Monday, February 28, 2005

y Tit(s) for x Tat(s)

How do you decide whether you should be nice or rude in any given situation? Till what point should you tolerate someone’s bad behavior. You can’t keep being nice to someone who is rude. On the other hand, you can’t be too mean or you would end up feeling badly yourself. So what are the ideal values of x and y?

There are some instances when insolence is necessary. For instance, the other day at Trader Joe's we were standing in an aisle picking up tomatoes when a lady snapped, "you have to move; can't block the aisle." I wasn't sure how to respond when my sister angrily replied, "We have to stop, you know. This is a grocery store." The lady came around with "oh I'm sorry, having a bad day." I looked approvingly at my sister. She thought I would get mad at her for it. But I was totally proud of her standing up for us like that, especially since my mom was there. I can't stand anyone being rude to my friends or family. I somehow feel that the lady would have behaved differently if it hadn’t been three mild mannered Indian women standing there. I’m sure she’ll be nicer with Indian women next time.

Another incident was when I lost my keys and my rental office manager was mean to me. She emailed me saying that I will have to get a locksmith to get it fixed, she won't let me in with their spare keys, and perhaps it was a lesson learnt for me. I was unsure about how to respond. I wrote back that I didn’t mind paying the extra $50. However, I had hoped for a more helpful attitude. The last statement was uncalled for. There was no lesson to be learnt; surely she must have found herself stuck in such situations before. I wasn’t outright rude, but the tone of message was harsh. Since then she has been extra nice to me, taking care of my apartment issues right away.

These episodes involved other women, but men can be obnoxious too. I have a harder time dealing with men’s indecency. For example, at Miami airport last month, when I approached a man to buy frozen yogurt, he smiled and extended his hand to shake mine. It seemed a bit weird for a shopkeeper to shake a customer’s hand, but I was on the other end of the continent and didn’t think much of it. He asked me where I was from, to which I responded with my standard “I’m from India; where are you from?” line. He told me he was from Egypt and suddenly asked me if I was single. After my affirmative response, he exclaimed “Really! Wow, I’m looking for a woman to marry. Think about it. Are all Indian women as beautiful as you are? ” I was totally taken aback. I wanted to say, “Are all Egyptian men jerks like you are?” Instead I smiled, took my frozen yogurt and walked back to my mom.

It is harder to decide how to react in a multi-cultural environment. You can never be sure what is acceptable in another culture. I was once complaining to a friend about Hispanic men cat-calling on the street near my work. He told me that it is actually considered flattering in Mexico. It’s more of a compliment than harassment. It’s like some people consider it rude if someone stands too close to you or asks your salary, both of which are acceptable in India.

However, there are times when a man’s intentions are obvious. Another instance was on the same Miami trip, in Key West actually. I was shopping for a wrap-around the sales guy (don’t know what’s up with the salesmen in Florida) took me in the back, looked around to check that no one was around, and lewdly said “you are a very sexy Indian lady.” I was walked out in disgust. My friends were amused and joked that I should have asked for free stuff. Back in San Francisco, another guy’s intentions were clearly pure when he man came up to me while I was working out. I was sweating it out on a stair master, with my headphones on, reading a book – what more indication does one want that I don’t want to be disturbed? Anyhow, he stood around so I took off my headphones and asked with a hint of irritation, “What’s wrong?” He asked me where I was from. To my standard response, he said, “I’m from Jamaica and I think you are very pretty. Your complexion is beautiful. I just wanted to say that.” And he walked away. I was flattered and a bit humbled.

There have been times when I’ve regretted overreacting and others when I’ve regretted under reacting. At work the other day a coworker made a bad Tsunami joke; something about how cool it would be to name a drink called Tsunami. I just looked at him in disbelief, but didn't say anything. I wish I had.

