Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In China Customers are always special!

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="343"] Room in Chinese Restaurant designed to make you feel special!![/caption]

It was a while since I visited a new country for business till I visited China last week. "How they eat, How they do business" theme was running in the background as I went about my work. "Don't force fit anything", I kept telling myself. As it turns out I didn't have to.

I observed my colleague as he was dealing with our clients. He was respectful, friendly and easy to deal with. One peculiar thing I observed was, he never said the word NO. If client said something that he did not agree with, he would listen completely and respond with his point of view without saying the word NO. Sounds easy but it isn't, try it! My curiosity got better of me and I asked him why it was so. "Chinese clients are very sensitive", he said, "you always need to make them feel special. They are interested in your opinion not your skepticism." That was profound I thought.

We just one more meeting and then we had to catch a flight back to Shanghai. I was carrying my luggage. In most countries, I could walk-in with the luggage to client's office, finish the meeting and go to airport straight. My colleague said that is not a good idea in China. We kept a taxi waiting and kept our luggage there. I was curious again. He had the same answer. " Customers are always special. You don't want them to think that perhaps you arranged this meeting to kill time or they are the last stop for you or you might wrap up the meeting depending on the flight schedule than the nature of discussions." Makes perfect sense again!

I started looking for something that is unique to China and Chinese restaurants and designed to make the customer feel special. My search didn't have to go very far. Each chinese restaurant I visited in China had private rooms. You could button down, relax, stretch yourself. The serving butler had great opportunities make the customer feel special with every course! Its the same food, but special experience!

Remember, when in China whether its restaurant or boardroom, customers are always special!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why do Indian arranged marriages work?

[caption id="attachment_607" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Why Do Indian Arranged Marriages work?[/caption]

(continued from previous blog "why do Indians go for arranged marriage")
Needless to say, bio-digital break did not help me to find suitable answers to a profound question "why do Indian arranged marriages work".

When I see around, there are many arranged marriages which almost never break. They may not necessarily be "then they lived happily ever after" kind of marriages. There would be fights, misunderstandings, deceptions but the marriages survive more often than not.  They are not ideal marriages, they are no role models but still they survive.  The divorce rates from such a counter intuitive match making process are  much lower (~10%) as compared to rest of the world where matchmaking is quite prolonged, there are almost infinite choices but more than 50% marriages end in divorce.

What is intriguing is why do such marriages work? Are people who get married this way actually "happily married"? Frankly, I did not have an answer till I stumbled upon a few TED talks.

As per Helen Fisher, as an animal a human being is not borne to love but borne to reproduce and propagate the species. No doubt love is a feeling or a drive that is unique to human being but that means to an end. To effectively achieve this, human brain evolved in a very unique way. There are 3 attraction centres in our brain, one for lust, second for romantic love and third for attachment.  Apparently, lust centre makes us want the partner, love centre helps us to zoom in on one preferred partner and attachment centre ensures we stick around long enough with our partner to raise the child. So lust and love are intermediate steps to achieve attachment which is an end goal for human being as a species.
Arranged marriages happen because - The  whole process is designed towards eliminating step 1 and 2 and directly jump on to step 3. The commitment to stay attached to the partner makes up for lack of lust or love.

But does this supposedly sub-optimal way of getting married actually make them happy? Isn't their happiness like sour grapes? Dan Gilbert's TED talk had the answer. As it turns out human brain has evolved to manufacture happiness in our brain. We keep chasing it outside but actually it is inside our brain. Experiments where  subjects are subjected to many choices and had freedom to change their mind at any point in time were a lot unhappier than those who had to make their mind once and were not allowed to change.Extremely counter intuitive, surprising finding from Harvard labs. This is exactly what happens in arranged marriage.

Decide based on what you know, make up your mind, never turn back and make it work. I am not sure if propagators of Indian arranged marriage knew it. Probably they did not. Perhaps, they stumbled upon a system that works. Not an ideal system, not everyone's cup of tea but it just works!!

"Why we love , why we cheat" Helen Fisher explains 3 pleasure centers in the brain. But she says arranged marriages will cease to exist, for the very same reason :)

"Why are we Happy?" Dan Gilbert explains people who have more freedom to make choices are less happier than those who have limited choice

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? - The Book

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Why do Indians go for arranged marriages?

[caption id="attachment_599" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Arranged Marriage or Love Marriage?[/caption]

Somewhere in Paris or Tokyo, Seoul or London, after a couple of drinks when boundaries of inhibitions are lower and my hosts get friendlier with me, I prepare myself for the inevitable question.

"So was your marriage love marriage or arranged marriage?"
"Arranged marriage". They look happier.
"So did you actually meet the girl before getting married? Or did your parents do everything". I can't help but notice mild sarcasm with topping of curiosity in the voice.
I acknowledge this feelings with a smile, try not to be defensive when I answer, "well I dated my wife for about 6 months before We decided to get married"
Surprise factor in my answer kills the sarcasm, curiosity prevails.
"... thats pretty quick but not too bad. Did you have sex before marriage?" a wink of an eye, sarcasm returns with a challenge.
"... in our arranged marriage system when parents introduce you are not supposed to have sex before marriage"
"but why? Isn't that an important part of married life?" someone in the background can't hold himself when he says "perhaps the most important" The whole group bursts into laughter. Tension is relieved.
"It is important but that is not supposed to be a decision making criteria. Sexual needs and drive of both partners changes drastically with age. So that can't be basis of decision"
Unexpected assertive answer disturbs their thought process. There are light murmurs in the background. Some nod in agreement, some dismiss this off hand, others get challenged.
"what about romatic love. Isnt that supposed to be important for marriage." the tempers rise. "oh come on, how can you even think of getting married with someone you don't exactly love"
I have to take a step back. They are right this time. Romantic love is an essential ingredient in marriage but it may be completely missing in many arranged marriages. I search for answers. I take a sip.
"romantic love is required to get the couple together but that also can't be the sole reason to get married."
There is a silent outrage. People watch me in disbelief. "what is he made of? What is that supposed to mean?", they say to themselves. I don't hear the words only notice the question marks.
"in scientific terminology, romantic love is a necessary condition not a sufficient one. Romantic love is a passing feeling too. In fact romantic love with great sexual experience could be an intoxicating cocktail which would drive you to make wrong decisions. If either of them goes away, the marriage would fall flat on its face, right?" Now its my turn to challenge the mob. Most of them are in denial, some of them agree, others are thinking what to say next.
"if it is not sex, not romantic love then what is Indian arranged marriage based on?" some silent listener comes with a perfect question.
"commitment" comes my reply in a flash. "Indian arranged marriage system is based on commitment and shared responsibility. When I was dating my wife for  6 months before marriage, I was making up my mind whether I want to commit to this girl for rest of my life. Her looks may fed, her figure would change but would I like to be with her despite of that. I was not really worried if she would be great in bed, I was worried about would she be a great person who will walk with me in highs and lows in life."
Pin drop silence set in.
"any guesses on what is the divorce rate in India?" I go on a challenging spree.
"less than 50%?" "about 25%" "at least 20%"
"In recent census, less than 10% Indians described themselves as divorced or separated. The point is Indian arranged marriage may not be ideal system, it has its own flaws but it works"
I pick up my drink with a victorious smile and look around for remaining challengers.
"Buddy, this still does not sound like an ideal way ( to get married) but why does it work so well?" some unassuming guy comes up with a winner.
Now its my turn to think. I call for a bio-digital  break and ask them to order some more food as I keep thinking about "Why do Indian arranged marriages work?"

