Thursday, 4 April 2019

Thoughts On Culture, Friendship And Hospitality

A female colleague of mine travelled to Melbourne with me on work. I stayed the night at a hotel, while she arranged to stay with a friend. Neither of us had eaten since lunch, but I managed to grab a bite to eat after I checked in at the hotel. I assumed she would have dinner at her friend's place.

When we met for breakfast at my hotel the next morning, she revealed that she hadn't actually eaten anything since lunch the previous day. She had reached her friend's house at 10 PM, and the kids were already in bed. It was a school day the next day, and they weren't to be disturbed, so the friend had asked her not to ring the doorbell but to call her on her mobile when she arrived. Apparently, the two of them had sat up for about an hour talking quietly and catching up over a cup of coffee, and then my colleague went to bed -- without dinner.

I was frankly shocked when I heard this, but didn't say anything to her. It once again brought to my mind the often stark cultural differences between groups of people. My colleague is a white Anglo Australian.

I cannot imagine a situation where I might land up in the house of an Indian friend at night, and be allowed to go to bed without dinner. It's just not done in Indian culture. The first thing I would be asked even before I set down my bags would be, "Have you had dinner?" and if it turned out that I hadn't, I would be stuffed to the gills before I was allowed to go to bed. Even if I answered in the affirmative, I would be urged to have some dessert at least.

I realised then that the commonly-invoked Sanskrit phrase "atithi devo bhava" ("the guest is god") to refer to Indian hospitality, isn't too far from the truth.

It isn't just Indian culture. Chinese and Middle Eastern people are notorious for feeding people too. A common Mandarin greeting, I'm told, is "nǐ chī fàn le ma?" ("Have you eaten (rice)?"). Enquiring about whether the other person has eaten is common among Italians and Greeks too, communities sometimes disparagingly referred to as "wogs" by Anglo people. It's the Anglos who seem to be the exception among civilisations.

To be sure, Anglo culture abounds in social niceties of etiquette, such as respecting queues, being on time, and saying "thank you", "please" and "excuse me", but these are just the trappings of civilisation. When it comes down to it, there is a human core that seems to be missing. I periodically receive rude reminders that Anglo culture is impersonal to the point of being callous.

I'm a great believer in cultural cross-pollination. I think Western civilisation, especially the Anglosphere, has taught the rest of the world a great many things. The notions of democracy, individual freedom, human rights, the separation of church and state, the primacy of reason, etc., have been invaluable contributions that have civilised the world. It would be great if some civilising influences flowed the other way too.