THE CULTURE SHOCK

Venugopal Acharya (Vraja bihari dasa) - 16.7 2019


 

“The bird that would soar above the plain of prejudice must have strong wings.” –    Kate Chopin (American author of the nineteenth century) I sat in a quiet park in Amsterdam, Netherlands, relishing the evening breeze and silence. I couldn’t help contrast the sparse crowd with thickly packed parks back in Mumbai- the world’s second most densely populated city with almost 32,000 people inhabiting every square kilometer. Here was a welcome break- the rustling leaves on Cherry, Elm, and Oak trees sang a soft song while the crows quietly nibbled on the grass. The only other sound I heard was the metro rail at a distance and children rushing on bicycles.

Suddenly, however, I was awakened from my trance-like state by Paula Eekelschot who sat on an adjacent bench and introduced her partner Harry Klerk. I was about to learn a sacred lesson: remain loyal to one’s tradition with respect for others’ culture. Harry looked similar to Herman, Lucas, and other men I met during my stay at the Netherlands. I’d invariably get lost after my long walks in the morning and an hour of cycling in the evening. Since I had my host’s residential address on a piece of paper, I’d request for directions from strangers, and soon return safely to my room.

If I walked, they’d drop me in their cars, or if I were cycling, they’d lead me to my residence. Each man I met had a serene and charming temperament; besides, they went out of their way to help me. Around seven thousand kilometers from home, I surprisingly never felt I was with strangers in a foreign country. Paula is a burly Dutch woman, around sixty-five years old. We met a couple of times and exchanged pleasantries during my evening stroll.

Today she radiated a melancholy and sat on a bench adjacent to mine. Harry, in contrast, is a tall, lanky local, and looked younger. He patiently nodded while Paula rambled on about her miseries. In this quiet park, her booming voice set me thinking about our different cultural backgrounds.

“My daughter is a serious concern; I need guidance on how to deal with her” Paula said, while Harry nodded. “Zoe is twenty-five years old, and since last seven years, I am insisting she moves out. Still, she continues to stay at home. It’s such a disgrace. I mean, she could live with her boyfriend, but she doesn’t care about my social standing. How difficult it is for me to explain this to my friends.”

Paula was now sobbing, and Harry simply affirmed. I don’t generally snoop on others’ matters, but this one happened so fast, and I was shocked because a few months ago I had heard something different at the Hanging gardens, in Mumbai. After my walk, I’d sit on my favorite bench while Shantaben and Lakshmiben- two pious Gujarati women, sat behind me. One of them lamented to the other that her daughter comes home late at night, and she is now worried about her future; she wished her daughter stayed indoors more.

Now back at Amsterdam, I looked up at the vast sky and smiled at myself- the contrasting cultural moorings was unmistakably evident; Shantaben, on that evening, had also expressed worry about her son’s internet habits and wondered how she could check his bad habits of drinking and web addiction. Meanwhile, here, after a few moments of silence, Paula smiled. She saw hope in her son. “You know, I am happy for Jesse, I saw him watch pornography last night, and I am relieved he is straight,” said Paula. “I was worried since he hadn’t talked to women and is also not going out lately.

But now I am assured he’s got his passions at the right place.” Later that evening, Srinivas, my host showed me a local news item where Indian Gay Prince, Manvendra Singh Gohil, encouraged the locals amidst big welcome and cheers for India. At a nearby Church, two women got married to each other amidst pomp and music.

I tried to appear unaffected. “Well, this is common in India as well. We accept it as part of our life” I said, remembering the Supreme Court’s recent verdict on legalizing Gay marriages back in India. My friend chuckled, “When you come here next time, you’d likely find a wedding of a human with an animal. I wonder when that will happen in India?” “Yuks!” I exclaimed, “That will never happen.” The thought repelled me, and I instantly dismissed the idea. But Srinivas spoke quite mysteriously, “Well, you’ll be in for some surprises.”

I saw mischief in his eyes but didn’t probe. I retired to my room and awaited the wonder the following day would bring. And I wasn’t disappointed. It was pleasant but little chilly in the morning. Hank, our neighbor, looked pensive. I waved him goodbye as he rushed to office in his bicycle. A few minutes later I was surprised to see the door of his house open, and a cat (I later learned a male one) came strolling out. I knew Hank lived alone and wondered how the cat opened the door by itself. I panicked, suspecting, as I’d do back in India about the usual burglars. My friend reassured me the cat had a microchip between its neck and the back.

That helps Hank track his beloved one and also the chip opens the door whenever the cat wished to go on a stroll. “But what if he’s lost or is sick or meets with an accident?” I wondered aloud, in concern for Gizmo- Hank’s pet. Srinivas had all the answers. “Hank has a television camera installed. While working in his office, he constantly looks at the screen and monitors Gizmo’s movements throughout the day. Of late he is in anxiety because he got the cat castrated and the recovery time is taking longer than expected. He had to miss office last week to care for his love.” “But what about the cat’s food? Won’t’ he remain hungry for the next seven hours till Hank returns from office?”