To What Degree Can Yoga Be Whatever One Needs It to Be?

Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura

 

To what degree can yoga practice be whatever one needs it to be?

 

If one is expecting the definitive answer to this question, one won’t find it here. While I’ll share my views, I’d love to get some comments, because shared wisdom may help myself and others to hone in on a more coherent answer.

 

There is a continuum of views on this question.  On one hand, there are people who have very rigid notions of what a yoga practice can (or should) consist of. “Everyday, one should do precisely x repetitions of Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations), y repetitions of nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), z repetitions …, and every full moon one should do…, and every six months one should do… shatkarma, etc.” In some circles, this rigidity may extend to what deity one worships, the nature of one’s personal philosophy, what one should eat, how one should dress, and how vigorous one’s practice should or shouldn’t be.

 

Near the rigid end of the spectrum are those who rail against drawing secular and / or culturally-neutral elements from yoga, and / or engaging in a revision of yogic culture. [Cultural revision, in this case, referring to a shift from the traditional culture which is Indo-centric to a more Westernized approach (e.g. this may be seen in different modes of teaching and / or in interaction between students and teachers.) I’m afraid this may remain unclear to anyone who hasn’t spent time in both: a. a traditional yoga ashram / shala; and b. a Western-style yoga studio. To those who have, it’s likely apparent that these two places each have a culture that may share elements (especially superficial one’s like symbology, etc.), but which aren’t identical.] The recent controversy generated by a paper by a Michigan State University professor, Shreena Gandhi, who suggested that Americans practicing yoga were engaging in a kind of white supremacy is a case in point.

 

I find myself rejecting the aforementioned extreme for a number of reasons. First, if yoga practice should be one thing, how come there are so many different “one things” that it should be? If one set was objectively superior, one would expect it to come to dominate, but we don’t see that. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge the wide variety of varied needs. There can even be logical inconsistencies embedded in these rigidities. For example, if one says that a practitioner should do 15 rounds of Surya Namaskara per day, and, also, that they shouldn’t increase the rapidity of breathing by much, then one is limiting the base of students. Some students simply can’t do 15 rounds in a session, while for others it’s an inadequate warm-up because it doesn’t tax their system in the slightest. Thirdly, while I’m not a Sanskrit scholar, from what I’ve been taught, the early writings don’t suggest the kind of doctrinaire approaches to yoga one sees today. One can see in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras a sparse and vague set of dictums that aren’t consistent with the idea that one needs to accept and embrace any and all of the trappings that have come along in the past few thousand years.

 

Now it might seem that I’m at the footloose and fancy free end of the spectrum. But  I’m afraid that I cringe too hard every time I see a story about “ice cream yoga.” (Or fill in the quote marks with whatever the mashup-du-jour consisting of an activity that some individual finds nifty, and, therefore, assumes will pair excellently with yoga.) At the far end of the spectrum are people who think one can engage in any activity (or set of activities) and label it yoga, and it is yoga. I don’t think I can quite get on that bandwagon either. While I don’t offer my support to the people who have very fixed and limited views of what yoga is, I can empathize with them at times. These include: 1. the person who has the Om symbol emblazoned over 80% of their wardrobe [or — more astoundingly — has it tattooed on his body] but who thinks it translates to “namaste,” “yoga,” or to any other mistranslation. 2. the practitioner who believes the ultimate question of the universe is which print of Lululemon captures her spirit animal, or, 3. the individual who thinks the sports bra and yoga pants she wears for practice seems like reasonable attire in which to visit a Hindu (or virtually  any other) temple.

“Om,” not “namaste” etc,

 

This leaves me somewhere in the middle on the issue. The single question I would ask to determine whether something is a yoga practice or not, is:

Is one working towards quelling the turbulence in one’s mind by dispassionately observing one’s body, breath, and / or mind?

