Outsider. Insider.

These days, wherever I turn, I simply cannot avoid getting pulled into an “outsider vs local” debate. Among friends, colleagues, in the newspapers, on the interweb – I invariably run into a discussion on how “outsiders” are “spoiling” a certain city or how the “locals” of that city are hostile to the outsiders (be it Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai). This post is my take on the entire debate.

The opinions detailed in this post are based on my own experience: I have never stayed in my hometown; and until my late teens I had never even stayed in the state where I hail from. However, since I had been for 7+ years each in two other states, I had started treating those two states as my home.

I have also travelled a bit – ranging from a week in Bangkok to 4 months in Gurgaon to 7 months in Kuala Lumpur.

I think that how welcome you make yourself feel in an away place depends, to a large extent, on your own self. There are really only 2 simple rules to follow to make sure that your relationship with the locals in a strange land is pleasant:
  1. Respect the local culture
  2. Do not do anything which makes the locals feel threatened.
Intra-national and inter-national

We Indians take German language learning classes before taking up a job in Germany. We train ourselves to speak in French and learn French etiquette before embarking to Paris on an assignment. But the same “we” expect everyone in India to somehow know our culture, our food habits, our language. Why so? It is important to appreciate the fact that although the whole of India is your country, and it is your right to stay anywhere you want in the country, there are massive differences in “way of life” across India. For instance,
  • A well-dressed professional from Mumbai, who is used to travelling in overcrowded trains, is likely to wonder what the fuss is all about when he comes to Bangalore and hears people say they travel by car because buses are crowded.
  • If a resident of, say, Kerala travels to Mizoram, he is sure to be bewildered by the early rising and setting of the sun there.
  • A Bangalorean, accustomed to the ubiquitous autorickshaw, would be in for a struggle to find public transport if he travels to some of the “interior” sectors of Noida or Gurgaon.
  • Majority of urban Indians, always cribbing about parking space, would re-think their complaint if they ever visit Shimla and notice the precarious parking positions there.
  • Most Indians would have no idea about factoring in snowfall and landslides into their day-to-day plans and would have a hard time if posted in J&K or Sikkim.

Bottom line: it is as important to understand the background of the place you are visiting within India, as it is if the place is a foreign land.

Respect for the local culture

I personally know several people who consider learning another's culture as a disrespect to their own. In my opinion this is completely unacceptable. Wherever I go, I make an attempt to learn some speciality of the local way of life. Remember, it is NOT necessary for you to “become one of them” . All you need to do is show some genuine interest in the local way of life.

When I was in Kuala Lumpur, I made it a point to wish my Malaysian friends on local festivals and national holidays. In fact, I even wished the taxi drivers on the bigger occasions like Merdeka (Independence Day).

As another example, the average Thai is extremely polite – this goes right from a sweeper in the hotel to the big-shot executive. But, at a restaurant in Bangkok, I saw a group of desis snap at the waitress for some reason, demanding a replacement for one of their dishes. Such kind of behaviour is not going to earn them any brownie points. If you are unhappy with the service offered, the way you express it in Bangkok is different from the way you would in Delhi.

A final illustration of this point – driving in Europe. The European motorist is very courteous – especially to pedestrians. If you don't want to be a black sheep in Europe, you better adapt your driving style by keeping your hands miles away from the horn; and adjusting to the pedestrian-is-first convention.

Be Non-threatening to the locals

Different cultures are strongly protective of different aspects of their ways of life. For The Vatican, Bhutan and several Muslim nations, religion comes first. In France, Japan or Tamil Nadu, language is foremost. In several far eastern cultures, business and work take precedence over everything else. It is advantageous to know what the people of the place you are visiting are particular about – and make sure you do not offend that aspect of their culture. This, by no stretch of the imagination, means that you MUST be fluent in the local language or that you embrace the local religion. All it means is that your actions and the way you conduct yourself should not make the locals feel threatened regarding their precious way of life.

This particular point requires more thought since it involves not only individual behavior but group dynamics as well.
  • As a bonafide Goan, I like individual “foreigners” who tour Goa every year – but I detest them collectively since they descend in hordes and spoil the beauty of the state, are responsible for obscene price spikes during the tourist season; and in the recent past, are projecting the state into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. There have been reports of foreigners being involved in the land mafia in the state and I feel threatened that Goa might be taken over by them. The individual tourist does not look at it all from my angle and is hence sure to be put off by my hostility towards them (real or perceived).
  • What is the percentage of Kannada speakers in Bangalore? That of local ethnic Tibetans in Lhasa, especially since the opening of the trans-Tibetan railway?Are the locals justified in feeling threatened that they might be reduced to a minority in their own homeland?
  • I had once shared a taxi in Kuala Lumpur with another Indian. There was some light local music playing on the radio. My fellow passenger said in a rude way that he was getting a headache and he asked the driver to switch off the radio. So, is the taxi driver justified in feeling threatened by all Indians?

