When we were in Myanmar, I thought about writing on the topic of ‘embracing our differences.’
And then we visited India.
India is busy and wild and more different than any place I could have imagined. Not just from a, “Wow, the way people drive here is completely nuts,” perspective. It’s most different in the aspects of culture and interaction.
The roads are a mess of tuk tuks, bicycle rickshaws, honking motorbikes, and roaming cows, and the people are fast-moving and influential talkers.
We noticed this upon arriving at the New Delhi railway station. Over eight tuk tuk drivers approached us (nearly at once) to ask where we needed to go and ensure the cheapest price. Everyone wanted our business and they weren’t afraid to try and make that happen.
We also discovered people who pushed their way through subway stations and to the front of lines. I got skipped ten times in a railway security line before realizing I needed to be more aggressive.
At the station, I worried that I might be accidentally tossed with all of my luggage right off the platform onto the tracks.
As Joe puts it,
“You’re either pushin’ – or gettin’ pushed in India.”
One example occurred on our overnight Indian rail ride to Varanasi. Joe and I were together on the lowest of three bunks. All of a sudden, the cabin lights flipped on. It was one in the morning.
A big Indian man stood over us with a small crowd. He pointed to our not yet set-up middle bunk and said, “I’ll sleep there?”
Joe politely and clearly said, “No,” and tried to explain that we were using the cushioned seats in a different way, but that we needed both that night.
The man continued to push (verbally).
Joe pushed back (kindly).
While we both wanted to be generous, Joe made it a priority for me get ample rest since I was recovering from a typical Jenna stomach illness.
With a little translation help from the man in our upper bunk, the Indian Inquisition (as we called it) stopped, and the man and his wife went away without any problems. As a precaution, we set up the middle bunk and I climbed on it to guard against others who might wrestle for my spot.
While the pushing isn’t true for the entirety of India — we’ve met lovely and helpful people here — the pushing has been a staple for us several times over.
It was easy for us to first take offense at the pushiness.
After Joe shared his perspective, it made more sense to me.
“It’s likely cultural,” he said, “And in a country of over a billion people where you don’t always have rules enforced to make sure things are fair, you have to fight for what you want and even need.”
It reminds me of the big families I grew up with – you wouldn’t believe how fast and furiously they grabbed cookies off the buffet line. If they didn’t take seven now, they might not have cookies for weeks. I don’t blame them — I love cookies too.
I’ve heard, “It’s probably cultural,” many times in my life and I’m sure you have, too. Sometimes we say it in an effort to dismiss or accept the differences between two groups of people.
This time, though, it resonated with me in new fashion.
I stepped away from thinking, “It’s rude and wrong, and also cultural,” to thinking, “It might be acceptable, and I don’t fully understand because it’s cultural.”
This is not to say that all things done by another culture are right or OK. Everything in our culture isn’t done “right” either.
We’re all groomed and grown to do and say certain things, to push when we feel the need to push, and to give way to someone else when we feel the need to give way.
Parents teach their children from young ages how to survive and thrive in their country. They teach them what’s acceptable and what’s not. Some, of course, do a finer job than others.
My point is, is that from an early age, we are taught how to survive, function, and even exist in our own culture.
It might be completely different in another family or part of the world. Maybe what we think is “right” is even offensive to someone else.
By thinking deeper about a culture, or even a different family, we can begin to see that some differences come from the roots — in how someone is taught by word or example, from those around them and within their community and country.
We can see from the very beginning that our roots are affected and grow differently in the ground.
A large stone might rest on one side and we must bend around it. Fertile soil may make the roots grow well in another area. And maybe some roots are damaged by stampeding elephants running too close.
Whatever it is, you can imagine how roots grow differently. And with different roots, comes different branches and different fruit.
It’s in noticing the ways others are grown differently, that we can better appreciate their very structure, and the fruit which they bear. Spanish wine tastes differently than that from Leelanau, Michigan. The grapes from Spain were never the same as those from the Midwest.
In the same way, we, as people, were never the same to begin with.
How could I expect someone to grow and look and sway exactly like I do?
We were never the same to begin with.
We have grown much differently.
There might be two layers of effort to take when we see these differences. One is to accept, appreciate, and understand the other for who it is, recognizing its beauty and strengths. Rather than becoming frustrated, we can choose compassion and understanding.
We can see that their intentions are good, and that they’re not wrong or rude.
I move and talk and sway. My ways seem acceptable to me. Others talk and move – and their ways seem acceptable to them.
The second is to realize we are all created by God in the great forest of life. Though we are different in many ways, we are all trees. We are designed intentionally with beauty and love. Each of us has a purpose and offers a fruit for others.
This is not to say we should blindly accept injustice and wrongdoings of other humans. If someone pushed me onto the train tracks, I wouldn’t just “accept” it.
But with a little understanding in most situations, we can see that another individual is only being what they know how to be, such as: a not-so-pushy white American girl and a little-bit-more-pushy (beautiful-eyed) Indian girl.
I haven’t mastered any of this — the further understanding or how to deal with true cultural differences.
In the city of Varanasi, I grew increasingly annoyed at every tuk tuk driver and boatman who flagged us down and heckled us for business. I did feel, though, that I mastered a good strong “no,” which I would have benefited from earlier in life.
As Joe and I continue this journey, on the road and in our lives, I want to try and employ deeper understanding in thought and action when I come across a different type of tree or root system.
I want to see that we were never the same to begin with, so I shouldn’t expect sameness. Our different styles and beauties form who we are. I want to embrace the differences.
The forest of the world is vast and I’ll never have a chance to meet all the varieties of trees.
But for those I do meet, I want to let their branches swing. I want to appreciate the fruit they bear.
Maybe if I understand and accept the differences enough, I can even feel a refreshing breeze and taste the wine of the fruit they bear.
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