Notes from India: Differences in cultures

This piece was published in a college newspaper

As I write this column in my study, my family (and extended family) are choreographing dance moves to some really cheesy Bollywood songs in the living room outside. My sister is getting married this Thursday. Its a classic Indian wedding and the mood is celebratory. Relatives from all over the country, and abroad, have taken the week off to camp in at the Gupta’s residence in Pune city, India. Seven to eight course preparations of food for all breakfasts, lunches and dinners (seriously), music blasting in every space of this house, chatter of family, twenty people squeezed in a house of 4, all will be the norm for the week ahead. Isn’t this different from the more sober setting you’re used to in the States? As I got used to this buzz and coped with jet-lag yesterday, I wondered what the implications of this Indian setting could possibly mean to you, as an American college student.

Before indulging you further, I want to share another anecdote. I was talking to a friend of mine from the Indian School of Mines, a top engineering school in India, a little more than a week ago. What he told me left me amused: “College is the only time you can struggle; struggle and work extremely hard here and then you can obviously enjoy for the rest of your life.” I politely nodded at the thought and observed how it was the polar opposite of the mindset in an American college setting. To confirm this person wasn’t the anomaly, I called up a few others as well. Most of my friends, all from good schools, echoed similar views. Work hard in college. Party hard later in life.

My sister is marrying a guy whom she hadn’t even known, forget about anything else, just a few months ago. My parents and my brother-in-law’s parents met through introductions in an extended network of family connections and decided that their two children should tie the knot–in other words, an arranged marriage. The two, my sister and her to be husband, spoke to each other on Skype (he was on a work assignment abroad) and gave their consent to the arrangement after their very first online chat (not even sure if it could be called a date). Some catch-phrases coming to mind: “Awkwarddd,” “no [expletive] way,” etc. Wouldn’t such a system come across as highly absurd in America? With a slight stretch, one could even make the argument that my parents may have violated my sister’s human rights. But here in India, my sister couldn’t have been happier. The guy is great. And all of our family and friends are thrilled for her. There is no right or wrong about this system. It works for the people in India very well.

Why should you care even a little? In this age of an integrated global economy, it is useful to know how young people like you are different from you in other parts of the world. How this works in your favor or disfavor is a question with no answer. But I encourage you to travel outside America (you don’t know how lucky you are to have a US passport with visa free travel to anywhere in the world) and familiarize yourself with people from different backgrounds and cultures. Take on study abroad opportunities, join the Peace Corps, do European road-trips, internships in Africa or even non-profit volunteering in South-East Asia. Understand the peculiarities of people from other cultures will, in essence, help broaden your horizons. Travel not as a tourist, but as someone who truly wants to learn.

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