It was the sight of a small university town that greeted me the day I first landed in the US. I noticed the big houses and the wide roads and the even bigger cars on my way to a student apartment where I was going to stay as a guest for a few days.
The next day, I took a bus to campus to do some admission paperwork. The buses, of course, were far less crowded than the ones I was used to in India. But the people, who were mostly young students, were also different in a fundamental way.
Many sat in the bus looking down at their books or course packs (smartphones were still a thing of the future). Some looked out the window. There were exceptions but mostly people avoided looking around at strangers. It was as though each person was cocooned in their own private universe as the bus moved wishing the rest of the bus away.
In commuter buses in India, people would be forced to stand or sit close enough to other people so they either had to look at a person’s face or hear them talk. There was hardly space to read in short-distance buses.
Our student apartments were small. But one day, I visited a friend’s professor’s house. I was astounded.
Perhaps because I was used to structures on a smaller scale, I saw what I thought was a gargantuan house but which the host assured me was of moderate proportions, with a swimming pool and two living rooms and multiple bedrooms.
The house was so huge that if you were in the kitchen, you wouldn’t know if there was anyone in the bedrooms. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chucky came up the endless steep steps of the basement that seemed to go straight down to Hades.
That was then.
Familiarity with the US has led me to a sense of normalcy now towards big structures. I no longer expect creatures of Greek or American mythology to greet me in such modern-day palaces.
The professor had teenage sons. They came out once to meet us and then disappeared into their rooms. The rooms were at the end of a long corridor and the doors were thick. Hardly a sound emerged from their rooms. You would never know what those young boys were doing inside.
In India, some children from a comparable strata of society would certainly have their own rooms, but most didn’t. They lived with siblings or grandparents or an ailing relative. Even those who had a room would have a barrage of servants passing through their rooms, or sweeping floors or carrying water or having loud bells announce the newspaper man or milk man or the person coming by to ask for money for the local festival. So few could lay complete claim to privacy in their own rooms even if they officially had a room.
Besides, I was familiar with the sentiment in India that if you could afford it, you could get your own study-table rather than sharing it with a sibling.
But here, you got your own swimming pool if you did not want the neighbours’ kids in it.
Even if you could not swim.
Of course, as time passed, I saw the expansion of this sentiment regarding privacy in dimensions that I hadn’t imagined before.
Making a journey? Why travel on the train where there are other people? Get a car preferably as large as a caravan.
Like the ocean? Get your own (I mean private beach but I’m sure there are people who have aspired to one or more of the extant oceans of the world.)
On a closer look, I realized that such sentiments were not necessarily American per se but could be described more as an American frame of mind that affluent people in other parts of the globe and immigrants in America adopted faster than those who may have first practised this kind of privacy. If anything, well-to-do immigrants jumped on the bandwagon faster in order to partake of what they considered the American dream.
Anyway, such huge spaces gave me the impression that Americans were a more private lot than comparable Indians in an Indian city.
In those early days in the US I noticed another difference amongst young people on campuses in the US as compared to those in the India I knew then. (India, of course, has changed very fast in the last couple of years. Ironically, it houses the world’s most expensive private home now designed by American architects )
In the US, students in the cafeteria rarely sat in huge groups just chatting or spending time with one another. Unless they were doing group work, it was always two people, mostly boyfriend and girlfriend, or two girlfriends walking around. Socializing was supposed to happen at parties designated for the purpose, as it were, not randomly, anywhere.
This was a sharp contrast to the groups of students sitting in college canteens I knew in India, debating issues, aimlessly chatting, even drumming on wooden tables and singing for hours on end. If they wanted to schedule a party, they couldn’t do it at home with parents and many others present. Therefore fewer spaces were designated for parties and yet the socializing was everywhere.
On the surface of it, it seems that privacy is elusive where space is scarce.
“I want my own space,” is certainly a product of an affluent culture. There are rich Indians just as there are poor Americans, but a culture needs a lot of people to produce it and get people immersed in it. In that sense, a desire for “my space” would seem to be an American way of life practised by others too across the globe, especially in richer families with fewer kids.
In India, admittedly, lack of space is only one of the factors why people are in each other’s business.
Which would make it seem at first glance that privacy is elusive to Indians. And that Americans who are used to space would be more private.
And yet, I’ve (over)heard about more complications in people’s love lives travelling in buses in America than I have in many years of comparable bus rides in India. I’ve been to parties where Americans have revealed things as private as depression medication that they are taking to a casual acquaintances they just met–something quite unthinkable in middle-class India. I’ve seen memoirs and books and even student papers about events that “reveal all”–more than I’ve ever wanted to know.
There is almost an innocence, a lack of guile and an inability to handle privacy here.
And that would seem to counter my initial impression of Americans as private people.
In India, I’ve seen privacy that’s not immediately recognizable as such by people not used to social mores. There is a lexicon, so to speak, code language in which people speak about private matters in public spaces that you wouldn’t know if you were not plugged into the culture.
It’s hard to generalize but I’ve known more than one of the following kinds of Indians. If they ran into an aunt at a movie theatre (who was in everybody’s business) and their boyfriend happened to be there, they’d say he was a “friend.” Now, since quotation marks are invisible in daily conversation, it’s always been hard for me to determine the exact meaning of that term. If an on-line date happened to be visiting, they might go to the extent of saying the person was a “cousin.”
Of course, not always or in every case but these occurrences are common enough to make one seem that this is an elaborate cultural mechanism people have developed to compensate for lack of space. Something I misunderstood earlier as hypocrisy.
It is as though, because of lack of real space both physical and mental, people carry around a shield protecting their privacy everywhere so that two sisters-in-law living in the same house don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives.
As I’ve been thinking through this issue of privacy and space, I’ve been feeling quite guilty about using so many generalizations about two cultures that are as complex as life itself. And yet, I’m not a great enough writer to be able to compare without some generalizations. So I admit I’ve generalized but I hope readers might appreciate the essence of my point where the intent has not been to stereotype.
You might wonder why I’m thinking of all this today at all. That’s because I was thinking of my own writing.
In response to my post a few days back asking for feedback on the blog, several readers suggested that they would like to see more of me in my posts. More emotion, more details by which I supposed less of third person generalizations and more familiarity with me as a person. That is what got me thinking about privacy and writing.
Are there cultural conditionings that enter into our writing regarding privacy?
Each of us is different but is there an invisible hand that controls or guides us regarding how much of our private lives we allow to be revealed in our writing?
©bottledworder, 2013. http://bottledworder.wordpress.com
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