 

This probably seems like an insane criteria because if one is doing the Gerbil Yoga version of setu bandasana (back bridge while devoting one’s attention to petting a rodent) then one isn’t actually doing yoga. However, if one is sitting at a bus stop watching the air go in and out of one’s nose and adjusting the pace of said flow, then one is doing yoga. Crazy, right? A back bridge is much more yoga-esque than sitting at a bus stop apparently doing nothing. Don’t even get me started on how one could be in a yoga studio doing a perfectly traditional yogasana like ardha chandrasana while your mind is in an internal monologue — i.e.  rant — about how miserable one is in the and how one can’t wait to hit the bar after class, and you’re not really doing yoga. On the other hand, one could be being screamed at by one’s boss in the office while watching the emotional turmoil bubble up, and one would be doing yoga. Crazy as it may sound, it’s the best I’ve been able to figure.

 

Let me know where you fall on the question.

5 Reasons to Read Outside Your Comfort Zone

5.) Nothing, and I mean nothing, gets stronger in the absence of adversity. If I told you that I had a strength building regime that would double your strength and you’d never be sore, you’d call bullshit. [I’m presuming that you’re not the proud owner of a Shake Weight.] Yet, somehow, people think they can build a stronger mind while consuming only information that confirms their existing worldview just because it, at best, offers a few additional scraps of information.

4.) Get a journey on the cheap.
 Reading outside your comfort zone not only exposes you to an unfamiliar world, it’s good preparation for traveling and the mental gymnastics that will be required of you. If you cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of reading something that challenges your existing worldview, you aren’t ready for traveling — stick with your AC bus tour group, or stay at home. [Yes, I’m distinguishing between being a tourist and a traveler. If you’re a traveler, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t know the difference, you — my friend — are either a tourist or a homebody. Yes, furthermore, I’m aware of the irony of making a distinction between travelers and tourists in a post that is — in part — a critique of the proclivity to create separations between oneself and large portions of the rest of humanity.]

3.) Master your mind. If you get queasy reading a character perspective that is remote from your experience, or if you get livid reading views that radically depart from your own, that’s a good opportunity to step in and rewire your mind to be more agile and empathetic. A good place to start is by trying to adopt another’s perspective as a dispassionate observer.

2.) Tear down some of the things you “know.”  I use the word “know” [in quote marks] to describe those beliefs you ascribe to with iron-clad certainty for no reason that would survive, say… lunch with Socrates. I’m not suggesting one should obliterate all of one’s beliefs, I’m just saying one should become aware of which articles of belief serve you and which do not.

For a few decades, I thought the path to a truer picture of the world involved adding to my stockpile of knowledge. However, I realized that some of what I knew was bullshit, and just adding to a stockpile of knowledge ballooned up the bullshit as well as the understanding of truth. So I needed away to tear down illusions. But how to do it? Turns out that beating one’s head with a frying pan destroys what one knows as well as what one “knows.” Furthermore, it turns out that reading outside my comfort zone has been key to helping separate the wheat of knowledge from the chaff.

1.) Be less predictable. Emerson said, “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” He was a smart guy, and thought for himself.

Blinders (Literal and Figurative) in the Martial Arts

IMG_2553Many years ago I was training at a dōjō that had a practitioner who was a teacher for the blind. He requested that we put together a self-defense workshop for his students.  (If you’re wondering what kind of evil jackass would attack a blind person, rest assured that—sadly–such a level of jackassitude exists in the world.) The request presented an intriguing challenge. How does one adapt techniques that are premised on being able to see what the opponent is doing? Or maybe one shouldn’t adapt existing techniques but rather start from square one?

 

In preparation for working up a lesson plan, the person that asked for the workshop briefed the black belts. We learned that very few of the blind students lived in complete darkness. Instead, they displayed a wide range of different visual impairments. He even brought a large bag of goggles that simulated various impairments so that we could train in them to better understand what would or wouldn’t work with different types of impairment.