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? - The Book

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why are Indians fanatic about cricket?

Cricket @ India

British empire left India in 1947 but their legacy still lingers. Two most prominent aspects of the legacy are proficiency of Indians in english and cricket. Both these things have helped Indians to amass tremendous wealth. British have left but Cricket still rules India.

Cricket is not even considered a game outside non-cricket playing nations. How can you have a game which goes on for 5 days  and yet can possibly end without any side winning the game? Who will like to watch such a game, they wonder.

But Indians definitely a deeper psychological connection with cricket.  Cricketers are best paid sportspersons and brand ambassadors in India. Their houses are considered tourist attraction. Cricket tournaments are like superbowl in US, happy hunting ground for advertisers. IPL tournament changes the entire entertainment landscape. Corporates throng cricket stadiums, movie theatres screen matches and actors, politicians and industrialist make a beeline to watch cricketers in action. Cricket has inspired several movie makers to make cricket-centric movies. They have not only made money but gone up to Oscar nominations riding on popularity of Cricket.

So why are Indians fanatic fans of cricket?

For starters, Each team member is assured a place in limelight irrespective of their credentials and skill levels. No. 11 batsman is not actually a batsman, he should not be given a chance to bat. But in cricket if you are in the team, you get to bat. No matter what, your moments in limelight are assured.

Secondly, Cricket is as much an individual's game as it is a team game. One exceptionally brilliant individual can defeat the entire opponent team.  Laxman is the nemesis of Australian team. In Sharjah, all 11 Indians tried hard but Javed Miandad snatched the victory from jaws of defeat. I can't recall any other team game that empowers the individual so much that he can defeat entire opposition team.

Cricket does not favor any particular particular physical trait. Internationally successful cricketers come in all shapes and sizes. Even players considered obese in any other form of the game have succeeded in cricket. Arjuna Rantunga - Srilankan captain lead the team from front to a world cup victory when he had a prominent oversized tummy.

Lastly Cricket offers something which no other game offers. Cricket offers the best chance for underdogs to win at individual level as well as team level. In no other game a physically handicapped person like Murali would have become a world record holder. In no other game 1983 Indian cricket team would have won a world cup by beating a world class west indies team.

 A common man in India is still not empowered. Daily life is nothing less than a struggle. Special world class traits  are rare, financial wherewithal is absent. Opportunities to perform are denied on the basis of caste, creed, class, religion, language, physical traits. Being in limelight is considered once in a lifetime opportunity.

No wonder the common man has developed a deep psychological connection with game that assures opportunity to perform, offers equal chance of success without any bias and assures moments in limelight no matter what.

They are fanatic because Cricket gives them things that their life can not.

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? - The Book

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why do Indians dance that way?

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Whats up with Bolllywood Dance?[/caption]

It was our annual D&D (dinner and dance) party in Singapore. All colleagues had let their hair down and dance floor was jam packed. All skilled and unskilled dancers were trying to show off their existent and non-existent dancing skills. Most of the dance moves were inspired by Hollywood movies and pop albums. Suddenly, they realised that some of our Indian colleagues were not dancing. A volunteer group lead them to the dance floor. They confessed that they couldn't dance but volunteer group won't budge.  They caught the beat of the next song and began with their usual Indian moves inspired by Bollywood music and dance.  In past dance parties they were stars with those moves. But here, 2-3 minutes into the dance, people around had bursted into laughter and others had left the dance floor. Soon the dance floor was empty and onlookers were in awe at their dance moves.

The world calls it Bollywood dance. Indians just call it dancing. They don't have any other name for it.

What is the deal with this Bollywood dance? Every Indian seems to know it but Where do they learn it from?

India has a great tradition in dancing. There are over 100 classical dance types in India. All of them have there own rules, rhythm and moves. Classical dancers dedicate major part of their life to learn, master, perform and pass it on to the next generation. But Bollywood dance is miles away from it.

The only rule in this type of dance is "there is no rule". You just  catch the beat and express yourself. Any rhythm is fine as long as you catch it  and go with it. On the same number, same rhythm if you feel like dancing differently go ahead! No issues. So called Bollywood dance is not a traditional, classical Indian dance type at all. This is an ever evolving type of dance fuelled by Indian movies. The choreographers use their creativity and come up with new dance moves for virtually every new song.  In doing so, they borrow dance moves from every conceivable dance type. They started with Indian dance types but as the stories in movies went  global, locations went global and so did the dance moves. They crossed the borders and now borrow dance moves and rhythms from virtually every dance type across the globe.

Dancing is also culturally linked to masses. In Punjab, no celebration is complete without Bhangra. In Mumbai, Ganesha is never immersed without hearty dance. Barat (procession in which groom arrives for wedding) is never complete without dance in Northern India. Bollywood dance has permeated all these cultural dance occasions silently in last few decades.

An Untrained but enthusiastic corporate Indian dancers, don't really enjoy dancing to western tunes. Apart from the fact that the rhythm is "foreign", the dance moves just don't flow.  The secret lies in lyrics of Bollywood songs. The dance actions are based on song lyrics or even the on-screen actor actresses. You don't need to learn the dance, listen to the lyrics, catch the rhythm and you become a dancer. Dancing is all fun, spontaneity and creativity. If you don't find the actions interesting enough, no issues. Reinvent yourself, become your own choreographer. If you are bright enough you might find followers then and there.

