A shift from the UK to India has not just taught me about Indian culture, it’s taught me a lot about British culture too. It’s made me reflect a lot on my own cultural heritage from the UK so here I discuss 10 very British habits that I’ve had to shake in order to ease my transition into India.
The most difficult thing about moving to India from the UK is not that it requires you to get used to so many new things (us humans are surprisingly very adaptable when we need to be). The most difficult thing about moving to India is that it forces you to disregard everything that you thought you knew about a ‘well-functioning society’ and requires you to rewire your brain to the simplest of everyday tasks just to survive each day.
Culturally, India and Britain are polarised nations. As Brits we’re so obsessed with being polite to the extent that we’re really just social victims of our own politeness and what we deem to be ‘good social behaviour.’ Indians, on the other hand, have a lot more tolerance to ‘social deficiencies.’ Furthermore, us Brits are quite uptight when compared to the more laid-back and fun-loving nature of the average Indian.
Here are 10 very British habits that I have been forced to reevaluate since moving to India:
1. My personal space doesn’t belong to me anymore
For British people, good social behaviour involves respecting a person’s privacy and space and ensuring that personal boundaries are held to the highest regard. So when we feel like our personal space is being invaded, or someone gets too close to us, we lose our minds.
Nothing reflects this better than the average Londoner’s experience on public transport. Scroll through their newsfeed around 10am on a Monday morning and you’re guaranteed to read at least five updates about someone’s ‘monday morning commute from hell.’
We’re constantly complaining about ‘space-invaders’ on public transport, how we were forced to ‘literally spend our morning commute with our face in someone’s armpit’ (who by the way definitely did not shower that morning), how one woman had the absolute audacity to sit next to us on a public bus when there were ‘so many other seats she could have chosen’ and how one commuter was taking up so much room in the seat next to us that they were ‘basically sitting on our lap.’ Yep, us Brits love a good moan about our breaches of public space.
Arriving with this as my cultural conditioning, I may be forgiven for saying that India has a tough time with acknowledging this basic premise. Moving to India, I had to give up my right of personal space and accept the fact that, to a large extent, personal boundaries are just as much as foreign as I myself am. It’s been one of my biggest difficulties, to shake off this sense of entitlement I feel towards the space around me and to deal with being so close to people all the time.But it has made me realise that us Brits can be over-sensitive and over-entitled.
I do still spend most of my days in India feeling pretty violated, however, not only have I slowly started to accept it, I’ve also managed to see the beauty in some parts of it. For example, when someone does come to sit next to me on a local bus it’s usually because they want to talk to me. Share their lunch with me. Hear my story. Now I’ve started to enjoy these times and hope that someone does take the spare seat next to me.
2. 9pm is an acceptable time to have dinner
The average Brits will have their dinner/supper/tea about 6.30pm. We may stretch to 7/7.30pm if our work schedule forces us to and may indulge ourselves in some tea and toast a little later on, but generally speaking that’s the given time we eat our last meal of the day.
Clinging on to this norm has been a daily battle for me in India. It’s completely unfathomable to me to have dinner at 10pm, yet for a vast majority of Indians that I have encountered/hung out with/stayed with, it’s a normality. I’ve tried to follow suit. I can’t do it. 8pm is my daily compromise, 9pm on the weekends. I refuse to go any later.
3. I get why people share food
This whole obsession we have with respecting privacy and space has spilled over into our culinary experiences. Sharing food is way too intimate of an experience to have with just anyone. If I’m eating out with someone in London the most I can expect to share with them is conversation and the table. There are some exceptions of course, but on the whole, sharing food is not the norm for us. The thought alone makes the most of us incredibly anxious.
Communal dining is the norm when going out for food in India, be it with one other person or 20. In my first few brushes with communal dining in India, I didn’t know how to cope. I’d still try to order an individual dish just for myself. Slowly I realised that not only was I isolating myself but more importantly I was missing out on the prospect of eating more food and trying new dishes. At first I just thought that Indians were just so much better at sharing than us Brits, but now i get it. Communal dining allows you to order so much more guilt-free under the guise of it being “for everyone.” Well played India, well played.
