10/10/2014 10:40 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

A Pound of Difference

Sometimes cultural differences can hit you like a basket of stale roti.

I was reminded of this on a pleasant evening three days after I had made the move from the city of Bengaluru to my NGO's campus in the farming village of Devadurga. As I finished dinner under the open air of the lean-to kitchen, it sunk in that for the next year, I would be based in a one-room thatched bamboo hut with a fan, desk, power outlet, and three beds; that my neighbors were goat herders and rice paddy farmers, and that hands were a primary eating instrument. The names of the coworkers sitting around me came readily as I looked around. One such coworker (we'll call her Jenny to protect anonymity) had engaged me in a polite conversation as I ate; the weather was nice, the chutney was fresh, and all-in-all I was feeling very much at home.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have done it. Why did I do it? I don't know. I guess I just wanted to show my appreciation to Jenny for contributing to the warm feeling in my gut. Part of me knew it was a bad idea. But I did it anyway: after we both placed our cleaned plates on the stack, I turned to her, smiled, and offered her a fist pound.

"Hfff!" She gasped.

Everything stopped.

"...." There was a collective silence in the coworkers sitting around us as she stared at my fist, shocked. I fumbled a bit.

"See, Americans do this thing, there, in America!" Seeking to salvage the situation, I mimed a fist pound by bringing in my left hand.

She managed some sort of closed mouth squeak and shook her head in a jerky motion. Face red and scandalized, she averted her eyes downward and rushed past me to the clay water pots, her sari streaming. I turned to watch her, confused -- mind you, this all occurred very quickly. She filled her water cup and gave some sort of involuntary convulsion, perhaps one of rage.

"Come, let's go for a walk". Three coworkers grabbed my arms as I stared. We turned away from her, ambled among the campus huts and around the neighboring mosque as the sun set. Laughing and joking good-naturedly, they told me that it was OK, they would remind her that I was a foreigner and a good guy at heart. In most of rural India, they said, men and women lead very separate lives. Sharing a bleacher or bus bench with a member of the opposite gender is rare, holding hands or kissing is forbidden in public, and in many areas, talking to an unmarried female is considered aggressive. In fact, it is not uncommon for fiancés to talk to each other for the first time during their own engagement party! It also just so happens that in India, the left hand is reserved for wiping one's posterior, so it's rarely if ever acceptable to offer it for up for physical contact in polite circumstances.

As they talked, I realized that they had been trying to comfort me. What I had done was essentially offer to relieve her of one form of her virginity or purity, with my "fecal" hand, in front of everyone. Indeed, on our return, the 5 or so females had disappeared from the mess hall, and the rest of the male coworkers were standing, talking. Even the shape of the circle they had formed looked serious. They turned, and wholly embarrassed, I hurried back to my bed.

As I lay awake, ruminating, I couldn't stop the tears, irrational and angry, from falling.

"Wasn't my skin color enough to tell her that I wasn't from here; why couldn't she have given me the benefit of the doubt?" I swore and rolled over to face the wall.

"Of course it wasn't her responsibility to give you a break; you are the guest in her culture. Plus, you're white." I thought, addressing myself, and turned back over.

"But couldn't she see that I was just trying to be friendly, that it was ME, Lucas Spangher, that of course I didn't intend to take advantage of her?" Another swear, and a turn. "Didn't she realize that her conception of gender norms was as cultural as mine?"

"One of the many reasons you embarked on this voyage was to learn cultural sensitivity, not demand it from others." My blanket was crumpled up by now.

"Yeah, but still, couldn't she meet me halfway?!" I started to feel more and more hurt by Jenny's actions. Worse, I felt alienated from my coworkers after I was just starting to feel accepted. "Why did THEY have to get so gossipy and treat me like a deviant when they weren't even involved?" In my heart, I knew I was being self-righteous and immature. The inner tension made me want to scream.

Hours later, the roosters crowed and I woke from a fitful sleep. To my relief, Jenny was nowhere to be seen at breakfast. She was gone the next day, and the day after that, and the next; she had decided to go home for the weekend early.

