Wednesday, October 23, 2013

10 Cultural Clashes I've Faced in India

I was surfing the internet and was reading various articles about the clashes of different cultures between expats and natives. Not so much in India, but I just find cultural stuff fascinating. That's what's inspired this, not any recent incident, though I'll talk about a few things.

These are the cultural things that just haven't gone away. A lot of cultural things I can shrug off and barely think about. These things I find more perplexing and most of them, frustrating. That being said, I'm not miserable and so while I think my tone is a bit sardonic today, don't think I'm wasting away in India. But these are more stories of culture clashes than just silly anecdotal differences.

1. I've been accused of being rude. This is very upsetting and frustrating for me. I'm not talking about incidental rudeness, like a faux pas, I'm talking about people basically telling me "You're a rude person" as if it's a defining characteristic. I have never remotely been accused of this in America.

What they tend to object to is my directness.  To be fair, this seems to be a generational issue, as Ryan and most of his friends typically enjoy directness and actually I often get shocked at Ryan and ask him to tone it down! I am a pretty direct person, but how direct I am is relative. My family is from New Jersey, but I spent most of my life in South Carolina. Compared to my New Jersey relatives, I sugar coat everything and pussy foot around offending anyone. Compared to my South Carolina friends, I'm a straight shooter. One SC friend told me that she's a shy deer in the forest... and I leap out of a tree and say "HI!" I can be loud and forthcoming. But again, this is from a friend, so she obviously loved me anyway. Factoring in regional differences, I'm probably a middle of the road American. I do have a direct style of speaking in the words I choose, but even Ryan would probably tell you I'm quick to cushion things as best I can, while not compromising honesty. (I don't tell white lies, but I try to find something genuinely nice to say. Typically, there's something nice in every situation and certainly in every person.) I value honesty, sincerity, and genuineness and I abhor dishonesty, sly indirectness that serves no purpose but making social situations minefields, and doing things only for appearances. To me, that is not just rude, it shows a core lack of value for the other person, in that I believe truthfulness, in love, is vital to a respectful relationship. For me that's a value, not just a cultural thing.

Blessedly, in most of that Ryan agrees with me. But it's extremely frustrating because if I was being told a hand gesture or a certain phrase was definitely rude, I'd leap to change it. But to be told my manner of conversation, the way I organize my thoughts, and the way I value communication is offensive? I'm not sure I know how to change that or if I should.

2. No one tries to understand my culture. I shouldn't say no one, but seriously, I am totally shocked at how few questions I am asked. I have known people from other nations in America and people are mainly very interested (if often sadly ignorant.) I am not sure if asking questions is less Indian and more American or what, but very few people, less than I can count on a hand probably, have asked in depth questions about where I come from, what I believe or any of that. Typically they ask about my family and before I'm done it reminds them of something else and I'm left out of the conversation again.

3. Everyone assumes they understand my culture. Blame it on Hollywood, the fact that I'm in a sprawling metropolis with lots of people encountering Americans in the workplace, and even some people having gone to America on trips people here tend to just assume they know America. Most often they are wrong about America in general. And pretty much never are they right about where I come from. This is most frustrating combined with #2. I'll try to explain my culture and they'll either say "Well when I visited Los Angeles it wasn't like that" (yeah, I'm from rural South Carolina!) OR something off the wall weird will be assumed like "I went to America, so I know you all do [blanket statement that 90% of Americans would balk at]". Soooo frustrating. And generally they try to argue with you if you try to correct them. They even argue if I'm like telling a story about my home and my family and my friends. "Really? I don't think they do that in America. I have some American Facebook friends and they wouldn't agree with you." ::facepalm:: Thing is, everyone does this. Even Ryan does this, and he lived in America... but in the Sacramento, CA area. Which I've never been in my life, because except for two vacations, I've spent my whole life on the east coast. Which he's never been to in his life. Since everyone does this, sometimes it's well meaning. I think mainly though, it's the reason no one does #2; they assume they know it all, so why bother talking to me about it? The important thing is making sure I understand I'm rude.