Only flip side is if you have such dancers on the dance floor, it soon turns into a hustling, bustling chaos. But who cares? Others may find it difficult to perform in such chaos but most Indians love it, that's where they thrive.

It was October 2005 in Sydney, I was about to leave for office when a news captured my attention. An Australian school had organised a Bollywood dance competition. Kids were wearing colourful Indian costumes and looked cute. Teachers, none of whom were Indians, were sweating to get the actions right. I was quite amused. I know for sure Bollywood dance is not going to compete with salsa, but I was glad somewhere miles away from India, someone had noticed this dancing style and were trying to mimic. "kajarare" was the song they selected and I mimicked the whistling action in the rhythm as I left for the office!

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? - The Book

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why so many Indians are vegetarians?

"1 aloo tikki burger, please", my friend who had just landed from India, placed his order to the McDonald's at Bugis junction in Singapore and the sales girl looked perplexed.
"what the hell is he talking about", she said to herself but what we saw was just a trained courteous smile.
"oh shax, how will she understand aloo means potato", my friend said to himself and with fake apologetic face ordered, "potato pattice burger with large meal please"
The trained courteous smile remained unchanged and fake apologetic face turned into genuinely irritated face.
"buddy, this is not India. You won't get anything vegetarian here", I had to pull my friend aside and explain.
"what the heck! What should I do now. I am a pure vegetarian"
Well, he is not alone. There are many Indians who go overseas and find themselves all at sea with food. Very few countries in the world understand what strictly vegetarian food is and  Nobody ever understands what is big deal.

Big question is why Indians are vegetarians?

To get facts straight, not all Indians are vegetarians, only handful of them are.  They are likely to belong to Brahmin caste in general. Brahmins guys were supposed to be knowledge guys. They were supposed to have single minded pursuit for knowledge. Kshatriyas were supposed to pursue power, Vaishyas were supposed to pursue money and trade and Shudras were supposed to provide services to all. Brahmins were also priest and role models for the society. Brahmins were supposed to hold moral high ground and advise the rulers about what is right and wrong from ethical and religious point of view. They were supposed to stay away from sins, one of  which was killing animals. They also believed that eating flesh and blood would diminish their satvik (pious) tendencies which are essential in their pursuit of purity. Non-vegetarian food would have rajas tendencies which are more suitable for pursuit of power not knowledge.

These practicing Brahmins are still vegetarians. They believe human digestive system has more similarities to fruit eating primates than meat eating carnivores. They talk about world acknowledged green credentials of vegetarian food and believe vegetarian societies are more harmonious and sustainable. They are convinced what they are doing is right and soon world would follow.

The world sees this as a business opportunity. Universal studio in singapore has a high percentage of Indian tourist and boasts of pure vegetarian food stall which is the busiest stall around. All airlines offer Indian vegetarian as a food option. Most of the conference managers now a days check your food preference before hand. So much so that McDonald's, world's most standardised and globalised brand, had to enter Indian market with a large vegetarian menu. They also had to give it an Indian twist. Every McDonald's  outlet in India has separate work areas, cooking equipments and cooking oil for vegetarian and non-vegetarian sections. All of this is visible to the customer.

The rate at which Indians are travelling the day is not far when my friend would order an "aloo tikki burger" and the girl with courteous smile would say, "having here or take away sir!"

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? - The Book

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why Do Many Indians Not Eat Beef?

[caption id="attachment_454" align="aligncenter" width="300"] One Cow - Different Perspectives[/caption]

Once I was in Seoul.  Our host had planned a special dinner at a speciality beef barbecue restaurant. Excellent barbecue was arranged at the table, courteous staff, great ambience.... One problem - I did not eat beef.
"Why?", one of them exclaimed, "It's perhaps the tastiest meat in the world".
I did not bother to answer this. But they were in no mood to give up. "By religion or choice", another gentleman chipped in. This is a typical south east Asian question. In Malaysia and Indonesia , most Muslims don't eat pork so usually people in this region are aware of relation between religion and meat.
"religion" I answered, I also wanted to see how far this goes.
"Muslims consider pig to be unclean animal hence they abstain from it. What is your reason?", this was really getting interesting now.
"We consider the cow to be  the God" I could hear some sighs, suppressed laughter and hushed voices. I looked around unsuccessfully for eye contacts.
"Being a well educated, rational individual do you really think cow is a God?"
I hated the patronising tone. I hated the attempt to draw relationship between education or rationality and religious beliefs. But I ignored all of this to take the debate forward.
"No" I continued to march on.
"Does your religious book Geeta, specifically mention that cow is a god?", by now all side conversations had stopped and everyone was absorbed in this debate.
The question marks on their faces overflowed on rest of the body parts.
There was a long pause which I interpreted as "Then why the hell you guys be practical and start eating what rest of the world eats?"

At that moment, several things were running randomly in my mind. My processor was going to unchartered regions in my brain to look for any possible data, sayings, learnings, connections which would help me answer this without evading it. All I remembered was my grandfather told me cow has gods inside her stomach, which I knew at age of 5, wasn't true. I loved milk since childhood, I liked all the derived products like curd, buttermilk, butter and ghee. When I visited my ancestral village, I saw dried cow-dung being used as fuel. In one such trip, I also saw a cow giving birth to a male calf, who later worked at the farm. I did not have any memory that linked cows to godhood. After this, my processor went berserk again. There was nothing more to add to this.

Hang on....I thought, are these not good enough reasons. People were about to give up on me and get back to their beef barbecue. Time was running out.
"There are reasons", I threw the  hat back in the ring.
"and what are these?" the voice was full of astonishment, curiosity laced with sarcasm.
"there are several things cow gives, which otherwise won't be available if the cow is killed". Then I rattled out milk based products, cow- dung, male calf etc etc. There was interest but no excitement as I stated the obvious.
"the farmer makes a lot of money with all these by-products", I continued to gain grounds.
I realised that most of my audience were from corporate, banks and finance departments and always talked about bottom line, profits and ROI. ROI - return on investment - that was the word I was looking for. Bingo!!
"ROI of a live cow far exceeds dead cow" Boom. Here came the clincher I was looking for. The shape of question marks changed. The new shape now meant "why the hell I did not think of this before"

Soon I had some friendly appreciative faces around. Whether they agreed or not was a different matter but they ran out of arguments.
While I am not sure if this was the actual reason for making cow a god,  it sounded extremely logical to me. Interestingly, I also read that cows are almost as polluting as cars. Cows emit methane which is as dangerous as CO2. Keeping cows alive, who produce bulls to run farms is a much greener solution than having cow farms.

