I have recently become aware of the number of times I say “sorry”, “excuse me” and “thank you” everyday, here in California. The other day, I touched someone’s arm by mistake and I instinctively knew that I should apologize for inflicting my hand upon them (I am learning quickly). During my first few weeks in the U.S., I made the mistake of NOT apologizing to people for brushing against them accidentally, and got glared at and judged. I lead a life of privilege here, and have the luxury of being polite to everyone I meet.
Rewind to 2014 when I was volunteering as an English teacher at YMCA, Chennai:
The YMCA in Chennai is a limp excuse for a boarding school. More than a hundred boys aged 8–12 study, sleep, shit, eat together in three small rooms. The boys are usually extremely poor and/or orphaned. The staff are notorious for stealing large charitable donations that are meant to benefit the school. The boys drink dirty water from an open well, using a shared stainless steel plate tied to a rope. It is depressing. They suffer from all sorts of skin diseases, and there is a horrible smell in the classrooms. When it rains, their living quarters get flooded, and there is water everywhere.
On the first day of class, I took “foreign chocolates” (Hershey’s Kisses) to buy their interest. The supply eventually ran out and the boys slapped, blackmailed and bit each other. They cried and begged. The smallest and the weakest were the ones who gave up their chocolates. The boys were horrible to each other and to me. They cursed me and called me names when the chocolates ran out. I was offended, and upset. Why were they so mean? Didn’t they realize that they should be thankful for the chocolates they got? Where were their manners? That day I told them firmly that their behavior was unacceptable and that they should never physically hurt anyone.
A few days later, one of the younger kids looked miserable and I asked him why. He told me that one of the older boys had beaten him up and stolen his lunch and that he had not hit him back since I had told him not to. He was hungry. That’s when I realized that the kids at YMCA were not allowed the luxury of being nice. Niceness was a privilege. They had to learn to fight back hard if they did not want their stomachs to squirm from hunger.
It is easy to judge someone for not being nice. But, the world is not a perfect sunny day in California. There are parts of the world where people have to look out for their own survival before they are able to be nice to others. When a gazillion people are rushing to find a seat on an unreserved compartment of a train, they cannot afford to be NICE to each other. There is extensive elbowing, shoving and pushing. Once people settle into their respective seats, they are then civil to each other, sit elbow-to- elbow and even share food. They then become the nicest people on earth, you know?
It is unfair to expect people to adhere to a single standard of niceness- there isn’t one.