The land of Sorry’s and Thankyou’s

I am back in Toronto. Home sweet home.

Right from the time I exited the самолёт (समल्योत = aircraft) to the time I arrived home (90 minutes), I must have received 12 Thankyou’s and 5 Sorry’s, approximately. Quickly I panicked to restore my North American ‘polite’ avatar which I had, after intensely painful efforts, buried for over 3 months. This avatar had a nasty habit of sneaking up in unexpected places when I was in India or even Russia – leading to embarrassing situations – usually causing me to apologise for being ‘polite’ in the American way, which again was met with glares and a sympathetic ‘oh, the poor boy is Americanized’ look.

I was walking in the very crowded Moscow metro when the tip of my wrist brushed against the tip of a woman’s handbag who whizzed ahead of me. Like any normal person in Toronto would, I thought she was rude for not apologising to me but nevertheless I said by reflex, “I’m sorry, извиненте!” (इझविनीच)
The huge lady turned around, stopped and giving me a look said, “что?” (श्तो = what?)
I laughed inside my head, said “ничего” (निचीवो = nothing) to her and left.

I spent many hours explaining to both, Americans and Indians, what the American ‘polite’ manners mean. The Americans don’t understand why Indians never seem to thank or apologise (one survey even put Mumbai as least polite city in the world – imagine!) and the Indians don’t understand why critical words like Sorry and Thankyou are treated like commodity and used hundred times a day. Well, cultural differences are so beautiful and I discovered that in spite of living in India for first 25 years of my life, I could not, after just 2 years in Canada, switch to a different culture in an instant. Predictably, it will take me some time to get used to thanking and apologising hundred times a day here too. :)

Moscow from the sky
Moscow from the sky

My Аэрофлот (ऐरोफ्लोट Aeroflot) flight flew from Mumbai to Moscow, change plane, Moscow to Toronto. Aeroflot served me BEEF in my Hindu meal (will make a post with pictures on my travel blog), they are known to flatly refuse to serve plain Water (which is what Indians drink), served a drink called “chai” which they think is tea (well it is Russian tea), their flight was 4 (FOUR) hours late and their seats are designed for discomfort. Yet, I flew them because I had to go to Moscow and the ticket cost was too good to be true. I discovered that the airhostess had a bias against, well, Russians and non-Russian-looking-but-Russian-speaking people like me on one side compared to other non-Russian-looking-and-no-Russian-speaking people on the other. boooo. Nevertheless I found this international discrimination less insulting than what happens in Mumbai between different ethnic groups ironically belonging to the same country…

As the flight landed, I was deeply touched to see the passengers clap as a ‘thank you’ to the pilot.
“Nyet nyet” my neighbor said wisely, “They clap to thank God that the plane has finally landed. It’s Aeroflot, Russian airline!”

View from window
View from my window

I was finally glad to be home. Toronto looks beautiful, wrapped in a blanket of snow and occasionally glittering with a scarlet glow from the rays of the sun. I tried to sleep, but I was still tuned to IST. Still I tried to get into my bed and catch some sleep something that was difficult to get without the familiar barking of street dogs…

42 thoughts on “The land of Sorry’s and Thankyou’s

  1. Hi! You mentioned “American” politeness, which I think you meant to refer to North American, not USA. Sure enough, when I visited Toronto a couple of months back, that was the first thing I noticed. I have the impression that Canadians are more polite than their southern neighbors. Sure, people here in Buffalo say “Thank you” and “Sorry” plenty of times, and when I go down to New York City, it is the same thing, but the act did not strike me as frequent as much as when I was in Toronto. Heck, the security guards who scanned my bag in the Old City Hall even apologized to me when I asked if I could take pictures inside the building and he said no.

    So I am curious, how come you speak Russian?

    Oh and funny you mentioned about the hand clapping thing. I find that an interesting occurrence as well. I think the only time that happened to me was when I flew a domestic flight from Lima to Cuzco in Peru.

    • Hey Linguist-in-waiting (shall be called LIW from now :P),
      Yes I was indeed referring to North American politeness, which in itself varies a lot, yet it is very distinctive. Something like the western world collectively clubbing ‘Indian music’ as one genre whereas it can be split into so many types.
      I traveled to Russia few weeks back and that’s why I learnt Russian language. It’s one of the many (probably 6) languages I learnt so far but I can speak only 3-4 today.
      aha! I remember flying the other way – Cusco to Lima, and yes I recollect there was clapping involved… ;-) Thanks for the comment.

  2. Hi Priyank,

    Back to studies and work in Toronto….Great.