Now if someone asks me "why don't you eat beef. Religion or choice?"
I smile and say "logic".

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? - The Book

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why its unlikely to have Indian movies without songs... Ever?

Songs were inherited from musical dramas, fair enough. But now, after 99 years why are they still integral part of Indian movies? Most of the urban customers also watch English movies and also appreciate them. Then why their taste is so different between Indian movies and English movies. The question is would we ever see commercially successful Indian movies?

My answer is NO.

Firstly, songs which started off as an add-on to the story, have now become integral part of the movies. The story warps around the music, story moves ahead thru songs. Hit songs is one of the essential ingredients of a hit film. There are some actors like Shah Rukh Khan , who owe their success to hit songs.

Secondly, songs don't just stay on silver screen. They are omnipresent. Music channels live and breathe because of them. They make traffic jams bearable, long drives enjoyable. Boring ring tones have given way to personalised songs for the callers. Pubs and discos dance to their tunes. School entertainment programs or family functions are incomplete without them.

Lastly, songs are an integral part of the revenue streams of Indian movies. They generate about 10-12% revenues for the movies. The song rights are sold even before movie is produced. They are the teasers for upcoming movies. ...and what can they do to upcoming movies... Well ask Dhanush who viral-ed the Kolavari. This song recording video of upcoming movie went viral and millions of netizens saw it minutes after release. Movie is yet to be released but the singer and actor Dhanush is not only a celebrity but also considered the most successful viral marketer. He addressed IIM students about key success factors of successful viral marketing... All before release of the movie.

How could you have Indian movies without such a great business proposition? Or form of entertainment that creates super-stars? Or plays an integral role of people's lives?

(This rounds up the movie-series. Coming up next Food-series. Why are so many Indians Vegetarians? Why they don't eat beef? etc)

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? - The Book

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why lead actresses are always beautiful and lead actor's looks don't matter?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500"] Rajnikanth with Aishwarya...[/caption]

This is another peculiar thing about Indian movies. You could have a movie where lead actor (hero) may have average looks but lead actress (heroin) would always look beautiful. The top actress is dream girl for the nation. Starting from Hema Malini to Madhuri Dixit to Aishwarya to Kareena the top actresses have to look beautiful. The same rule does not seem to apply to heroes. Rajnikanth is not just a hero but a phenomenon. He started as a bus conductor in public bus, got noticed by a movie director, rest his history. He broke all records when he romanced Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan aged 30+ when he himself was aged about 60. His looks were never his strengths, still he is one of the most successful actors. Current leading heroes - the 3 Khans- Shahrukh, Salman and Amir - look great but Hrithik, John look better. But 3 khans rule the industry. Whenever the glamour quotient falls below a threshold, the director summons the most explosive beauty for an item song. The actresses summoned to do this suggestive, explosive, sexy songs feels flattered and assured about her beauty-credentials.

Why are Indian movies so obsessed with beautiful girls on screen?

The answer became very clear after I read "Why men need sex and Women want love". This book differentiates male brain from female brains. Male brain is wired to be activated by visual signals. Men are visual animals and looking at beautiful looking girls is controlled by hypothalamus - the primitive part of brain controlled by genes.

The commercial success of movie depends on ticket sales which contributes to about 80% of revenue. Bulk of this revenue is contributed by a mythical animal called "the average Indian". He exists everywhere but it is difficult to pin-point him, it is difficult to typecast him. Every Indian is different in his own own ways but this average Indian lives in every Indian. He leads a life which is far from perfect. There are struggles, frustrations, unfulfilled dreams.

Movies are a perfect getaway . He really gets involved in movies. It is not just an entertainment but part of his life where he can accomplish . He subconsciously relates to the protagonist. In those 3 hours he is transformed to the onscreen hero. So the hero has to look as close to him as possible. The average Indian knows he is not too handsome. Heroes with killer looks makes the transformation difficult. Once transformed, the Hero has to get the most beautiful looking girl. This average Indian subconsciously romances the most beautiful girl, dances with them, sings for them. Heroin has to look beautiful, average looking heroin is not OK. The average Indian already has a average looking girl. In movie he wants the best looking girl.

What about female audience? Why don't they demand the most handsome hero? Why do they settle for next-door looks? The same book provided an answer. Women have to feel, they don't select their partners based on looks but based on mental connection. Thats where heroes in Indian movies score well. Irrespective of the looks Hero in Indian movies always connects with the heroin. He is the nicest person around and connects well with all female characters. Even if he is playing criminal, he always wins sympathy of the audience, predominantly female audience. His looks therefore don't matter, mental connection does.

Movies for average men and women in India are not just entertainment. It is a mental process, a paid illusion, 3 hours where they can accomplish things which are not possible in real life.
Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? – The Book

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why do Indian movies always have songs?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="450"]Two most beautiful women in one screen Indian Beauty Unlimited![/caption]

She had tears in her eyes. He had a lost look on his face. They were sitting in a public garden. He reached out to her and held her hand it close to his heart. Shivers ran down her body. "I love you", he said. She wiped her tears, started smiling. 

Background music started. So far all the inconsequential characters in the public garden fell into a formation. Drums started to roll down the slope.  Hero started dancing and they all mimicked. She hid behind the trees and he started to sing, dance and run behind her... All at the same time. 

The whole crowd in the theatre started cheering the hit number. My American colleague who wanted to get a guided tour to Indian movies, looked aghast. He had a big question mark on his face as he looked at me. I reached out for my next popcorn.

The world is always puzzled about such songs being integral part of Indian movies. Don't they make the whole movie unrealistic? Globally, film makers go out of their way to make the movie look as close to reality as possible. They shoot at locations, record background noises at locations etc. They are amazed at how Indians can be so comfortable with songs which are so blatantly unreal? And why does the audience in the theatres cheer or clap at onscreen actors in theatres? Do they expect the on screen actors to hear it?

Indian movies have their root in "Sangeet Natya" which is a Sanskrit word for musical dramas. (http://vivekvaidya.com/index.php/2012/03/why-do-indians-their-movies/)  This was the most popular entertainment format prevalent in India. All major characters in this art form had to be singers. They would communicate partly in dialogues and would suddenly break into songs. As the name suggests, songs was the main attractions for these dramas. The audience would know the hit numbers but they would watch the drama again and again to hear it from their favourite singers. They would cheer, clap and hum the song with the characters. If they liked the song, they would request the on-stage character to sing it again. The actor would take it as his honour and oblige. Indian movies, when they arrived in 1913, we're looking to compete with a highly active and interactive form of entertainment.