I recently read “The Selfish gene” in which Richard Dawkins asserts that evolution prefers niceness as a general rule, but only as an attribute displayed towards others who are nice. He explains with an experiment in which participants were asked to submit different strategies to win the game of Prisoner's Dilemma. The successful strategies were determined by playing them against each others in a seemingly infinite loop. The tit-for-tat strategy was deemed the most successful. Even the nicer tit-for-2-tats was a losing strategy, as were other meaner ones. Two traits selected were niceness (always cooperate unless opponent defects), and forgiveness (don’t remember who defected.) This is the general rule I will now try to apply in real life situations. Though it’s not that easy to forgive and forget.

My grandmother used to tell us a story. It won't be half as effective without her theatricals, but here goes. There was a snake that didn't have any friends. Other animals were afraid of it because it would bite them. The snake was very sad so it asked God, "Why don't I have any friends?" God replied, "If you bite others, how can they be friends with you? Be nice and you'll make tonns of friends." The snake followed God's advice and stopped biting other animals. Soon everyone lost their fear of the snake. Now they started stepping on it and hurting it. The snake went to God again and said, "Look what happened when I followed your advice. I still don't have any friends, in addition now everyone hurts me." God said matter-of-factly, "well of course. I told you stop biting. I never said you shouldn't hiss."

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Teary Eyed Day

My day yesterday started with the news that due to an avalanche a lot of people had died in J&K. The article was titled "Snownami" or something to that effect. I thought that was just mean. If the writer meant to play on the emotions of the Tsunami tragedy, he/she succeeded. My mom had told me about it the night while asking me to be careful if I was going to Tahoe for skiing and I hadn't paid much attention at that time.

In the evening we went to see "Black" which was a tear jerker. I tried very hard not to cry, but had tears in my eyes by the time the movie finished. I can't remember crying in a movie for the longest time. My two favorite parts of the movie are when Amitabh Bacchan is taking the little girl's first lesson and the power goes out. She is unfazed and he hurts himself. The second one was when Rani Mukherjee asks her teacher to kiss her. I was really surprised to see the sexual aspect even touched on. After the movie even a friend who I least expected said he was on the verge of tears.

On the way home I started falling deeper into the gloom and developed a mild headache. I didn't even have the energy to listen to a program on NPR in which James McBride was reading 2 short stories. My mind wandered to my upcoming citizenship interview. I was suppressing the thought since the appointment letter had come. I talked to my friends about it at dinner, but didn't get much sympathy. They dismissed me saying that don’t do it if you feel that way. But I do for different practical reasons. I just consoled myself thinking that it doesn't really matter. It's just a document and not having it won't make me any less Indian.

When we were done with dinner, in an effort to lighten the mood, we decided to rent "Page 3." It turned out to be another heavy movie. At one point I anticipated a child molestation scene. I hoped it wouldn’t be so, but in vain. It was absolutely horrifying despite the pre-sentience. It didn't make me cry though, just added to the heaviness.

Finally after the movie and the discussion ended, I decided to sleep it off. It was too late to drive back to the city so me and my other friend Anupam, who also lives in the city, decided to stay over at a friend’s place in South Bay. We spread our sleeping bags and comforters in the living room and I lied down while he checked his email. He opened a link which was A.R. Rahman's video of "Jan Gan Man." I can't explain why but it makes me very uncomfortable to listen to the National Anthem like this. I hate it when it’s played in a movie. I have to stand up, and if I’m stuck in the middle of a row, I have to disturb everyone and run to the back. I had a bitter argument with Anupam in the morning about it. When he challenged my standing up saying it was just a superficial gesture, the best I couldn’t come up with in my defense was that this is what I’ve been taught.

Anyhow, I stood up at 3 am in the morning and watched the video with him. It exaggerated the feeling of loss I had about giving up my Indian citizenship. When we finally went to bed I couldn't sleep. I told Anupam that I had to cry. He said sleepily, “sure go ahead.” Then after a while he added, a bit reluctantly, "Do you want a shoulder to cry on?" I said I did. (Reminded me of the Seinfeld episode about the girl who cried at everything and Jerry wasn't able to decide if he should make the effort to go over to her couch and pat her back.) I cried for a bit and went back to my side of the sleeping bag and slept soundly. In the end the real culprit turned out to be my hormones. PMS was the physical instigator, causing my emotional sensitivity, ultimately leading to a day of tears, that too a precious weekend day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Religion = opium for masses?

