Monday, February 19, 2007

The Confines of Your Clique

One of the things I had noticed about the traveller’s life in India (and I don’t at all suggest that this is specific to India) is that people are both a lot less self-conscious, and lot less cliquish than in Australia. For example, if you are out in Australia, most young people are preoccupied with how they look and appearing fashionable. Furthermore, people rarely socialise outside of their own group. This true at the pubs and clubs, and it is even true at many of the beaches. However in India, few travellers are too concerned about how they appear to others, and socialising outside of the group is totally natural. To illustrate, if you go hang out Palolem Beach in Goa, there is almost zero hesitation to go up to a group of people playing Frisbee, volleyball, or whatever, and just ask to join in. I doubt any Perth locals would say the same of Cottesloe Beach. Likewise, those same Perthites could tell you that down at the Brisbane St Hotel, you’re not likely to join nor are you likely to be invited to join a group of people unknown to you. However, such an experience is far from uncommon while travelling.

The importance is perhaps not so much the location, but rather the situation. European travellers I’ve met in Perth have told me they find it a great place to make new friends, and how back home strangers are much less sociable. I think it is just that when you are travelling abroad, you have a type of social license that you don’t have in your hometown or home country. A foreign accent is great ice breaker.

Having said all that, it doesn’t mean cliques don’t operate in travelling circles; it is just that they are less rigid and serve different purposes. Travellers still hang around in certain crowds, but those attachments don’t serve to exclude others. At times while travelling, group structures can feel like they serve to compulsorily include people rather than exclude people. As I experienced numerous times in my travels, once a group structure forms, even if that group simply formed from being on the same bus or train and starting up a conversation, it can sometimes feel rather awkward to put yourself outside that group. This can be just as true for trivial issues as it is for less trivial. Where you stay, what method transport you take, and where you eat dinner all implicitly become somewhat subject to the group consensus. Departing from the consensus creates UNKNOWN risks to the integrity of the group structure. I emphasise unknown risks because back home you know your friends well, and thus not only are your groups structures more robust to individual deviations, but given you’ve known your friends for a longer time period, in most cases you will be instinctively aware of what deviations the a relationship can and cannot be tolerate. For example, sometimes through unfortunate coincidence, you are forced to decline consecutive invitations to a social arrangement from a friend. You will instinctively know how many times you can decline a social arrangement with an old friend or group of friends (even if you always have a genuine situational reason to decline) before they get pissed off and decide to cut you off for a while. I am aware all this sounds a bit reductionist or clinical, but nevertheless I think most of us operate like that at times.

In Palolem, I was now in an entrenched group. Every breakfast, every dinner, every evening was a given. Shauli, Shoham, Daniel, and I would always eat together, play cards (Yaniv) together, explore remote beaches together, and go out to bars together. Partly this was great, but there was a downside to this. Since Shauli and Shoham were a couple, and while I greatly enjoyed their company, I felt that hanging out with them so much hindered both mine and Daniel’s chances with meeting more single girls. I had been meaning to say something to Daniel about this, but I never did get around to it.

On Friday night we went to have Shabbat at the Beyt Yehudi. Every single person there except for me was Israeli – I was the lone diasporite. After Maariv, it was time to find a seat for dinner. There were a bunch of low oblong-shaped tables, with people sitting on cushions. I was looking around for suitable table (i.e. one with plenty of girls), when I heard Daniel call out “Hey Aantoni, we’re over here!”
Daniel, Shauli, and Shoham were seated, along with a few others. I had also just noticed a spare seat at a section of a long table that was composed entirely of girls.
“Umm, that’s ok, but I think I’m going to sit over there…” I mouthed from a distance.

And with that bold move, so began the most disappointing and in some ways distressing evening of my trip so far. These girls simply would not talk to me. Later on I would discover that at least two of these girls I was sitting with were man-hating lesbians (how I discovered this if for another time). By the way, I have nothing against lesbians, but lesbians who hate men are no better than men who are misogynistic or homophobic. Apart from not talking to me, they did not talk to each other all that much. They were not only rude, but they were also boring.

The only interesting thing to happen was that on one on occasion I seemed to draw their utter contempt for the most curious reason. Let me explain. The Yiddish that I know comes not from learning the language formally in school, but simply from exposure. As a result, I sometimes am not sure whether a Yiddish word I know has a Hebrew root or a Germanic root. Under normal circumstances, there is often no need to know this. However, I have discovered that most young Israeli travellers (and I’m only talking about the Ashkenazim here, I’m not even counting the Mizrahim/Sephardim) do not recognise a single word of Yiddish unless it comes from the Hebrew root – and even then, if you do use a Yiddish word with a Hebrew root, they will more often than not simply assume that you mispronounced the corresponding Hebrew word. Anyway, there was a dish of cooked carrot slices on the table, and I politely asked for them to pass them to me. I used the Yiddish word for this dish (tsimmes), failing to realise that it was not a word in the Hebrew vernacular. Upon uttering this request, they looked at me in a way that clearly indicated that they did not understand what I asked for.
“You want what?” someone asked.
So I just pointed with an open hand at the dish of tsimmes saying “Bevakesha.” Someone passed the dish of carrot slices, but the girls asked, in a strangely uncalled for hostile manner
“What did you say? What word was that?”
It might seem to you that they were just being curious, even friendly, engaging in conversation and showing interest. Well, I promise you, their tone was anything but friendly. I know it made no sense for them to be hostile, but that’s what makes this worth writing about.
“Sorry, I used a Yiddish word – Tsimmes – I didn’t realise it wasn’t the same word in Hebrew. What do you call this in Hebrew again? I’ve forgotten.”
They didn’t answer my question, but rather mumbled some disdainful comments to each other like “Yiddish!” And while they may not have said, they also exuded the following derisive sentiment about me: Galuti! Above all, they acted as if I was the weirdest geek they hadever met; as if I were someone who had just told them that my favourite hobby is translating Danish trigonometry textbooks into Finnish. Looking back, it’s little more than like a punch line of a not very funny joke, but at the time it was the most disconcerting experience I had endured since those giggling drunks I passed in the alley while walking to the hotel on my first night in India. In a way, it was worse than that, as then I was just a bit spooked out with the intial culture shock of India. But here there were no mitigating factors. Here at the Shabbos table, this was the last place or situation where I had expected to feel so uncomfortable. If truth be told, it was beyond uncomfortable. Their rudeness was, to use a word I hardly ever use, hurtful!

