I visited India for the first time in nearly three years, and some of the experiences I had really made me think of the disparity between the Indian and the Western way of life, and what thinking about this difference taught me about myself.
One of the first experiences I had after my arrival, was at a delightfully old school bank. Banking in America allows me the convenience of never visiting a physical branch if I so choose. But here I was, standing in line at the cash counter, having filled and signed two different forms, waiting for the grumpy middle-aged teller lady to hurry up. She didn’t hurry up, she just took her time, hunting and pecking at the keys on an archaic computer, getting up every so often to take a break or because she needed to get some more cash from the back room.
The bank could have had multiple tellers and the teller lady could have processed things much faster than she did but she didn’t— because in the few moments between you handing her the withdrawal slip and her giving you a wad of notes, she commanded power over you. In that brief time-slice, she had you looking at her in anticipation, waiting for your money, waiting for your deposit to go through, waiting for her “all clear”, like a defeated gladiator waiting to see if the emperor’s thumb goes up or down.
There is no reason for this bank to hold on to an outmoded way of doing business, but it does because they know they have their customers locked in. Customer Service starts and ends with just one quip—
“If you don’t like it, just open an account in some other bank”.
They know they have you locked in for life, they know you won’t go to another bank, and they know you will put up with an analog system of filling forms, attesting photocopied documents, and making sure you sign your photographs just the right way, with half your signature on the photo and the other half on the paper, just like they asked you to. And you will sign it exactly that way because you know they won’t shy away from making you fill that form out all over again.
Somehow, I found my experience with the bank more amusing than frustrating. Perhaps it was because I knew what to expect and I was in no hurry, but the fact that the cries of modernization just fell on deaf ears when it came to this regional bank was just a reminder of the realities of my home country, a grounding experience compared to the overtures of customer experience that the banks in the United States tend to have.
Travel by Road
I work with a lot of car related stuff, from infotainment to semi-autonomous driving, so I was looking forward to being able to juxtapose the “first world” vision of what driving is, with the realities of driving on Indian roads.
Here’s the thing— you can’t have your car keep you in your lane if there aren’t any lanes, to begin with. You don’t want to keep yourself in the middle of the lane, because nobody else is in the middle of their lane, because everyone is trying to either get ahead of you or to avoid larger vehicles. You don’t want to maintain a gap distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you, because you don’t want fifteen two-wheeled vehicles cutting you off. You definitely don’t want the car to detect speed limits and traffic lights, because you don’t want some dude on a motorbike yelling “Is this your first time on the road?” at you as he crawls up to the middle of the intersection before the light turns green, and completely disregards the posted speed limit as he zooms off into the distance weaving through traffic.
You don’t even want lane departure warnings, because most smaller roads have cars parked on the sides which effectively reduces a two-lane road to a lane and a quarter. You’re lucky if you don’t encounter a 3-row SUV coming towards you in the opposite direction.
Don’t even get me started about the potholes.
The truth is, if you want to create a semi or fully autonomous driving system for a country like India, you need to completely re-imagine what driving on a road is compared to what it is in North America. You need to understand the mind of an Indian driver— impatient, irritable, and under a constant pressure to be alert and get where he/she needs to be as fast as possible.
That’s a metaphor for Indian society as a whole— everyone wants to get somewhere they’re not, everyone wants to be better than everyone else, and there’s just so many people and obstacles in the way, that you really feel a compulsive need to do it as fast and as ruthlessly as possible, even if it means sacrificing your own health and wellbeing.
The most painful experience I had during my time in India, was at the dermatologist. My mother was concerned about my hair situation and decided I should get a professional consultation. I spent nearly three hours in the waiting room, watching some guys try to learn water buffalo racing before I was called in.
The emotional pain I experienced can be summed up by the phrase
“This kind of hair would be fine if you were ten years older.”
Now, as a man in his mid-20s I already have plenty of things I worry about, but until now, my hair was not one of them. I returned to the United States with a new thing to obsess over and a year’s supply of hair care products.
I’m not going to blame the doctor for what she said and the effect it had on me— they were just doing their job and offering their honest professional opinion. I’m just going to use it to highlight another aspect of Indian society.
The fact that there’s a lot of people in India, and there are a million people waiting to take your place in case you falter doesn’t go well with the idealistic notions of only comparing yourself to yourself, and taking the time to discover yourself and what you really want to do in life. Combine that with parental concern that comes from a genuine desire to see their child “succeed” in the materialistic definition of the term, and you get a recipe for misery.
A night out with friends
This was what I was looking most forward to. Meeting friends, reminiscing about times past, catching up on each others’ lives. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with some friends from my days in Junior College, a group of people who I managed to maintain great ties with and not push away with my eclecticism.
In the moments I spent with them, shooting the breeze at the shores of the Arabian sea, the sounds of fast trains rattling by as we sat on benches eating street food, I wasn’t some out of shape 20-something with a dad-bod and a receding hairline, I wasn’t some man-child with no vision for the future, I wasn’t some loser with no love life, I was their friend, and they were my friends, and all was right with the world.
The time I spent with them meant so much more to me than anything else I experienced in those few days. A group of friends for whom you are enough— just you, whoever you are, wherever you are at in life, whatever you are doing, just you, your banter, the same old topics, a conversation that never ceases, and ties much greater than just some quid pro quo agreement.
A distinct dearth of true friends in close proximity is one of my greatest laments about living in the Midwest. Making friends as an adult is weirdly difficult, and even if you do make friends, the ties are never as strong as the ones you forged in your childhood and adolescence.
Going back to my home country, I was faced once more with the realities of what it takes to stay relevant in a hyper-competitive world— tenacity, impatience, aggression, a “go-getter attitude” (whatever that means), and trying your best to achieve the goals that either you have set or have been set for you, even if it means sacrificing your peace of mind, your health, and your overall wellbeing. There is no time to rest because every time you achieve something, you will be hounded by thoughts of what’s next.
You will have your faults constantly being pointed out to you, often by people who genuinely just want to see you get ahead of the competition and “succeed”. You will have to constantly work on things that are supposed to raise your standard of living and your place in society, but funnily enough, have an adverse effect on your mental and physical health.
But what are we to do? That’s just the grim reality of the modern world, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. You have to spin all of these things in a way that appears positive. Call it “personal growth”, “an achiever’s mindset”, or whatever you need to.
All this stems from the idea that at some level, you as you are, are not enough. Inadequate. You need something more to really give meaning to your own life. You need these objective material markers, these milestones of achievement, to truly become something more, something better, a “successful” person.
I don’t believe that at all.
One of the things I marveled over in the early days of my move to the United States, is the focus on individuality, and how some people took their own time to work on whatever goals they had, whether they be professional or personal goals. This was new to me because my whole life up to that point had existed under the tacit social agreement that was that “certain things needed to be done at certain times”. You complete your education at a certain age. You get married at a certain age. You have a family at a certain age. You must do certain things in a certain way because you need to “compete with these people— the best and the brightest, and they will not stop for you to catch up with them”.
This mindset meant that I had a genuine inability to truly be happy for others and their achievements, and that is an extremely toxic way to be. As I have grown older and am now on the other side of the mid-20s, I’m beginning to be more accepting of people and am trying to be genuinely involved in their happiness. Life is too short to be constantly jealous.
So what is the “right” way to live life anyway? Following an age-old tradition? Venturing out into the great unknown by your lonesome and facing things as they come? It is an interesting juxtaposition. Maybe there is no right way. All I know is, I’ve spent way too long beating myself up about things, and I want to spend some time focusing on what I’ve done right.