My work often takes me around the world. And the more I travel, the more I notice that each country possesses one particular trait that sets it apart from others. In my mind I associate each country or culture with a word that is specific to it.
India – Religion
The one thing that would hit an observant visitor, apart of course from the noise, pollution and the sheer number of people, would be religion. We Indians are a religious lot. With the 33 million gods we possess, I guess that is not a surprising fact. Religion is everywhere in India…in every home, in the streets lined with tiny roadside temples, in public transport, in business establishments and any strategically placed tree or stone.
Its presence is seen in the day-to-day life, manifesting itself in clothing, loud speakers blaring religious songs, pumpkins marked with red kumkum strewn on the roads or rivers overflowing with effigies. It is hard to escape religion in India where even a solitary stone could be turned into a god simply by adorning it with a tikka and placing a few coins around it.
USA – Lawsuits
It took me a few trips to the US, to discover the peculiarity of American society. Americans love to sue. You can sue anyone for the most ridiculous of reasons. The neighbour’s tree overlooks your backyard, sue them for intrusion of privacy; slipped on an icy sidewalk, sue the public administration; scalded your tongue over hot coffee, you can sue the restaurant that served it to you.
What boggles the mind is that often times the litigant will even win his case. Maybe that is the reason behind pointless lawsuits…that they win and that too with large payouts.
Japan – Work
Travelling Eastwards to Japan, I discovered that the Japanese take the dictum ‘Work is Worship’ very seriously. So much so that many Japanese men return home only after midnight, ostensibly burning the midnight oil. One would think that Japanese wives would be an angry lot. But in a strange reversal of norm, it is to keep the wife happy that the man comes home late! I was told the wife would have no respect for a man who returns early, indicating that he is not working hard enough.
I have often wondered why most restaurants and bars are filled with Japanese men in work clothes on weekdays. For the wife, for all intents and purposes, they are still at work.
China – Money
For the Chinese, “Money is Worship”. Money for them is unapologetically the end result of all kinds of dealings. Chinese businessmen treat their foreign counterparts like royalty till the deal is done.
I have realized over time, that this is simply their way of working…it is nothing personal. Though I have to remind myself not to get too carried away by the royal treatment.
Italy – Creativity
In Italy, the thing that struck me is – no surprises here – their creativity; or rather, their value addition to a product…or even themselves. The Italians, their goods, their stores, their restaurants…everything is imbued with a certain intangible ingredient that makes everything Italian a hundred times better than their counterparts elsewhere. It is indeed a pleasure to all five senses to experience anything Italian.
Russia – Spying
Russia is an amazing country…expansive and utterly beautiful. And every Russian is a victim of the spy syndrome. Despite several years having passed since the KGB broke up, many a Russian fancies himself a spy or being spied upon. Maybe they miss those adventurous times when an unexpected knock on the door could send shivers down the spine, but it’s really high time they recognize the current boring reality of life.
South Africa – Segregation
Apartheid in South Africa may have ended 20 years ago, but I was surprised to notice some remnants of it, notably on the beaches of Durban. Segregated beaches for blacks and whites seemed a common phenomenon.
I visited a few years ago, so I am hoping that things would have changed since then. But I remember being told by colleagues that minor criminals, whose main crime was thievery or robbery and who were mostly if not all, of black origin were routinely let off. The reason being that they had suffered so much deprivation in the past years that they were being given some leeway to catch up to a respectable standard of living.
Germany – Precision
Of all the countries I have visited, Germany stays true to its reputation – a near fanaticism for detail and precision coupled with its love of rules, organization and structure. These are traits in business as well as in personal life. As such the Germans are straight shooters and not the most diplomatic bunch. Admirable, yes, but it also takes some getting used to, especially when you come from a culture that is quite the opposite.
France – Romance
It is not without reason that France is known as the country of romance. It’s in their food, in their architecture…but most of all it’s in their people. I have noticed that the French, much more so than any other Westerner, are an expressive people when it comes to romance. If they feel it, they show it. Caressing and stealing kisses on the metro, or in the street, or in a café is a common sight.
The public display of affection seems so in keeping with the character of the country that not even visitors seem to consider it odd in any way. “The French are true romantics. They feel the only difference between a man of forty and one of seventy is thirty years of experience”, so said some famous French actor. This quote pretty much sums up the French.
England – Discovery
On the other side of the Channel, the English despite their stiff upper lip and prim and proper attitude were the first to discover a good many things – penicillin, cricket, high tea, Shakespeare, theatre and tennis amongst others. It’s been a while since they discovered anything worthy in more modern times, but their habit of doing things correctly more than makes up for that.
Getting to know the why’s and how’s of a country from a first hand source, be it business colleagues or friends and family living there, is far more informational and interesting than gleaning your facts through a tourist guide. What is more fascinating for me is not so much the buildings, architecture and food as what makes people behave the way do.