The city I live in has been in the news for the last two weeks. First came the survey that pegged Singapore as the most expensive city to live in, more expensive than Paris! This week it has been tagged “misery city” by BBC freelance writer Charlotte Ashton for her experience on the Singapore metro where she wasn’t offered a seat or asked about her wellbeing as she struggled with pregnancy-related nausea. Both times, there has been public debate, several inches of newspaper columns devoted to discussions about reasons for and actions against such incidents respectively.
My reaction on both occasions began with a roll of the eyes and “What kind of a place have I come to?” I am still figuring out bus routes and the business district. Hawker centers and hang baos are terms I have newly added to my vocabulary. My Singlish stinks, so does durian. Such news doesn’t help quell my settling-down jitters. Its tough enough to plan for an impending college education while living in the most expensive city without feeling that we are inhabiting a society that suffers from a massive “compassion deficit” as the BBC article says.
The first time I left my home in urban India to move to the USA, I remember feeling forlorn. For one, I could hardly see people in suburban Washington DC, when compared to the millions I had grown up with Mumbai. The sheer vastness of the country made me feel trivial even though the density of the Mumbai population should have made me feel insignificant. But I was the outsider, looking in. My eyes were accustomed to the dust and haze of city life in a developing country. The expressways and cleanliness didn’t bring comfort; they only highlighted the differences. I worried about safety in deserted train compartments during the day and taking a cab alone at night. In Mumbai I roamed free, safe in the anonymity and presence of many strangers who milled around at all times of the day and night.
The few I encountered in America seemed pleasant, mouthing a “hello” as they walked past. A kind lady once dropped me home from the train station when my ride did not show up. The train conductor consoled me another evening when I woke up right after the train left my station. A young woman offered to pay for me at Taco Bell when I ordered a meal only to find out that I had left my wallet at home. But there was also the grumpy old man who loudly proclaimed, “we walk on the right side of the path in this country” to my mother and me as we pushed the stroller with DQ around the park in California. And the attendant at the gas station who saw me every week but spoke to me only once, the week after Sep 11, 2001, to ask where I was from.
Growing up in Mumbai, taking the public transport everywhere, I experienced fear when pushed into and out of crowded trains, shame when groped by strangers and anger when people boarded buses without standing in line. A benevolent man once brought my 11-year-old brother home after taking him to a doctor for first aid when he fell from a public bus. He refused to take money either for the medical treatment or taxi fare for returning him home safely. I have taken shelter under the umbrellas of strangers when caught in an unexpected downpour during the monsoons. I have relied on fellow travelers to guide me to the correct bus routes when traveling to unfamiliar parts of the metropolis.
I didn’t think poorly of Indians when I lived there because that was my milieu. I didn’t jump to conclusions about Americans just because I was in an unfamiliar environment. The sum total of my experiences was merely a collective recollection of individual episodes, governed by random situations with a distinctive set of people in each instance. Perhaps if the people involved were different, I would have different stories to tell. No matter how accepting we consider ourselves, how open we think we are to new people and places, we hold biases which may ride on the surface like a leaf on water or lurk beneath like a stingray. And depending on the stimulus, our belief surfaces, clouding our reading of a one-off situation, making us paint the rest of our stay with the same brush.
The value of an immersive experience in another country depends on our ability and the ease with which we see the people around us, not as representatives of preconceived stereotypes or statistical data to be verified but for what they are, fellow humans. We may not share the same skin color and racial characteristics but we are all united in humanness. And that includes the errors in judgment that we make, whether it is in not offering a seat to a fellow passenger on a train or in labeling every person in the country as lacking compassion for doing so. To set this right, someone has to take the higher moral ground. Who will rise first?