Saturday, April 3, 2010

An American Gentleman in India

For my last day in Varanasi I decided to follow whimsy. DaDa lent me his motorbike and I let myself loose upon the impossibly narrow back alley streets of the old town. Dodging vegetable stands. Stopping for pesky cattle. Laughing at children who ran alongside hurling words at me I will never understand. I know I lead a charmed life. I know I am one of the lucky ones. Riding a motorcycle in India, it’s downright decadent.
The people of India are so far without a fault. Yes, the city dwellers can be in your face with the hard sell, and there is no way to untangle yourself from a rug or silk or jewelry merchant who feels he’s got his claws already inside your wallet. Then you have to be firm and almost rude, but it is the only way to escape with your life.
But for the most part, the Indian people have treated me with a respect and kindness that rivals only the Japanese. I would not hesitate to ever come back here for even longer periods of time. Who knows, even live here for certain stretches of my life, the people are worth it.
This can be seen with all the old men and women I see traveling around with their young children or even alone. People in wheelchairs, leaning on canes, people with severe health conditions that shake and shudder, no matter the age or condition, there is an Indian to assist and guide. Truly inspiring.
Of course, I know much of it has to do with how I carry myself while abroad. Asia has had a deep and profound personal affect on how I treat other people and look to constantly present myself as a gentlemen abroad. I know, albeit a horrifically and hopelessly haggard one, I mean just look at this bearded vagabond in rags… but I strive for an impeccable taste and to inspire complete trustworthiness.
I never rush through meals or the marketplace, but stroll luxuriously, smiling and nodding to each shopkeeper, streetsweeper, and gatekeeper alike. I am deeply apologetic if entering a store and not purchasing anything and always defer and try to never interrupt when someone is explaining the history, geography, or importance of a relic or site. I use slow, grand hand motions copying the Asian men I have seen over the years, I believe, to great effect.
I don’t taste my food until the oldest at the table has done so. I never dominate the conversation but hold my tongue and act pleasantly, even when the subject of America comes up. I am self-deprecating, modest, and above all, complimentary even if the situation doesn’t suit my immediate needs.
Now, let’s face it, all of this works well in post British Colonized India, where the people understand and insist upon fine manners, but conversely works no charm in other Asian locals where only the “Barbarians” rule, and believe me I have lost my cool plenty of times. But if you pledge to live by a couple of simple rules, you’ll most likely be fine.
1. "You’re A Guest, Be Gracious”Smile big, apologize first. You’re an ambassador from your country. And especially if you’re an American this is a thousand times more important than anything you ever see or buy. It is what people are seeing and buying from you, which is our way of life.
2. "Escape With Your Life”I could have written dignity but you get the gist. Best thing to remember is you get to leave this place and they don’t. Nothing matters but that you don’t cause too big a ruckus to be remembered as “Just another ugly American.”
3. "Turn Everything Into A Story”If you get that done, nobody can touch you, no matter what.
So there you have it, my travel rules to being the ultimate gentlemen abroad. Hope that helps and lends a little insight into how I operate overseas and currently behaving. I know at least my parents will be happy.
After my bike ride today, I stopped to look at the Ganges one last time. This will not be my last trip to India, but who knows when that will be again. I only know I am having a wonderful time, rough in spurts, but aren’t some days for you as well. I know I am charmed, lucky to a fault, but always gracious and know who to thank.
I would like to take this opportunity, since I am far from home and family, to extend to all of you a wonderful Easter Sunday. I have begun saying that to the local Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims to smile and gage their reaction. Most are pleased, if not puzzled. I don’t think that contradicts everything I have just said about being a complimentary gentlemen, but just to the contrary, I find people appreciate it. They know I am a person of some conviction. That this is what I stand for. You know, good manners, cultural understanding, and a little bit of redemption go a long, long way.

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