Being a foreigner in a country often makes you more receptive, heightening your sensitivity to your surroundings and the people you are amidst. The mind hungrily laps up everything it encounters only to chew upon it later and draw impressions that become foundations of your rapport with the new land. Separated from the motherland by thousands of miles, not only do we begin to view things with a new perspective and realise that there are two sides to every coin, but we also learn to value basic aspects about our own culture whose importance we had never quite understood all these years.
A casual conversation with an office colleague fuelled a volley of thoughts in my head, compelling me to ponder about human relationships and concepts like money and independence. While out on my fifteen-minute break from work, I took a seat on the bench outside the office and was soon joined by another member of our team, also out on his break. A young boy, who had just entered his twenties, this was his first real job, he said. He reached into his bag for a box of muffins and helped himself to one. His mother had made two tray full of muffins to take along to her workplace but he and his friends had unknowingly polished most of them off, much to her astonishment on seeing the empty molds. This is a common scenario in every household – especially ones with ever-hungry teenagers always on the hunt for finger foods to tuck into. I smiled as a myriad childhood memories flooded my mind, of times we had sneaked in to “steal” and devour delicious eats that my mother had painstakingly made… that were meant to be hidden from us until after the guests had left.
It was what he said then, that pulled me out of my reverie and set off a chain of thoughts that forced me to contemplate on life itself. “I paid my mom the exact price for the box of muffins – so it’s all fair and square now”, he said nodding with satisfaction, “I’m glad I could pay her with my own money!”
Now this was something we would never, in our wildest imaginations, have thought of doing – whether or not we were earning our “own” money. At most, we would have offered to do an errand to the shops and fetch a box of cupcakes for her to take to work, to save her the bother of stepping out, or promised to pitch in and help her make more muffins. But paying one’s mother for having dug into food seemed such a clinical response to me, a strange way to “compensate.” Did not such an act take away all the warmth from the relationship or was I reading too much into a simple incident?
In retrospect, this episode made me stumble upon the most basic difference between the east and west. It was all about being exacting, measured and individualistic as against the inclusive cultures that dominate the eastern school of thought. In the west, it is the individual that is the unit- which is why people learn to be financially independent at an early age and understand the wisdom in disconnecting finances from relationships.
I guess that is why the east and west are intrinsically different in their approach to life in general. Maybe there is no right or wrong, it’s just a matter of outlook.