10 October 2009

Culture Shock! India by Gitanjali Kolanad

Welcome to the zoo. Please don't try to feed the animals.
About a year ago, I visited a home-sundries sale of a Swedish expat who was leaving Pune for good. I got some lovely brand-new Ikea pillows and pans at a terrific rate and, mighty pleased with myself, stood gazing at the book shelf. I picked up Cactus & Roses, the autobiography of S.L. Kirloskar, and My Life So Far by Jane Fonda – another 2 good bargains. (I’m always buying biographies, believing them to be Good For Me, but hardly ever get round to reading them.)
I was looking for more when I noticed the lady of the house trying to hide this one. Naturally I became curious and, before she could back away, twisted it out of her helpless grasp.
She was still shaking her head, saying, “No, no!” when I quickly put the money down and ran off with it triumphantly clutched under my arm. Swedish people are among the most civilized on our imperfect planet, and she did not give chase or alert the building security.
I was dying to know what this lovely lady had been trying to protect me from, and I soon found out:
Flipping through the book on the ride home, I noticed a little blurb in the middle of the book that stood out because it was printed in red, unlike the rest of the text which was black:
I attended a party in the company of an American woman who wore, with her stylish dress and hat, blue stockings. A guest not used to such sophistication said to me, in Hindi, “Poor woman. Does she have wooden legs?"
Gitanjali Kolanad was 16 when she first visited India with her father, and, “looking like an Indian girl and feeling like a Canadian teenager, India was an exotic foreign land to me.”
Here are a few tiny gems from her book:

  • The rule is to ask at least three people, and then take the majority decision. (When trying to locate an address)
  • Foreigners can even find celery at a neighbourhood market in New Delhi.
  • Quality Control is one of the most serious problems facing the Bullock Cart Economy.
  • It would be easier to drive in India without brakes than without a horn
She also quotes what she calls “the authoritative publication, People of India,” without giving its publisher or source, to declare here that the billion people of India speak “325 different languages and practice more than seven religions (sometimes two or more at the same time)”
In short, the entire book is based on the premise, “We know more than they do. We are smart; they are simple.”
It reminded me of the concept of “Orientalism” described by Edward Saïd, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and a founding figure in postcolonialism.

Broadly, the Western study of the “Orient” is a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes towards the East, for example that the West is rational whereas the East is irrational; the West has Science while the East has Religion; the West has the rule of law while the East has potentates, and so on.
In this kind of study, you define the other culture just so that you can feel good about what you have, and superior to the other because they are different. It gives you a justification to rule.

Every culture has a tendency to judge other cultures in this manner. The whole point of talking about culture shock is to know that it’s not going to be easy, first understand this basic premise, and only then try to interact or communicate or understand the other.
Cross-cultural studies have shown that intimate long-term relationships across cultures are almost invariably doomed to failure.

I have to admit that this book is an early edition, somewhat before India emerged as a global outsourcing base (and, even better, a world market.)

It’s a good book for someone who thinks they’re visiting a zoo (like Clare Jay below). Please don’t try to feed the animals.

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