped: the air is heavy with pollutants and the sky is visibly hazy, in urban and rural areas alike.

but, thanks be to god, i know that these realities are but apart of what is to exist: so my desire to flee is put at rest, temporarily. i take a moment to remember that relationships, spirituality, and self reflection are not lost admits the noise and haste (and smell). yet, i still find it difficult to see past what i have deemed to be unclean. what i have deemed to be unsafe. what i have deemed to be unsatisfactory. why is it that i am so shocked by india?

i think it has to do with the tangibility (or lack thereof) of my experiences. when my experience is simply physical - that is, experience which engages solely the senses - i am prone to see difference, perceive error, see that which makes my way better. when i experience something behind mere physicality, something more personal, be it interacting with a stranger, enjoying a conversation with dr kang, or observing the interplay between indian communities, i am reminded that despite the otherwise noted difference their is something common at play: namely, the human experience. 

(as a side note: i know that separating physical/personal is a fallacy as physical realities both perpetuate, create, and expose personal realities; likewise, personal realities both perpetuate, create, and expose material realities. it is this incredible symbiosis which leads me to reflection on how and why things are the way they are here - and if i am to be fair, in turn how and why things are the way they are at home. i am particularly interested in how religious belief/spiritual manifestations rear themselves in this interplay).

moreover, a healthy dose of critical thought puts into perspective that things aren't as different as they seem on the physical plane. we still use brick and mortar, we still consume food, dispose of waste, drive cars, go to work, etc. it's just done in a less than familiar way. this awareness, coupled with the beauty of the human experience, does not always take away my culture shock, but it slows me; ' reminds me that my response should not be to boycott the games, as it were; but rather i should revel in the way in which a new place, new people, can bring me to reflect and appreciate the complexity which is life. i pray that this lesson will remind me that of the selfishness which thinks that i, by myself, can ever comprehend this great theater and my role therein.

i am deeply thankful for the opportunities i have had thus far. i have already learned so much and have been enriched thoroughly by what i have seen, what i have explored in conversation, and what i have been modeled by the overly hospitable indian people. i hope to post about these adventures, as they have been plentiful even in 6 days, but for now i leave you with my ramblings above, as i attempt to process what this journey is all about.

godspeed to new perspectives,


  1. so early in your journey
    your wide eyes and open heart bear much
    insight and grace

    this parable - our oneness

    blessed be

  2. Robert,
    Glad to hear your experience so far has been enriching- even if some of the enriching emanates from negative issues.
    Keep writing, we're reading.

  3. i am often conflicted between with the lifestyle i feel i should be living and the one i was raised with that, irrationally, feels more comfortable.