Part of the re-entry experience of being back in the States has been dealing with a perception of sterility, or a general feeling of unnaturalness-by-contrast. I’ve noticed things big and small, insignificant and troubling that I suppose were always there, yet somehow consistently under the radar. Perhaps the struggle to keep them from falling back under the radar is an egotistical one– a way to create a separation and a superiority (that amounts to a disservice to myself and my situation), yet that struggle also highlights another part of the challenge of being in any place: balancing appreciation and gratefulness for the strengths and advantages of a given environment while trying to incorporate the best elements of things that are lacking. You can make a philosophical argument about how every moment is essentially perfect and lacking nothing, and no doubt there is much truth in that, but so long as you continue to perceive imperfection in a situation, it is incumbent upon you to do something to bring in more harmony and balance. Otherwise your unrealized belief in the perfection of the moment is simply a breeding ground for laziness and yet another subtle niche for ego to hide.
I’ll share some mundane examples of what feels odd here or unnatural-by-contrast.
In India, a few hours after breakfast my teeth would have a noticeable film of plaque. In America, plaque takes all day to form. I’m using the same toothbrush and toothpaste. The only difference is the food and water. What’s in our food and water that keeps plaque from forming in my mouth? And what else is it killing if it kills the bacteria?
In India, a ripe piece of fruit sitting out will be swarmed by insects and rot by the end of the day. In America, ripe fruit seems to go days without insects or bacteria even caring. I started a compost bin in my uncle’s yard on July 20th. In 14 days, nothing has rotted and there are barely any insects present on the scene. What’s in our food or soil that makes it so sterile, so inhospitable to life? And what does that do to us?
When I left America, my hair was thinning. Not really male-pattern baldness, just an overall global thinning. After many months in India, it seems to have regained thickness. Used the same shampoo here and there. In the U.S., shower water stings my eyes. In India, bathing water seems totally neutral in my eyes. What’s in our water here that makes my hair fall out?
There’s litter almost everywhere in India. Yet during the normal course of just a single day in America, I produce more garbage than I create over several weeks in India. And I’m careful about waste I generate. While India’s ground pollution is a troubling eye-sore, it represents the trash problem closer to its reality there, whereas America’s relative cleanliness feels like a coddling lie that hides the problem and can only serve to make our situation worse.
Air pollution in Indian cities is clearly visible. You eyes, nose, and lungs feel it, and you’ll cough if you get a big whiff of bad stuff. Yet when it rains, the air becomes pretty clear and fresh. In America, especially Los Angeles, I use more gasoline in a day than I’ll use in more than a month in India. From the looks of it, the air is much cleaner than the air in India, but how can that be when orders-of-magnitude more fuel gets burned here? Feels like India’s air pollution is particulate— dust particles, smoke particles, etc, while America’s air pollution is molecular— nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, CFCs etc.
In India, I’ve shared a rickshaw with 8 other people. When leaving LAX, I was marveling at how 8 people required 8 cars and 4 lanes of the 405 freeway, and how much waste was built into the American way.
My last two weeks in Ahmedabad, I had a bathroom with a shower as opposed to a bucket and cup. I could fully bathe with just under one and a half gallons of water, so that shower felt incredibly luxurious though it barely outputted a half-gallon a minute. In America, my uncle’s “low-flo” two-gallon-per-minute showerhead drowns in an under-utilized deluge.
In India, there are people and more people everywhere. You can’t help but be around people. Even when you don’t want to be around people, people are around you. Its almost inescapable, and initially taxing, but it quickly forces you to be real. Anything less than realness with others takes so much energy to maintain. In America, having lots of people around is a special occaison where people seem to save up energy to put on their best face. But all those faces seem like masks, and all I feel like doing is smiling at what’s underneath, trying to coax away the costume.
In India, when its hot, I sweat. I’ve got no choice and little escape, so very little mental energy goes into processing physical comfort or lack thereof. In America, when its hot, I turn on the A/C. Automatic climate control in the car. I minutely note and am acutely aware of the difference between 71 degrees F and 72 degrees F. With that level of granularity and control, I notice mental energy again being wasted in considering and seeking after an unnatural and unnecessary physical comfort. Only yesterday did I recognize this re-emerging tendency and made efforts to thwart it.
In India, you can just walk into your neighbor’s house. Or almost anyone’s house for that matter. The poorest live in shanties on the side of the road, so much like Santa, you know when they are sleeping and know when they are awake. You know if they’ve been bad or good, or good for goodness sake. America is all doors and shutters. Here, seeing a friend takes coordination and scheduling. Showing up unannounced to all but the closest of the close is rude and inconsiderate, while doing so in India feels like its giving someone cause for celebration.
When you clean up in America, it gets things off the street and gets them to go “away”. When you do it in Ahmedabad it starts a revolution where participation turns into awareness, both of which snowball while starting to tip the balance toward behavior change at something closer to the root of the problem. Up-zoning done right.
I’d choose a harsh and unpleasant truth to a mollifying lie any day. Or so I tell myself. The trash sweeping, the up-zoning that sits at the core is one that seeks to move from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light.
Up-zoning to the Real…