A matter of attitude

Aug 11, 2013

As described in this post, I visited the great wall of china today. While I was there, I naturally ran across a large number of chinese folk, a lot more than I see in day to day life. And I noticed something interesting: most people there looked me in the eye - while walking towards me because we were headed in opposite directions - for about 2-3 seconds before looking elsewhere. And, if there was some time left before I passed by them, they would look away for a bit, and then look me in the eye again. Which was plenty of time for me to smile at them, so I ended up doing a lot of smiling at people today. And they smiled back.

Last year after returning from Mumbai, I made a post on twitter along the lines of “The girls in Mumbai are a lot friendlier”. I felt a lot better after that visit, and I believed that I had figured out why, as outlined in this post but as it turns out, that’s only half the picture. People in Mumbai do the same thing that people in Beijing are doing; they look at you, then look away, and then look at you again. And each look is about 2-3 seconds, which is long enough for you to smile at them.

I believe that this is simply a matter of attitude. I know for a fact that people in Mumbai care a lot about random strangers on the street, and they have proved it time and again whenever the city was brought to its knees by terrorist attacks or natural disasters. They are also a lot more open to meeting new people and don’t hesitate to open themselves up to others. From what I can tell, chinese people seem to be built the same way. When some of my chinese colleagues had visited the India office last year, I had noticed that they were always smiling. I put it down to them trying too hard to be nice, but now I realize that I was being undeservingly unfair and cynical. They just are that nice and they go out of their way to be nice to others. And when random chinese people look at me on the street, they look at me with open ..curiousity? I’m having trouble putting my feelings into words, but when I see someone looking at me on the street here, their eyes feel more open somehow. They feel warm. A smile just naturally creeps onto my face, and a warm smile usually comes back my way. It feels really, really nice.

In stark contrast, people in Bangalore are cold. It feels like a dog-eat-dog world, where everyone (myself included) is out for themselves, and everyone has the mentality that being nice to someone else takes something away from you. If something good happens to someone you know, they have stolen it from you. After all, nobody deserves it more than you do, right? They don’t even have the time or courtesy to award strangers with two seconds of their precious time while commuting. They look at you for about a second and then look away immediately. Then they might look at you again for a second, and again promptly look away. I don’t know about everyone else, but one second isn’t enough time for my brain to process that someone is looking at me and to fire off the neurons that would make my lips curl upwards in a warm smile. The only other way would be to smile at someone at the exact second at which they look at you, which in my books just comes across as cold and uncaring, and fake as hell besides. If someone doesn’t want to devote more than a second of their time to look at me, I definitely would not feel nice enough to reward them with a warm smile.

And so I fell into the habit of just not looking at people while walking down the street. Or if I look at someone and catch their eye, I’m conditioned to just do what they do and look away immediately, because I know that they would probably not smile at me or maintain eye contact long enough for me to smile at them. There has been one and only one exception to this. I was on the bus to work one fine day, and was sitting across from a girl. I typically carry my Kindle with me on the bus in order to get some reading done (it’s an hour-long journey in either direction) and tend to only look up once in a while to relax my eyes and figure out how far the bus has gone. So, I looked up after about twenty minutes of reading, and saw a big pair of eyes staring at me.

Now, there is a lot of pollution in India - and especially in Bangalore - and so a lot of people opt to wear hankerchiefs around their nose and mouth. A lot of girls wear traditional attire and a long scarf (called dupatta in India) with them, which they then wrap around their mouth, nose and hair, leaving only their eyes exposed (in order to navigate around trees and such). The girl sitting across from me had opted to do the above-mentioned procedure, and therefore only her big, pretty eyes were visible, and they were staring at me. I.. was at a loss, and so I just stared back at her for a couple of seconds, and then blinked to gather my thoughts. And then I saw her eyes crinkle up in what I knew was a warm smile, and so I smiled back at her.

And that’s about it. That one incident is the only occasion I’ve had to smile at a random person (or any person who is not a cashier or a delivery guy) in a total of three years that I’ve spent in Bangalore. And in the past three days I’ve smiled at 20-odd random strangers on the street.

I had fallen into a line of thinking that this is just how life is, that this is how people everywhere are, and that nothing could be done about it. I remember being a wide-eyed kid back in college - and even while getting out of college to some extent - but the past three years have made me incredibly cynical and bitter, and for that I will never forgive Bangalore.