Author: Emma Chelsvig
Location: Chennai, India
After being in Chennai for 3 weeks, I have come to better understand the people and the culture with each passing day. I can cross the street through the weaving traffic without getting hit, I can decipher about 6 items on the menus at restaurants, and I can shuffle and nudge my way to the front of the line at the produce store as to not let every single customer cut me. However, there is still one aspect of Indian culture that continues to bring me uncertainty…the head bobble.
The head bobble is reproduced by Indians with almost every human encounter. When someone does the head bobble, the head lightly and loosely floats from side to side with the ears dipping down towards each shoulder. It is a bobble of the head rather than a strict nod or “no” gesture. As for the facial expression, there is little change in the person’s displayed emotions. The head bobbler retains an expressionless front.
So, what does such an inherently vague gesture mean, exactly? Well, I’m still not entirely sure.
As an outsider to Indian culture, I try to observe and understand my surroundings as much as I can. I search for patterns and continuity, and then correlate the actions with a certain meaning. But after 3 weeks, the head bobble still stumps me. I ask the auto driver if he has change, and his head bobbles. I discuss my goals for my project at work to my boss, and her head bobbles during the entire conversation. I order food at a restaurant, and the waiter’s head bobbles. During lunch, I sit across from a co-worker whose head bobbles as she chews each bite of her mother’s home-cooked meal. I ask the hotel receptionist if my room can be cleaned, and his head bobbles. I search for jack fruit at the produce store and cannot find any; I ask the cashier if there is any in stock, and her head bobbles.
Sometimes I can decipher whether the head bobble means “yes,” or “I understand,” or “no,” or even when it just portrays contentment. But quite often the head bobble still throws me off. Resorting to my own culture’s human dynamics, the head bobble appears to display feelings of discontent or the act of settling. This is not at all what it means, and thus I am left with a misunderstanding of my peer’s response.
Nine thousand miles from home, India sometimes feels like a separate world. It is so easy to hold tight to my own perceptions on life and use these to define everything that I see here. But in doing so, I will misinterpret all that there is to learn from India. So, I have 5 more weeks of my Indian adventure…let’s see if I master the head bobble. And just maybe by the end of my time here, I’ll be bobbling with every person that I meet.