Bewildered by generosity

Western manners don’t teach us how to respond to non-Western hospitality.

I’m talking about generosity that’s over-and-above what we’re used to. The sort of generosity where saying please or thank you is shunned as unnecessary, or even taken as slightly offensive.

India is famous for its hospitality, and lately I’ve been feeling confused about how to respond to the one-sidedness of things: Meals that never end, being constantly told to put my wallet away, and the hotel attendant who follows me to my door, then jumps inside to flip on the lights before I enter the room.

It can be hard for independent travelers to accept hospitality. When you’re used to relying on yourself, sometimes it’s difficult to relax and rely on others.  Or maybe you too have had friends tell you they’re sick of you asking to crash on their couch. I’ve lost friends this way, and the result is a constant nag — “Am I imposing?”

Plus, when your life is condensed to a backpack, there’s little you can offer in return. Even at home, those saving-for-travel studios and sharehouses aren’t conducive to feats of hosting.

Here in Mirzapur, the family that owns the restaurant across the street hasn’t let me pay for a meal in over a month. I don’t have one of those do-don’t cultural guidebooks, and don’t know the right response.  I try with gifts, namastes, and happy belly patting, but I’m starting to think it’s OK if I don’t figure it out. Maybe there’s no “it” — no response needed, nothing special to do.

The generosity might just be one big chunk of evidence that as independent as I think I am, I’m really not. I’m dependent, clueless, and there will always be so much I don’t understand. This is the ancient treatment reserved for goofy, smiling, piecemeal-Hindi foreigners.  OK, fine, I’ll accept the truth.

Tomorrow I’ll leave as bewildered as I was at the beginning, feeling indebted. However, hopefully part of my keeping-score Western mind will see my hosts’ smiles as genuine, and will consider the possibility that even without a common language, their memories will be as good as mine.

How do you walk the tightrope of giving and receiving?

Photo by Charles Haynes via Flickr.

Posted by | Comments (8)  | May 5, 2010
Category: Ethical Travel, Food and Drink, Hospitality

8 Responses to “Bewildered by generosity”

  1. Ashley Says:

    Perhaps 20 minutes of teaching them some English may have resulted in you feeling less indebted.? Particularly if you can help the kids.
    Learn some basic teaching skills and you can make a real difference to them .

  2. Andrea Says:

    You can always just pass the goodness along by doing something nice for someone else along your travels. I’m sure they would be happy with that (though they probably wouldn’t find out). It’s a karma solution…

  3. Hethir Says:

    I have also experienced this when I travel and wonder what to do. What a wonderful problem 🙂

  4. Consume & Update on a Saturday?! | nomadderwhere Says:

    […] wrote a quality piece this week at Vagablogging about non-Western hospitality that pointed to our often short-lived hospitality at home. […]

  5. tania greener Says:

    just registered an NGO with a friend in Kabul Afghanistan. . .Generosity International Holistic Hope for Humanity First. . . I have been in Kabul for nearly two months now working and living with a Pakhtoon family and the generosity is humbling and overwhelming and one could never thank enough or repay them appropriately but it is their culture of hospitality…they would be offended if I didnt accept their hospitality. This culture would go hungry for a guest…they would give you their last meal with a smile; they would sleep cold at night by giving you their only blanket; they would give you their last glass of water and make sure you have anything and everything they think u might need as a Western visitor/guest. It is amazing to me and I am forever grateful and I sometimes wonder when I will no longer be considered a guest since I will be here for some time…I try to help out by clearing dishes and taking out garbage and occasionally washing dishes if i can sneak in and get them started without getting pushed out of the kitchen. I have given away all my bath and body products, and bracelets, and pens….im out of material goods to share as thank yous but i know they dont mind at all 🙂 <3