4. No one understand why I drink while I eat. This one is more lighthearted. Okay, I don't know why myself, but I just can't eat a meal without a drink... okay, cereal, since the milk is a built in beverage. But otherwise, I find after about five bites I need to set my plate down and locate some liquid refreshment. But here in India, people drink before and after meals, but not during. So often they'll snatch my cup away right before serving me food (sometimes causing me to protectively reach out and grabbing it, afterwards I inwardly cringe because it does seem like rude body language. But if you take it away now, I'll just have to get up in five minutes and go locate it or flag you down to bring it back. So just leave it.) If I ask for something to drink I also get a chorus of "Oh, is it too spicy for you??" Honestly, even though this is India, that's pretty much never the case. Also at restaurants I've found sometimes they'll bring you your drink... then wait FOREVER to bring the meal and by that time I've drained my drink in little sips and I have to order another. I've tried restraining from sipping, but it's really hard. Tricky, tricky.

5. People want to eat off my plate. Okay, this one I laugh about it, but I'm just not comfortable with it and I'm not sure I ever will be... for any Indian readers, in America if we order food, we get our own. We may agree, in advance of placing the order, to split a dish with someone, but unless you're kissing or it's a parent/child (and often even then) these would be put on separate plates immediately, and from then on, all the rest of this applies. (Except with desserts. Then we might put it in the middle of the table and all have our own spoon.)

It's a personal space issue really, I've realized. If you've not heard about Americans their personal space issues, understand this qualifies. We may offer a bite of food, but the key word is offer. Or it'd be okay for you to say "Ooh, can I try that potato dish?" BUT there's no assumption. Every person has the right to not share, and so if they answer back "no" you're not supposed to be offended. If anything, an American in that situation might be a little embarrassed because they realize they had tried to take someone else's food, being overly presumptuous. Really, people rarely would ask unless they already have one of the super close relationships outlined above, but instead might gaze at the dish in a suggestive way, trying to get the food owner to offer a bite, since asking directly without knowing if the person you're comfortable with is a food-sharer (as I said, they have the right not to be) is *almost* rude. Just leaning over and grabbing something off someone's plate is the height of rudeness and something trained out of us when we're toddlers. So if I flinch when you do this, please understand it's decades of social training and I realize Indian culture is different and I'm trying very hard to be okay with it, but it's hard. I'm trying to get better about it, and even am remembering to preemptively offer.

Also, if someone is given a bite, or a sip, it is not done directly. That is, you would break off a piece of a sandwich or donut and hand it to them, then they would eat it. You do NOT hand them the sandwich and they take a bite out of it. (Yes, Americans, Indians do this.) This gives Americans the heeby-jeebies, especially if you just met! We're trained from a young age not to do that (for hygienic reasons) so unless we live together (and sometimes even then) we just don't both bite out of the same sandwich while it's still attached. For other dishes, you may lean over and carefully take a bite onto your fork, pull it back over to your seat, then put it in your mouth. You only do this if I give you a subtle body language gesture it's okay though. Otherwise, I might lift up my plate and knock a piece of whatever the food is onto yours.  In this way, I always maintain control over my food and my plate, even when sharing. If you want a sip of my drink, you'd first ask. Never assume. Some people will NOT share beverages. If they do, the polite thing is to either have your own straw, or ignore the other person's straw and drink from the side of the cup. The key is your lips don't touch where my lips touch. It's a germ thing. (Again, people very close, like people who kiss, will share straws. Often, so will close friends, but you have to ask.) It's quite common for someone to take their straw out before handing it to you, just so you're clear. This probably seems really crazy to my Indian readers, but I'm having to wrack my brain to explain these rules because honestly, we just all know them. I mean, a famous sitcom had a ranting episode about someone "double dipping a chip" (dipping a chip into sauce, then biting, then dipping it back in) and people will still get into debates about when and if this is acceptable. The idea is, once you've bitten it, you've contaminated the chip and so to dip it into a dip that another person will dip an entirely different chip into later is just gross to some Americans. I've seen friends shudder at the thought. (To be honest, I don't really care about double dipping. But it's a valid example of how ingrained this is in us.) The first time someone took a big bite out of my donut, I almost died. But I'm learning now and the last time I had a donut, I broke off a piece and handed it to them before they could take my donut and bite it. Haha. Is our way better? I don't know. You Indians do have stronger immune systems... but you also have a much lower life expectancy. I doubt it's from sipping from the same straw, but I'm just saying. :)

