Monday, October 1, 2012

Love on IST

I've been saying I learned a lot about love in India, so I guess it's time to explain a bit.

My new friend from Varanasi came to visit me here and we had a long discussion on cross-cultural relationships yesterday. What we both came to realize is that Indian's rely very much on un-spoken cultural norms and rules and family ties to help them negotiate the difficult path of love. Here, we have nothing of the sort; anything goes. The only values that I can be assured that American men hold is one of freedom. And this means the freedom to walk out for no reason or for whatever reason, whenever. There are no ties, no one to hold you responsible. In some cases, such as abuse, I think this is necessary. But in the majority of cases, it creates anxiety, hostility, conflicting interests and an easy-come-easy-go attitude. Hence, our world class divorce rate. We are a self-absorbed nation and weather we like it or not, the primary value in our relationships is not 'us', it is 'me'.

I am no less a product of this culture than anyone else. All I can do is try expand my horizons and understanding. But I can tell you, it's not easy for me. I can imagine that it is not easy either for someone like Luv who might not really even understand the roots of his own cultural habits. Or for people like my friend from Varanasi who had lived so long in India that, like me, encountering such drastically different perspectives as an adult is almost shocking. After all, most of us are rarely aware of our own assumptions and habits until we see them in contrast to something else.

The only thing we have to rely on here is communication between two people. Unfortunately, for Luv and myself (as well as plenty of others, I'm sure) we were working on different social systems. Since we were in the US and I had never been to India, there was no way for me to understand, no basis of belief for me that he would be back after a disagreement if I simply shut up and walked away. This, in my experience, is how people behave when they want to leave a relationship, communication ends...relationship ends, friendship ends. If we had been in India or if I had gone there, I might have seen how other Indian men and women interact. I might have understood that there are other things in other places besides communication that keep people together. Things we simply don't have here. Had he seen me interact with my friends, he might have seen that is it not just the message but also the delivery that is key to the 'magic' between two people here. In order to have a good relationship in the US you must have an extremely sophisticated communication system which might seem cumbersome, frivolous and unnecessary to someone who has (or believes they have) other things to rely on. This goes for both friends and lovers.

In American culture it is often difficult to inject humor into an argument. I have watched Chetan and Sharanya do this often and wondered why it comes so easily to them. In India, laughter during an argument or heated discussion seems to be the cue that you care, that you will not become too serious or make things more difficult than necessary. In the US, laughter during an argument or discussion is most often a cue that you don't care, the topic is irreverent to you or that you don't take the other person seriously. When communication is all you have, people take it very seriously. When you have other things, like a strong and unspoken value of "us" instead of just "me", you can lighten up your disagreements without fear of being seen as caviler, without fear of a break in communication as the end of a relationship.

It might also be said that Indian's have a different time frame for relationships than we do in the US. There seems to be a general assumption that once you are dating someone you are THERE, but for us divorce-obsessed Americans, the assumption is that you might not be there tomorrow. Hence, we do a lot of checking in - "How are you?  How are things? Are you alright?" We check our status often. I was aware of this when I dated Luv, but I never really understood it from his perspective.  And we have a very different concept of 'detachment' than Indian's do. "Detached" in the Indian sense, does not necessarily mean unloved or gone, it is better understood as 'unserious' or as holding your own center. In the US, unloved and/or gone is exactly what it means.

So, I have asked myself, what does all this mean for me (or for us)? First, it illustrates how very far I have to go in developing any sort of functional cross-cultural relationships. That is daunting in some senses, but being an amateur is also exciting, as you have unexplored places to go. Second, it means that contrary to my prior belief that if I just learned to be a better communicator and be with people who are good communicators, things would function as they should. That is not necessarily true with someone from another culture. I also need to understand and rely on the unseen, unheard things; I need to learn to interpret the subtle ways other cultures communicate so that I can read them "like magic" (as Luv might like to say) the way I can interpret those cues from my own culture; I need to continue to question my assumptions and I need to learn to describe my own cultural norms in ways that are comprehensible to someone who is unfamiliar with it.

Love may be a universal feeling, but the ways we deal with and cultivate it is very dependent on our personal experiences and cultural norms.