Learn cultural difference by living and teaching ESL in Kerala, India

Getting to know your neighbour reveals the meaning of cultural difference.

Until living abroad, I’d never had to question what cultural difference is. Culture is subtle, yet it permeates everything we do. When you remove yourself from your own culture, you observe yourself in a very different way. You learn culture is something you don’t necessarily know you have, but when it’s gone, its absence has profound effects. Then, when you’re living inside a different cultural landscape, it takes more effort than you might expect to assimilate and not offend.

Interlopers in Kerala

What happens when you put a cluster of Western interlopers into a small fishbowl town in southern Kerala? In my experience, what occurred was this: a battling collision of cultures at the heart of the matter of integration to the point that integration appears an impossible ideal for people of varying sexual persuasions in states of singleness and coupledom, with all variety of life experiences, motivations, philosophies, likes and dislikes put into an environment where rules are very subtle and difficult to discern, let alone to live by. People, those ones who’ve been there a while, tell you the rules and also marvel, “But surely you knew?” when an unwritten law is broken. It’s not until it happens to you that the veneer of pleasantry peels away, and one sees what being a long-term resident is. Perhaps, fitting in to your new culture is taking shelter, observing a low a profile as possible, contributing to the community and not rocking the proverbial boat. However, you cannot alter the colour of your skin, so no matter, a foreigner is what you shall remain.

How the hosts respond

Put a foreign body into anything and reactions are bound to happen. Sometimes things are rejected while other times that thing becomes as if it has always been there. I was always the white female who stood out, prompted acknowledgement and offers of courtship. I was never made to feel unwelcome, though, not for a long while. Where I was living, slowly, the host community encroaches. At first, it welcomes, judges, tries to court (sexually and platonically), tries to contain and work out the puzzle and then, when behaviours and beliefs rub against one another causing friction, it – the host – resorts to saying, “You must not do this; instead, you must do this. This is how it is,” even if the alternative is intolerable and ridiculous to the Western guests because, I suppose, to them – the hosts – we transient passers-through must seem absurd.

A single spark ignited fallout when we were only having fun

The particular incident that caused cultural differences to clash happened out of innocence and out of little else to do besides spend time with friends and colleagues. It started in a hotel bar where three of us gathered to enjoy a beer after work, nothing too strange or wayward. On it went. Not that much beer was drunk, a civil amount only. When the barman made it appear that the bar was closing, we exited the hotel, three of us – two girls and one guy, two from the UK and one from Kolkata. Nothing too strange or perverse or rabble-rousing about our trio. When we, British girls who lived at the house, invited our guy colleague to come over to enjoy one last beer on the balcony, we did not consider it anything beyond an innocent bit of frivolity.

“Oh, but how sweet and innocent is the spending of time with friends!” She cried into the warm night sky. It had been such an extraordinarily long time since being in the company of people whose humour I could appreciate, whose experiences I could identify with and who I would happily settle down with for an evening of mindless chatter. What a pleasure it was, after months of solitary independence and random incidences of spontaneity, to discover myself at ease and doing what was familiar: drinking a beer, chatting nonsense and turning evenings surreal with twisting, turning abstract conversations littered with laughter. What a pleasure to have friend’s houses to visit where conversations unraveled and rolled out; shared experiences were lingered over, places or films in common unified opinion and propelled conversation forwards.

Alas, outside of the house sat a person, a part of the administration, who placed a telephone call to other members of the faculty.

We were at our home, a place provided by the school we were all doing our internship at, quietly chattering on the balcony when a telephone call came through to our sole Indian male colleague. He was instructed to leave the “party” and get out of the house immediately before the police found out and came to arrest him. I paraphrase slightly, and I borrow a word or two, but the content, the gist and potency of that call I do not exaggerate. Police were mentioned. The level of voice was neither civil nor reproachful. We’d been accused and charged without trial.

Repercussions, coming face to face with how we were though of

The following day, at the age that I am, I was asked to account for my “difficult” behaviour – organizing a party. I asked for “difficult” and “party” to be defined. I stood accused, it sounded like this, of hosting an orgy and of purposefully flouting customs and rules I did not know existed. Sure, when we land in Kerala we are advised that if we wish to have a relationship with someone it must be taken to a hotel, but that’s a relationship of the sexual kind, not plutonic innocence. In ways, this instruction seemed fair since we lived in accommodation provided by the school and Kerala is conservative in its nature. We had underestimated how deeply conservative.

