Sunday, September 23, 2012

Struggling With My Own Culture

***Just FYI, I am not discussing physical violence while writing this post. By fight, I mean verbal, legal, etc. I would never condone physical violence in a normal daily environment.

I don't mean the American culture. That would be a subject all by itself. I'm struggling with my personal culture. I blogged while in India about not being happy with who I was becoming. I held a lot of anger inside of me while I was there and I wasn't even sure where it was coming from. If you want to reread any of those monthly updates, click here.

India changed me. Anyone moving across cultures will experience changes to their personality, their thinking, their habits, etc. It's inevitable. Now that I'm back home, I see some ways the anger I experienced there changed me in ways I like (now that I'm not experiencing the anger any longer).

Before India I was very quiet overall and only mouthy in very limited situations. I rarely stood up for myself and instead made it a point to always be the one who walked away and avoided confrontation. I was taught to be that way. A good southern girl uses her words not her fists. A good southern girl would never openly insult someone in a direct manner. This is where the insult "Bless Your Little Ol Heart" comes in handy. It can be good, it can be bad. You have to determine which by the tone and thus is a staple saying in a good southern girls vocabulary.

Inside of India I became overly confrontational. I stood up for myself in situations where there was actually no threat or the threat was very small and didn't nee that kind of attention. I found myself reacting in ways I never had before and I was unable to hold my tongue. I could neither explain it nor understand it. Some of the things I was standing up for never mattered to me in the states. Others I know why I did it but it still wasn't the way I would have handled the situation before I moved there. I simply couldn't understand who I was becoming and in a lot of ways I didn't like the India version of me.

Now that I'm back from India, I'm learning when I should and should not stand up for myself all over again. I haven't had to be aggressive like I was in India. I'm not sure that I would be that angry either. I have stood up for myself in many ways. I now have clearly defined ideas/perceptions of what is and is not right for me.

I'm not letting people walk all over me. I'm not putting up with verbal vomit coming out of peoples mouths. I've stood my ground and had a few strong debates. I've stood my ground when I needed to and it's been quite empowering.

A few times I've had to shut my mouth though. Before having spent time in India I never would have spoken up at all but now I find myself building the strength to do so. It's strange new territory for me to feel this way. I've gained courage. I wasn't a weak person before but I'm quite sure I lacked this kind of courage. The courage to stand up for me.

I've always been good at helping others. I volunteered to help others since I was 19. But I didn't take care of myself. I didn't realize how important that was. Now I know it's important. I matter, my thoughts matter, my needs matter and so do my feelings. I'm now more willing to stand up for them. It's a good change.

But again, I don't recognize this new me. I'm learning to enjoy it actually. I'm redefining who I am as a person, as a wife and in each of my family roles. I no longer find shame in being who I am. My hubby taught me that. He's been really good for me. He doesn't take my crap and he doesn't expect me to take his. He's my perfect match.

How did you adjust to yourself after changing cultures?
Did you redefine yourself, your life, your principles?
Did you like the new changes you saw in yourself?


  1. This is something I've heard from many other expats when they come to India.Here it's a necessity to have that kind of attitude to get things done most of the time.Being Latina/Mediterranean the loud, vocal attitude was already ingrained on me but at some level I find myself changed too.Specially lately, that I've started to drive, you need it to last in this jungle.It's the survival of the fittest.

  2. So much is subtle in Indian culture. It's a high-context culture. Southern American culture is also high-context but not as high-context as Indian culture. And it's sometimes higher-context about different things.

    High-context cultures depend on so many things - power distance and status, body language, gender roles, culturally-bound etiquette, notions of time, etc. The cues are learned over time and we who didn't grow up in the culture may miss them entirely unless we're actually instructed in what to look for.

    Southern US high context is not in any way Punjabi high context.

    And when we don't understand something, what do we do? We ask for things to become more CLEAR. If you go to a movie theater and the film starts but the sound doesn't, you fidget uncomfortably for a minute. After a couple minutes, people start to talk amongst themselves. If it goes on longer, someone might go talk to a manager. If still the sound doesn't come on, they might start yelling at the manager or just yelling in the theater out of frustration - "Turn the sound on already, you b******s!" All because they can't hear and they want to understand.

    The longer you're in an incomprehensible situation, the easier aggression comes to you. You want the sound to come on. You want to switch to low context, to people's words and actions matching up without anything else surrounding. This is completely natural and normal.

    Some people might say, "Well, you just need to know what to look for." "You need to learn the unspoken cues" - but is it realistic? Can you really, in the span of a year or two years, learn all the values, etiquette, historical references, literary allusions, that Punjabi culture contains? Can you switch over your notions of the value of time or be disgusted by things you weren't disgusted by before?

