I feel like I should have been writing these kinds of little vignettes of my cultural encounters all along. So here is hopefully the first of many. I truly enjoy the new perspectives I gain in these encounters.
Today I went to the post office to post a package back to the U.S. to a friend of mine who spent a year living in India, and he wanted a new pair of Indian style sandals and some strings for the Veena (a South Indian instrument often confused with the Sitar). Mailing a package to the U.S. is made more complicated because you can't mail anything without having it wrapped in white cloth, stitched closed, and sealed with red wax. But first you have to show the clerk the contents of the package, so they can see that it's not harmful or illegal.
I went inside the post office and began asking around about mailing an international package. There is no particular counter or person who is designated to handle these things. But someone always comes to help. I showed the contents of my package and asked about where to get the white cloth and stitching done. I was directed across the street, and when I enquired about how much it should cost, the post office guy escorted me across the street to the shop of miscellany (a rocking horse, clay dolls, safety pins, hair pins, envelopes, and also re-weaving the seats of 'caned' style chairs, and stitching parcels in white cloth). He warned the guy that I know Tamil, and I came to study so he should treat me fairly, not cheat me, and speak Tamil with me.
So I sat around in the shop and watched him measure out the cloth, and start stitching. Pretty soon he was making conversation. Did I come to study Tamil? Do I know Tamil well? What is my native country? Do I like India or America better? Do I like English or Tamil better? (All asked in Tamil, of course. This is my translation).
After a pause I was asked a question I've not been asked before, in India: 'How did America get it's name?' I said there was a guy named Amerigo who came from Italy, and he came very early on in the history of the place. It is named after him. I mentioned that he was not the first European to reach that continent. That was Christopher Columbus, who came from Spain.
In response, the man stitching my friend's package said, "Ah, yes. Christopher Columbus. He is my countryman. He went all over the world searching for God. That is how he discovered so many new places. But he is Indian. My countryman."
Oh. I said. Really? I didn't know that.