Also, as for me personally, there's a reason I ordered what I ordered. I like the sound of it, I am looking forward to eating it, and I'm assuming only I am eating it. So it really bugs me when the four people I'm eating with each take a bite or two and I only have two thirds of it left. Yes, you offer me bites of your food, but the thing is there's generally a reason I didn't order what you ordered. And my biggest pet peeve is when I'm the only person who ordered a drink (since I have to drink and eat at the same time) but then everyone wants a sip. Plus, Indian restaurants give like child sized drink portions. So I'm halfway through my meal and out of a drink and have to buy a second one or drink the chemically tasting water. Sigh. (Ryan is the worst drink stealer. Since he's my husband and will love me regardless, I've told him now if he wants a drink, order it. Haha. However, since he's my husband I love him regardless, I still let him drink some when he's thirsty.)

Honestly, I'm adjusting to all of that and I am trying to share. But the flinching is ingrained.

6. Women are treated differently here. Now, I need to be specific. From talking to people here is
very much regional. I live in the area referred to Delhi NCR (New Delhi and its satellite cities) and just like every big city area, it has its own culture that might even be vastly different from the rest of the geographical region it's located in. But generally here women, at least young women, are smotheringly overprotected by good men, with the idea that it's dangerous to be independent. This is done out of overprotective love, not a desire to oppress. Honestly, most men seem to be more terrified by the idea of something happening to the women they love then the women are... and the news media here just propagates this by reporting every act of violence against women. There are over a billion people in India, 14 million people in Delhi itself, and 3 million in the satellite city I live in... so there is a lot of stories to read/hear about in the news. But if you break it down into percentages of women, it's actually not that unsafe here. I've tried to get this across to men so they'd be less smother-y (::coughRyancough::) but the idea that anything could possibly hurt the women they love is just to devastating to consider. Sigh. I'm working on him; it's not him alone though. I've tried to get other men to weigh in, thinking that I'd find someone to reassure him. The only one I found was American, and Ryan didn't listen. The rest all seem to think like him.

I did however, make him and his friends think when I pointed out that when good, decent Indian men hear about violence against women, they fearfully cling tighter to their female loved ones and tell them "Don't do this" or "Don't go there"... instead of rising up and opposing the evil Indian men that are perpetuating these crimes and insisting their women have the right to freedom of movement and they'll defend that right... I saw light bulbs go off. But will it make a difference? I don't know..

7. People don't go out of their way to include you in conversations. Now, I realize in America that happens at parties and stuff. But if it's like a group of ten or less people and someone seems to be a little lonely/disquieted, it doesn't tend to go unnoticed long and someone will make an effort to at least make small talk. This doesn't seem to be the case in India. This is one of those perplexing things for me, but so many times I've been in social situations now I am realizing it's a pattern. I'll even try to catch people's eye to get them to talk but they don't seem to notice. It's probably a body language difference, I don't think they're trying to be rude, but it's very discomforting. When they do talk to me, they rarely care to hear what I have to say beyond one small social interaction. For example, I was with a group and after about twenty minutes of being ignored someone asked me where I lived. I started to tell them where and someone else said "Oh, isn't that were that guy used to live three years ago who moved away?" and the conversation moved on to discussing a guy who there's no chance I would have met and no one attempted to include me again for over half an hour.