About the time dessert was being served, I abandoned my table and went over to sit next to Daniel at his table.
“Well, that was a failed experiment” I remarked. “They were the rudest and most boring people I have ever sat with. They didn’t talk to me at all.”
“May be they’re just shy.”
“No, trust me, it’s not about shyness; they’re just rude!”

Walking back from the Beyt Yehudi to the room, I told Daniel in more detail about what had happened, and asked him how common he thought these attitudes were among Israelis. However, he downplayed the whole thing, and I’m not sure he really understood what I had told him, saying that I had probably just misconstrued the whole incident. Either way, he was fairly indifferent and uninterested by the issue, giving it little more than a 15 second reply before moving on to an unrelated topic, like asking me my opinion of some girl who had been at his table.

Despite Daniel’s nonchalance, the lessons from this were clear. If you are in a social group and it concerns you that may be it is all getting a little too cliquish, don’t let it bother you. Also, do not try to extend yourself from the comfort zone that your clique provides you. Stay within the safe confines of your clique, and you’ll never suffer the contempt of a group of rude, boring, man-hating, galuti-hating lesbians! Stay within the confines of your clique and you to be assured that you’ll be protected from such a fate. Finally, the next time you hear any amateur social commentator such as myself making any disparaging comments concerning the existence of clique culture, you best remind ‘Joe Sociology Minor’ where we’d all be without our cliques!


Jeff said...

In my experience Perth is a lot more cliquey and closed-off socially than, say, Melbourne, where I always feel a genuine sense of community and openness to strangers. Perhaps with Perth it's the whole parochial, insular isolation thing. Anyway, some of my best friends are lesbians, which of course gives me licence to say: I love dykes!

Anonymous said...

It's certainly possible that Perth is more Cliquey than Melbourne, for the reasons you have outlined. However, is it also possible that these could be situational factors (hometown vs on holidays) which impact on your subjective experience?

... not that I know which one is your hometown.

Anonymous said...

okay, so someone shamelessly promoted your blog on wikipedia (perhaps yourself). author and comedian?

anyway, i used to work at the airport in cincinnati, ohio and would constantly be told by out-of-towners how friendly cincinnatians were. but in all honesty, i found australians, chinese, brits, are all more friendly than cincinnatians. i say this because i think you say that perth natives are not as friendly because of your own experiences living there, but i think traveling abroad has a tendency to change one's persona quite a bit, or at least it did for me. i was more outgoing than i would be with my fellow cincinnatians, perhaps because i find those of a different culture more interesting than my own.

and i agree with you; i think having an accent is a great icebreaker. ;)

The Frosh Report said...

To Cincinnati,

Ah "Wikipedia" - from the ancient Greek word for "shameless self-promotion."

I agree with your comments on the effects of travelling. As I said in the blog, travellers and tourists in Perth will tell me how friendly Perth people are.
To Jeff,

Either way, Sydney people are on average far less friendly than the people of either of those cities ;-)

Anonymous said...

oh and by the way, i am reading your blog...i like reading travel blogs (i live vicariously through them sometimes). keep up the posting, you have interesting insights into travel and your experiences.


The Frosh Report said...

Thanks Cincinnati,

Your comments inspired me to keep posting!

Anonymous said...

I really like your blog, but I'm not sure I like your word 'diasporite'.
Di'a'spor'ite is also an aluminium-based mineral!
It reminds me of the word 'unionised': how you pronounce it shows whether you're more interested in chemistry or labour relations...

Farm Girl said...

This post made me sad.

Farm Girl said...

Also I found your last comment interesting - about the usefulness of cliques, the way that they provide us with comfort zones. I've always felt that although I have lots of friends and even close friends, I lack a social 'group'. Unlike some people that I know, I never had a group that I always knew I would spend Saturday night with etc. I vascilate between wishing that I did have a group and feeling that seeing the same people all the time would make me feel claustrophobic.

I also empathise with your experience as one of disappointment in a situation where you were confident that you would be accepted and meet new people and found that it wasn't to be the case. I have found that when travelling sometimes it is much easier than normal to meet people but sometimes it is also VERY lonely - even when people are around.