Ask or not to ask?

“What happened to your cheek?” I asked casually and instinctively. My friend appeared to be surprised at my question but recovered quickly. “It’s an allergic reaction to something I ate. It was so bad that I had to cover it up” she replied. I stared at the band-aid on her cheek, genuinely concerned for her.

Not long ago, I had an ugly allergic reaction too. Like my friend, hiding indoors was not an option. So I ventured out with a band-aid on the bridge of my nose, embarrassed and afraid of attracting attention towards my problem.

But nobody asked me any questions. None at all. When friends or strangers spoke to me, they ignored the aberration. It was as if the band-aid was invisible. Even though I was self-conscious when I left home that morning, as the day progressed I became more and more unaware of the thing that was abnormally stuck to my skin. I was grateful that I did not have to deal with curious looks or prying questions. People respected my privacy enough to stay mum unless I explicitly signaled for help.

That day, I became keenly aware of the fact that I was in America, not India. Privacy is a huge deal here.

It would have been a totally different story in India. Going out in public with a band-aid on my face would have attracted attention and interrogation from neighbors, colleagues, maids, bank tellers, and even cab drivers. I would have received unsolicited advice on how to treat my problem–recipes for DIY home remedies, recommendations on beauty salons, doctors and quacks and referrals to astrologers and priests.

“Mind your own business” is not a mantra Indians live by because the community operates under a general consensus: Your problem is our problem and we can fix it together. Of course, this can sometimes do more harm than good. But in general, the communal mindset of the Indian society ensures that everybody is taken care of, even if it means that individual privacy is compromised.

As someone who was born and raised in India but now living in America, I have to straddle between two cultural mindsets–the communal Indian and the individualistic American. Most of the time, I enjoy the negotiation, the battle that goes on in my head. It makes me examine the good and bad in both views. It leaves me with appreciation and respect for both cultures.

When it comes to privacy and personal space, the East and the West have opposite philosophies. But I believe that the inherent intent behind both is good. In Indian society, I could wear a band-aid on my little finger and not go an entire day without knowing that people care–they care enough to ask me questions. In America, I could wear a band-aid on my forehead and go an entire day knowing that people care–they care enough not to ask questions.

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