 

There were goggles that had funnels over the eyes such that one could see two little circles clearly while the rest of the world was black. There were others that had a complete field of view, but had translucent tape over the lenses so that everything was reduced to fuzzy blobs—as if one were looking through Vaseline. There were lenses that had a crackle effect such that one could only see veins of area clearly. There were goggles with no peripheral vision, and ones with only peripheral vision. He also had some goggles that blacked out the world entirely. Completely blind individuals may not be as common as one would think, but they certainly exist. Putting on any of the goggles was disorienting at first. A couple of the black belts even got vertigo or nausea when they moved around too quickly.

 

Now imagine what it would be like if one had always had the goggles on, that it was the only worldview one had ever known. Furthermore, imagine that everyone you interacted with on a daily basis all wore the same variety of goggles. You wouldn’t see it as an affliction or a limitation. To you, your view of the world would be full and complete. You would engage in behaviors that might seem odd to an outsider with unobstructed vision (e.g. sweeping your hands around in big arcs, turning your head at unusual angles, or calling out into the “darkness”), but these behaviors wouldn’t seem odd to you because you’d know it as natural behavior for someone who experienced the world as you did.  Because everyone you dealt with would see the world in the same way, it wouldn’t occur to you to think about whether there was another way to behave.

 

The preceding paragraph serves as an analogy for culture. One’s own culture is often invisible, especially if you don’t get outside of it much. All the people around you confirm your belief that you’re seeing the world as it is and behaving in the only natural and normal way imaginable. Sure, you may notice other people’s cultures—their skewed worldviews and the anomalous behaviors that result– but that’s because they do “strange things.” Still, some individuals will maintain that their culture doesn’t display any of the “odd” ways of behaving that more “exotic” cultures do.

 

But it does. Every culture is a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly of how a people goes about living in the world given their cultural blind spots and skews. It includes collective coping mechanism for dealing with fears of uncertainty, and those are often the ugly side of culture. They encourage ingroup / outgroup separation, as well as primitive and superstitious approaches to dealing with those events, people, and behaviors that are out of the ordinary.

 

It’s easy to display double standards when one is blind to culture. I will give an example from my own life. It’s only been since I’ve been living in India (and traveling in Asia) that I’ve become aware of how many people are upset by Westerner’s secularization of Eastern religious / spiritual symbols and imagery. That’s a mouthful; so let me explain what I mean by “secularization of Eastern symbols and imagery.” I’m talking about “OM” T-shirts / pendants, bronze Buddhas, Tibetan thanka paintings, mandalas  (on T-shirts or posters), miniature shrines, or tattoos that are purchased because they are trendy, aesthetically pleasing, or vaguely conceptually pleasing without any real understanding of the tradition from which they came or intention of honoring it.

 

Granted it’s easy to miss the above issue if you’re a tourist because: a.) Many of said Eastern traditions practice a live-and-let-live lifestyle that make their practitioners unlikely to be confrontational about such things (in contrast to  practitioners of Abrahamic traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.)) b.) There are merchants in every country who are willing to sell anything to anybody for a buck, and so there are vast markets for tourists that offer up these symbols and images in droves.

 

It still intrigues me that it once caught me off guard that there were Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. who were dismayed by the secularization of their traditions. I’m agnostic, but I was raised in a Christian household. Therefore, I can imagine the animosity aroused by the following conversation.

 

A: [Wearing a simple crucifix [or Star of David or crescent & star] pendant on a chain.]

B: Hey, A, I didn’t know you were Christian [or Jewish or Muslim]?

A: Because I’m not.

B: But you’re wearing a crucifix [or other Abrahamic symbol] pendant?

A: Oh, yeah, that. That doesn’t mean anything. It just looks cool. It’s kind of like the Nike swoosh.

B: [Jaw slackens.]

 

Now replace the crucifix with an “OM” shirt, and an inquiry about whether “A” is Hindu. Does it feel the same? If it doesn’t, why shouldn’t it?