As I reflected over that weekend, I realized, invoking Thomas Kune, that in that instance we were both subject to large social forces that ran deeper than we knew or realized. My biggest mistake was to look at that interaction as a personal offense. Instead, it may be that there was almost nothing personal about it. We focus so much on the physical and present of our fellows as it relates to us, but is that really a good way of understanding their identity and interactions? Human beings may in some ways be like icebergs: so much of us is beneath the surface. The thoughts, ideas and rules that guide our minute to minute interactions are dictated by our pasts and cultural notions of age, gender, sexuality, intellectualism, race, etc. Indeed, maybe that moment was in the making since I arrived: if not it, then some blunder, any blunder, would have happened.

Which of our culture's approach to male-female interactions is healthier, I wondered? I have many female friends, and I'm used to hugging them, trading massages, and having long conversations about sex and sexuality. Without these, I don't think I could view females as willing sexual actors who may derive as much pleasure from sex as men. These changed the way viewed physical intimacy and, I felt, allowed me to embrace it in my relationships. Could a society with a relatively more rigid gender divide have as a healthy approach to sex? One of my Bangalore friends responded, "It definitely does. I mean, look, India still has to the largest birth rate in the world." Disregarding his problematic reasoning, maybe he is correct in his affirmation. It could be that our society's openness to sex truly doesn't make us enjoy it any more. Maybe many rural Indian couples develop physical intimacy during marriage to the same extent as many Westerners do before--perhaps in preparation for--marriage.

I honestly don't know the answer. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume for a minute that, on average, rural India's husband and wife have less physical intimacy than an American, urban, educated couple. It may be possible; to my surprise, when I once stayed at a friend's family house in Bangalore, I shared a room with his dad. When I asked other friends, they responded with: "Sounds like typical India."
If so, is this necessarily a bad thing? So many problems can come with sex, and more than just physical ones like STDs and injuries. Sex can be used for leverage and favors, skewing a relationship, or conversely, can mask conflict without solving it. Too much sex can prevent you from getting to know someone and developing shared interests. Too little sex after much sex can lead to doubts and insecurities. And sexual consent is such a tricky thing to master: keeping in mind that society trains us to factor other's interests into our decisions, can a "yes" or "no" really mean 100% approval from one party? Even if so, one can consent to the process of sex with another, but how can they explicitly consent to every action that occurs? Western society may not have it right. Indeed, recalling the Platonic ideal relationship as being sexless, we might ironically be further from our Western roots than Indian society may be.

This brings me to my next point: sex is distinct from love. For this reason, if even for the sake of argument sex is more present in "love marriages", as Indians call Western, non-arranged marriages, it's not clear to me that our marriages result in love. Why? As a village friend put it, "I trust my parents can choose better than I can." This seems like anathema to us, but maybe we aren't the best judge who who we love. When you're the one choosing, you have the potential to fail in a much more personal way. I always found it easier to comment on the compatibility of other couples than judge it for myself. And maybe putting so much emphasis on making the "right" choice distracts from the reality that successful relationships are about growth, sacrifice, and compromise. Many of us in the West spend decades going from relationship to relationship because our ability to choose "wrong" gives us the option to end a relationship; if one doesn't have that option, maybe they learn to love whomever their parents picked for them in a way we can't really imagine.

Now, of course, I acknowledge that there are problems with India's romance system. Relative to ours, it may not offer as much protection to women or sexual minorities. Almost every day The Hindu features a story about a wife committing suicide about dowry harassment, of wife beating. Homosexuality has been criminalized and re-criminalized.

However, it is always useful to use a different system as a way to recognize the shortcomings in our own. Surely there are benefits and drawbacks to both, and whatever choices we make for our own lives, we are stronger for having observed more ways of making them.

I do not know how Jenny and I will proceed in our interactions. I saw her once after that weekend and then never again; perhaps she transferred to another campus. Despite all this, I wish her well. I thank her for the learning opportunity she has given me, and, above all, I promise to her to never, ever offer her a fist pound again.