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Oct 3

Written by: Jennifer Kumar, Cultural Adjustment Coach
Wednesday, October 03, 2007

[Part 3 of 3 Parts - Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

This is the final installment of a 3 part essay.  Read part 1 introduction and part 2 cultural attributes 1 -10.

I agree with arranged marriages.  |  I am more family oriented.  |  I feel odd to refer to elders by their names.  |  I stay close contact with friends.  |  Drinking room temperature water.  |  Not just recycle - but REUSE!  |  Do I drive on the right or correct side of the road?  |  I love to listen to Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam film songs and watch movies of the same!

11.        I agree with arranged marriages.
When I talk with most Americans I know, I notice a similar reaction to this statement. The facial expression becomes sour face and they say, "How could one allow their parents to choose their future mate?" Many aspects of arranged marriages that I like are difficult to explain in a casual conversation because many of these criteria are culturally specific. I am not saying arranged marriage is the best for all who practice it (there are some who prefer love marriage but get into a tangled mess due to it being frowned upon), nor am I saying it is a be all end all in cultural practices. But, what I am saying is for the Indian condition it is very appropriate and works well. The underlying philosophy of an arranged marriage is opposite to a love marriage- a love marriage assumes you love someone before marriage, where as an arranged marriages assumes you will love someone after marriage. Not only this, but the burden of finding a life partner is not the responsibility of the child, but of the parents. Yes, sometimes it is a control factor. But, in more modern families, the boy and girl do get a chance to talk before hand and see if they are compatible. When I say 'boy and girl', I do not mean a person of less than about 21-28. But, in India all parents consider their children boys and girls no matter their age! For a different take on this topic, I have written an article on One Girl’s Seemingly Non-Traditional Path to Finding a Suitable Mate.

These last few items may not be only Indian, but I wanted to add them as India has influenced me on these attributes:

12.        I am more family oriented.
I found in India an individual is much more influenced by the family, than in US. What I mean by this is in India, since most families have some adult home at all times or people look after each other more, people on average are more influenced by their families than peers and society. I find in US since kids are left alone quite frequently, that these kids may not be as influenced by their family than their peers or society. This is a trend in India as well with both parents working out of the home, but not as common as in India. To give you an example of this, I found most families I interacted with in Chennai had only one house key. This means that there were no duplicates, so if someone left the home, they all left together or someone had to stay home until the other person came back (if they could not take the key). This whole experience helped me to realize how much individuals can be affected by their family members and how important it is to spend time with family as family should come first. (Others, friends and acquaintances, though they can be close, do come and go.)

I should also add that since I got married, and have married into an Indian family, I am experiencing this on a whole new level. Though, I can't talk about all the fine details here, I will mention two things that immediately come to mind. When we were married, my in laws (sister, brother and father in law, and niece) came to U.S., and stayed here with us in the same house for up to five months. Since that time, we have gone to India twice, and of course, stayed in their home with them the whole time, and twice his dad has come and is staying with us up to four months at a time. I am very comfortable with this scenario, possibly also because I grew up in a family in US, where my grandmother has been living with various uncles for the past fifteen years and now lives in the same house as my dad. This is what family is for, to be able to feel safe to spend time with and live with. However, clearly, in living in an extended family, especially one with a totally different culture and language, I am constantly relearning how to communicate!

14. I feel odd to refer to elders by their names.
This was something my dad actually raised me to do. He always told me to call an elder man Mr. so and so, and an elder lady, Ms. or Mrs. so and so. However, here in the US, people usually call each other by first name no matter the age. I feel squeamish in this, especially after coming from India and always being sure to say 'Sir' or 'Ma'am" or 'aunty' or 'uncle' to elders. I feel it is good to respect elders.

15.        I stay close contact with friends.

In India if other foreigners came to the college and left, after some months other students in the college (Indian students) would approach me and ask, "Have you heard from so and so who came here?" I would say no and feel very bad since this gives a bad impression that Americans only contact the people when they are in India since they were 'getting something' from them at that time. I don't want people to think that of me. I am in very close contact through postal letters and email with a majority of the people I was close to during my stay in India.

16.        Drinking room temperature water.
Usually where I lived in India, people did not drink 'fridge water' (water cooled in the refrigerator) to keep cool, but different types of drinks, like buttermilk, coconut water or lassis (yogurt drinks with fruits). Cold water did not seem to satiate thirst or heat in that form. Cold water, in some cases was so cold compared to the climate, it would cause headaches. Even in the US, I am taking water without ice.