Dadasaheb Phalake, father of Indian movies, had no choice but to make Indian movies look very similar to Sangeet Natya. He could get actors very easily, the format was set. All he had to do was film it and show it on the screen. In fact, while introducing movies to people he called them - drama on screen. This is where Indian movies inherited songs. The storyline and songs are intertwined and not really seen as two separate things by Indian audience for last 99 years. The tradition of cheering on screen performance is also deep rooted. That's how it used to happen in those days. If the actors performed on stage and the audience did not clap or cheer, that would be a nightmare for the actors. Those were signs of a bad act. Audience had the responsibility to proactively communicate their acceptance, which they continue to follow even for Indian movies.

Indian movie has evolved in last 99 years. Several movie-makers have tried to experiment with songs. Some of them produced song-less movies, some others produced musical stories. Movies with songs always outperformed movies without songs. Legacy continues... In my next blog, I will talk about Why would songs remain an integral part of Indian movies in foreseeble future.

Bal Gandharva - biographical movie about Marathi singing legend - this clip shows on stage singing skills, coupled with interactivity with the audience. The situation depicted in the clip is extremely tragic. Bal Gandharva - protagonist, male dressed as female has lost his daughter. But he is unable to cancel the show, has to perform on stage and the audience does not seem to let him go...

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? – The Book

Friday, March 23, 2012

Why are Indian movies 3 hours long?

One of the famous saying in India goes - recession times or inflation times, three things would never lose their sheen in India - movies, cricket and marriages. I would try to cover all of these and more in this blog series, starting with movies.
Indian movies is a phenomenon considered bizarre by rest of the world. Movies are too long - 3 hours as against rest of the world which produces 1.5 hour movies. Most of these movies are unreal, extremely predictable and almost formula driven. Songs - which underline the disconnection from reality- are most difficult to swallow for them. The actors and actresses wear flashy make-ups, flashy clothes, give most unreal expression and virtually every situation is melodramatic. Why on earth do Indians love such movies, the world wonders.

Getting the facts right - India is the largest movie producer in the world. About 1,000 movies are produced in India every year across various languages and regions. The second largest movie producer is hollywood - USA which produces 500 movies. Although, currently, hollywood is the market leader in terms of revenues from movies, but things are set to change according to PWC. PWC's report on Titled "See the future" outlines Hollywood which is the global center for filmed entertainment today will steadily lose its influence mainly to Mumbai and Shanghai. Although, Hollywood would still be number 1 in 2040 in terms of market size, the gap between Hollywood and Indian movies would be much narrower. (source: www.pwc.com)

The question is why do Indians love such movies so much?

Cinema arrived in India in in 1913 when Dadasaheb Phalke produced a silent movie called Raja Harishchandra based on the sanskrit epic. The format of the movie was guided by the entertainment options that cinema replaced. The main competition for movies back the was musical dramas. This was a very unique entertainment option that ruled the sub-continent. The drama would be usually based on mythological story and characters. Songs were integral part of the story. These were based on classical ragas. The actors would not only act but also sing during the play. What is most astonishing is, these dramas would be extremely interactive, open ended performance . If the audience liked a song, they would request the on-stage actor to sing it again. And again and again. The actors would take pride in how many "once more" requests they got during any performance. A good play which would be scripted for 3 hours would take anywhere between 4 to 6 hours to end. In fact actors would consider it a disgrace if the drama ended exactly 3 hours without any "once more" request.

Indian cinema was competing against such advanced, interactive form of entertainment. Naturally, some basic things such as songs could not be altered. Such as duration of 3 hours, which could not change at all.

But Why 3 hours? Isn't it too long. Considering the history and predecessor of Indian cinema, 3 hours is not too long at all. Dramas used to go on for much longer duration. In those days a significant chunk of the audience used to travel from nearby towns and villages. So the entertainment duration had to be longer than their journey time. Anything shorter and the option would no longer be attractive. Even these days, cinema is screened in multiplexes, the best value for money that is spent in reaching the cinema halls and buying tickets is in cinema that lasts 3 hours. Simple.  Various experiments of altering movie durations have met with limited success. What is even more surprising is longer movies (yeah, longer than 3 hours) have done better business than smaller movies. Hence, about 3 hour seems to be commercially optimal duration. Bizzare but this is the way Indians like their movies.

In my next blog, I would talk about "Why would songs be always an integral part of Indian Cinema?"

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? – The Book

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why do Indians? - Foreward to new blog series

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="310" caption="India"][/caption]

Frequent travel to various cities helped me to interact and appreciate other cultures. Similarly, I also got an opportunity to answer a few questions about Indians and their seemingly bizarre ways of life. Judging by the questions I had to answer I can easily say that Indians are among the least understood and worst stereotyped people on the earth.

The funniest, bizarre but surprisingly most often asked question is "do you go to office on an elephant?" I used to be very amused by this question. I never had a good answer for this question. I agree that transport infrastructure in most cities in India is not modern, but going to office on an elephant was a bit too much to handle. When someone asked this question to one of my friends, he used to answer this question as "yes off course", without bursting into laughter. "So where do you park them", their curiosity unabated. He would again answer with straight face, "actually, I don't know. I just get off at the office and elephant goes somewhere. Feeds itself and comes back on his own to pick me up once I blow a particular whistle". I must confess, I could not control my laughter once when this happened in my presence.

Well, this might be an extreme example but people have several questions which are based on genuine curiosity and quest to know other race better. People want to know why do Indians still go for arranged marriage or why do they want watch movies full of songs and dances, which are so unrealistic. They are also intrigued by why do Indians not eat beef? Why do they like cricket better than soccer? Etc etc.

This blog series would appeal to my non-Indian readers by knowing a perspective about these questions. Indian readers, feel free to comment and use the answers to talk to non-Indian friends.

I will try my best to answer these questions in this blog-series "Why do Indians?"

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Go with the flow, always in control!

Amazing variety of meats, veggies and garnishing in Malay style
Stay in Control

I live and work in Singapore but Malaysia is like second home. Business takes me there at least 10-12 times a year. People in Malaysia, be it clients or colleagues are quite easy to deal with. They have certain warmth; some connect that makes you feel belonged instantly.

