Out of India – reverse culture shock

Here are nine drawings I did to help ease the reverse culture shock I felt upon leaving India (go to the start of the trip here) and arriving in Berlin 21 days ago.
I present the group in the order in which they were done,
unculled and unadulterated, raw. Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, DrawingSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing Samuel Nigro, Berlin, DrawingThis drawing exercise is basic. I start with ordinary, common material: office paper (8.5 x 11”) and a fine, rollerball office pen, which took away any pressure of treating the material as precious or with affectation. I just needed to get ideas out, and quickly. Spending somewhere between 16 and 43 minutes on each, I made a mark and then slowly made another and another, always building upon the previous one; gradually increasing speed, I marked again and again and again, building momentum as I went – the marks became lines; the lines, boundaries; the boundaries, forms and eventually I fell back to making marks again. Slowing down, I end the process as I feel my mind beginning to shift back to its everyday functionality.

For this post, I thought about listing the many differences between what I experienced in India and getting back to this shockingly familiar Western environment as a way to explain this reverse culture shock, but I decided against this, because any list that I came up with either came off as an unbalanced rant, or was void of context and open to misinterpretation. Over the last few years, writing and language has become more important to me, partially because of this blog, but more precisely because I have been asking different questions of myself and have needed a way to research them, which my trip to India has accelerated. I was warned years ago that if I wanted to excel at writing then don’t have a blog! This was told to me out of the belief that writing is rewriting and the writing process takes time to go deep and communicate the subtly of your subject (I see this now. I believe it); and that a blog, being biased toward clicks and links and views and the desire for immediate now-ness and short attention spans that the internet generates, is not conducive to this sort of reflection and review – in short, not conducive to good writing (I feel this one. Still thinking, and beginning to heed).

So, I am going to give myself more time to figure out how to process and communicate this India project, as I push to complete it, and to formulate what exactly the next project is going to be. I’m not deleting my Internet presence, but some redefining is in order. I will, however, try to convey the disjunction I feel in this transition from India with two short anecdotes.

I. First, since arriving in Berlin, I have not heard a car or motorcycle horn or bicycle bell once – not once! – which is a shock to my system, since in India honk, honk, honking and horns and bellowing, bumping and noise – dust – are everywhere, all the time, constantly. This probably has to do with the sheer concentration of people in India. From my perspective, the flow of people, conveyance and animals is thick, wild and relentless. I suspect the honking, which doesn’t seem to change behavior or influence the traffic in any discernable way, gives the honker a sense of control in this chaotic environment and an outlet for harsh emotions. The honking is totally in their control, something that they alone can do, when all around them there is uncertainty, such as policemen (who look more like soldiers to me) with sticks and clubs who will smack you if you disturb the flow (or maybe the police use those sticks to protect themselves from the river of traffic constantly coming at them – don’t know, probably both).

The more uncertainty, chance and unpredictability (perceived or otherwise) in a population’s environment, the more superstition, ritual and irrationality crop up. There are numerous studies to this effect. I think of the one about American Baseball. Batters, whose task is filled with uncertainty and who are more likely to strike out or get hit by the ball than get on base, are filled with routine upon ritual upon superstition upon irrational behavior in order to cope with the feeling of uncertainty of trying to hit a ball zipping past them at 100 mph. It is close to just, plain chance if they hit the ball. Then, there are outfielders. Their job is set, simple and wholly predictable. If a ball ever comes their way (Ha! there is a lot of standing around time for outfielders!), they are bound to catch it with ease; and, thus, you find essentially zero rituals and superstitions for an outfielder. I < 3 irrationality, because it pushes and reveals the limits of how highly refined our bodies and minds are to take in the stimuli of the universe. It is at these boundaries where our perceptions break down and mistakes are made that tell how we work, how we are put together and who we are.

Now back to the traffic comparison: Berlin, in contrast, is under-populated and has space to spare; and, like I said, not one honk, so far. No gaggle of police with long sticks acting like a traffic light or, more to the point, a dam to prevent an intersection from getting clogged. In Berlin, the streets are wide; it’s easy to get around and a joy to ride a bike. And, besides, it is highly unlikely you’ll ever need to swerve around a dead animal – or an incidental group of ungulates that reduce four lanes down to one (to which … you guessed it … people honk and honk at such a scene that does nothing to get the animals to chew their cud faster and move on) – to get to your destination safely and timely. I’ve been hyped up with the sound of the horn in India and downshifting during this transition has not been easy.

