The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Ravi Kumar

WorldVoices: Ravi Kumar, Host

A note to the reader...allow a minute or two for the background music to download: Vilayat Khan, Raga Ahir Bhairav.

Saying Yes to Tradition and Change

Recently, I have begun to feel at home in the USA. It still seems a little strange to me that I have become (almost) comfortably assimilated to this culture. I have lived here for eleven years. I came to the United States after a long career with the Indian Armed Forces. My three children are married to Americans, and I have five grandchildren, all born here. I have two American sons-in-law, an American daughter-in-law, and a half dozen close American friends. I have developed and taught a college level course on cultural perspectives in the workplace. My association with Americans- -students, friends and close relatives--has given me some insights into issues of cultural assimilation.

Everybody knows that the USA is a country of immigrants, a melting pot. People from all over the world inhabit this land. Almost all communities/neighborhoods are a reflection of this realty. In my own sub-division, besides the white and black Americans, there are Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Arabs and Latin Americans. The white and black people have their own ethnicities, although they may be several generations removed from the original immigrants, whether they came voluntarily (whites) or involuntarily (Africans who came as slaves).

At the outset, let me acknowledge that each individual is a culture unto himself or herself. No two persons have the same behavior patterns, attitudes or value systems. Having said that, one can look more closely at common traits that bind people into communities, at home and abroad.

Habits, customs, and underlying philosophical or religious values may be so deeply ingrained as to become a cause for friction among people from different cultures. I must, however, point out that there is no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” way to judge information. Cultural value systems are built over centuries of human existence; each has its own logic and justification within the culture that created it.

I would like to discuss four differences between Eastern and Western (specifically Indian and American) cultures.

Family Relationships: Indian family relationships are important and intimate. There is in them a hierarchy that is well understood and respected. The status, rights and responsibilities, expected behavior pattern and the norms of addressing an individual by the rest of the family are all well-established, well beyond family norms established and adhered to in American culture. One of the most important decisions of life in Indian families, nuclear and extended, is marriage; parents and other elders are generally far more involved in this decision of their children than are their American counterparts. The involvement of parents with their children is a lifelong preoccupation. As far as I can tell, American family ties tend to be looser and sometimes nonexistent. There are, of course, exceptions, but this Indian notion of an extended family who live together and are much involved in filial concerns appears to be a major difference between two cultures.

Norms of Hospitality: In India, one does not routinely make appointments to visit someone, particularly friends and relatives. The Sanskrit word Athithi means “guest” and also means “without date,” thereby implying the traditional Indian value of welcoming a guest, without prior notice, as an honored person. Almost everywhere in India a guest would be offered something to drink or eat before any further interactions take place. These refreshments would be insisted upon the guest. Without such preliminaries, the interactions would feel socially dry and uncultured. Even in offices, a visitor could expect to be offered tea and snacks while the business of the day would wait. In America it seems not unusual to find that a visitor without previous engagement is looked upon with suspicion as an intruder. And he or she is not always offered a drink or something to eat. Such behavior upsets the cultural applecart of Indians completely.

Elders: Throughout the East, elderly persons are addressed according to their relationship to the speaker. There is always a suffix (Ji) denoting respect added to the form of address. Rarely is an elderly relative addressed by name. Even elderly strangers are addressed as uncles/aunts (bhai), brother (sahib), sister (behan ji/Didi), mother (mata ji) and so on. In America, one’s parent may be called by the first name. This custom is probably a reflection of the attitude of equality, and freedom of expression of each citizen of this free country. But it goes against the grain of Indians to address elders by name.

Patterns of Intimacy: Rarely does one find casual relationship patterns between elders and young ones in India. Even when such relationship are intimate, formality is observed. The distinction remains valid with advancing age, as long as there is a difference in age or difference in hierarchy of relationship between two individuals. In America, it is quite normal to be very casual toward elders and even to make personal jokes about them, sometimes in their presence. When one visits an intimate friend or relative in India, one first pays courtesy to the elders in the family, seeking them out and greeting them before starting one’s own conversation with friends in the household. The elders expect to be approached and greeted in family gatherings and social events by all those who know them. In America the visitor would allow the elders to decide for themselves if they want to come out and be greeted. Americans, I think, would not want to interfere with the privacy of the elders of the family unless they themselves come forward to meet the visitor.

Cultural values take centuries to establish and may take centuries to change. Not all people from the same culture approach change in the same way. Some may adapt their behavior to suit the needs of the situation; others may not. Indians, in particular first generation Indians like me, find it difficult to accept some of the American behavior patterns outlined above. Yet we have come to call this land home. Home is where you are comfortable and accepted. In spite of the difficulties of assimilation, this country has become my home.

Nobody in America has asked me to give up my love of Indian music, dance, art, theater, painting, cinema or any other art form indigenous to my culture. In fact I have had the great pleasure of introducing my American friends to these arts and of watching them enjoy my culture with me. They in turn have introduced me to American art forms, which have enriched me immensely. It is left to each one of us to seek new viewpoints, and to immerse ourselves into the creativity of humanity while protecting and celebrating that which is familiar to us.

We all, including Americans who have been here longer than I, need to become conscious of how culture has conditioned our ways of thinking, planting within us the values and assumptions that govern our behavior. If we want to achieve frictionless interactions, it is necessary for all those living in this nation to be aware of and respect divergent cultural foundations. To be considerate of each other’s values and to make room in our thoughts and feelings for those values will make possible the sweet harmony that we all desire.

Copyright ©2007 Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.
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