10/01/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Sex, Love and Fist Pounds

TommL via Getty Images

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

It was 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, and I just finished dinner. I was becoming used to the fact that for the next year, I would be based in a one-room bamboo hut with three beds, a fan, a desk and a power outlet; that my neighbors were goat herders and rice paddy farmers, and that hands were a primary eating instrument. I had also learned enough of my coworkers' names to feel as though I was starting to fit in. One such coworker (we'll call her Jenny to protect anonymity) was pleasant enough to engage me in a polite conversation during dinner; the weather and Jenny were nice, the chutney was fresh and all-in-all I was feeling very 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, and I offered her a fist pound.

She stopped. There was a collective silence in the coworkers sitting around us, and she stared at my fist with a shocked expression. I fumbled a bit. Seeking to salvage the situation, I mimed a fist pound by bringing in my left hand. I accompanied it with, "See, Americans do this thing, there, in America!"

She managed some sort of closed mouth squeak and shook her head in a jerky motion. Her shock expression remained as, face red, she averted her eyes downward and rushed past me to the clay water pots. 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.

Out of sheer confusion, I started to brush this off and return to my hut, but three other male coworkers grabbed my arms. "Come, let's go for a walk." We walked around the neighboring mosque, they told me that it was OK, they would remind her that I was a foreigner and a good guy at heart. As they talked, I realized that they were comforting me. On our return, the five or so females were gone 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 hut.

Now, it is the case that in most of rural India, men and women lead very separate lives. In fact, it is not uncommon for fiances 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 in polite circumstances. 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.

Yet as I ruminated this over in my bed, I couldn't help but feel hurt, angry, and alone. 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? Couldn't she see that I was just trying to be friendly, that it was ME, Lucas Spangher, that I didn't intend to take advantage of her? Didn't she realize that her conception of gender norms was as cultural as mine? 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?

The more I thought about it, the more upset I got. Of course it wasn't her responsibility to give me a break; I was the guest in her culture. One of the many reasons I embarked on this voyage was to learn cultural sensitivity, not demand it from others. But still, couldn't she meet me halfway?!

I woke from a fitful sleep and found that, 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. When I saw her again, we did not interact.

As I reflected over that weekend, I realized, invoking Thomas Kune, 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. Human beings may in some ways be like icebergs: so much of even the most upfront 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. So what at first appeared to be a highly personal flash event might have in all fact been an impersonal, unavoidable consequence; like the tectonic creation of the Himalayas, it was bound to happen eventually.

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. So then, how can a society with such a rigid gender divide have a healthy approach to sex? One of my Bangalore friends responded, "Hey, India still has to the largest birth rate in the world." Problematic statement, to be sure, but perhaps he's right. It could be that our society's openness to sex truly doesn't make us enjoy it any more. Maybe many Indian couples develop physical intimacy during marriage as effectively as many Westerners do outside 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 percent 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 sakes 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.