Space Invaders

Sleeper class aboard a two-day train in India costs about $11, and you get what you pay for.

The bunks are three-tiered, no sheets, sticky seats. You see the odd mouse running across the floor. At night you have to step over bodies lying along the walkway as you hunt for a power outlet. You’re forced to get assertive when you return to your bunk and find an imposter lying there in the darkness.

But what really makes me uncomfortable aboard Indian trains is the lack of personal space.

On a short trip to a suburb north of Mumbai back in April, I grabbed a window seat in what would become a ridiculously packed carriage. The benches were meant to hold three people max, but there were at least four asses squeezed into each. A big burly dude sat down next to me, leaned back, lifted his arms, and set them to rest along the bench back.

So, essentially, he had his left arm around my shoulders, romantic-cinema-style. He seemed to think nothing of this whole arrangement, while I sat there paralyzed, wondering if I’d soon have to phone home and tell my parents to ready a dowry.

On the two-day ghetto train from Kochi to Delhi, I was sat reading a book when the chap across from me decided to rest his bare foot on my seat, right between my legs, about an inch from my crotch. Again, not a bother on him, while I squirmed internally and wondered if I was the only one who thought this inappropriate.

As it turned out, I was.

The idea of personal space is much different in India. Or, more accurately, the idea of personal space doesn’t exist here at all. You see men walking down the street holding hands, sometimes swinging linked pinkies in a proud demonstration of friendship.

A couple of weeks ago I took a tour to go visit some waterfalls in Kerala. A bunch of young lads befriended me on the short trek to the big falls. They’d been drinking, and one guy in particular was pretty wasted. Having lost his last ounce of self-consciousness, he tried repeatedly to take hold of my hand as we walked down the hill.

It was awkward to say the least, but only from my point of view.

You’ll often see men in India doing what I can only describe as snuggling with each other. Heads resting in laps, arms linking legs, backs leaning against chests.

It strikes me as especially strange given how homophobic and sexually repressed this country is. It’s not uncommon to see a group of men getting very touchy-feely with each other, then stopping to stare with silent mouths agape when a bunch of young ladies walk past. I’ve yet to see public displays of affection between married couples that rival those between guy friends.

Read a book or send a text message in public and before long you’re likely to notice someone looking indiscreetly over your shoulder.

Step up to an ATM and you’ll find whoever’s next in line waiting alongside you, staring innocently at the keypad, wondering why you’re throwing them such a strange glance.

Look up from your book on the train and you’ll meet a pair of eyes glued to you, eyes that don’t blink away just because you’ve caught them staring.

What amazes me most about all this though is that there’s nothing wrong with it.

It’s not like our concept of personal space in the Western World is superior. It’s just different.

I imagine if I’d grown up in India and went traveling to Ireland that I’d find those strange white people very cold and unaffectionate, with their hands kept to themselves and their heads unwiggling.

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    1. Very nicely written, and oh, so true !!! Thats the India that I love and fiercely dislike. Easy to chuckle if you observe other people’s space being invaded, completely different story when it’s your space. Brings back good memories.

      Thanks, love your blog.


    2. Hey Niall, great post.

      I hadn’t noticed the difference in personal space requirements in the US v Ireland myself until I returned for a week of holidays during a 9 mth work contract in Detroit.

      On the almost empty bus to the city from Dublin airport, I chose the back seat. Although many seats remained empty, one guy and his girl chose to share the bench seat at the rear with me. He nonchalantly sat right beside me, with his leg completely pressed against mine. At first I thought he was taking the piss. No. He was totally oblivious to the personal space infringement.

      I was amazed with the difference between this and what I’d become used to in the US where such behaviour would be avoided at all cost. In a few short months my own expectations had begun to change.

      Later that night, in the pub, a busy Friday night, it was standing room only. The usual hustle of sidling through the crowded bar to get to the bathroom. Scuse me. Sorry. Sorry. Bumping and squeezing through a crowd that just doesn’t care you’re pushing through. Again, personal space requirements very low.

      Squeezing thru the crowd on the way to the loo and back that night in Dublin, I had a few humourous exchanges. Just joking about this or that with other drinkers on the way past. Conversations that could easily have been pursued further had I wished. That openness was so refreshing by contrast with what I’d found in the US, where I found it amazingly difficult to integrate.

      In Detroit, I had been working really hard to make friends. And was failing. Going to the local bars, I found it nigh on impossible to introduce myself to new people. I found most folk there go to bars in self-contained groups, and were quite suspicious about mingling with unknowns whom they hadn’t arrive with.

      Some US friends I’d met previously in Ireland, introduced me to friends of theirs who lived nearby, and I could occasionally join their bar group. A group of friends since college. They were a well insulated unit. Again, while happy to meet them and share their company, I was struck at how unlikely it would be for me to meet new people through them. They were a very highly insulated group.

      Interesting to consider personal space requirements in relation to other social indicators like wealth, population density, friendliness, and perhaps maybe even fear. How well do folk really integrate in more developed countries?

      • Love the observations, Bob. Thanks for sharing.

        While in New Orleans, I actually found it a lot more touchy-feely than back home in Ireland. I started greeting friends with hugs (even if I’d seen them just the day before), and then when I tried the same on return trips home it was a bit weird.