II. Second, I miss the gesture of putting the palms of one’s hands together in front of one’s chest in the prayer position and giving eye contact and a slight bow as a common form of salutation. I like this gesture so much, because it requires all of you, it focuses every part of you, and beckons the other person to respond in kind. People greet each other this way all the time in India and, when performed, it levels the interaction. I loved doing it, because it garners a feeling of respect within you and for the other person and it is very hard to carry malice when performing or seeing such a gesture.

I went to a dance club the other night in Berlin and was introduced to the doorman at the VIP entrance. At the prescribed cultural cue, after our mutual friend introduces us so that we may enter, the doorman and I extend our right hands to one another and offer a firm Alpha-friendly greeting to one another – eye contact, smiles, happy (the act of a hand shake is rare and much more reserved in India; however, I frequently received the offer of a hand shake from an Indian at odd and inappropriate times that set off internal alarm bells of caution, confusion and mistrust, and set me on edge. Obviously, no one shakes hands with such energy like this German doorman and I indulged in). Over the thump of Techno bass, breathing in the cross-cultural bonhomie as our joined forearms bate like an ostrich trying to fly, I declare with an ironic German formality that my name is Sam and that I am very pleased to meet him. He accepts my orthodox German greeting with a warm smile and responds in a jolly, Berliner dialect, which I didn’t fully understand but interpreted as “Awesome. Me, too. Have a great time and see you soon.” When our grip loosens and we each take our hand back, I unconsciously put my hands together in front of my chest, maintain eye contact and give a slight bow. It was like a Pavlovian response to express the love and good-will in my heart because I felt grateful for his gesture of kindness of letting us into the club, unmolested by the cover charge and sinuous line waiting to get in. I felt like I made a new friend, and it felt good to perform that gesture. However, I realized right away how weird this must seem in a Western Context, but that I miss this style of greeting very much.

Anyway, I have more to say – more to show, more to do – with respect to India and with respect to my art. I have more that I am curious about, more questions to ask. As I transition back to a Western Culture, I will evaluate how I will explore, express and process all this. In the meantime, I have reworked a description of what motivates me to make art. It is called Statement II ­– lightning, impulse and longing. You can find Statement I here; and, Statement III is on its way. (UPDATE: Statement III is HERE; all three statements and the trajectory for this India project is HERE)

Statement II ­– lightning, impulse and longing

I was thirteen, hiking just below a snow-covered alpine. Without warning, the nape of my neck bristled: a sonic boom; white light, a metallic taste engorged my mouth. I was lifted, back arched, boots dangling above the ground. An instant later: the noise, the light, the taste stopped. I panicked to land on my feet … and did – startled, unhurt and, yet, unable to name what happened.

I forgot about this event – never thought of it again – until five years later when I happened to read about other people’s similar experiences, and realized, then, that the simplest thing I could say about this memory that rushed back was that I had been struck by lightning, but wasn’t really sure and didn’t know what it meant if anything; so, I kept it to myself for a long time, and, again, forgot about it until I was deep into to my art process and trying to figure out the relationships between meaning, knowledge and understanding as I learned about breaking and moving stone. As it turns out, repression, sublimation and the spotlight of one’s attention are three powerful mechanisms of the brain that creates meaning and motivation for us. I retell this story, now, because it is much like how I see myself having gotten into making art – the impulse seemed to come out from nowhere, seemed to come from a hidden motivation and a sudden unfolding of meaning.

However, before I knew “artist” was a career choice, I was conscious about the intellectual agitation that started me down this path, which was an epistemological longing, a how and why I know what I know. (Art offered me a way around the epistemological structures of the other disciplines I had studied; it initially got me out of all issues related to language, entirely; but only briefly).

Sculpture can have a phenomenological power (it comports a body through its perception of form and material, and gives new countenance to a space by creating a different place for contemplation or action), and people look towards sculpture, consciously or not, to satisfy or to lean on an ontological position (to confirm, challenge or change something within, often so one can, then, make a statement about the world or claim about reality without). And, as I crafted an art to give an outlet and expression to my questions, I realized my need to grapple with all three notions – the epistemological, phenomenological and ontological – did not disappear, because sculpture’s true force – liberation if you will – lies somewhere between these three, not resting within one.


Filed under Art, Drawing, Sculpture, Story

10 responses to “Out of India – reverse culture shock

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