 

Every martial art represents a subculture embedded in the culture of the place from which it came.  [Sometimes this becomes a mélange, as when a Japanese martial art is practiced in America. In such cases the dōjō usually reflects elements of Japanese culture (e.g. ritualized and formal practice), elements of American culture (e.g. 40+ belt ranks so that students can get a new rank at least once a year so they don’t quit), and elements of the martial art’s culture (e.g. harder or softer approaches to engaging the opponent.)]

 

The way that culture plays into a country’s martial arts may not become clear until one has practiced the martial arts of different countries—particularly in their nation of origin. While my own experience is limited, I have practiced Japanese kobudō in America (and extremely briefly in Japan), Muaythai in Thailand, and Kalaripayattu in India. I’ll leave Muaythai out of the discussion for the time being because I can most easily make my point by contrasting Japanese and Indian martial arts.  The Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve practiced each reflects the nature of its respective culture, and they couldn’t be more different.

 

IMG_4525What are the differences between the Japanese and Indian martial arts I’ve studied? I’ve been known to answer that by saying that the Japanese martial art rarely uses kicks above waist level, while in Kalaripayattu if you’re only kicking at the height of your opponent’s head you’ll be urged to get your kick up a couple of feet higher.  What does that mean? The Japanese are expert at stripping out the needless and they work by paring away excess rather than building difficulty. The impulse of the Japanese is to avoid being showy. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) appeals to the Japanese mind. (Except for the “Stupid” part, which would be considered needlessly confrontational and gratuitously mean-spirited.) There’s a reason why Japanese martial arts don’t feature prominently in global martial arts cinema. They don’t wow with their physicality; efficiency is at the fore.

 

IMG_2246On the other hand, Indians are a vastly more flamboyant bunch, and Kalaripayattu is extremely impressive to watch and in terms of the physicality required to perform the techniques.  The Indian art isn’t about simplifying or cutting away the unnecessary. One has to get in progressively better shape as one advances to be able to perform techniques that require one leap higher, move faster, and be stronger. The Indian art isn’t about paring away excess, it’s about making such an impressive physical display that the opponent wonders whether one is just a man, or whether one might not be part bird or lion.

 

It might sound like I’m saying that the Japanese martial art is more realistic than the Indian one. Not really. Each of them is unrealistic in its own way. It’s often pointed out that the Japanese trained left-handedness out of their swordsmen, but that’s only one way in which Japanese martial arts counter individuation.  Given what we see in terms of how “southpaws” are often more successful in boxing, MMA, and street fighting, eliminating left-handedness seems like an unsound tactic at the individual level. There are undoubtedly many practitioners of traditional Japanese martial arts who can dominate most opponents who fight in an orthodox manner, but who would be thrown into complete disarray by an attacker who used chaotic heathen tactics. Consider that the only thing that kept the Japanese from being routed (and ruled) by the Mongolians was two fortuitous monsoons. The samurai were tremendously skilled as individual combatants, but the Mongolians could—literally—ride circles around them in warfare between armies. Perhaps, a more relevant question is whether Miyamoto Musashi would have defeated Sasaki Kojirō if the former had followed all the formal protocols of Japanese dueling instead of showing up late, carving his bokken from a boat oar, and generally presenting a f*@# you attitude. Who knows? But as the story is generally told, Musashi’s disrespectful and unorthodox behavior threw Sasaki off his game, and it was by no means a given that Musashi would win. Some believed Sasaki to be the more technically proficient swordsman.

 

All martial arts are models of combative activity apropos to the needs of a particular time, place, culture, and use.  And—as I used to frequently hear in academia—all models are wrong, though many are useful. (Sometimes, it’s written: “All models are lies, but many are useful.”)

 

[FYI: to the readers who say, “The martial art I practice is completely realistic.” My reply: “You must go through a lot of body-bags. Good for you? I guess?”]