Consequently, even when I get out and be social, I don't tend to get close to making friends. Ryan says most Indians tend to be comfortable with people like them. Not just Indians, but from their geographical region, tribal language, etc. So to go outside their box and talk in depth with a foreigner? It's hard to do. Luckily, Ryan's friends make an effort. So I do get social time with them... but they're all men. I miss women friends so bad. But I admit if I'm in a group and Ryan's friends are there, I tend to gravitate to them because I know they'll actually talk to me. But by doing that, sometimes I'm isolating myself from potential new friends.... however since I'm so starved for social interactions, if I spend it being quietly ignored by women instead of having healthy conversation with Ryan's guy friends, I often feel much lonelier. Sigh. One of these days I'll probably get to a "in depth" level friendship with a female here in India, but not yet.

8. The generation gaps are so wide. There's all these unspoken rules about how you treat your elders. Before I moved to India, I believed the adage that the east respected their elders more. Now having lived here, I realize that India and America define respect differently, but I think both societies respect their elders equally. In the east, respect is more about formality. You call them honorifics like "auntie" or "uncle." A younger Indian will often listen, without imput, to advice... but then they will usually walk away without ever sharing their thoughts with them, and especially  not disagreeing with them. They might leave the older person with the impression that they were heard, but in practice they are most often ignored. I'm not saying the advice isn't appreciated. But the truth is, with the advancements in techonology and globalism generally the advice has little relevance (I heard this from young Indians, not my own opinion.) However, they consider it the height of rudeness to point this out, so they just smile and nod and do whatever they think is best anyway.
me with some of my friends spanning generations

In the west, I think that we have gotten a little flippant in respectful address. But America was built on egalitarianism. I do try to be respectful and call older people Mr. and Mrs. So and So.. but most of the time they prefer to be called their first name nowadays. (Aunt and Uncle are honorifics reserved for your parents siblings, siblings-in-laws, and maybe best friends.) In the south, you can also use "Sir" and "Ma'am"... but we use that with any adult stranger. I was called "Ma'am" from the time I was 16 and up.

So there may not be formality in address, and younger people will insert their thoughts... but they also respect the other by engaging in discussion. They ask for clarification. They have real, deep, meaningful conversations where you learn about the other person. Now, I'm not saying everyone does this. But the truth is, I have many friends in America from various generations. And to me, to engage them by sharing my heart and my mind and yes, my opinions while asking them to do with the same with me is the ultimate form of respect. That's what I long for people do with me after all. There's too many people listening but ignoring what people say. If the advice isnt' applicable to the times, I try to explain why, assuming the other person has the intelligence and character to follow and engage me. Sometimes it doesn't work, but personally I feel that is more respectful than smiling and nodding and walking away. I miss having older friends I can talk to in depth.

9. We approach personal hygiene/care differently. Okay, I want to be very clear. I do not think the Indian way is inferior. It's just weird to me. Do you know it's next to impossible to find an antiperspirant here? When I came I asked for a"deodorant" and Ryan said sure and then took me to a department store's scent aisle. Huh? He was asking me about what I liked and I was like they're nice, but I want deodarant. The sales clerk kept showing me body sprays.

Finally I realized what Indians call "deo" is what Americans call "body spray"... and that's what they use instead of what we call deodorant. They do nothing to stop the sweat that causes body odor (except shower, they do shower) then use copious amounts of fragrance to cover up the sweat smell. I just don't understand this! I can find antiperspirant, but only at rare places and it's either spray on or roll on gel. I can't find a solid stick deodorant anywhere.

Also, almost no one wears sunblock. Now, considering brown skin is unlikely to get skin cancer compared to white skin, I kind of get that. BUT it is almost impossible to get a lotion that is not "whitening." Yes, like the sweat issue, commonly no one does anything to protect their skin from darkening (and cancer) but then spend lots of money buying product to make themselves paler.

