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Question Time

Boarding a train in Varanasi, I padlocked my rucksack to the rail under my seat and made myself comfortable next to the window. The Indian gentleman across from me offered his hand, introduced himself, and said, “What is your good name?” I told him. He than asked, “Which country are you coming from?” When I said, “England,” he replied, “Ah, very nice country, London or Manchester?” I knew that his next two questions were going to be “How many children?” followed by “What is your job?”

I joked to some friends that I should get a T-shirt made especially for Indian trains that said, “Steve, England, Not Married, Retired.” Because those are almost always the first four questions you’ll be asked by the locals. Sometimes that’s as much English as your interrogator has. Other times, those four questions will lead into a long, interesting, two-way conversation comparing cultures, attitudes, politics, jobs, salaries, prices, relationships…

And you soon discover that questions about your age, income, or love life which would be considered prying and intrusive in the West are regarded as perfectly normal and acceptable in many countries. On more than one occasion when I said I didn’t have any children, I was asked if I was married. Explaining that my wife had died some years earlier elicited sympathy followed by, “What did she die of?” Then I’d be asked if I had a girlfriend, or why I hadn’t remarried.

When locals find out how long I’ve been travelling, they frequently assume that I must be rich. And they’re rarely hesitant in asking me about my income. Very occasionally, I’ve encountered some who were more than a little critical of my solitary, nomadic lifestyle, suggesting that I should get married again since I was abandoning my responsibility to have children, or that I should be working to support my parents. But most were very interested in my travels. They wanted to know where I’d been in their country, what I thought of it (you learn to be tactful), and which were my favourite places…

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