    It was nice meeting you in Mumbai and hope to see you sometimes soon.

    Mumbai is so crowded – the trains are packed, streets are crowded….we would be perpetually saying Sorry to each other.

    So, I gues some guy decided that we should dispense with this additional burden and get on with our work. After all if I were jostled in a train, it is not intentionally done….:)

    • Mavin: What? You are asking me to study and work? Why not suggest ice skating and sitar playing and picture taking instead… lol yes I have to find means to fill my stomach. It was very nice to meet you too!

  3. Welcome home and Happy 2009! I guess there are pro and cons to the American politeness. When I first arrived here in US, I found it rather strange for a stranger to pass a smile or hello. Now, I find it very polite to do so :D

    • Thanks Kiran. Yes indeed there are pro’s and con’s and therefore it’s not right to judge a culture at all, isn’t it ? :) I have the same ‘politeness’ virus in me now, hehehe!

  4. Priyank さん: In my book North Americans are not polite enough! He he he. Anyway you are the second now to tell me that Aeroflot refused water. You are also the second to tell me that they served Beef! He he he. This whole thing seems to follow a pattern. You should talk with Hedonist on my blog she is a frequent client of Aeroflot and she has many stories about the airline. I remember reading it in the news that one Aeroflot pilot managed to crash a brand new Airbus and killed everyone when he let his 13 year old kid ‘pilot’ the plane. Apparently the flight was between Hong Kong and Russia. So I can imagine why the clap. Wonderful picture by the way. Personally speaking I would rather do the Thank You and Sorry thing rather than taking it for granted. ありがとう!

    • Odzer-chan :)
      That was a scary story about Aeroflot! I’ll connect with Hedonist for sure. More than Beef or water, what I found painful was Aeroflot staff suddenly changing their attitude towards you if you speak Russian. Now this might stem from their being uncomfortable with English, or plain simple bias against foreigners. I don’t know. :)
      And yes, now even I find it very convenient (and natural) to thank or apologise.

  5. Hi Priyank, really nice post on your experiences with cultural differences especially related to politeness. It was quite an insight for me in Mumbai who dont even notice whose corns we have stepped on while rushing for the bus and train. As Mavin mentioned, our public transport, buses and trains are so crowded. Laloo Prasad can claim to have done much for national integrity by “bringing people closer” – at least in the trains! Hope to meet up again when you are here. And more importantly hope that you’re backpacked and perpetually in transit, as I have already wished!

  6. Beef in a Hindu food? And did you eat it? :)
    Glad to know that you landed safe. And I think its not only Americans but Britishers too who indulge in too many Sorrys and thankyous.

  7. Most passengers applauded and clapped hands when an Alitalia flight I was traveling in landed smoothly in Rome some years back. It was surprising to me then, and yea, kinda touching too.:)

    Snow storm, arctic-like winds blowing when it must be like..what -20 deg C or so!? *Brrr…**shiver* And you feel glad to be there??? Oh, it’s a case of “home, sweet home!” ;)

  8. Happy New Year Priyank…
    since folks are on to flight-funk, lemme pitch in too: in 2005 a team did Kol – B’lore on Deccan in thirteen hours (one-three, yup) with a six hour transit in Hyd! So when we finally took off from Hyd, people had given a huge trumpeting “yay” for some extra filip I guess and later had clapped hard when Dhakkan finally landed us at the B’lore tarmac :)

  9. @ Mridula : I love flying Air India! The ground staff is terrible. The crew and the planes are old but they do have excellent food and plenty of drinks! I would pick Air India any day over any European Carrier. As long as you bring your own laptop and watch your own movies it is OKAY!

  10. Priyank, you are so funny. Yes I was stunned with the cultural difference to, as everyone says Hi to each other and sometimes How are you from a stranger, where in Europe, you say only to those who you know. I don’t think how are you existed. Excellent entertaining story, and btw I like how you implemented russian words, I can actually recognize them. Hope all is well. Anna :)

    • SS: After coming back from Mumbai where my window was facing busy street, such views were pretty boring and lonely. Fortunately I now live at a busier place. Will post pics someday :)

  11. Well i had a reverse experience of sorts
    u know what i mean

    Tell me, after 3 months of India, don’t u feel that distinct lack of activity, smell, that rush and liveliness ?

    Me i think i should carry earplugs with me… cant take the din and noise and still am adjusting to sunlight in copious proportions here…

    • Hi Prax, your comments were going into spam due to the invalid email address you wrote.

      Fortunately for me, I live on one of Toronto’s busiest streets. There is plenty of noise of vehicles and people (sometimes too much) but yeah, no barking dogs. :)

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