Some thoughts on culture shock

It’s hit me that the greatest culture shock about visiting India isn’t in the evident differences between South Asia and North America (language, crowds, traffic insanity, etc.) but in the subtler ones – the differences you don’t expect when you encounter something familiar.

Basically, it’s the little things that really push me to realize I’m not in Montreal anymore.

Going to the Mall.

In North America, the mall is a dying species. They used to be the one-stop shopping destinations in towns small and large, displacing mom & pop stores, but recently they’ve been bested by the superstore. Big behemoths like Walmart have slowly been obliterating smalls but offering roughly the same quantity of selection, albeit at a much lower quality and price tag.

In India, malls are pretty new. I’m fairly sure they only began appearing after the government started opening up the country to trade and investment in the past decade or so. Malls are therefore a sign of change and excitement in a country where most people used to shop at the flurry of stalls and tarpaulin covered sheds down the street.

The malls in Kolkata stick out like slot machines in a library. They’re big, bright, ultra-modern, and their air-conditioned interiors cool off the side walk a whole block away.

Inside, they’re loaded with glamourous luxury brands. The floors are marble. There’s 90s North American rock hits playing over the speakers. The food court is a heaven for vegetarians and foodies alike, with local favourites and fancier food combined under one shared space.

All this seems pretty much like the malls in a Southern American state like California or Nevada, but that’s where the similarities start to flicker.

First up, every store is overstaffed. A two story clothing outlet might havev 40+ employees just working the floors (not counting cash, security, changing room security, etc.) It’s downright frightening to see employees everywhere.

Even more so, because the employees are overly helpful.

Not only do does a small gang of them have a tendency to hover about 2.5 feet away if you dare stop and look at a shirt, but they also hawk their wares as you pass by.

“Shirt sir! Real cotton!”

“Sir, pants! Good pants!”

“Sunglasses! Top style!”

On the bright side, you never need to look for anyone if you need someone to run to the back to find a size for you.

As well, the stores are immaculate. 500% employment means the shelves are always faced, stock is never low, and there’s plenty of selection.

American stores like Target could learn a thing or two.

Going to the Movies.

You still go to a movie hall, buy your tickets at the entrance, wait around a ritzy lobby and then take your seat in a dark room. But the little things stick out.

For one, there was a fully stocked bar in the lobby for the Insignia pass members – basically, Scene Card Holders.

Next, the treats and snacks work differently. Sure, there’s still overpriced popcorn and soda, but there’s also steamed corn with lime, Kolkata street food, bags of nacho chips with dip and even pastries.

Perhaps the strangest part for a foreigner like myself was realizing that before the movie begins, a crew of men carrying confections roams up and down the aisles on either side of the hall shouting “Popcorn! Nacho Chips! Cold Drink!”

They then linger in the aisles long after they’ve asked every person in the room if they want chips or soda, and periodically shout of the name of their goods like crows perched on a wire, hoping someone notices.

As soon as the intermission rolls out (yes, they still have those. A short film in India is about two hours and twenty five minutes long) the hawkers are back.

“Popcorn! Nacho Chips! Cold Drink!”

They also check your bags at the entrance to make sure no one is sneaking in any snacks (heaven forbid) and they shut the doors to each cinema hall, discouraging people from sneaking from one movie to the next.

Plus there’s the obligatory team of security staff hovering about.

Malls here can also get horrendously crowded. On a recent Sunday evening, it was easily as crowded as the Eaton’s Centre on Christmas Eve.

Not that people were rushing around to get in some last minute shopping, of course. They were just here for the AC, the sights and to walk around and literally hang out at the corner.

Plus, take selfies every ten feet.

Standing in any line, anywhere.

This is one of the big ones. I’m certainly pampered by countries like Canada and Japan where everyone understands how a line works and generally respects it.

In India (as well as the Southern parts of the USA I’ve noticed) aren’t interested in any of that. Whenever there should be a line, you’ll have a funnel of people instead.

Think about hopping on or off a bus or metro. It’s a two way mad rush of bodies leaving and entering at the same time. No standing and waiting your turn, or first come first served. Even if you stand around at the front, someone will walk up next to you and inch ahead.

Cutting in line has become an art form.

