Melbourne 2009 - second year of my bachelor’s degree, and we were thrust into each other’s personal space courtesy of a group assignment. Now, this wasn’t a frightening experience for me by any stretch, if anything it was a great opportunity to break the ice, especially with one of the Australian group members, Sara, who seemed constantly on edge either due to a caffeine spike or her general disposition.
I happily volunteered my apartment for the group assignment (against the quizzical disbelief of Sara). Halfway through the study session, Sara whispered to me, as if in a Sunday confessional – ‘I need something to eat, I’m starving’. This was after I had told both group members to make themselves at home - ‘mi casa es su casa’ - but apparently that fell on deaf ears. Sara promptly opened the fridge, retrieved sustenance in the form of canned tuna and continued. After the session was over and everyone had left, I returned to my fridge and to my horror (distaste, displeasure, disdain, etc.) saw $1.10 lying on the counter. Sara had googled the market value of the can of tuna and left it on the counter, as compensation. I suddenly plunged into an existential crisis, questioning the very foundation of humanity and our greater being. Is this what we had morphed into? Transactional creatures of reciprocity? It didn’t make sense, this wasn’t how it was meant to be. I wanted to hunt Sara down and ask her whether that was a crude joke. Luckily, rationality trumped emotion, and I decided to let it go. That turned out to be a wise decision, as I learnt in the coming months that this wasn’t a black swan event, but a norm in some circles of Australian society.
Growing up in Pakistan, there were two things that you had to compromise on from the get go. One of them was personal space. I remember as a kid, waking up in my house, and having my friends and family over playing in the garden, or chatting with family. I also remember that there were no formalities when we were growing up. We would turn up at our friends’ houses, and if they were there, well and good. If not, still well and good, because their toys and fridge were for us to loot and plunder. They would turn up eventually, so why not enjoy ourselves till they do? I also remember that when we were over at a friend’s place, we would be asked at sunset whether we would like to stay for dinner. If we answered in the affirmative, another seat would be prepared at the dinner table, and dinner would resume as planned. There was no novelty to the matter, our friends were our family, and we didn’t need a special occasion to have a meal together.
The other compromise was your dignity when the bill would arrive at dinner. Whenever we would go out with friends, we would fight for the bill. The all too familiar sound of ‘no, this one is mine’ or ‘waiter, they’re my guests? can you allow guests to pay???’, followed by ‘we’ve known each other for years, he’s lying???’ These high-pitched skirmishes were always an embarrassment for all partied, with the poor waiter, being the de facto arbiter. It was a common notion within my friendship circle (the younger crowd) that whoever had money paid With the older generation, it was a matter of courtesy cum family honor cum earthy duty to pay the bill, hell or high water.
It is fascinating how I saw these two practices turned on their head during my time in Australia. I once turned up at my friend’s house unannounced. He gave me a death stare, as if I had interrupted his son’s bar mitzvah or the Sermon at congregational Mass. I put it down to him not being a morning person (even though it was 11am on a Sunday). The next time I did the same thing I was promptly told to call or message before coming. At that point, I really wanted to ask him what this friendship was worth if I couldn’t practice the basic act of spontaneity. Luckily I didn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it out alive.
As for the ancient South Asian art of fighting tooth and nail to pay the bill, the first time I was out with friends in Australia, I picked up the bill and promptly paid it. The first instance was in a group, where the whole gathering was dumb struck as if I had just pulled a party trick out of thin air. They sheepishly prodded dollar notes towards me, my response being ‘what is it, between friends?’ I still think to this day they were in shock, either because I paid for their coffee, or that I termed them ‘friends’ on our third meeting (keeping in mind that third meetings in some cultures are conjugal affairs).
The other such instance was with a female friend. We struck up a conversation in class a few times and on the third such instance, we happened to stop for coffee on the way out. I picked up the bill (as one would, in my culture) and instead of a ‘thank you, I’ll fight you for the next one’, I got the response, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to lead you on’. Not sure whether I should burst the poor girl’s bubble about her being no more than a platonic friend, I told her ‘in the culture I grew up in, who pays the bill doesn’t matter between friends’. I managed to sensitize her to another culture and to make sure she understood the intention was for my clothes to remain on.
I have learnt over the years that the definition of friendship varies greatly from culture to culture. The experiences I had in Australia are by no means categorized as inferior to those of Pakistan, the cultural connotations just vary and play out differently. I for one though, still fight close friends over the bill, and turn up to their house uninvited. They have learnt over time which cultural practices I wish to hold onto.