Up until recently one of my favorite quotes used to be "Religion is the opium for masses". I read this quote by Karl Marx in Ayn Rand's FountainHead a couple of years ago. Now I somehow feel that it’s not that simple. Here are some theories that I have read about human’s prevalent belief in God.

My favorite theory so far is by Desmond Morris. Monkeys live in groups and each group has an alpha male who protects them. We evolved from the foraging lifestyle so didn’t need to stay in groups. Hence the alpha male disappeared. But in our minds we retained the concept of an alpha male that ultimately translated into God.

Another theory I like is by Richard Dawkins. He defines "memes," analogous to genes, as a replicating unit of ideas/concepts; the primordial soup being our brains. He postulates that the meme of God was started by a few who wanted to control the minds of young people. The idea replicated in our minds and became highly successful because it gave us reassurance that someone is out there protecting us. And like some genes do well in conjunction with others, the God meme did well with the meme that suggests that you will suffer if you don't have faith.

Despite these ideas that the belief in God is a vestige from evolution or an idea propagated to control the masses, there seems to be a lot more to religion. Take for example, the havanas we do in India or the recitation of “Om.” It is said that the havanas purify the air and the vibration produced by reciting “Om” have a therapeutic effect. Coming from an Aryasamaji family the only prayer I know is the Gayatri mantra. I pray once a year on Diwali. This year I was going to celebrate at a friend's place in the evening and since none of my friends are religious, I decided to pray in the morning before leaving for work. I felt very calm and happy all day, I'm not sure if I can attribute it to prayer or the festive mood.

I'm not sure about Christianity, which seems a bit extreme to me, but Hinduism is a very philosophical religion. There is a so much to be learnt from the ancient scriptures. My first exposure was due to the TV showing of Ramayana and Mahabharta. I've heard the arguments that those TV shows deteriorated the condition of women in India. Anand Patwardhan's documentary "In the name of God" postulated that showing Sita burning promoted Satis. I did not agree with him when he said that the series shouldn't have been shown. In the discussion after the movie, I argued with him saying that just the other day in his lecture on censorship he had said that if an intellectual person sees a movie and doesn't get influenced to the point of causing unrest, it should not be censored. So the same should apply here. His response was that if that's all that's showing on TV it has a much greater influence and causes problems.

Science and Religion can coexist; they have different functions. As the physicist Brian Greene aptly put in his interview on NPR, science answers “how?” and religion answers “why?”.

Lesson learnt

A week ago, I started reading a book, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It's about our subconscious awareness. The idea is fascinating and I was intrigued. I read good reviews in NYTimes and New Scientist so decided to read it. The book however turned out to be a disappointment.

It was like when I have to write a 7 page paper and I don't have enough to write. I start writing interesting stuff and try to connect the disjointed ideas with the main idea to fill up space. The book has interesting stories, but they don't seem to giving any extra information. They are just there and then the author tries to connect them with the main idea, even if it doesn't make as much sense.

The book has less information than one lesson in the Introduction to Psychology class I took at San Jose State University. I'm not sure why everyone is raving about this book. It's another example of me not liking a popular book.

I ended up reading more than half of it. I kept reading in the hope that maybe there would be some information soon. Maybe he's just telling these stories to get the reader's interest, but doesn't seem like it anymore. I flipped through the rest of the book and it seems to be the same all the way through. I gave up in the middle of a bus ride, choosing to look outside at the dreary weather instead of suffering through the book.

I kind of believed that there is always something new to learn from a book, no matter how much one knows about the subject. Even on reading the same book again, one discovers new ideas overlooked the first time. I guess I was wrong after all. Now that is something new I did learn (rather unlearn) on reading this book.

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