A Personal Economy

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Sarah and I have had to learn a lot of hard lessons about how business gets done in India. The lessons we learned growing up about how wealth is to be used, how information travels, and how we relate to the world around us don’t always translate in this cultural context. While we are learning little by little, it is tough to work against the assumptions and strategies we’ve developed from living in America for most of our lives.

In the US, being a well brought up, mature person means being independent and self-reliant. It means being able to cook one’s own food, do one’s own cleaning, carry one’s own luggage. Personal service of any kind is an expensive luxury, and relying on it is looked down upon as an excess of the exorbitantly rich.

In India, however, having money means having an unspoken obligation to use it to create opportunities for the underemployed. Personal servants from drivers to cleaners to cooks are common amongst even the middle class. Efficiency is not particularly valued in Indian business: successful stores are usually overstaffed, often even hiring security guards to look menacing and open the door for patrons. (Indeed, when surfing Facebook in India, Sarah and I get ads for armed personal bodyguards—only $500 a month!)

The expectation carries over to foreign travelers. That’s partially why there are so many touts, porters, hawkers, drivers, and tour agents—and partially why they seem so personally offended when we decline their services. It’s not culturally appropriate to do one’s own tasks when one has the money to hire someone else to do them. And I’m sure that the people who go most out of their way to advertise their services to us accordingly feel the most entitled to our business.

Getting good information is another challenge for us in India. In the US, we can get most of the information we need from the Internet. In a pinch, most people on the street are glad to help, and our finely-tuned instincts about people help us steer clear of potentially shady or misleading interactions.

In India, we’ve got the Lonely Planet my parents brought and Wikitravel, which provide some helpful information. Most Google searches, however, lead to information-challenged websites that have been skillfully designed to be optimized for search engines without providing particularly helpful facts.

For the most part, we have to rely on asking for advice, information, and directions from people we can meet in the course of our daily wanderings. The problem is, of the people we meet on the street, some will try to convince us that we really want to do something else (which they will help us with, for a fee), and many who do not understand us or have absolutely no idea how to help us who will make something up off the cuff. The only consistently reliable way to gather information is to ask several people and triangulate their wisdom: a stressful process for introverts like us.

Indian culture is highly and unavoidably personal. In the US, much of our lives take place in large, impersonal institutions. From the automated checkout line in supermarkets to the one person per car commute, most of what we do in the public sphere (outside of work and family life) doesn’t require much direct inter-personal finesse. In India, however, almost any action will bring you face to face with others. Travel means cramming close together in a bus or train, or fighting with a rickshaw driver to get them to turn on their meter, and shopping means interacting face to face with a shopkeeper, and probably haggling over the price.

There are advantages to the American system, and, having been raised in America, we certainly find it much easier to do things the American way. But we are coming to appreciate the “organic” quality of India’s personal society: it is a window into how society functions when most of life happens beyond the reach of well-oiled corporate machines. It is forcing us to develop personal skills that we have not been forced to practice in our native culture. It is not always a pleasant or easy process, but it is certainly valuable.

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