I have always tried to stick to these basic rules of thumb and I find that not only do I get to learn a new culture, the hosts give me my space too. It makes my stay in a place away from home that much more pleasant. And, the best part – there's nothing at all that I lose. If anything, I gain in the bargain.

~Diversity makes the Earth beautiful. Savoring it makes life beautiful~

5 comments to Outsider. Insider.

  • Hmmm… I think u touch upon many issues/topics in this post tho u started off talking abt what one consider’s as one’s home.

    I am one of the zillion tamil speaking Bangaloreans. Bangalore is synonymous to home for me. I don’t like it when ppl call me a chenai-ite. My relationship with Chennai extends to and is limited to being born there and spending 2 months of summer vacation n few weeks of Dusshera vacation EVERY single year for 14 odd years of school life.My g’parents are in Chennai..n so I yet will visit the place on every visit to india..but that doesn’t make me a chenai-ite.I am and will be a B’lorean..tho its been more than 3 years since I lived in the city.

    Bangalore doesn’t belong to kannadigas nor does Mumbai belong to maharashtrians. They Belong to B’loreans and Mumbai-ites respectively. Any view other than this tend to get on my nerves , my tolerance as far as this goes is very low, I’m afraid.


    Then about learning cultures of places u visit. According to my observation..the way we Indians treat a fellow –indian within or outside of india is different from the way we treat non-indians. Outside of india..we will obey traffic rules; we will smile and be courteous to non-indians;we will have the inclination to learn a foreign language. But inside of india all this will change. N yes, I’m ashamed to admit that I have seen several Indians not everyone, but many of them…behave like this. It makes my blood boil.

  • Even I have travelled world over and I would like us to understand that NRIs are there all over the world. What if those countries started "outsider" debate.
    Problem is not with you and me---it is with the people who are playing politics.Politicians have divided us on caste, religion and region basis.It is upto us to repair the damage.

  • @Pavi:

    "They Belong to B’loreans and Mumbai-ites respectively"

    Agree with that. In fact - I advocate that all the metropolitan cities be made Union Territories - i.e, that they are not part of any state as such.

    Having said that, the point regarding respect for the original culture of the place still remains (note that language is just one of the factors). Would you like it if slowly, in your home, your culture starts disappearing only to be replaced by that of settlers?

    The next point again relates to what you said - Blore belongs to Bloreans. How many of the people who hail from elsewhere really consider Blore their home? Do they do anything for the place other than cribbing about the auto-wallas and ridiculing the Dosa-idly food?

    On one hand - there are people like Deepak who have set an example for others to follow (he hails from Central India - but he considers Blore his home - he is a member of citizen fora; he is active in enouraging voting - even for municipal elections). He is respected and welcomed even tough he doesn't know Kannada.

    On the other hand, I have a colleague who's been in Blore for 6 years. She still doesnt know how to pronounce the name of the language. She says "Kannad" .. instead of "Kannadaa" (the "aa" at the end is missing). Ignorance is excusable; but arrogance is not. When I tried to explain to her about the pronunciation, she tells me "Hey, this is how we pronounce your language name in Hindi - and this is how I will pronounce it".

    These are little examples - but do you see my point? Irrespective of who a place "belongs to", there is the common courtesy of respecting the original local populace.

    And then, as I have already mentioned in my post, there is really no need to make yourself an expert in the local culture or to learn their lingo fluently. I tried to learn few words of Malay when I was in KL; and I tried to pick up the little aspects of their culture - they way they greet each other - stuff like that. Believe me, it goes a LONG LONG way in making the locals respect you.

    @BKChowla ji: Actually, this is my whole point. We Indians, as NRI's, still gel in with the local people. We follow their rules, their society conventions. Why not when we go to a different place within our own country?

  • Kiran,

    Views and viewpoints differ just as people's perceptions and instincts.

    World would be a mere billion clones had it not been for this individual diversity - all relative good/bad and right/wrong species included.

    But something is not objectionable until it becomes intrusive is not true. Just like what does not pain does not hurt isn't.

    All your views and others posted here are people who lived many lives (meaning at more than one places).

    Now try looking it from people those like your grandpa's if they lived just one life (meaning one place) all till end.

    Then see if you will compare this issue with something that happened before too with ownership -but on a different landscape. Sometime i think in late 80s or early 90s, a law was made that if a tenant resides at a particular house for some no of years, he automatically owns the house.

    These issues are more complex than how you percieve.

    Bottomline is - lifecycle of every issue is same. Starts gradually, builds, peaks and then recedes into oblivion.

    Same with globalization. So expect the world to retreat backwards hereon.

    So A poet once compared our life to the waves of the sea ...

    Imagine where we are headed now

Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. All the views and opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of my employer, organization, relatives, friends, acquaintances or any other person/entity.