Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Case of 27 Oranges

In relation to my previous post, I have come to a strong conclusion that we Indians know and care little about other cultures. We can ramble about our cities, the diversity of North-South India, weather etc. But rarely is a similar curiousity expressed for others. In a food court or street peppered with a dozen outlets, we plonk ourselves in a place with closest resemblance to Indian food. In the world of cuisines, we are the ultimate risk-averse chicken.

As an antidote to this I decided to improve my behaviour starting this year. My resolution for 2009 - "Understand other Cultures of Asia".

The first event to exercise this was the Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year on 26th-27th January 2009. What earlier seemed to be just a bunch of holidays now posed a serious opportunity to learn stuff. The good part of the story is that I along with my flatmates visited Chinatown on New Years' eve - enjoyed fresh Sichuan cuisine, bought some touristy junk, and watched some live dance performances. I of course will focus on the derailed part of the project - the case of 27 oranges.

Along with the other items purchased at Chinatown, we bought a large box of oranges. Oranges, in Chinese tradition, signify wealth and it's common practice to gift it to others during this period. Now even though it had been 5 months since we shifted into the apartment, we hadn't met our neighbours formally. So I proposed to use this New Year event to bond with our Chinese friends.

Since this was a new strategic social move for me, there were a couple of scenarios which I ran in my head to prepare myself better:

Best Case Scenario
Get invited to their home. Hand over the oranges to a gushing mother and a fatherly uncle. Given a chance, talk briefly about current job and background. Ask about their celebration plans. Display the suspicious glutinous rice cake bought at Chinatown. Act cute and smile. Get a motherly giggle from the aunty followed by some practical tips on how to cook that formidable lump. Get back home delighted with an air of success.

Most Likely Scenario
Get invited to their home. Politely hand over the oranges with wishes. Ask about their celebration plans. Exchange names and some information. Exit as the conversation dribbles down. Get back home happy.

Worst Scenario
Do not get invited into their home. Hand over the oranges from the door itself. Exchange names. Get back home satisfied.

Along with Rohan, I practiced the Mandarin version of the greeting to perfect it "Gong Xi Fa Cai", "Gong Xi Fa Cai". On 26th morning, armed with a heavy case of 27 oranges, we were almost ready to head out. Then Rohan popped his catastrophic doubt - "Isn't a case of 27 oranges too much for a polite gift? How would we feel if our stranger neighbours gave a big box of Kaju Barfi on Diwali?"

He had a good point. So we sat back on the couch and revised our plans. What would be the correct number of oranges to hand over as a casual neighbourly gift? In our head we drew the marketing benefits ladder, pyramid and matrix to arrive at an optimum number. It may seem simple to you. But considering the chasm of cultural nuances it was probable that we'd end up gifting a number considered impolite, or worse a bad omen. The internet wouldn't have helped - It is much harder to google for superstitions than facts. So we ruled out standard bad numbers - 3, 7, 11, 13. Final consensus: Not too much, not too little: 12.

Dropping randomly selected dozen oranges in a red bag, wearing a red t-shirt, oozing enthusiasm, we walked out to the opposite home's door and rang the bell. Through the grilled door, we meekly peeked in and found some cartoon programme on the television and no sign of people. We waited and rang the bell again.A little girl came to the door possessing an unmistakable disposition of someone whose television routine had been rudely interrupted. Respecting her impatience, I went directly to the punchline.

"Hello!", I joyfully greeted.
She smiled.
I extended the bag over the door and greeted loudly "Gong Xi Fa Cai !"
She smiled. She gracefully jerked the bag of oranges through the grill. And in a split second, she disappeared from the door back to her psychedelic world of Pokemon.

We stood outside the door and waited.
"Now what?"
"I don't know. Maybe the aunty will turn up at the door now."
We waited.
My brain had prepared for a spectrum of scenarios with the parents. I hadn't expected a chirpy kid to outsmart such planning.
Rohan sighed. "Let's go back."

It's now three days post New Years. The remaining 15 oranges are still lying in our home. Now we can't act sanguine and dump them on another neighbour. If oranges signify wealth, what do old oranges imply? Old wealth? Depreciated goods? Inflation?

My first attempt at understanding Asian cultures hasn't been quite a success. Ironically, it was some Asian cartoon on TV which ruined my plans. Maybe 12 wasn't a lucky number for us after all.



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"Gong Xi Fa Cai" to all readers!. Read more about:
The Chinese New Year
Why oranges are gifted on CNY

7 comments:

  1. sad post. not funny. tum kab sudhroge!

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  2. My sister has some Chinese neighbors and she tells me that they are not that friendly by culture. They don't mix with people of other cultures.

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  3. I htink your conclusion is a tad biased and not entirely correct. I'd love to hear why you think so

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  4. @Anonymous: I believe you are the same one who has kindly left acerbic comments in all my posts around Dec-Jan. If you have consecutively not enjoyed a couple of articles, then logic indicates that it is time for you to hop to another blog. Of course, you are welcome to read every one of them and get pissed. Your choice.

    @ Reema: Your sister's case leads to the same dilemma (as I faced before composing my thoughts on Indians vs. the rest on cuisine). Can we generalize based on smaller sets (e.g: My neighbours are not friendly vs. Chinese are not friendly?). Tough question.

    @ Adi: I've served up this generalization (without cushioning it) based on the behaviourial differences I've seen here in Singapore for the last 6 months. The restaurant bit is factual - I mean, either you enter an Indian outlet or you don't. So I can back that up with surety. But the conversation/interest bit...well, that is just a gut feel and in a way a bigger bubble based on the restaurant behaviour. For cultural differences, there will never be numbers to support it (like stating that Australians have a great sense of humour etc).
    Thank you for asking though. Maybe I'll create an independent post on generalizations itself!

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  5. I agree with the first para totally, though of course with due respect to the exceptions. And I also have experienced chinese mistrust (@ work) though even that could be an exception.
    As for your adventure, I feel sad for the oranges :)

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  6. @ Renu: The sad orange adventure ended on a happy note yesterday, when the aunty gifted back oranges and a box of chocolates too! And thank you for agreeing with me on the generalization - I've been through multiple heated discussions for putting up that piece :)

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  7. ah you write well

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