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.