    3. Your experience in India seems to mirror my experience in Korea almost exactly. I especially appreciated your comment about the society being so sexually repressed and homophobic yet the physical contact between members of the same sex is so prevalent. For my western brain it’s a huge disconnect.

      The point you made about staring I found quite humorous, and once again it’s the same thing here in Korea. I definitely think that living in a place where you look different than everyone else is a great way to break out of your comfort zone!

      • Charlie, I can totally relate !
        I only spent 2 weeks in Korea but the starring really got to me. I was with an Asian friend so I got all the attention and it does play with one’s self-confidence.
        Great country nonetheless and definitely very nice people.
        Niall, another great post !
        But my agoraphobic self is now ready to give up on the idea to visit India, not to mention my agoraphobic fiancé !
        Keep up the good work !

        • Yeah, Sara. Definitely not a place for agoraphobic people! Well, not the big cities anyway. You’d probably be fine in Kochi, and I hear there are lots of nice and peaceful places north of Delhi.

        • Thanks for the tip Niall. I’d love to see India.
          As for Korea, same-sex young people are really touchy. Hands holding or sitting on lap is common.

        • The younger kids are definitely more touchy touchy here, but even old (often drunken) men will walk down the street hand in hand. It’s not uncommon to see middle and high school aged boys sitting on one another’s laps, holding hands, or generally being closer physically.

          The staring here can be pretty intense. After a while though I hardly notice it anymore. Not true, I notice it a lot. Ha!

    4. “He seemed to think nothing of this whole arrangement, while I sat there paralyzed, wondering if I’d soon have to phone home and tell my parents to ready a dowry.”

      Hahahahaha. You, Sir, are a great writer 🙂

    5. “It’s just different. I imagine if I’d grown up in India and went traveling to Ireland that I’d find those strange white people very cold and unaffectionate, with their hands kept to themselves and their heads unwiggling.”

      Heh. And I’ve been told to travel to Ireland to get a break from cold asocial Scandinavians…

    6. Packed in like sardines, mice running around. When I used to watch children, I got used to kids manhandling me anywhere, and got rather immune to it. Once in a grocery store, a cart was being bumped up against my backside, and I ignored it as I thought it was my husband playing around. It was a group of four 18 year old Amish boys that knew us! Personal space is an interesting thing to think about.

    7. I find differences like this fascinating! We host foreign exchange students, and although so far we’ve only hosted European kids (French, German, Spanish), I’m still surprised at some of the major differences in culture. We had one Spanish girl who thought nothing of stripping down to her underwear right in front of us (having known us for approximately 20 minutes); Americans simply don’t do this. 🙂 Not better, not worse, just different.

      I actually had a friend once who I thought just was always waaaay too close for comfort. If I sat on the sofa, instead of sitting on the other end or on the loveseat, she would sit right next to me, with her thigh touching mine. I was rather put off by this, until one day she mentioned that her parents were missionaries in South Korea, and that she lived there until she was 18. Ahh, so it was a cultural thing from childhood that she never outgrew. I gave her more leeway in my mind after that. So interesting!

      • That’s pretty cool that you figured out why she had that different idea of personal space and that you were able to understand her better after. Makes me wonder about all the people who I’ve found annoying over the years. How many of them were just behaving in a way that was perfectly acceptable in their family/culture?

    8. Haha! Once I was lying down in sleeper, and this lady propped up her feet inches away from my face. It would have been more okay had her toenails not been long, and dirt stuck under showing. Ugh.

      Get seats in 3AC? People there don’t crouch into your space as much.

      • Ugh, feet are the worst!

        Yeah, I hear any AC class is a lot better. I noticed as well that they let way fewer beggars onto the AC carriages, so you don’t constantly have to deal with them coming through and asking you for money at every stop.

    9. I’ve been in Bangalore for almost 3 months now, and what you’ve touched on here has been by far the weirdest thing I’ve experienced so far.

      A few weeks ago there was a festival in our town where people bang on drums through the night (IIRC it’s a competition between villages to see who can make the most noise). I asked my girlfriend (who grew up in India) why there were no girls and was told that girls simply weren’t allowed. Ah…

      Later that night I sat watching them as groups of young men came past, banging the drums and dancing in a circle, but dancing in a way that struck me as very, erm.. affectionate. As you say, given the attitudes to homosexuality here, it’s very odd indeed.

      • I think it may actually have a lot to do with sexual repression. When sexes can’t relate to each other openly they tend to seek affection and physical comfort in their own sex. Just think of Ancient Greece or feudal Japan; Women were for childbearing, and didn’t really have an emotional connection with their spouses, these connections were sought for with other men. I seem to remember reading Afghanistan is another good example, with strong sexual repression but a long history of almost romantic male bonding (mostly when they’re still quite young, before society pushes them toward marriage).

    10. This reminds of me of my stay in India for 4 months during 2004. I had a love/hate relationship with India but am longing to go back – so much going on in India and so different than the quiet neighborhood I live in now in USA. I can’t find a list of your countries visited or a search box on your site where I can click or go to areas of interest. Do you have it or can you create one? Great blog!

      • Thanks for the comment!

        I don’t have my posts organized by country or anything like that because much of what I write isn’t location specific. The article above is pretty unusual in that respect.

        You can see a map of my travel route though on this page. And you can view the site archives here.