The same happens whenever you need to pay for something at the store. People appear from out of the woodwork and cut their way to the front, usually waving money. The sight of money gets the cashier’s attention and they move to the head of the line.

Recovering, some sights

I spent three days feeling nauseaus and living with everything that goes along with it. Maybe it was something I ate at the restaurant near Park Street. It’s also possible that one of the cups wasn’t washed properly. Or it could have been the water I used to rinse my toothbrush.

Either way, I’m finally recovering and was able to enjoy a hefty breakfast today. Still haven’t been able to get back into rich foods.

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I haven’t seen a single other person wearing a hat in a city of over 10 million where it’s always sunny and deathly hot.

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Heading to the North of the city, by way of the outskirts, we passed a roadside textile mall. For about a kilometre on either side, hundreds of vendors hawk shirts and other garments to countless clients.

Most of the buyers are themselves merchants. They buy bags of shirts in bulk and cart them back into the city proper, where they resell them out of shops no larger than a closet or shower stall.

We were stuck in the midst of the congestion, traffic brought to a standstill going both ways. Buses filled with men going to work, hand-drawn carts, and men riding bicycles with precarious bundles stacked atop the handle bars filled the streets between the sellers.

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One day, after the rainstorm, the temperature lowered itself down to roughly 25 degrees. It felt almost cold. I can say the same happens during the warmer days. When it’s 38 degrees outside plus humidity, setting the AC down to 26 almost demands pants and a sweat by contrast.

Days 05-06 The city is congested

It rained yesterday. For the first time, the city became almost cool.

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In the neighbourhoods nearby, the city is thick. Dense. People apparently don’t like to waste space, or have an aversion to seeing too much of it.

In the better-to-do suburbs, city regulations require that you leave at least 6 feet between your house and the one next door. In other parts, notable the nearby “colony” where refugees settled from Bangladesh after the partition, there are no such requirements. Houses occupy each lot as completely as they can, sometimes leaving no more than 6 inches between each home.

Elsewhere, no space is permitted as each house builds on top of and into the adjacent ones.

In traffic, cars and other vehicles ignore the dotted and even the solid lines if there’s space enough to squeeze in. At stop lights, autos and motorcycles sandwhich themsleves in between the idiling buses and sedans.

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Much of the city is a mix of old and new. Most of it ancient, graying, wrapped-in cables and soot-covered, but some of it oddly, polished and made of glass. It’s strange to be driving down the road, marvelling at the boxy, apartmented landscape, only to see it broken by a mega-mall with dazzling lights and strangely cubist art dotting the front facade.

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Park Street is the most British-seeming part of town. The massive buildings that line the street look like something that would be at home in London or elsewhere. Bookstores with names like Oxford, that offer international selections, and trendy little cafes and pubs can be found beneath vine-tangled awnings.

There’s also the largest concetration of foreigners I’ve seen since I’ve been here.

Nearby is the Indian Museum, a colonial vestige. It’s known for being the first European-style museum in India (and possibly all of Asia). Its collections rest in a massive white stone and marble building, and include Bengali paintings, archaeological tidbits, and tons of shit the British pillaged from elsewhere (including a mummy).

The AC is also shoddy, and the building is stuffy like a sauna. We don’t last very long.

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In the evening, down by the ganges, I saw a bat the size of a seagull. I looked up at the oddly slow moving darkness in the evening sky.

There’s plenty to eat for fruit bats. Mango trees and coconuts are as common a sight as crab apples in the countryside. Maybe more so.

There’s also the odd papaya about.

None of the revellers out for their Mayday holiday seem to mind. The thousands of people walking the promenade under white and blue lights, and the glow of stalls promising fried vegetables, are here for the waterfront and the ginger tea sold in tiny clay cups.

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In the Northern part of the city, where the airport sits, the city looks more recognizable. There are wide, clean boulevards, with symmetrical rows of street lines and plain, open fields on each side awaiting new development.

In Calcutta’s nearby tech hub, ultra-modern buildings dot the edges of the industrial parks. Nearby, tacky restaurants that look like log cabins meet McDonald’s drive-ins, covered with bright lights and flashy signage, offer expensive diversions for the white collar wage earners.