First World Problems Are So Adorable

 

How deep is it? No one knows.

How deep is it? No one knows.

In the interest of enhancing global understanding and camaraderie, I’ve built a translator of common first world (FW) problems–putting them in terms of their Rest of the World (RoW) equivalents.

FW: This food needs salt.
RoW: This food needs food.

FW: My health insurance premiums went up $20 per month.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.

FW: My car is in the shop again.
RoW: My right foot, which recently turned from purple to black, just fell off.

FW: It’s raining again today.
RoW: My house was washed off its foundations and is currently floating down the Brahmaputra River.

FW: Looks like those devils from the other party got a majority in the legislature.
RoW: This coup was particularly bloody.

FW: Squirrels are getting into my bird feeder.
RoW: A tiger ate my family.

FW: A traffic jam made me late for Pilates class.
RoW: While limping through the Kyber Pass to get antibiotics for my right stump, I was socked in by an unanticipated blizzard.

FW: My GPS says this road cuts under the interstate, but now I’ve got to go around.
RoW: What’s GPS?

RANT: There’s nothing worse than hyperbole!

There's nothing worse than a dictator with an angry army of warcocks!

There’s nothing worse than a dictator with an angry army of warcocks!

I’m taking a stand against the phrase, “There’s nothing worse than…”

OK, feel free to continue using it for saying, “There’s nothing worse than…

-Nazis.”

-nuclear Armageddon.”

-cancer.”

-catching on fire.”

-shrapnel in the face.”

-losing one’s job to a machine that isn’t even artificially intelligent.”

I’ll accept a bit of hyperbole because there’s no objective and universally-accepted way to determine who was worse, Hitler or Pol Pot. And it’s legitimate to exaggerate one’s personal crises–provided that crisis isn’t something like having the seat warmer go on the fritz in your SUV.

My problem is hearing,  “There’s nothing worse than…

-spotty cell phone reception.”

-when it takes 30 minutes to get your oil changed.”

-when a pay-per-view bout ends in the first round.”

-an empty Nutella jar.”

-when the elevator is broken and I have to walk all the way to the second floor.”

-getting in the line behind someone who still writes checks.”

Clearly, there are many things worse than any one of those things, or even all six of them happening on the same day. If you can’t think of one, you should get out more. I’m not saying one should be constantly comparing one’s problems with the biggest disasters in the world. Nor am I saying that, in the scheme of things, your  piddly-ass problems don’t matter. I’m just calling for perspective. It’s hard to take someone seriously who can’t imagine a fate worse than a cracked lid on a Starbucks half-caf latte.

The Most Intense Blockbuster You’ll Never See

REV_Kirkpatrick-designAmong the Kindle Daily Deals yesterday was a book entitled Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick. It was well-timed to a news story about a Korean War Veteran, Merrill Newman, whose video statement as a prisoner of the DPRK was released the same day. Anyway, I bought the book and I’m hooked. The stories it contains are a mix of chilling and thrilling.

As I began reading, I wondered why no one had made a major Hollywood blockbuster based on an escape from North Korea. It’s a journey fraught with peril. There’s so much to go wrong from being shot in the back crossing the Tumen River to being repatriated to being double-crossed by smugglers to falling into the hands of traffickers or other predators. Adding to the challenge is the fact that most North Koreans are severely undernourished, and each is on his or her own for the first part of the trip–getting across the border. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for North Koreans to stick out physically because they’re unusually small and, as pointed out by one of Kirkpatrick’s sources, prone to bad hair and split ends.

I know these are words that writers despise but the screenplay practically writes itself.

