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“Um, why is this guy leaning on me?” “Ma’am, do you have to stand quite so close?” “Uh, is he really resting his knee on my thigh?”
Questions like these run through my head all the time here. It seems like whenever I am in a public place, there is always someone touching me. As an American, this weirds me out! In the good ol’ U.S. of A., we are champions of the “personal bubble,” and rarely do we allow people to get inside. So you can imagine how strange it is to suddenly have that bubble breached by a complete stranger.
About a month ago, as I sat on the ground at a worship service, the man sitting in front of me began gradually leaning on me. It was pretty tight in there, but not that tight. I shifted my weight to regain my space. A few minutes later, there he was again, shoulder resting on my knee. I wanted to do something, say something. But what could I possibly come up with?
For weeks after this I asked myself, why do Indians seem to have no problem being in each others’ personal space? Is this just some sort of weird cultural thing, or what?
But then, after several trips on Delhi’s public transportation, the answer dawned on me. People in New Delhi don’t have any personal space, so there’s no reason to protect it for anyone else.
New Delhi has over 11 million inhabitants crammed into just 270 square miles (and this is just the city proper! It’s over 18 million if you include the surrounding area!). No matter how you count the population of Delhi, it is one of the top 10 most populous cities in the world. In other words, there are a lot of people living in not a lot of space.
Going to the market, there is a crush of people everywhere. Driving in traffic, three lanes are packed six cars across. Even public parks have people sitting under every tree. This place is full of people.
Riding on the bus in New Delhi is a perfect example of this. Just today I had to jump onto a moving bus with three other guys, pulling myself on in an effort to get a space. Once on board, travelers crammed to the front, lucky if they could get a seat. Most had to stand in the aisle, holding onto the rail above as the bus lurched on to the next stop to let on more passengers.
So now, after almost two months in India, my attitude is changing. Sure, I still like my space, but I’m beginning to realize that all the awkward touching and uncomfortable contact is really not all that awkward or uncomfortable after all. Here, it’s just a part of life. I really can’t complain.
Besides, I’ve learned a valuable lesson through all of this. As an American, I know that I take for granted all sorts of things: running water, electricity, cheese… But I never would have expected one thing that I take for granted every single day:
The space around me.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.