| 1050 words

There are a lot of rules. Many of them are unspoken, implicit. They control they way people see you, and the things that they decide to let you do. I find all this is even a little bit exaggerated when it comes to South Asian culture.

I observed an incident recently with my family. One person wanted to sleep on the floor, for a few personal reasons. What I'd suspected would be a relatively simple personal request turned into an entire fiasco. I believe the primary issue was one of respect. The host considered it improper and disrespectful to let them sleep on the floor, even though it was what they directly wished for. Only after a long discussion did the host relent, to let this great affront to their honor be overlooked.

I think this kind of thing is exactly the kind of thing that bothers me, because not only has it been happening since I was a child but it continues to happen now. People do things, ostensibly for me benefit, even when it directly contradicts what I say I prefer.

Of course this is a lot more excusable to do to children. They may not be old enough to understand the risks they're taking, and so I'd have nothing against not letting them go to the mall alone or use the oven is. However after a certain point, when dealing with fully responsible adults, I think you have to be able to take people at their word.

Something similar happened to me around the same time. You might call me the opposite of a picky eater; while I have no issue with enjoying food, I sometimes eat only for nutrition and couldn't care less about taste. I went to the fridge and grabbed a slice of pizza. Wanting to save the effort of washing dishes, not wanting to throw away any disposable plates, and feeling too lazy to wait for the microwave, I started to eat it right from the fridge. Immediately multiple people asked if I wanted it to be warmed up. Even after I insisted that I was fine, someone got up and warmed up the pizza for me on a paper plate.

It's another small example that is ultimately inconsequential, but it leaves me confused. I can understand the impulse to go out of your way to be a good host, that's very understandable. The thing is, in both these situations, both of us insisted that we really truly preferred not being attended to. Anything that they were doing, ostensibly to help us, was happening despite our wishes and you might even go so far as to say it made our lives harder. I was indifferent to the pizza, but the person who wanted to sleep on the floor refused to take no for an answer and only got their way after a protracted argument.

If I had to explain exactly what's going on here, I can think of a few reasons. First is that you can't trust anyone to be really saying what they believe. It makes sense - in this culture you're often put into situations where two parties are repeatedly insisting that they don't want you to go out of your way for them. "Playing the game" so to speak, requires reading between the lines and doing everything despite their protests. An essential component of being a good host is constantly disregarding what people claim, and so that becomes ingrained.

It's kind of like a game. Even if a guest wants something, they pretend they don't want it. The host, then is supposed to try to convince them, at which point they graciously accept. Even if someone really genuinely doesn't want something, they'll be mistaken for refusing out of kindness. You never know if guests really want something, or if they're hiding their desires out of necessity.

They might have thought I was eating my pizza cold so as to not burden anyone, so they insisted on doing it anyways. Even though surely they should know I hardly play this game

The other explanation is that it's not about the game at all. It's just that culturally some actions are so unthinkable that letting them happen causes genuine disgust. Like, for example, sleeping on the floor or eating cold pizza.

I admit this explanation bothers me more. They believe what I'm saying, that I truly don't mind, but they're doing stuff for me and interfering with my life out of their own self-centeredness. They can't stand being in a situation where things aren't going just how they like. I guess this is fine when hosting an event - as they host they do get to set the rules after all - but I with they'd be more honest about it.

The third explanation, however, is my least favorite. It's that they really just don't believe you. They don't think you have enough agency to know your own preferences. It's infantalizing, to think that they know better than you about yourself.

They didn't let me eat the pizza cold because they didn't think I was capable of evaluating the tradeoff between cold and warm pizza. They did it for me because they know better.

As much as it sounds like I mind, this specific act didn't bother me that much. I think the people who wanted to sleep on the ground might have been bothered a little more. What really gets to me is how this happens all over, everywhere in society.

It's what drives me to be so direct and immediate when it comes to dealing with other people, and what's makes spending time with children so refreshing. A kid tells me they're not thirsty? There's no hospitality game happening here, I really believe them. An adult tells me they don't need any help? After a single "you sure?" I go and enjoy myself and leave them alone. After situations like this and countless others I'll choose to take people at their word. It's what I'd want for myself after all.