Then I remembered, oh yeah, this will never be a movie because China’s government would be one of the villains, and Hollywood isn’t in the business of making films that PO the Chinese any more. Why is China the villain? Well, it’s not the main villain. That distinction, of course, goes to the Kim dynasty, presently personified by Kim Jong Un–who has been the biggest bastard yet when it comes to escapees. China’s policy is one of repatriation. It would be kinder for China to just execute the North Koreans themselves. One of the stories early in the book is about an entire family that was to be sent back who–having eaten their first decent meal in a long time–decided to die full and committed suicide while in Chinese custody. Lest one think that this is a Communist thing, Kirkpatrick points to Vietnam as one of the countries that quietly helps North Korean escapees get to safety. Like the democracies that do so, Vietnam keeps this on the down-low to avoid cheesing off the Chinese, but at least they do it.

Why would such a movie be good? Because everybody needs to know what’s going on, and movies are the surest injection point into the public consciousness. There have been books and documentaries about this for years, but I don’t think most people realize how bad it is.

I should point out that there have been films on the subject. The Crossing, made in South Korea, is probably the most well-known feature film on the subject. It’s about a father who crosses the border to get medication for a wife, but ends up stuck on the other side of the border during which time his wife dies and his boy becomes–for all intents and purposes–an orphan. This film is apparently based on a true story.

And there have been a number of documentaries on the subject. The Defector: Escape from North Korea is one of the best.

This is the book trailer for the Kirkpatrick book.

DAILY PHOTO: How Many People Fit in an Auto-Rickshaw?

Taken October 12, 2013 in Agra, India

Taken October 12, 2013 in Agra, India

It’s a question that has been debated since the dawn of the Tuk-tuk. Like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-Roll Tootsie-Pop, attempts to definitively answer the question have resulted only in controversy. The question?

HOW MANY PEOPLE FIT IN AN AUTORICKSHAW?

In the highfalutin cities, people think that nobody is supposed to ride upfront with the driver, but elsewhere they’ve figured out that you can put at least one man on either side of the driver (as long as the weight of each man is fairly evenly matched–there’s only one tiny front wheel after all.) How many one can fit in the back is influenced by the average yoga skill level of the riders and whether one has any Twister (TM) grand-champions on board. 

There are myths of tuk-tuks containing entire villages tooling down the back-roads. Theoretical physicists tell us that you can pack them in until their density forms a self-sustaining black-hole, and then everybody out to the event horizon is drawn in… ya-da-ya-da-ya-da.

The answer is: “a lot.”

 

Rat’s Ass ≠ Flying Fuck

I get that nobody cares about the backside of a rodent. It’s clearly the toothy, gnawing front end that’s on people’s minds. So how is a “rat’s ass” synonymous with “flying fuck?” This isn’t a rhetorical question, people. I’d really like an answer.

So the fact that it’s preceded by “Who gives a…” makes me assume that a “flying fuck” isn’t anything that anyone much cares about. It’s like a rat’s ass, a goat’s gonads, or politician’s promise–no one cares. But wait. It seems to me that a flying fuck would be something that all parties concerned would take great interest in. Alright, I’m not  hip to all the maneuvers of the Kama Sutra, but I imagine  a flying fuck to be when a man with a woody gets a running start,  leaps up in the air in a horizontal configuration, and comes down so as to impale his partner’s lady bits. That’s like throwing a javelin to land a whole-in-one in the cup on the green of the 9th hole.

Is this a flying fuck?

Is this a flying fuck?

Even if I was a thrill-seeker, unconcerned about the threat of a sprained penis (it’s a real thing, look it up), I think my wife would care enough to be firmly opposed. If people weren’t scared of the flying fuck, it’d be all the rage.

Alright, let’s assume I’ve misinterpreted the term. Let’s say that a “flying fuck” really refers to being a member of the Mile High Club. Everybody cares about that. The man wants to celebrate it. The woman doesn’t want to be caught in a slutwalk of shame back to her seat. You can be damn sure the guy who’s locked out of the lavatory after having eaten a vending machine tuna salad sandwich from Concourse B cares greatly. Everybody cares about the flying fuck.

I can’t even imagine what else a flying fuck could be, but whatever it is I have trouble believing that nobody cares.

