As I am newly returned to the two home-bases that have supported my life over the last thirty years, the Seattle area and the Rogue Valley area, I have a refreshed perspective. Several recent conversations with friends and family have served to heighten my process of integration and bring my perspective about the world and America into a new phase. This is difficult for me to put into words, but this is the sort of challenge I love.
Just the other day, I realised that I’ve just completed my second circumnavigation of the world. On both world-travel trips I’ve headed westward all the way around. There’s something in this that’s significant. Most travellers heading out anywhere these days, unless they’re sailors, buy two-way tickets. It’s the norm, for sure. And it’s the economical way to go as well, of course. But in committing to one direction at the beginning of the journey, I was committing on some level, to not simply bounce-back, but to allow the journey and the adventure itself to direct my eventual return, rather than plan it ahead of time. It really was a willingness to allow the journey to change me and not aim for a specific outcome.
One could respond with the comment that, “Well, everyone can’t afford to travel like that,” and that’s completely true. But what I’m trying to highlight is a different aspect of the choice, and that is the intent to move forward all the way through something. And this relates deeply, I think, to what I experience about America and the way in which we create and conduct our lives here.
There are any number of great forces in the world that influence and foster cultural cohesion and the social fabric that binds people together for better or worse. The force that is the prevailing weft and weave in India is religion. It is a great force here in America, too, but it’s played out with less cultural cohesion than there, because the Indian culture is so old, and because they are a country of 1.2 billion!!!
What struck me in my twenties, when I was there for about half a year, was how very different the feel of it was from the feel of living in the US. Even as an outsider, and not of any religion back then or now, I found that I liked the feel of India socially. Even more accurately, I was intrigued about the difference between these two worlds, about how I felt when here or there. And now, to be as precise as possible: for some reason, I feel enlarged and profoundly greeted and welcomed there. I know I’m loved here, and friends and family are welcoming me back, and offering wonderful hospitality, for which I’m very grateful. But there’s some sort of subtle diminishment I’m feeling, and curious about.
While I was in India there were two descriptions I came up with. The first one was, that India is the Wild Wild East. By that I was referring to the fact that there is little or no regulation there. This fact carries tragic (ecological, mostly) as well as comical and crazy results (such as entire families aboard a single motor-scooter, and full propane tanks haphazardly tied to the back of scooters). It is an apt description for how anything gets done there, and for how one navigates traffic. I mean even the cows were rather traffic-savvy I some ways I wouldn’t have expected.
The other description would make a great title, were I ever to write a book about India: Allowance is Made. There is a palpable atmosphere of acceptance there. People don’t have insurance, they don’t have lots of “stuff”, they don’t have if expectations, or attitudes of entitlement. They don’t think much in terms of personal rights. Life happens and how they drive is indicative of their overall attitudes, it seems…the vehicles respond to each other and the smaller vehicles give way to the larger, and people do their best not to hit anything. And if something does get hit, generally, tempers don’t flair and fingers aren’t pointed. Help is offered, and allowance of whatever needs to happen next is made (and things take an inordinate amount of time to happen).
There is a grace within the chaos of too muchness, and beauty nestled-up next to things that are achingly horrid. There were dogs with such horrible mange that they were like one big scab with a tail. I remember the sight of an elephant walking slowly and gracefully through a downtown street, but with very sad eyes. one familiar sight was a woman squatting by her little assortment of silver bracelets to sell, with her baby asleep on a little blanket beside her. Her ultra-thin husband was playing sweetly on a wooden lute-like hand-made instrument he, too, was trying to sell. They’d become regular fixtures on a walking bridge over the end of the lake in Udaipur. You had to sort of bend around them to proceed, but, bless their hearts, allowance was made for them to make their humble living there.
People’s behaviour is kept in check in ways that are very different from the ways in which we do it. This is interesting because India is also one of the most culturally diverse places I’ve ever been. Even so, there’s a deeply ingrained cultural cohesion. How people behave within their family and village, how people dress, and what they celebrate has a cohesion that is a kind of power.There is a division of male and female worlds that is also very clearly delineated, but it is morphing in unpredictable ways. I saw many more women riding their own motor-scooters around the cities.
Indians perhaps more than any other culture have retained their Indian-ness even in the diaspora that has occurred over the last couple of centuries. They seem to form very tight-knit community enclaves in other places like the Fiji Islands, Trinidad, and even Zimbabwe. There seems to be a palpable cultural intent, that is fostered through family values rather than from outside structures like how we in America orchestrate behavioural constraints.
They seem to focus inward, and parental guidance, approval and engagement is a force that resists social change. In America, that force is drastically less viable. And, we also are much more influenced by media forces, and exterior structures. We, as a people, look to police or regulatory enforcement for controls. They have this to, obviously, but day to day, one doesn’t interact or bump up against those exterior structures as much. These two countries have very different styles of living and social engagement. But America is having significant impact there, and has in some ways replaced the residual British tones that used to be more obvious.
Indians are very, charming, caring and personal in their dealings in a way that one does not typically experience here. Of course, as an outsider, and as a white person, I was greeted in ways that maybe a darker skinned visitor might not have been, I don’t know… But, people went out of their way to offer help, or simply speak with me, and showed genuine personal interest, without the professional facade, or the protective wall between strangers that so many Americans seem to cloak themselves with.
The experience of time there is (to use an Italian term) elasticchi (I’m guessing how to spell it). People had time for each other. Women would gather to help do communal-type projects or tasks that gave them easy face-time with each other. Often, upon walking past the porch of the family who’s house the STEP Volunteers Program rented the top two floors of, a cup of tea would be enthusiastically offered, and before long other neighbours would show up and join in the conversation that ensued. This sort of casual social inclusion struck me as very different than our culture which seems to have the meme of business (busy-ness) and more formalised meetings with friends (by appointment).
Also, it seems to me that America doesn’t seem to have a group intent as a culture. Instead, we seem to look to and invent structures that are meant to solve problems but which often end-up merely adding to the cultural incoherence and displaced attention. Our attention as a people is as distracted and fractured as our broken families. We, as a nation, seem fervently dedicated to putting out fires, but don’t know how to build a well, figuratively speaking. We identify problems and focus our attention on preventing them from happening again, but we don’t seem to know what we truly want, what would actually make us happier and more fulfilled individuals.
All these observations are sounding like my opinion is that India is great and America sucks. So, let me assure you there were many things I found disturbing there, and that I find wonderful here. Our landscape seems so clean and lush by comparison, our waterways so clear, our streets so uncluttered, our buildings so new and strongly built, even if many newer structures here strike me as stark and utilitarian… We get things done expeditiously when we make up our minds to do a thing. There’s so much newness here.
It is good to be back. I have missed my friends and family! What I went to India to do and be has been discharged and fulfilled successfully for now. Re-integration is an interesting part of the long, one-way journey. I now feel a bit deflated, having fulfilled the intent that had inflated me.
An idea that’s beginning to brew between my Mom and I is a possible cross-country road trip this Spring. Seeing far-flung family members, and site-seeing along the way may be just the ticket for me next. I have done much international travel. Perhaps it’s time for some significant intra-national travel. I’m curious to experience more of America with this refreshed sensibility that’s still in a heightened phase. If we do indeed go, it would be in May.
I shall continue to share experiences and observations and encourage anyone reading this to respond and converse further with me about these things, if you’re at all inclined.
Last week, on my 60th Birthday, I asked my current host, Lanett, to snap a couple photos of me doing the splits. I’ve always been flexible, but the yoga practice is definitely helping to keep me that way. I can now do them with either leg.