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Smile Like You Mean It

Smile Like You Mean It

March 31, 2010

When it comes to how welcome you feel in a new culture, a picture tells a thousand words.

My first friend here in Kerala was my trainer at work.  He’d been lumped with the task of getting me up to speed in my new profession, and he proved himself to be a genuine, sweet soul with remarkably little pretension.  He’s been a particularly welcoming presence since the first day I came to interview at the company, teaching me the ropes of the various systems in place – both formal (an entire new lexicon of terms to understand) and informal (where and when to get the best local chai).  We bonded over anecdotes, philosophies and – thanks to a shared interest in amateur photography – ‘snaps’, as they’re known here.

I was gutted when I was unable to attend his wedding in early ‘09.  I think he was, too: “I had told so many people you were coming!”  Fortunately, I had a chance to atone for my sins when his house was finally finished.  (That’s a story in itself, going right back to before he was born and his father’s decision to strike out on his own in business, hoping to one day provide better for his children than his parents could for him).  Along I went for the housewarming with the four good men pictured, also colleagues, all of whom have been and continue to be remarkably open and welcoming.  Several unintended detours across Trivandrum eventually led to the chess-patterned paving and impressive façade of my colleague’s newly built home.

Awaiting us after a short tour of the place was a brief sit-down and a bite to eat: a good opportunity for a ‘snap’ by our host, as you see above, and ultimately a chance for me to more adequately express some points of interest about my experience here.  It may just look like a saip sitting down with some locals, but there’s a lot more to it.

You may notice that while the others were served jelebis, payasam and veg puffs with their chai, I was treated to a special plate of idli and sambar as well.  My trainer and I used to eat breakfast together regularly, so he knew of my liking for this South Indian staple and kept some aside from that morning.  Kerala culture dictates that the guest is God and as an eternal guest, friends, acquaintances and even people I meet in the street will go to extraordinary lengths to make me feel welcome.  It’s sometimes a bit awkward to my Western sensibilities, but this was one case when I was more than happy to accept unique favour.  (I love idli.)

I’ve also noticed in Kerala that when a posed photo is to be taken, the photographer rarely calls out ‘Smile!’  As a result, facial expressions are determined by genuine reactions to surroundings and immediate experience, rather than the fact that a camera was shoved in someone’s face with a command to fake delight.  So, while I’m grinning like a madman and exaggerating my glee in a way that is shameless but totally acceptable in Western culture, the others all wear comfortable looks with barely perceptible hints of enjoyment.  It follows that at a drunken bash with mates, smiles and arms draped around shoulders are the norm, where in photos of company lunches you’re lucky to see even a flicker of approval.

I, for one, appreciate this reflection of reality rather than the fakery that my culture espouses.  Even if it looks better, why smile if you don’t feel it? (Changing my own habit in this regard, however, is proving to be a challenge.)  I see this as just another example of the general feet-on-the-ground nature of folks here.  There seems to be an entirely different concept of what is ‘normal’, and very little of it is composed of rehearsed, faked social interactions.

In a deeply ingrained, unconscious way, the highest collective value is placed on keeping it real.  To say this attitude is uniform across every person and type of communication would be fantasy, as would suggesting that it does not occasionally lead to frustrating circumstances; however, thanks to the four guys pictured with me above, and most of all the man who ‘snapped’ us, I was a happy man that day.  In spite of being singled out, I didn’t feel at all out of place.

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