I want to add that since my experience in Tamil Nadu, I have had experiences in Kerala, the neighboring state to the west, and the water consumption behavior is very different. In Kerala, most people will serve you water that looks pinkish or brownish. This is herbal water. Many people in Kerala will boil water with some herbal mixture in it and keep it ready to serve. This water is safe to drink since it has been boiled. However, if you get 'plain' water, this is water that is room temperature and probably not boiled. You may have to specifically ask for boiled water, though now a days many people have a water filter in their homes. If in a hotel (restaurant), you can ask for bottled water.

17.        Not just recycle - but REUSE!

People in India don't waste a thing! It is not due to poverty, but due to the ingrained idea of not wasting a thing. Every drop of water is used sparingly, each volt of current is used only when needed, every grain of rice is put in the mouth and not in the garbage or given to dogs (unless it is old and moldy). Even with material things - like milk packets (Milk in India is given daily on the doorstep of the house in small packets made of thick plastic, the size of a Ziploc bag.), water bottles, Horlicks and Bornvita containers (drink mixes like instant breakfast and hot chocolate milk), and other containers are reused for different purposes. Milk packet plastics are used as food storage bags to take chutney or sambars in the tiffen (noon time lunch), and tied with a piece of string. I have even seen some reuse the washed milk packets to apply henna decorations. In that matter, newspapers are used to pack food by placing a banana leaf on the newspaper and putting the mixed rice (lemon rice, tomato rice, tamarind rice, sambar rice, curd rice, etc) on the banana leaf and wrapping it along with the newspaper and tying it with string. The empty water bottles are used again and again to store water until they fall apart, and the empty glass containers (dhabbas) are reused to store spices and other powders. Even I have taken up this practice. I don't feel the need to buy new dubbas (containers) for everything. I am reusing my yoghurt containers to store spices in and reusing the water bottles. I also reuse the plastic bags from the store as garbage bags. When I minimize my prepackaged foods, I also have less waste. In India, since the foods are made all natural, there is minimal waste, and what waste is there is usually 80-90% organic. That is why you can see the cows trying to eat out of the waste bins on the street side in Madras!

As a side note, since I have written that in 2003, I have evolved a bit in my thinking. A friend had come to visit me and said she had asked a shop keeper (in US) why the water bottles have expiration dates as water doesn't mold. The shop keeper said it is because plastic has a shelf-life. After a certain date, the chemicals from the plastic seep into the water, making it less suitable for health. I have done some research on this, and found this to be true. So, I have cut down on reusing plastics. And, in India, I think many people I stayed with this already knew this without really saying it. People would carry their foods to work in the wrapping described above or in steel containers. They would refuse to carry things in plastic containers saying when the container would get hot, it is bad for food. I can understand this logic now, as carrying the lunch around in a back pack in 100 degree weather may lead to some chemicals transferring from plastic to food without being warmed. I should mention, also, we would usually eat our packed lunch 'just like that,' i.e. without reheating it as microwaves were not available and anyhow, metal containers can not go into the microwaves!

18.        Do I drive on the right or correct side of the road?

I used to ride a bike in Tambaram (the town my college was in). Sure I started out only in the tree lined dirt roads of the campus, which were very empty compared to the traffic outside the college gate. But, after getting some courage and wanting to save time, I gradually broke myself into riding my bike (pedal not gas powered) on the side roads, then the main roads. And, of the many problems any driver faces in India, which side of the road to drive on can be open to interpretation. Yes, since India is influenced by the British, generally the rule is to go on the left side, and that is the correct side, unlike US where the correct side is the right side at all times! And, there people slowly move out to make a right turn (which crosses the street) and then go when there is a break in traffic. If one does that in the US, you may die due to the fact traffic doesn't slow down, but seem to speed up when someone else tries to cross in front. In addition before going to India, I had not driven a car, bike or any vehicle on any road in the US for three years so driving a bike in India was my first driving in more than three years, so it may make it easier to understand why when I came back to US, the first few times I pulled my dad's car out of the driveway I was petrified to realize I was on the left and not right side of the road! Up until a year since I returned, I often wondered if I was on the right side. I had to see if the car ahead of me on the same side of the road has its tail lights or head lights burning! However, now I am fine!