To the person pointing the finger it seemed impossible that people of mixed genders cannot enjoy one another’s company without wanting to turn it into a bout of sexual depravity, at least that is what it sounded like to a person accused and on the back foot. I withheld from mentioning my leanings and history, no need for that. Rather more, I wanted to make the purpose of our gathering clear: fun, not difficulty.

Fun, it transpires, is an innocuous thing that befuddles.

“Why do you do this?”

“For fun,” I said.

“And, why else? Is there no other reason?”

“Fun. For the pure simple joy of having fun.”

Throughout my time in Kerala, this is what I did: I stapled myself in and tucked away my natural responses because of the need to respect different cultures, beliefs and sensibilities as well as to remain professional. It was against all instinct, but I saw that truth is not a thing many people like served up on a public platter. In a town where there are only ever four or five white people, one swiftly becomes known. Strangers reported to me exactly where I lived and how many times they had seen me about. It was not a place to go causing trouble or to step out of line. It’s a place where people know people and gossip travels faster than a Twitter Hash Tag posting.

Cultural difference inside a single country

It’s not just we dirty immoral loose Westerners who experienced this strangeness and restriction. Over the course of time, I came to understand why a Keralite student I befriended, who later left for a more cosmopolitan part of India, said to me, “I’ve become what I was taught to hate: I drink, I party, I smoke, I have a boyfriend and I’m happy. I’m everything Kerala told me was bad.”

You can live in one place for a long time. You can taste the cuisine, the Turmeric and coconut oil; see new ways of dressing; hear a language spoken like fleshy pebbles gargled, and it is possible to believe you have a handle upon it then for it to then crack wide open and present a gaping chasm of insight that leaves one reeling as one’s understanding of the place and its people change. Kerala revealed herself. In truth, she had been presenting her underside all along, rearing up from time to time to drag down with her in the undertow those who did not toe the line.

I’ve seen it happen to those around me (neighbours place phone calls to report an unmarried couple having sexual relations) but it isn’t until it happens to you – there’s a cliché I’ve heard and thought could never happen to me – that you begin to absolutely understand that cultural differences take a willingness on both sides to be flexible towards and accepting of. When difference is not tolerated, when it is weighed and people accused, it’s dangerous. There’s no doubt. It is not until the beast comes for you, when you stare down the gaping jaws that are about to swallow you, that you come to a stark unquestionable understanding that societies, civilizations (not very civil) are often mightier than the individuals who make up the sum, and that you, the individual, had best not forget. Also, one realizes cultural difference is a very real intangible noun that is extraordinarily hard to wrap one’s mind and acceptance around let alone to conform to, abide by and live with.

Cultures clash, battle, do not defeat either, but return to the corners of the ring to await another bout.

How people live there I don’t know. Well, there’s a lie: I do know very well. What they do is tuck themselves inside and live as other people tell them to live, quietly. I couldn’t understand it in all my time there, not how people live to satisfy the neighbours and their community, but they do, as if human nature will bend and succumb to other people’s ideas of how one should live. In that place, at that time, it breeds paranoia and claustrophobia. It breeds bovine herds sitting upon instinct and swallowing what they are told to do; or, they have to pick themselves up after the fallout or find a way to procrastinate and put off the evil deed until the final possible point or, finally, they leave or lie to loved ones.

Upon talking with a friend, I learned too that jealousy is at fault. People police people who have what they want: an attractive partner, a nice lifestyle or freedom. Bludgeoning people to a way of existence that is more equal to your own unhappy way of life keeps jealous neighbours calm but only propagates further unhappiness.

Whose ideal is it that rules us?

Underneath the green leafy banana trees, in amongst the dust and grit, scramble through the trash discarded until you find the beating heart of a place. Live there long enough and you’ll see the veneer of pleasantry and community, of friendliness and curiousity are a guise hiding some of the worst of human nature: narrow-mindedness and an unwillingness to be receptive to, even supportive of individuality.

To think that neighbours police neighbours; to think that gossip wears communities down, makes couples hide away in far-away places, get married to silence the critics; have children for the good of the country, the family and pride – that’s what I realized about living there. There are powerful ideas supposedly for the good of all that do no one any good. Some ideas are dangerous things. Ideas are the root of belief and culture; a small matter of difference of opinion leads to harming one’s neighbor.

I don’t believe things are inalterable: development is occurring and contributing to a clash between the generations. It’s happening now and that’s how it is. All will change but might change more quickly if only people would accept and marvel in the differences rather than striving for homogeneity and conformism – to whose ideal?