Culture shocks and all that

About three months ago, when I was at the check out counter of Lotte Mart in Indonesia, as the cashier was almost done billing my stuff, I was getting ready to dash across to start stuffing all my groceries quickly into the bag but to my surprise, the cashier herself started putting stuff into my bags. I freaked out for a second as that was not what I was used to in Spain. But, I was back in Asia and service was everything. Over the next couple of months, I saw how similar Indonesia was to India (or any Asian country for that matter) – it was all about building trust and relationships at work. You couldn’t just shoot an email and expect the work to be done. You had to sit with them and build consensus to have them do anything for you. This also explained a lot why Toyota does business the way it does as an Asian company.

Now on the other hand, having lived in Europe was not enough for me to be used to how it works in the West because the United States is so different from any European country. Lucky for me, having been in a class with people across Europe (including having lived with one from France and Portugal), I can tell you that Europeans can hardly ever be generalised as a continent since they all have their own unique antics. For starters, there are so many Indians in the US and with so many messages pouring in from everyone, you feel extremely welcome in the States.  I was picked up from the airport by my flatmates which was really generous of them. Now, to explain why this doesn’t happen in Europe, I must urge you to research about how geographies shape social capital. Social capital is a lot lower in Europe since the cities are so small and comfortable to navigate and there’s seldom any need for people to help each other. On the other hand, you’re crippled without a car in the US and recognising this difficulty, people generally help each other, especially your own countrymen, having gone through the same when they first arrived.

My cousin and her family visited me the day after I arrived to help me get settled in comfortably. They took me out for brunch to the very popular Zingerman’s. As we walked through the door, we were greeted by this really chirpy waiter followed by the super excited lady handing out the menus and so on. All the oozing happiness startled me. It was not what I am used to in Europe or Asia. But I had seen traces of this in a few Americans I have met in the last year or so, but I just thought it was a personality trait rather than something cultural since most people try to camouflage and fit in at school and it’s hard to notice patterns unless really obvious. A lot of Indians have told me that they find this characteristic of Americans to be superficial but I’ve had no reason to share the sentiment. I guess what’s really helped me appreciate the culture here for what it’s worth is my lack of expectations from the states!

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