    You can learn these things, bit by bit, note by note, embarrassing moment by embarrassing moment, but to become acculturated takes a lifetime. And even then we have to still retain our individual self, not blindly acculturate to a stereotype or someone else's 'ideal' for us.

    So basically, you're doing fine. Don't be hard on yourself. Keep learning for the rest of your life and always remember who you are.

  3. God bless you for having the strength to drive in India. Yes, you do need survival skills. I was ready to take on driving, so maybe I learned more than I realize. Only time will tell as I continue on this path of discovery and learn more about myself and Punjabi culture.

  4. Thank you. I like your analogy and you're right, I could never learn all the subtle clues of Punjabi culture. I am having fun learning and realizing so many things though. It's teaching me a lot about myself, my own culture, etc. I find most of it fascinating and intriguing. I think mostly I struggle with not being who I perceive I need to be. I value my Southern American upbringing but I also need and want to have some Punjabi traits. This new, stiff-spined person is good for me I'm just not used to it at all. You know though, there are a lot of very distinct similarities between how I was raised and how my husband was raised. That intrigues me the most. How could two people from such different cultures grow up being taught identical values? I can't answer that and I don't expect you to but I hope you get the idea of what I'm saying. We couldn't have been born and raised in more different circumstances only to have the exact same ideals on family, life and living. It's amazing.

  5. As culture goes, people in Switzerland are pretty non-confrontational, you don't try to shine too much, standing out is frowned upon, you mind your own business, theire is a extremly high value put on privacy, people will avoid pushing in a crowd if they can, respect traffic rules, well respect rules and law period, not that there isn't crime or anything, there are disturbed element in every places. But the common man/woman will try to live a life that will not cause others inconvenience as much as they can, I guess ou could say that there is a hightened sense of civism there and I kid you not I lived 10 minutes away from the french border and you could see the difference from one side to the other.
    India is the opposite, it's loud, people think that they are by their status entitled to break certain rules, appearance and social status matter a lot, the respect of privacy is a totally foreign concept here, with Aunties peaking through your windows the first instant they can, the phone rings without regard about whether you would be sleeping, or having a sense I always found it very hypocrite when Indians dared criticising the west as so individualistic in a a very bad way when I have seen far more individualistic horrid behaviour in the 9 years I spent in India, it's like because your neighbour is of such and such community and is used to do a special loud puja on certain day they are entitled to get all those who aren't from that same community out of bed at 5am with their loudspeaker, it's this and that community displaying their dead in the street during a funeral without thinking that some people might get uncofortable or that their mourning justify blocking an entire street with a massive tent (DH is Noth Indian and has felt as uncomfy as me in these occasion), it's just because you bought 30k worth of firecraker for Diwali you have the right do do them at 5am despite knowing one of your neighbour has a 3 month old baby with sensitive ears and parents that are sleep deprived. It's having your neighbour ask the price of everything in you buy and them brag about how they could have got it for cheaper.
    To the Swiss in me this is assault, there said it, 9 year in the country I learned to tolerate it to some extent, but yes I was pissed, and vocal and aggressive about it in the begining, it's only normal. I still crib about certain things today, and it reassure me that DH finds these things annoying as much as I do. The one we both hate equally is all these new money asshat that think that their wealth entitle them to be world class morons and think that just because they have the money they are entitled to bend housing community rules. When we were living in the NRI complex in Navi Mumbai we were surrounded by these goons, one in our building was one of the worst, he felt his status and money entitled him to absolutely everything, inclusind disrupting our sleep with heavy and loud hammering and drilling in the flat he purchased and was 3 freaking am! My neighbour crossed him, only to have him hammer her door and insulting her in the most degrading vocabulary, at his waist two GUNS in a holster belt! The security guard then informed us that we should all shut up and let him do what he wanted...he was the worst, but the whole complex was in no shortage of fat bank account holder without an ouce of class and respect.

  6. Just wanted to add that moving over to another country/ culture could change a person.
    You are in an unfamiliar territory and that can be a life changing experience. May be one sees things from a different perspective. Not sure what it is. I moved from India to united states 12 years ago. I am somehow still unsettled here. I feel I have changed as a person in a negative way. I am now cynical and weary. One's experiences could determine the person they become. I did not get things easy and had to work hard to build a life that I wanted. Though now I am doing very well, I feel that it is at a cost. Anyway just wanted to add my 2 cents to give a different perspective that it could work the other way around as well.

  7. I think both cultures are selfish/individualistic in their own ways. Each accepts their own selfishness and doesn't understand the others version of selfishness.

    I'm like you, many things in the Indian culture felt like an assault to me. It's very difficult to step back and try to remember that the culture is different and not bad. It's a serious challenge to learn to adjust to these issues. In many cases you know they're not doing anything that is really wrong, it just isn't what we are used to.