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Don’t Spit On A Good Habit

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December 2005
Don’t Spit On A Good Habit

I visited a dentist in India the other day and, silly me, walked right into her office wearing my sandals. How embarrassing. She had to tell me to remove my footwear and leave them beside the door. I don't think I offended her in any way, but I'm not sure because she spent the next five hours drilling my teeth.

You'd think I'd be used to Indian customs, having grown up in an Indian family abroad and married a woman raised in India. In fact, the habit of leaving footwear at the door is one that my wife, Malathi, has been enforcing in our home, insisting that it helps keep the dirt out. Our carpet gets quite dirty nevertheless, because we haven't yet adopted another habit: leaving our children at the door.

I don't mind taking my shoes off before entering the house, but it can be a pain sometimes, especially when I'm rushing to use the bathroom. At such a critical moment, it seems senseless to be untying my shoelaces, as though my big toe wants to relieve itself. One of these days, there's going to be an accident and I will look at Malathi sheepishly, point downward and say, "Look, honey. No shoes!"

People in India tend to wear sandals, so it's easy for them to remove their footwear before entering a home, office or temple. It seems to be a good habit, for you never know what you might have stepped on in the street. Some streets are extremely clean, especially if a politician lives there. Other streets are a mess ? it's like walking into a teen-age boy's bedroom, but with no pictures of Pamela Anderson.

Despite the mess, some Indians don't seem to mind walking everywhere barefooted. If they were visiting our home, Malathi would have to get tough. "Hey, don't come in here with those feet! Here's a pair of shoes!"

Every culture has some good customs and some questionable ones. But it's often what you're used to. While visiting relatives in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, I was surprised that the female hosts didn't eat with us, but instead stood nearby and refilled our plates and cups when necessary. They gave us such good service, it seemed utterly rude of us not to leave a tip.

As a guest, I enjoyed this special treatment, but it was also clear to me that the women were following a custom that put men's needs ahead of theirs. The men eat first, while the women serve them. Then the women eat, while the men check the cricket scores. Of course, this doesn't happen in every household. Some men check Sania Mirza's scores.

After meals and at other times, it's not uncommon for men to chew "paan" or betel leaves, along with nuts and flavorings, then spit out the red mixture onto whatever surface is available. Spitting is an art form in India ? you should see some of the patterns on the walls. In one stairwell, I saw a sign on the wall that said, "No spitting," and under it, someone had left some "spit art." It may seem like a disgusting habit, but probably not to the men who do it.

Paan chewer: "Look, Deepak, I just created a picture of the prime minister on the wall. Quite a likeness, no?"

Friend: "Yes, Suresh, it's amazing! The spitting image of him."


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