Recently, I visited a prestigious client with my Malaysian colleague for closing a deal. The main aim of the meeting was to finalize our approach and if everything went well the project would be awarded to us. The client manager was a high ranking officer but extremely very warm and friendly. Meeting began on a very positive note with hot coffee and snacks were served well before the meeting started. I was expecting this to be a meeting with tough negotiations, debate about our approach, capability, project team etc. I was preparing myself for an intense debate. But things panned out very differently.

Meeting began with exchanging customary pleasantries then instead of getting to the main agenda directly; the client started talking about football match last evening which Man U had lost very badly. I made a futile attempt of broaching the main topic, only to be blocked and ignored by my own colleague. This was quite a contrast to a discussion with a Japanese customer, let’s say, where everything is governed by norms and rules. The client was discussing things in free flow without any particular direction or agenda in mind and we were towing the line. Finally, we started discussing about our proposal. He had read it thoroughly and surprisingly he was quite cool about everything. He asked for a few superficial clarifications and we shook hands. I was half happy, half surprised.

Obviously this was the topic of discussion over lunch which immediately followed the meeting. We had gone to a Nasi Campur, (mixed rice) restaurant. My colleague said, “Malaysian clients are very cool. They are businesslike but they like to go beyond business discussions. In fact if you start with business discussions directly they might be offended. They might perceive you as too hardnosed person who does not care about relationships. Another thing you must ensure is client is in control of discussions at all times. He may go with the flow but you need to ensure he in control at all times”. Wow, that’s quite profound, I thought. Immediately, I looked around if I could connect this insight to “How they eat, How they do business”. To my surprise, I saw the manifestation straightaway at Nasi Campur.

Malaysia is a land of thousand tastes and multiple food types. You find Chinese, Indian and Malay food types side by side. There are various formats in which food is served. But Nasi Campur (which literally means mixed rice) is a truly unique experience in Malaysia. Nasi Campur type of restaurants are popular joints for lunch and it can be found almost everywhere in Kuala Lumpur. It serves rice, vegetables and a large variety of meats with some condiments, garnishing all in Malay style. What sets this apart is the way food is served! This neighborhood restaurant serves everything in buffet style. You are handed over a plate with a bowl of rice and you could pick up anything you wanted from a wide range of meats, vegetables, curries and garnishing available. There are no set rules. Indulge in anything you want, as much as you want.  As a customer, you are always in control about what you eat and how much you eat. The restaurant informally passes the control to you by asking you to serve yourself and you stay there all the time. You can go with the flow and always stay in control!

Friday, March 2, 2012

No time for courtesies please!

I have stayed in quite a few cities so far  but Singapore is among the best. People in Singapore, my current home, are quite easy to get along. They are the most practical and the least complicated people I have ever met. They are always in a hurry, time is more than money for them. I learnt it the hard way when I managed to piss off a client at a "courtesy meeting". In my MBA I had learnt the importance of courtesy meetings in building strong relationships with clients. But that was in different context, different background. Things panned out quite differently in this meeting.

Our meeting started on a positive note by exchanging pleasantries. This meeting was a few weeks after a successful project completion and we were fishing for more business and wanted to be discrete about sales intent. We then started open ended discussions about economic challenges, impact on Singapore, impact on client's company, business decisions etc. It was meant to be a courtesy meeting hence no presentation or deliverable was planned. About 10 minutes into the meeting the client manager politely stopped the discussion and asked a straight forward question, "what is the purpose of this meeting?" "This is a courtesy meeting, we care about our relationship, we are not here to sell you anything now", came the text-book reply. "Well, from our perspective, what you sell to us builds relationship. Your solution is the oxygen of our relationship. If you have anything to sell, do come over. If we want buy something we will call you. What is this courtesy meeting all about?", he said in a very straight forward and nice way. We were stunned and left the meeting room in less than 3 1/2 minutes.

My Singaporean colleagues were not surprised. They had warned me that it was a bad idea anyway. Their explanation was an eye opener. It bolstered my theory about "How they eat, How they do business".

They told me that most of the Singaporeans have their lunch as well as dinner outside home. But they don't go to restaurants. They go to Food courts or hawker centers which are the most popular eating places in Singapore. These food courts are an ideal example of evolved standardization. They have similar variety of dishes, similar price points, standardized and quite hygienic. They provide common seating areas, common cutleries which you need to grab yourself. So basically these are practical, cheap places that offer great food but no experience. Nobody holds the door open for you,  no waiter pushes your chair, nobody takes the order nor replenish your drink. No experience, no courtesies at all.

If you want to eat, you go to food court. No courtesy visits, please. There is no time!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What are your options?

I have not really dealt with many american customers directly. But they are omnipresent. Too big not to know anything about them. Besides I work for an american company so not knowing about american customers is not an option!

Option. That is what stood out for me when I was trying to adopt templates designed for american customers to asian customers. While writing a proposal in the american template you had to provide a lot of options for everything from our methodology to sample size to packages for price. When I took the same approach to my asian customers they found this overwhelming. Some of them also asked me whether I was trying to confuse them.

Why does a standard procedure in america failed in asia for us? The answer was simple. The customers were different. But I could appreciate the difference and more importantly rationalize and predict the outcome only when I developed my theory "How they Eat, How they do business".

Once I was in an intense meeting with my team and we decided to have working lunch in the conference room. Subway sandwiches emerged as the most popular and the most natural choice. But ordering it seating in board room was not as simple as we thought. Because  a subway sandwich is not just a chicken sandwich right! It is a 6 inch, parmesan oregano bread, cheese toasted, with  chicken teriyaki and all veggies except onion but extra black olives and jalapeƱos with southwest chipostle sauce, mayonese and honey mustard sauce with a bit of salt and pepper,  medium sized meal with one chocolate and one oatmeal & raisin cookie with diet coke to go! ... And yes paid by credit card.

One has to choose from 13 different options to buy a sandwich.   But as a customer I really feel I got exactly what I wanted, I had complete control over the process and therefore I feel a lot more satisfied and empowered. I am sure if someone measures customer satisfaction and choice of sandwiches, Subway would easily top the chart! The whole ordering system  is designed to empower the customer by making him choose from a lot of options!

Inherently, customers are same, whether they are buying a sandwich or a complex technical solution. If you are trying to win them in the United States of America don't forget to ask yourself "what are your options?"