Oh, and I can't find a teeth bleaching kit for anything. My teeth are so yellow from the increase in tea and tumeric! Funnily one of Ryan's friends was saying funny stuff about things Americans do (in a nice way) and he was like "I hear some people make their teeth whiter!" as if it was preposterous. I said well actually, I usually whiten my teeth at least once a year and it's driving me CRAZY that they're so yellow and he was a little abashed, but mainly looked incredulous.

Again, this is all just cultural differences. But it sure is different!

10. Pets are just not seen as part of the family in India. Okay, now I do know some Indian families who love their pets. I've met one. But the love they show for their dog is a normal, standard level for America, and it's an atypical level for India.

I admit my patience is thin to nearly nonesxistant because all the time people are asking if we "still have those cats"... one person even says "Have you gotten rid of the cats yet?" every time they see us.

Indians, understand this. The way I was raised, when you get an animal, you make a commitment to that animal to take care of it for life. Period. Now, I'm not saying there aren't legitimate circumstances that come up where you may have to rehome the animal: developing an allergy that can cause anaphylactic shock, two animals fighting so much they are putting each other in danger, if you're facing homelessness, or yes, even moving overseas where you can't take your pet with you (I MISS SOPHIE). But it is your responsibility to make sure that animal finds a home that is good and will take care of them (my parents have Sophie.) You don't get rid of a pet because you're tired of it, or it's annoying... or your friends and family just don't understand why you like cats.

Now, I'm not saying that people don't just abandon animals in America. They do. But in general, those people are considered jerks and most of society looks poorly on them. I was telling Ryan that animal abuse is a crime in America, he had no idea. (It may be here as well, I'm not sure, but it's not reported.) In general, American society loves pets. 60% households have at least one pet; of those who do not have pets, many more desire pets but can't have them due to landlord restrictions. In India, it is very low... I am searching and can't seem to find firm statistics, but one source says there are 4 pet dogs per 1,000 Indians. That doesn't include cats and other animals. And since that's per Indian, not per household, the stats are not comparable directly. However, I think it's safe to say that pet ownership is probably not exceedingly 5% of households in India. This is obviously a huge change. And of those who own animals, it is rare to see the adoring love you see in Americans towards their pets.

So to tell an American she should get rid of her cats because you don't like cats is probably a bit like telling an Indian to get rid of their cousin because you don't like them. It's rude, it's uncalled for, and it is deeply offensive.


  1. Cross cultural differences can be hard, and take a long time to overcome! My father-in-law still sees me as rude because I didn't go up and hug him the first time I came to visit their home. My husband has explained to him a million times that because my culture is VERY non-touchy, especially so with people I don't know and people of the opposite gender (FIL qualifies for both of those)...but FIL just keeps going back to how rude it is that I didn't walk up and hug him. You can bet next time we visit I'm going to grit my teeth and give him the biggest hug ever...even though all of his fussing hasn't made me like him any more!

  2. Oy Pam! This made me laugh. We should get together and have a griping session of things about our husbands' culture that leave us frustrated and drop-jawed. What say?

  3. @ Rachel. That made me smile. Hope he likes you more soon!

    @ Smita. That sounds fun!

  4. I wish I could hit a dog on the street or throw a stone at a cat each time I get out of my house... I try my level best... but these animals have good reflex... they are very quick... it brings me such a joy to hear the sound of a dog/cat crying in pain...

  5. hey Pam shushant made me read this :) I don't know to laugh/cry!!! but thanks for putting your thoughts across, i'll be very careful in the future and will not try to taste anything from your plate :(

  6. Few things are too generalized I think. Even you are now taking a handful sample and pasting it on whole country I think it would have been good if you would have said particulaly where you said and in your circle. You have not met enough people yet. There are few freaks I know who will not even think of eat with me because I have no table manners. I know they dont like people who cannot eat without spoon or fork; eating in same plate or sharing food what are you talking about ? And there surely pet lovers in my country too and yes they are very less in number but there are who consider animals as part of their family. Dont think I took this personally but then when you use India it hurts a bit and you knowme... ;-)

  7. This is your best post yet. Really interesting. Keep it up :)


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