4. I’ve lost sight of all constructed norms about gender.
Women on building sites, men selling flowers, hetrosexual men holding hands and embracing each other in public, I’ve learnt that gender norms are rubbish and nothing more than a tool to make people feel they should be living a certain way.
5. A pothole/ crack in the pavement is no longer a golden ticket to free money (hello personal accident compensation claim)
…it’s now just a daily annoyance and makes my daily walk to and from work more like an Ironman obstacle course.
Brits are always looking for a way to sue people. The way our legal system is set up means that we have a pretty good chance of ‘beating the system’ and successfully getting a substantial payout after any accident. An ‘accidental slip’ on some spilt milk in a supermarket aisle and no ‘danger-wet floor sign’ = hello company lawsuit. An innocent stumble over an unmanned or exposed pothole in the street = hello local council lawsuit.
Indians, unfortunately, don’t have that luxury. If you happen to trip/stumble/fall down a gaping gap in the street pavement or perhaps have the misfortune of meeting with a slip in a grocery store you could end up in a nasty situation with no one to blame but yourself.
6. I got over food-shaming myself
There’s no shame to be had in loving food in India. No one passes a judgement if you go up for seconds, or thirds (or fourths ahem) at a wedding buffet. In fact, the bigger your appetite the more respect you seem to get.
Brits just love to food-shame others. “You have how many teaspoons of sugar in your tea??” We can’t help but make judgements about people’s food choices. “You still eat white bread?? I won’t touch anything that isn’t wholemeal, multigrain, sunflower-seeded, and gluten free.” And we just can’t help but inflicting our own food insecurities onto others. “Do you know how many calories are in that chocolate brownie??” Just shut up and let me eat cake in peace.
India loves food and I love India for it.
7. It’s ok to accept a little helping hand from someone every now and again
In Britain being independent, self-sufficient and not needing anyone’s help is an admirable way to live. So much so that these qualities are ones that many people will aspire to possess.
I still believe this to be true but I have relaxed a bit and no longer see the harm in letting someone offer a helping hand now and then. If a waiter wants to pour me a drink or serve me some food, why should I deny him that? If someone wants to help me lug my backpack on a bus when they see I’m clearly having a difficult time, they’re not trying to undermine my independence, they’re just being nice and offering to help.
Although there are some things I will also insist on doing myself and would never feel comfortable hiring a housemaid, which is something very common in indian households, I have learned to relax the reins a bit and let people do their job or offer a helping hand if they so wish. I’m still a strong, independent female.
8. My parents don’t owe me anything, I’m the one who is indebted to them
As Brits we tend to overlook the importance of family, especially when it comes to our parents. We spend our teenage years complaining about how annoying our parents are and we jump at the chance to move out of our parental home at the earliest inconvenience to go off and live a grand life of independence.
When our parents get old we put them in free nursing homes or care homes because our lives are “so busy we couldn’t possibly find time to take care of our parents too” (and what did they spend their working lives paying taxes for anyway?) When we grow up to be adults and realise Christmas has just become another debt-trap/commercialised stunt by retailers to take our money, we hate it because we’re forced to spend it with our families who drink too much and argue and then we “thank God it only happens once a year.”
In India there is a certain cultural expectation that one is indebted to their parents and so must look after them, especially in their old age. It is quite common for working adults to send money to their families or financially support their parents. Yes this doesn’t mean that everyone does it, but it’s still widely practiced.
9. I’m ok with being chaperoned via Taxi everywhere
“Are you a good driver?” “Erm….yes?” This was literally enough reassurance the scooter rental guy in Goa needed to hand over to me they keys to one of his vehicles. That’s fine because I know I am a good driver but if that’s all the criteria that’s needed to drive on India’s roads then I’m not sure I actually want to be.
10. I don’t ‘clunk, click, every trip’
“Clunk Click Every Trip” was the slogan of a series of British public information films that first appeared in the early 70s that aimed to get everyone to put their seat belts on every time they get in a car. And it seems to have worked as belting up is the first thing that every Brit will do when they enter any vehicle.
I tried to do this in India and found that many vehicles don’t even have a seat belt installed let alone require that you wear one.