Saturday, March 24, 2012

Drawing the Line in Cultural Arguments

When I first came to India and married into my new family many of my thoughts were based on how fitting in and finding my place here. I wanted to develop a good reputation and show them that I could be a productive member of the family. Sickness aside I did make some sacrifices, willingly, and I changed some things about myself. I did this so that I could learn how to live here. This was, after all, a huge change and I knew things were not going to be the same here as my life had always been.

Some changes were easier than others to make. For example, I didn't go out alone in the US so it's no big deal to not go out alone here. That was easy because I do have some apprehension about running these streets alone and not knowing the language and I am horrible with directions and navigation. It takes me so long to learn my way around. I vowed to listen to my husband because he was much more an expert on India than I was and it made sense to heed his knowledge. I purposely left behind some of my favorite clothes thinking they would not be as welcomed or as normal here as they were in the US. I wasn't worried because I knew I would be shopping after I got here. Those kind of changes are normal for any new bride to make when marrying into a new family. The only difference with me is that I was moving into the family home whereas a bride in the US may only have to make these changes while the family is looking and she can stay her old self when they are not.

As I learned about life here and learned that my husbands view was somewhat tainted by the way Indians are taught here, I slowly adjusted myself to a happy place between my old, normal self and the values that needed to be adhered to if one expects to survive this area. Now don't take all that wrong. I never compromised my values or lost myself. I didn't try to be Indian. I am just mature enough to understand that I couldn't walk in here and demand everyone be like me and give me all the things I had in the US. That would be insanely unrealistic. I also had a good sense ahead of time of what changes would be expected, like the cold water bucket baths and not going out at night.

I also quickly learned of some of the differences in the culture here that I don't like. As I learned of these I did encourage change in hubby. I wasn't going to bend myself to accept some of these because (throughout the world) these kind of behaviors are considered wrong. I did not expect his family to change for me though and so I immediately started also changing myself to manage these behaviors. One would be the concept of never saying no. This is a very hard concept for western cultures to adapt, especially those of us from the US.

In the US we are very open and realistic with out thoughts and our intentions. This is part of why some other cultures think we have so many problems. It's not that we have more, we are just more vocal about them and we do not ignore them. In India it is often considered rude, uncaring, and generally unacceptable to say no to someone. So if the strange relative you just met insists you come to her house to stay for a visit one day soon, the expected response would be something like "I would love to aunty ji!" In the US, we would be much more likely to say "Excuse me? Who are you? How do I know you?"

Neither culture is wrong. In India, families are raised to respect the bond of blood. So if this aunty was a blood relation - even a distant one - you respect her and immediately accept her as part of the family. In the US we are taught about "stranger danger" and it is immediately expected that if some woman you have never met invites you into her home to stay that something is not right. It's considered odd, and likely the woman wouldn't invite you in the first place because she would know you would think she was creepy. Relationships are developed, not entitled.

The same holds true when you go to a store in India. The shop owner, especially small shops, will not want to tell you they don't have something. They will tell you they can order it, etc. Sometimes they do order it, even if you don't give them the go ahead to get it for you, and sometimes they never order it and keep you coming back asking for weeks. But they won't tell you no right to your face very often. (Unless it's a restaurant where something on the menu always seems to be unavailable.) If they know they can't get it or you're in a big store where that kind of thing isn't done they will continue to approach you with other options. Some of them are not even close to what you are looking for but they don't want you to be disappointed.

The whole point in the Indian culture is to keep you happy. They don't want you to be upset or feel bad so they tell you what they think will make you happy. In the US things like this are considered lying. That's because we would openly tell you "no, I can't get that for you." We may say sorry or apologize but we do not tell you something just because you want to hear it. So coming to India this was very difficult to deal with. (Now that I go to certain stores repeatedly though I have my workers trained. They know it makes me happy if they are honest and tell me something doesn't come in my size, etc. They rarely follow me trying to sell me other stuff too. I'm happy, they are happy...so no really isn't always a bad thing.)

Little things like this are not worth fighting for a change if the person is outside of your immediate family. I couldn't live with hubby if he was always just BSing me to appease me or if he made a bunch of promises he couldn't keep. He understands that and he's not afraid to tell me no. (Us western girls like that btw...within reason!)

On the other end of that spectrum is when things get heated. Indians (at least the many that I have witnessed) will say things they don't mean quite often. Not only with the saying no, but when there is a conflict at hand. Women fighting in the streets shout threats and rioting crowds can say some pretty scary things. In the US there are legal consequences for saying these things and you can go to jail for them. (It still happens though not as often.) Some of them threaten to kill, harm, or destroy lives and property if they don't get their way. Sometimes, when they know someone they will say what they know will hurt the most. Like for example, between a husband and wife, he may insult the size of her legs during a fight because he knows that she is not happy with them. He doesn't mean it but he says it as part of his survival instinct so that he can win the fight. The wife may retaliate with a comment about the size of his package because she wants to hurt him back.

Those kinds of fights are not good no matter what. In an intercultural relationship though we may not always realize where they come from. While the basic human intention is the same - one person wants to survive or win the fight - the cultural aspect is very different. In India, it is very common for these kind of reactions to take place. It seems to be understood that people say things they don't mean sometimes and once it's over they tend to forget about even saying it. In western culture these things are completely unacceptable and often end relationships forever. (Relationships in India rarely ever end forever so this is not a widely understood concept for them.) As a foreigner we are often trying to fit in and find our place and learn but I urge you - don't tolerate these kinds of behaviors.

Indians are no different than any other lover/spouse/etc. If you put your foot down and indicate to them you won't tolerate this kind of thing, they are not willing to lose you over it if they love you. This is a little thing, even to them, and should not be something they would fight to keep. Use your western culture to explain to them that where you come from these behaviors are thought of us extremely damaging and mean much more than just words said in an argument. Let them know specifically how the words or actions made you feel and set some boundaries for them not to use them again. Your emotional well being is just as important as theirs and you wouldn't tolerate this kind of behavior in any other relationship, so don't let culture sway you from standing up for yourself either. (I mean this for close friendships, friendships you are pursuing, spouse/fiance relationships as well as close family relationships.)

And no, this is not about getting married and changing your spouse into something else. This is a compromise. You have and will compromise to accommodate your spouse on something. You may have to wear that horrifying sweater his mother knitted so she doesn't get sad and think you don't like it someday. You may even find yourself doing all the cooking in the house because you're better at it even though you really don't like cooking. Those are all compromises aimed at making life a little easier to live for everyone. Look at this compromise that way. You can't live with someone that hurts you, even if they don't mean to, on a regular basis. Put your foot down before it's too late and the relationship suffers and dies away.

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