It can’t just be the alliteration.  Acrobat’s accountant, billionaire’s bunion, crooner’s cookie-jar, etc… are all alliterations that we care less about than a flying fuck.

So if you can shed some light, I’d be happy to hear an explanation. I do, truly, give a flying fuck.

The Puzzling Sexuality of India

India, land of the Kama Sutra, is prudish. America is known for being pretty puritanical–at least if you don’t compare it to Muslim countries. In the U.S., for some reason, we would rather a child see a human cleaved into eight individual pieces with a machete than to be witness to a nipple slip. Well, India censors the innuendo and sexual references  that sailed right past the FCC.

On the street, my wife and I can expect odd looks for holding hands and worse for a smooch. In the city, this rarely amounts to more than a sidelong glance, but we’re told in the countryside the people can be more vocal. (We’ll see, we’re planning our first trip into the countryside for next weekend.) On the other hand, young men routinely hold hands with other men, and the same is true of pairs of young women. Same-sex hand-holding is par for the course, but hand holders of the opposite sex are breaking mores. Some may say that the difference is same-sex hand holding isn’t sexually-charged, but I think it strains credulity to think both that different-sex hand holding is always inherently sexually charged and same-sex hand holding is never sexually charged.

Anyway, one would expect that a country that was so comfortable with same-sex public displays of affection (PDA) would have liberal views about homosexuality. No. Until 2009 homosexuality was a crime, and there is still rampant Ahmedinejad-style denial that homosexuality exists in this country. (Ahmedinejad is the Iranian president who– in an act of denial that was stunning, though in character–stated that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Iran.) To add another wrinkle, I’ve read that some men, who would be fighting-mad to be described as anything other than straight, routinely engage in behaviors that most would find indicative of homosexuality or bisexuality (we are talking well beyond hand holding or a kiss on the cheek here.)

There are a couple of reasons why young people who vehemently identify as straight might engage in sexual behaviors that are not. First, there are those who are homosexual and are either in the closet or in denial. One expects that there are many people who fit into this category in India because of the tremendous pressure to live a traditional family life–whatever else one may do on the side. In many countries, “denial” and “the closet” might cover the gamut of explanations for such anomalous behavior. However, in India there is a second reason that one might associate with places where men and women are strictly segregated over long periods of time (think a prison.) That is some of these the aforementioned people presumably are heterosexual, but have no sexual outlet because they don’t have any private interactions with people of the other sex who are not their blood relatives. So in an ironic twist, in society’s attempt to rigorously enforce and control a “traditional” paradigm of heterosexual familial units, more unions that do not fit that model are created than otherwise would be.

So you may be wondering whether I’ll be explicit about what I find “puzzling” about Indian sexuality. It’s a little puzzling that the culture that brought us the Kama Sutra and vast orgiastic bas reliefs on the temple at Khajuraho would have a problem with a couple hugging in the park or who choose for themselves with whom they are intimate. The overwhelming trend across most of the world is to become more tolerant of consenting adult’s freedom to exercise their sexuality as they see fit. Granted, there are certainly other examples where there has been a countervailing trend. Caligula’s Rome versus the Rome of today. Also, it should be noted that over a recent time span India seems to becoming more tolerant, and thus following the trend—if slowly.

Another thing I find puzzling is that by some measures the Indian approach seems to work. Following the incentives, I’d expect the Indian system of arranged marriage and limited premarriage intergender interaction to result in nothing but heartache. Indians will point out that their divorce rate is infinitesimally low. However, one then has to then consider other questions such as whether it results in more spousal murders, marriage related suicides, and vow-breaking. In other words, are there other means of marriage terminations that take place in a society that for all intents and purposes doesn’t allow divorce?

