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Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understandings with the Neighbors


Commentator Lori Gottlieb's Indian neighbors seemed to her to be a happily married couple, until recently.


When I first heard the noise, I almost called 911. It sounded like my downstairs neighbor was bashing his wife against a wall. But I couldn't imagine Gion(ph), a gentle pacifist Sikh, hurting his kind, beautiful wife. Gion meditated daily, was a pillar in the community and regularly helped people in need. Whenever I saw him with his wife, Kaleen(ph), they'd be holding hands, a look of serenity on their faces. So the night of the wall-bashing, I tried to convince myself that maybe they were moving furniture or hanging pictures. Of course, that didn't explain the yelling preceding the smashing noise or Kaleen's cry of pain after it. But it was nearly midnight and the last thing I wanted to do was call 911 over a little redecorating.

But when I saw Kaleen outside the next day, I asked pointedly, `Hey, is everything OK?' She seemed content as always, but I knew enough from "Law & Order" reruns that if she suffered from battered wife syndrome, she probably wouldn't admit to any abuse. I looked at her face for evidence of bruising, but she was wrapped in a scarf and wearing sunglasses. I was instantly suspicious.

Then that weekend it happened again, not the banging but the screaming, then silence. A few minutes later it started all over. In a weird way while the screaming alarmed me, part of me found it titillating to hear my Zen-like neighbors going at it like guests on "Jerry Springer." But then the banging started again, and when I saw Gion in passing, I returned his smile and friendly wave with a dirty look. After another night of banging, I called downstairs and expressed my concern. Kaleen answered. `Oh, are the rehearsals bothering you?' she asked. `Rehearsals?' Apparently, Kaleen had enrolled in an acting workshop, and I'd been hearing her run through her performance--or so she said. Wasn't rehearsals the oldest excuse in the book, at least in LA?

Meanwhile, I hadn't been getting along with the boyfriend I was dating at the time, and often we'd argue. The day after a particularly noisy fight, Kaleen saw me outside. And now it was her turn to inquire. `Hey, is everything all right?' Embarrassed, I lied and said yes, but as I turned to go upstairs, she called after me and met my eyes. `So you're rehearsing, too?' she asked.

Suddenly I realized how wrong I'd been to suspect my compassionate neighbors of domestic atrocities. It seemed like my natural inclination was to assume the worst about her and Gion, while her impulse was to assume the best about me. Soon the curtain went down on both of our dramas. Her performance ended, my relationship broke up, and from then on if Kaleen played a particularly anguished character, she'd call me in advance, saying she didn't want to disturb me, but probably also worried that I might dial 911. I thought about character a lot since then because the way we responded to each other's suspicions revealed far more about our real life characters than the dubious noises heard through the walls.

BLOCK: Lori Gottlieb lives in Los Angeles.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lori Gottlieb