There were two big churches (Roman Catholic and Church of South India) in the small town (or a big village) where a good share of my childhood time was spent. Both the churches were comparatively bigger than the ones in nearby smaller villages. Our village used to be like a capital for surrounding villages. The churches we had in our place used to be like headquarters for other village churches. A good number of priests used to stay there and visit the surrounding villages regularly. We used to see some foreigners visiting the churches once in a while. That was my first opportunity to see foreigners, which was just synonymous to westerners at that time for us (We would have laughed if a Sri Lankan or Pakistani had claimed that he was a foreigner).
We also used to hear sometimes that they were from Germany (or some other western country) and we could also fly to Germany (or whichever country) for higher studies if we convert ourselves to their religion. Some locals, who looked very much like us used to accompany these foreigners, take them around and explain about everything that was absolutely normal to us but were abnormal or special to those foreigners. We used to admire those locals for the way they spoke English so fluently despite being locals and looking just like us or at times darker than us. :)
Whenever a foreigner visits our place we would have a lot of resource shortage in our play grounds. All my friends used to follow those white-skinned different looking guests throughout their stay until they leave for their next place as per their itinerary. My friends were so thrilled looking at them, shaking hands with them, and following them wherever they go. However, I have never had a close contact with them. It was only looking at them from far.
Then, here and there, I used to see some foreigners. Once, a foreigner had come to our college hostel to meet one of our college mates. Even then I didn’t go close to him for the fear of speaking in English. Only two or three guys spoke to him and many others surrounded him to watch our friends (the same guys who were studying with us in the same classrooms that we studied in and staying with us in the same hostel that we stayed in) speaking in English, with awestruck amazement. Some of you may find it hard to believe it. But, that was truly the kind of environment we had. I am sure my college mates who are reading this would vouch for it.
Then, when we went to Kanyakumari as part of NCC inter-collegiate cycle expedition, we saw a few foreigners there and took photographs with them as wished by one of our co-cadets. I don’t know why, but this has been a custom with our people for a long time. Even there, only one in the entire group spoke a few sentences with them. Rest of the crowd was just wondering how he alone could speak such good English. We didn’t even know if they were all English speaking foreigners. It was always English that came to our mind when we looked at any westerner. It is only now we realize that for most westerners, English is as strange a language as it is for us. For some of them, it may be stranger than it is for us.
Then, the first software company where I worked did not have much overseas clients. Most of our customers were domestic ones. Even the few overseas projects that were executed there were done by the cream of top talents. Unfortunately, I was never part of that lot to get an opportunity to work with foreign customers.
Then, in the second company, I joined as a quality professional, which shut all the doors to work with overseas customers. From then on, I had to work only with the so-called internal customers, who are more demanding than the end customers themselves at times. It is only now after moving to the consulting group that I have started getting the hope back. Exposure to international culture was the most important factor (more important than the monetary aspirations) for the desire to go abroad. At some point in time, I was even ready to go to Sri Lanka or Pakistan. But, I wanted to go out.
In the second company, there was an opportunity to have a brief discussion with a customer representative, who had come down from France. That was an easy experience as the other person was not very good in English. That day, I chose France as my favorite destination as I could speak better English than them. What I comfortably forgot at that time was that I can’t manage with them so easily with better English in their land. Instead, I need to speak their language like them if I really want to feel comfortable there.
Another opportunity that I had in my second software company was with our CEO’s American secretary over phone when he asked her to coordinate with me for an article in the internal magazine. We had to disconnect the call in between as both of us couldn’t understand each other’s accent with the following decision. Instead of me speaking to her and her writing on my behalf based on my inputs, I would write the article myself as I felt my written English was better, which actually turned out to be a better move. But, this experience was repeatedly creating some kind of restlessness. I was always worried about meeting the first native English-speaking westerner.
Then, in the third company, I never felt part of it. It was a short period. Leave alone, interacting with foreigners. I didn’t even interact with people in nearby cubicles properly there.
Then, in the current company, first three and a half years have been into internal quality function, which never had any scope for customer interaction. Once in a while, I could be part of some international calls as observer. Often I found it very tough to follow what the person at the other side was saying. I had to meet some of them in person also at times when they visited our offices. But, the interactions have been very short and sweet.
Only now, after moving to the consulting group, have I started interacting with a good number of westerners on a daily basis. First day, when I had to attend the first call, it was such a different feeling. Now I know that I am going to have lots of western friends and all this is going to be a day-to-day affair. But, the first day was a different experience. I only regret that I had to wait for 12 years to have this feeling followed by the rich experience. Now I am working with many of them and it has become a very silly thing to have longed for such an experience for so long.
I also had to work with a Spanish colleague for three weeks when he was in Bangalore last month. I would say this is the closest association I had with a foreigner so far. It was a great experience to start with. We had plenty of time to discuss and learn about each other’s culture during the three weeks time we worked together. It was not a surprise that we had many surprises as we discussed about everything under the sun. I started off this post to discuss about all such surprises, but ended up only with an introduction. So, let me do that in a separate post shortly and let this post be a generic one on my journey towards west… Westwards…