There is something particularly pernicious in Indian society called dowry murders. This is when a man and his mother set the man’s bride on fire so that they can erase the marriage and start all over in search of more bling. (That’s got to max out the bad karma.) Dowries were made illegal because of this, but both dowries and dowry murders continue. India does have a high suicide rate (though not as high as the US’s), but I have no idea whether any studies have been done to try to isolate the role of a bad marriage. I also can’t say whether there is evidence that “stepping out” on the marriage is higher in India. While there is plenty of evidence that this goes on, like anything related to sex, few Indians talk about it.

The Deferential Calculus of Being an American in India

Every time I come home, the security man at the desk at our apartment building jumps to his feet and proceeds to stand at attention until I pass. This makes me uncomfortable, as do the many other ingrained acts of deference that occasionally border on obsequiousness. I’ve considered stopping to tell him he can be permanently “at ease” with me, but given the language barrier I’m afraid I’d just confuse the issue–plus have him standing at attention that much more longer. So, when in Rome…

If you’re an American, but not, say… General Pershing, you’d probably find this makes you uneasy as well. I think one of the reasons that Americans have historically excelled at technological development  is that we were in a hurry to have machines do our laundry, wash our dishes, or trim our nose hairs so that we wouldn’t have to have some other human apparently kowtowing to us. (This may be why the 19th century North was considerably more technologically advanced than its Southern counterpart, which had successfully rationalized a subclass of human being.)

There’s a guy who stands at the end of the lane and lifts a swing arm up and down every time a car (or, oddly, a pedestrian such as myself) comes down the lane. The first couple times I walked around the end in hopes of indicating to him that, “Hey, see you don’t really need to swing that thing up, I can just walk right around it, easy as pie.” I think I hurt his feelings, or–perhaps worse–undermined his reason for getting up in the morning. My point is that operating a swing-arm barrier is a perfect example of the type of job that has been completely mechanized in America.

I’m sure that cultural differences are the root of my discomfort. India is coming from the caste system, whereby who you were born to determined your status in a rigidly hierarchical structure. While Indians may have dropped the caste system, the underlying thought process dies hard. I, on the other hand, come from a culture which believes that on a fundamental level we are all equal. Americans are often stymied as to why we are viewed as being arrogant by other cultures. This may be a failure to see things in the same light. It’s not so much that we project that we are better than the average Joe, it’s that we don’t accept that the kings and holy men those cultures hold dear are above us. This is true. I don’t think I’m better than the door man, but I also don’t think the King of [Fill in the blank] is better than me. [OK, the perception of arrogance is also partly that we’re loud and expect a ubiquity of comfort that is simply not available in much of the world. There is that. And the fact that our leaders often think they can fix every problem everywhere, and–given this is not actually true–we have left a lot of chaos in the our wake since our rise to hegemony.]

So the whole culture thing is part of it. However, I also worry that the man who brings my food with a warm smile and a bow is spitting in it. I wonder if the lady who launders my clothes, and then goes the extra mile by ironing them (though they mostly consist of T-shirts and jeans), might be preparing an itching powder attack. I wonder if the security guy standing at attention is just waiting for me to lock myself out of my apartment so that he can exercise some passive aggressive payback. [I suspect this is why Indian bureaucracy is notoriously slow and prickly. It’s a desire to exercise the leg up on has while one is in other ways part of an underclass.] I heard a comedienne of Indian origin say that her mother always flew British Airways just for the delight of bossing a Brit around. All of this consternation is because I worry that they think that I think I’m superior to them, which I don’t.

Yesterday I was eating at an Indian fast food joint called Kaati Zone. It’s one of those places that you order at the counter, get your food at the counter, and take it to one’s table. (FYI- this set up is much less common here except for little holes in the wall where one stands to eat.) When I was done, I pitched my trash in the trash can and put my tray on top, just like one would at a Wendy’s. When I turned around there was a young woman with her jaw agape and eyes wide looking right at me. My first thought was that I had pitched my wallet or my journal in the trash. I did a pat down and found I was alright. As I left, it dawned on me that her surprise may have had something to do with my handling of my own garbage.