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Presentation makes the content look special!

Source: http://www.lunchboxmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/french-food-7.jpg

A few years ago, I lead an all Asian team to a project with European clients. We were invited to present at a large boardroom with impeccable interiors, upto date AV systems and video conferencing facilities. We had over a team of over 20 client managers to attend our presentation. We were well prepared, we had some strong recommendations for the client. But the whole set-up, noisy audience made my project manager a bit nervous. Although, the content was great the presentation was not. In clients own words "it was interesting, solid but not refined nor pleasing to the eye and mind." Our progress in that account was a big struggle, thereon.

I had forgotten all about this, till recently. My budding theory of "How they eat, How they do business" made me remember this. It did bolster my theory further. In European food context, a well made recipe is only half the job done. It is not just about the taste or smell for that matter. The food content has to be pleasing to the eye. But what truly differentiates, German or French food from all others is the emphasis on the plate in which it served.

Typically, the plate itself looks really artistic. It is so distinctive, it makes you wonder "why I don't find such dishes when I am looking for my dinner set". The portion served in the plate leaves enough space around it to express your creativity. This is complete contrast to most of the Asian dishes which are typically filled to the brim. A  European dish is served with some decoration - graffiti by chocolate sauce or a mint leaf that compliments color of the main dish takes the whole experience to the next level.

The emphasis on great presentation differentiates Europeans from all others. This is obvious and most well known in design of cars. Europeans treat the cars as the object of desire not just a machine or something that takes you from place A to B. The car that  adheres to certain "standards" or have certain "quality" is like a well cooked recipe incomplete without aesthetic presentation. So Audi, BMW,  Daimler, VW spend enormous resources on designing beautiful looking cars. Every square mm inside and outside the car is designed with atmost care, harmonized to present itself well to the customers.

It is the presentation that makes the content so special!


Friday, February 10, 2012

Indian customers and the magic of a glass of water!

[caption id="attachment_382" align="aligncenter" width="204" caption="It can create magic in India!"][/caption]

I have visited many different types of restaurants. Each one of them is unique in their own way. Still I can see some commonalities among them. When you you show up at the restaurant, you are assured to the seat, a menu card is presented, you place an order and then the transaction begins. The restaurants starts rolling out the best possible services they can provide. This is where experience with Indian restaurants stand out. 
In Indian restaurants, the waiter is supposed to serve a glass of water without you having to ask for it and even before you make up your mind what to order. In Indian restaurants service needs to start flowing in even before any order is placed. A subtle but very important difference. 

Serving water is a very simple but holy ritual in Indian hospitality and service industry.  I remember in childhood my mom used to tell me, "even if your sworn enemy asks you for water, first serve it then resume the fight". Refusing water to someone is considered a sin.

As a logical, rational adult I started thinking about this. I realized the importance of water. A human body can survive for 3 weeks without food but it can not survive for 3 days without water. India is a hot and humid country so in olden days when people would walk across the countryside, serving water signified empathy. 

What does this mean for business?

Well, you need to get in the mode of serving the customer even before the formal order is placed. You need to show a personal connection and empathy to get yourself going. Some freebees, perhaps insignificant in value terms should start flowing in even before the customer makes up his mind. Better service you provide in this phase, sooner and larger would be the order. 

Customer may walk out after drinking that glass of water but if you don't serve it customer would be lost for life. Cut and dry dealing may leave you high and

A glass of water can create magic in your pursuit to win Indian customer.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Want to win a Korean client? Where is your expert?

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We face an altogether a different problem with Korean customers. The moment they had a requirement about any topic, they would ask us - "who is your expert on this topic?" Well, in many cases, the expert would be busy or in a different timezone or simply we may not have expertise in that area. I was quite puzzled with this requirement. I was not quite sure whether to follow this request or challenge it. "What happens if we fail to showcase our expert?" I asked my Korean colleague. "They may not engage us?" was his sudden reply.

We wont have expertise, if we don't get the project and we wont get the project because we are not experts. This was a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Deep in my thoughts, we had reached a Korean restaurant and I ordered my favorite chicken dish. "They don't serve chicken here. They specialize in pork and some dishes of fish", informed my korean colleague. So far I had not bothered to look at all Korean menu card, which appeared quite slim. I realized that in many restaurants the entire menu was written on a single board and the dishes were quite few. This was quite intriguing. A similar sized restaurant in India would serve south indian, north indian, chaat, indian-chinese, variety of ice creams.. And whatever else you could think of. Then why is this korean restaurant was serving so few dishes?

We went ahead with the order. I find korean food really hot. So I requested my colleague to ask them to prepare a slight milder version of the same dish. I have tried such request in Indian and Thai restaurants and they readily oblidged but in this case my colleague ignored me and continued to order. Once the waiter vanished from the scene, he turned to me in astonishment and said, "Vivek, you can't ask them to modify their dish. It is their recipe, their restaurant we can't come here and change it. They are experts in this dish. They will get upset".

Things were a lot clearer to me now. Each restaurant was an expert in their own type of meat and a few dishes they were known for. Customers came there because of their expertise.

I promptly started to work on showcasing an expert for our next order. Now we find out availability of expert before we go to the customer to solicit the business.

(Photos: Courtesy Youngmin Kim. Thanks Youngmin!)


Friday, January 27, 2012

Trick of Winning Japanese Customers lies in the menu!

Japanese customers are quite easy to deal with when they do not want buy anything from you. Things turn vastly different as the moment of truth, the buying decision appears on the horizon. In consulting business, we are dealing with intangible products and solutions. We charge for our time and customers carry back a powerpoint slide deck as the deliverable. The Japanese customers insist on getting to know every finer details of what the ultimate deliverable "powerpoint slide deck" is going to look like. Very often we have to give them detailed content list or show a similar output or even a powerpoint which would look like a deliverable. My non-Japanese team would find it strange and they would take it as lack of trust or faith in their ability to deliver.  Japanese members in the team would never understand their point of view as they considered this to be a standard business practice.

There was no solution to this internal conflict until I was armed with the concept of "how they eat, how do they do business".

One day we visited a traditional Japanese restaurant. What attracted my attention was the real life replicas of all the dishes in the menu card displayed right at the entrance. Each and every dish on the menu was replicated to finest possible details and displayed in a large display window right at the entrance. The replicas were very detailed and look good to eat. The level of details is simply mesmerizing. Black sesame on the rice, garnishing on soup, freshly cut sashimi everything is replicated as it is. It was not just the intricate details but even the quantity of rice, length of unagi, amount of salad everything was very accurately represented.

