”Why do we look back”

“There are decades where nothing happens; and then there are weeks where decades happen.” writes Lenin.

This year can be held true on both the accounts; while globally, health and political institutions were crumbling down, global trade and economies plummeting, and committees the world over rushing to manage developing a vaccine, the ordinary human was restricted to the confines of their house, with an unforeseen halt to their social and professional life, looking forward to… well, nothing, in particular, or, for the more optimistic, the end of the pandemic. The ever-present news updates would constantly make appearances on the individual’s screens, and one would find oneself on crossroads – to be, or not to be, optimistic – so much so that a new word “coronacoaster” (the emotional rollercoaster induced by the pandemic and the information and the misinformation surrounding it)would be popularized. The cosmopolitan agorae would find themselves deserted, and later, with a few people out with utmost discretion and a mask on their faces, hesitatingly welcoming the new normal.

Towards the end of February, when the spread of the coronavirus was still in its initial phases and the global authorities had just begun to take notice of how devastating a form the virus could lead the world into, I was aboard a flight to Zurich, looking forward to all the serious study I would be doing in the daytime and the endless parties by night in Konstanz, a relatively small city on the Swiss-German border. So, you know, imagining myself to be a day-time Sheldon Lee Cooper and a night-time Barney Stinson of sorts, but, as you might have guessed, it proved itself just the right time to be on an exchange semester, huh? Many things happened, many didn’t; I never quite found the chance to reflect and process everything, and probably, to give/take a meaning in all its wide-ranging implications. It is through this blogpost on Intercultural Dialogue Forum that I will reminisce, in the search of lost time, and see what comes!

However, before I start imparting sense to whatever transpired, I would like to casually put out there that, in my understanding, the activity of sensemaking cannot be an isolated or one-way process. Like any communication, intercultural communication is also a two-way process, whereby what one party conveys is as important as what the other party does. So, when I am interpreting things in a certain way, it is equally plausible that it might not have been intended this way, and vice-versa. And, intercultural communication is not an isolated event, you go with certain biases and an understanding of the culture and it is in this framework that you find a meaning of everything. Since, I was, and still very much am, a student of German Literature at the time, – surprise! – I too had my fair share of notions and biases about Germans and their culture.

As a kid, I was rather shy, or let’s say too shy, and mostly silent around new people. Even when I would go to my Nana-Nani’s (maternal grandfather and grandmother), I would take my time to reacquaint myself with the relatives and only then would I find myself comfortable spilling everything that has been going on in life. It is through years of boarding school and then a memorable hostel life in New Delhi that I was be able to acquire a degree of comfort in dealing with new people, which is not to say that I have never had friends, of course. One of the reasons, I believe, I didn’t end up becoming a loner is the readiness with which people accept you here. We come from a land where hospitality is so ingrained in our consciousness, so much so that atithi devo bhava (“Guest is God”) is a key phrase in our tourism industry.

So, naturally, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about my little sojourn is this distance. After the first getting-to-know-each-other conversation and party with my flat mates, the encounters in the common kitchen and hallway would be merely: “hey”, “hey” – well, to be fair, added to it was the newly added fear of the virus. In the subsequent parties, the conversations and the fun were always commendable, but outside parties, I never actually felt a connection. I remember talking to my buddy about this (the university had a buddy-program where they would introduce you to a local German student, whose task would be to show you around), and he said, “Oh, don’t take this too personally! This is just how Germans are! Yesterday, I was driving around with an old friend of mine, and there was pin-drop silence in the car. No one said a word!” I remember thinking to myself, “Okay. That’s altogether a next level of weird!”

Many memes around the internet make fun of the German language as one of the rudest sounding languages in the world, although I know it to be a beautiful language for how flexible it can be. The courses on German migrant literature had already taught me how distant and cold Germans can be, although I know it to be a fairly liberal state, accepting migrants and refugees with open arms. Those were the dichotomies I knew existed before going into Germany this time, but when you experience it first-hand it’s hard to wrap your head around it. And, then you start questioning!

The people around me – fellow Indians – would tell me similar stories: how a friend would cook Indian food for his German friend, and they would be all hunky-dory, but the latter wouldn’t translate a German document for him when needed; among many others. I thought, okay, this is not something unique to me and people are grappling with similar situations, for longer.