18.  I love to listen to Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam film songs and watch movies of the same!  (New topic as of this update.)

I admit that Hindi and Tamil came first.  In fact in 1997 when I was studying in SUNY Buffalo, I did a research project on Indian films, focusing on Tamil and Hindi movies.  I saw a lot of movies for that project, and some many, many times.  Those that topped the list of most seen- Roja (Hindi and Tamil), Sholay (Hindi), Qyamat se Qyamat Tak (Hindi) and since it’s release in 2000 (I think), Alaipayuthey (Tamil).  It’s only since I married my husband, who is a Mallu (Malayalam speaking) by birth, I have favored Malayalam songs more.  One Malayalam film I like the songs a lot is Kali Veedu.  If interested in reading the 34 page report, titled Indian Popular Film, you can access the entire document by joining my Yahoo group.  Also, if you’d like to see links to some of my favorite Indian film songs, visit my stumbleupon blog and search tags in my blog- Tamil, Hindi, Bollywood, etc.


For those new to Indian culture, I hope this article provided some more insight into the daily life of "some" Indians. I say some Indians since not all Indians will live the same way Madrasi Indians do. However, as for those familiar with Indian culture or perhaps anyone from India reading this article, I would like to know your thoughts on this. Perhaps you can share your 'culture shock' (coming to USA) stories with us, or your 'reverse culture shock' (returning to India from any foreign country) with us.

In fact many Indian born Indians who have met me here in US (even in India) had commented that I am more Indian than some modern Indian girls. I am not sure how to react when people say this to me, but after interacting with some Americans in the US, I can definitely feel how different I am. I feel as if I am caught between two totally different worlds. I also think there are few things I am missing in the above list and can only be told to me by others as we don’t always know everything about ourselves.  Though, I would not trade it for the world and find it to be an evolving learning experience, sometimes it can be a big headache and confusion for me. In a country (USA) which prides it's individuality, it is so ironic how everyone is so much alike and those who try to be or who just are different somehow find it so hard to fit in mainstream culture. Though I face some difficulties from family and friends for my differences and strong opinions on some things, I can't change back to being 100% American. Maybe this would make life easier on the outside, but if I can't live being true to my inner nature the struggle for daily life is even more difficult than one can imagine.

So, to conclude, some have asked me, "Are you sure India was really worth it even though you feel so caught between two cultures and can't fully adjust back to your 'native' culture?" I, always and without hesitation, say with pride - YES! India is a part of me which can't die off easily. It is not like living in another city in the US, 'my country', but in a place my heart and soul felt a peace that I can't feel in 'my country'. This is why I was so eager and determined to adjust to Indian culture and why I can not and will not give it up.

[Part 3 of 3 Parts - Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]    


Thank you for reading and participating!!!

References on Culture Shock from Alaivani (my website):

An American in Ecuador

Cross Cultural Experiences – Keeping it in Context

Educational Entrepreneurship: The First American To Matriculate at Madras Christian College

Honeymoon with Husband and his Family: Experiences in the Life of an Extended Family

How To Choose the Right Path in Studying or Living Abroad (Questioning how much cultural change can you handle?)
Integrating Two Worlds: Life in America with an Indian Twist
Is Mine a Case of Reverse Culture Shock?

This article has been published in the book Culture Shock.
Japan Through American Eyes: Joe Conley

On The Move: How have you absorbed Culture Shock?
Preparing for a trip to India to visit Family
Test Taking Trials and Tribulations in India
Yearning to Return (Why I want to go back to India.)
Relearning How to Communicate (Interactions in an Intercultural Family)

Others thoughts and experiences:
Culture Shock- Moving Back to India by Isheeta Sanghi
A Returning Indian Entrepreneur Reflects

Thank you for reading and participating in this journey with me! E-mail me with your comments, questions or feedback!

Copyright ©2007 Jennifer Jayanthi Kumar


1 comments so far...

Re: Is Mine a Case of Reverse Culture Shock?

I think you are being what you want to be or choose to be. It looks like your stay in India made a deep impression and you adopt habits more naturally. You have developed a liking to these habits and do it.

I browse through photos on flickr.com and notice how some of the photographers are attracted by diversity they see in India. They go back to India again and again.

Be Yourself and enjoy it.

By cskishore on   Thursday, October 04, 2007

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