Normally, I would have missed all this but the brewing conflict made me curious.

"What is that for?", I asked my Japanese colleague. "This gives a clear idea to the customer, what exactly they are going to get.  If the look or quantity in the actual dish is different than the replica, customers may complain. Japanese customers want to know exactly how much they are supposed to pay and what it looks like for them to make an decision to enter the restaurant. " he replied.

 Things were as clear as a crystal for everyone. If Japanese customers need such a great clarity in something mundane, routine and low priced as restaurant food, how could they buy something for millions of dollars without preview?

Our next goal now is to beat the restaurant menu card replica by our detailed preview presentations to win over the Japanese customersNext week, I will share our experience of winning over Korean customers.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How they eat, How they do business!

My job has taken me places, literally. My job ensures I have to visit atleast one other city apart from my home city every month. My team is very small but multi cultural.  I also like to try the local food every time I travel.
Once after a stressful day, I was at  a dinner table in an intense discussion with my colleagues about how we should have handled the meeting earlier in the day. We were dealing with an Asian client, during the meeting we had taken an extremely rational approach. We had laid out the challenge and outlined various smaller issues surrounding it. We had cut the issue in smaller pieces making the easiest to bite. To our surprise, client did not approve of our handling at all. He wanted us to take a softer approach, deal with the issue in totality, treat every underlying issue to its merit rather than cutting them into pieces.
Just as the discussion was getting hotter and getting nowhere our food arrived. Some of my colleagues got ready with their chopsticks, others  got ready with their knife and forks. Those using knife and fork cut the food into smaller pieces making them easier to bite. Those using chopsticks caressed the food, handled each chunk of meat dealt with it as a whole piece rather than cutting it. Their handling of food was much softer exactly as our client had suggested.
No body spoke a word during the dinner but everyone realized what the client was trying to say.  We were taking fork and knife approach and our client was asking us to use chopsticks.
We got over the situation in no time at all the next day, but this incident lingered in my mind since then. I started observing and correlating how food is ordered, decorated and served to how they do business. To my surprise, I found amazing similarities between food and business, right from the menu card to food presentation to the way it is consumed.
In this blog series, I will try to share these observations for Japanese, Korean, Malaysian and Indian eating habits and business practices. First let us start with Japanese food, in my next blog.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sleeping with the Earthquakes!

It was chilly Thursday morning in Japan, my alarm was yet buzz to wake me up, when someone shook me vigorously till I woke  up. Only my younger brother, overfriendly room mate and son had ever done that to me before. Half angry and half surprised I woke up, there was none in the room. My bed in the hotel room on 25th floor was rocking like a cradle and i sat there frozen. It was a small earthquake in Tokyo, which did not even make it in scrolling news bar on any news channel. But I was shaken to the core!
How do Japanese people live and sleep with earthquake? In city like Tokyo, earthquake happens almost everyday. It does not even disrupt the city even for one minute. People in office don't even pause striking their keyboards unless the earthquake lasts for more than 20 seconds.

All Japanese residents are trained to deal with earthquake from age 2. There regular drills, like fire evacuation drills, which happen even in kinder gardens regularly. My friend's son rushes for the dining table and waits under it, if earthquake lasts more than 5 seconds. There are no loosely hung wall paintings, kitchen shelves are specially designed to make them quake-proof. So all in all earthquake in Japan is equivalent to rains in Singapore, it happens everyday but you hardly notice it.

What is even more amazing is there are skyscrapers everywhere in Tokyo. To make buildings structurally strong, they are squarish in shape. There are also rules about not building such buildings near main roads, just in case they fall down they should not block arterial roads. "Wow", I exclaimed as my friend was explaining to me how they built quake-proof skyscrapers. I learnt that the main difference between a normal building and quake-proof building is its foundation. Usually, we look for a deep and solid foundation to support the building. But that exactly is the biggest cause of failure in case of earthquake. Quake-proof buildings have rolling foundation. When quake hits the whole building rocks like a cradle and survives. The building with strong but rigid foundation perishes.

 When you encounter nature's raw force, the rigid wont survive. Someone who is nimble, flexible and willing rock in nature's cradle has nothing to worry. They can sleep well even in earthquakes!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Onsen in Japan and courage to walk nude

Japan is the land full of culture shocks. But the culture shock that I got in an Onsen was the biggest and the most unexpected. I had heard about Onsens but never got a chance to visit one during so many trips to Japan till my  last  visit.  I knew Onsen was a great natural phenomena which occurred in specific places closer to volcanic activities.  The mineral rich hot water in Onsens has medicinal properties which can cure various skin diseases. I also knew that Japan had the highest number of underground hot springs and therefore a  lot of Onsens.

What I did not know was experience that came with it was so unique.  We visited the Onsen about 200 km from Tokyo in Tateyama. After depositing our belongings in the counter, we were given the Onsen gown, a towel and a napkin... Slightly bigger than a pocket handkerchief.  "what is this napkin for", I asked.  "you will know soon", my friend winked. I wrapped a towel around and started walking towards the Onsens.  I was promptly stopped by the service staff. "only napkin is allowed in the onsens", she exclaimed in her broken english. Now I knew.


Being naked among a large group of people was my worst and the most frequent nightmare. When it happened in real life it was my biggest culture shock. I did take my own time to overcome my shyness and getting used to that state. Nobody was really looking at each other directly but just the fact that there were so many men around who could potentially watch me naked made me nervous.  I realized that it takes immense courage to walk naked in a room full of people.

My host was my friend's husband.  We did not know each other that well. But once I got used to that state and we got used to each other, we started talking about things that were closer to our hearts, things that we deeply believed in and things that we are ready to do for our loved ones. Such profound and intimate discussions were possible only because we had nothing to hide...literally.

We all are living a busy and rushed life. Everyday morning we get ready, get dressed, put on our masks and look at ourselves in the mirror. That is the image we want to project to the world. Everyday we are busy hiding ourselves from others and we land up hiding us from ourselves. We seldom get a chance to stand naked in front of the mirror, look at ourselves, accept ourselves and be comfortable with what we are. The satisfaction and mental peace you get by facing yourselves  naked in the mirror and accepting yourself whole heartedly is worth experiencing.

What is unique about Onsens in Japan? They don't just cure skin diseases, they help you prepare yourself to accept that naked person in the mirror.