As I was tackling the “distance”, the usage of the newly relevant term “social-distancing” was on the rise, you would read it in your news feeds, papers, supermarket warning boards, hear it on television, some songs maybe, not unlike “Go Corona! Corona Go!”. The flipside of “social-distancing” is, dare I say, “untouchability”, which has had a rather long and oppressing history in our country. But, come to think about it, the coronavirus is contagious, and it spreads through touch and bodily aerosols. However, I do not intend to carry the same social connotation of “untouchability” here, but rather the essence of touch, human touch.

Human touch is essential, one needs to know that one is loved and known, and we have variants of human touch across cultures, classes and proximities-levels ranging from handshakes, kisses, and hugs, among others. The reduction of human touch to mere fist-bumps or hand waving from a safe distance was the new normal, and not an enlivening one. I remember, I had a fun gesture where one of my flat mates and I would shake each other’s legs while we would play beer-pong. But I also remember how, in the chilly mornings of March, I would be asked to stay a bit further behind in a xerox shop counter while I was already wearing a mask and gloves. Not more than two months later, George Floyd protests erupted worldwide, during a pandemic!

On one of those gloomy April days, where I couldn’t find the motivation and incentive to put the fake smile on for the Zoom classes, I knocked on my other flat mate’s door – who I still have an unconfessed crush on – and asked her whether she had time. We ended up talking for over an hour – about how things have been for me, for her, about things in general, flat mates, language, literature, and you get the drift – and she gets the impression that I am “bored” and need to hang out with “Indian people”. Not that I have any problem with the suggestion, I was already doing that; what strikes out is, well, you would feel better if you hung out with your people, implicit meaning: this is not your home! (One of the possible interpretations, of course! Which is true for many!)

With the overarching theme of migration, the concept of home is eternally linked. The longing to be home, with your people, from your culture, who speak your language, who understand when you say “kuch kuch hota hai”, who complete the lyrics when you sing a song, is what ultimately leads to the formation of ghettos – people living in a tight, closed group in a non-native place. There is always a choice in front of the immigrant: to completely accept the ways of the culture, and thereby lose one’s own identity in the process (assimilate), or to retain one’s identity while finding ways to survive in this foreign land (integrate). It is natural that some people easily orient themselves in the culture, and some, on the other hand, take time, and some still, never do.

On one of the nights, I had gone for a biryani – and naturally, beers – at a friend’s place in Konstanz, I was walking with this fellow from Old Delhi back to my place and we started talking about the intercultural dynamics. This Old Delhi fellow had been there for a year now and had, on the first weekend after his orientation, gone on a big, group trip to Stuttgart – which to a mostly introverted guy like me, was unheard of. So, he tells me how he has great friends, and he has a deep bond with most people. He says, “You know, we think that they ought to be nice to us, and we never think, whether we are being nice ourselves. I would rather say, it begins with you,” and then he went on to say how most of us never bother to learn the language, and how when you start speaking the language, you start better orienting yourself and make friends better. We parted on a very positive note that night, with a very Indian, lingering goodbye, which takes time.

It is strangely wonderful how the things you already know come off as beautiful when articulated better. It is in this spirit that, in the month of June, when social life started gaining some momentum again, I would go to every social event I could make time for. It provided me with the opportunity to unlearn the biases that I had about German culture and human nature in general. I would meet new people, chat for a while, come back home, some days were good, some not. It is not necessary that every day be good.

By the time only a month remained of the exchange semester, I had built a good cross-cultural social circle and didn’t feel as much out of place. I remember cooking Indian food for people from different parts of Europe, which was slightly spicy for me, but the rest would believe au contraire. One of the funniest memories would be to pass out on a party that I myselfand another friend organized. Another would be playing Cards Against Humanity while having Peppermint Schnapps shots, later to see our tongues turn Hulk-green. I remember riding my bike aimlessly around the city and going often to the riverfront to enjoy the cold breeze in the summers.

As I was heading towards an English Speakers Meet one Sunday evening, a friend from Bangalore who was doing Post-doctorate there said, “Now that you are going back soon, remember, one goes through various kinds of experiences, but it’s a basic human tendency that one focuses on the bad ones and not so much on the good ones, but it’s the good ones that make life bearable.”


Masters Student in German Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi