Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Culture Distortion

I'm filing this post under "culture shock" on purpose. I think the distortion I'm discussing goes hand in hand with what we expect and what we don't find when moving to a new country.

I was watching Deadly Dozen: Africa and India and I noticed that all of the people they showed in that episode were stereotypical for what most Americans see of India. We're typically bombarded with images of women in old clothing washing clothes in a river, men in dhoti's traipsing through the dirt with no shoes on and children in dirty clothes sitting in dirty streets. Yes, these people exist in India and India has some very dirty places. But it just sank in how little I've seen on American television of middle or upper class India (I'm not counting news - just entertainment).

This isn't any different than the ChildReach commercials showing impoverished children in Ethiopia and nothing else. These things exist but don't paint an accurate picture of the diversity in a country. Any country.

This wasn't much different in India. The shows that came on from the US, UK and Australia showed very little of average people. Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle and the movies available on the English channels have led countless desi's to have a skewed view of life in the US just like Americans have a skewed view of life in third world countries. Actually, any country. Don't think so? How do you feel about Amsterdam? Because every time I've seen anything in any show about Amsterdam it was pertaining to sex and drugs. I'm 100% sure there is much more to Amsterdam than this.

I think this distortion creates a huge issue for people when they move from one country to another.On one side you have the pardesi women who have seen the vibrant culture, the beauty of select Indian locations and the romance in Bollywood movies. On the other hand you have the ashrams that promise peace and tranquility and a new way of living. Another view would be the beggar children and half naked babies. None of which are completely untrue, but still illicit strong emotions without providing any understanding.

Having seen the aforementioned naked babies with scraggly hair before India I would have instantly been concerned about how hard life must be for them and I actually did want to volunteer in India and help these children. Now that I've been to India I realize these children are half naked because of the benefits of it. It has nothing to do with their social standing. The fresh air is good for their skin, disposable diapers would be a comfort nightmare for these children and their hair's not brushed because they're just like any other kid in the world. They hate how it feels when the knots get pulled out by a comb and their life feels too short to sit still for that long lol.

So imagine the shock a foreigner feels when they enter a new country and realize that it's not what they saw on tv. It's a normal, functioning society that is the same as their own, just different culturally. There are people of all social levels, class status, etc. In the instance of India specifically, imagine how difficult it is for a foreigner to embrace the idea that beggars are a gang. They're not poor people who just can't seem to get a good job or have a decent life. Some of them injure themselves on purpose so they can get more free from society.

Now think about how an NRI feels entering the US. Some people will inevitably think they're coming from some awful place without toilets and amenities. They don't realize that these differences don't all come from how poor the country is, some things are cultural and chosen. The reality is that the culture of India is different and different does not mean bad. Things that are bad here in the US are normal in India or an accepted way of life.

I've been watching TV shows from other countries this past month and it's been an interesting experience to say the least. I'm seeing similar cultural distortion coming from Australian shows as well as German. So while I haven't been to these countries, I would think that it's fairly safe to assume that this happens in many places around the world. 

Regardless of what entertainment value these producers/writers/etc. think they are bringing to these shows, it's disturbing to me. Real life is a popular trend right now so it would seem (to me) that it would be just as valuable to depict a more realistic view of the culture. I think showing inaccurate portrayals of various cultures only promotes racism. It either gives people illusions of grandeur which will later be unfounded or it gives them a negative view of people from other countries that hurts everyone.

If you've been to another country, how did it affect you to see that it wasn't what you thought when you first got there?
Did TV contribute to your view before going to the country?
Were you happy or sad to discover the differences?


  1. I'll always remember it, when I was 10 my parents decided to spend 3 weeks with us going on a road trip accross Morocco, it was in 1989, back then schools in switzerland were trying to educate our lot about the fact that we should be aware that there are 3rd world countries and poverty and that we were lucky to live where we lived, it was naked dirty babies gallore in documentaries, prints, and campaigns, in 1988 the Children's right bill was signed in Geneva so that could be why we as priviledged kids were being put through that propaganda, constantly, they wanted our Generation to be a better one, no harm there, but they were not giving us an objective picture.
    Anyway Morocco being in Africa, and having been taught that Africa was poor and kids where misarable enough that we had to donate pencils during collections drives so the kids there could go to school like we did in Geneva I had that idea that no kids there could be happy.
    Day one in Morocco, playing on the public beach in one city, I made some local friends, my parents didn't like staying in tourists hotels, they wanted us to have a more authentic less shielded experience of the word around us. That same day I met some other girls in the old city in the evening, we were dinning at a local restaurant, and well being a kid I could not just sit and wait and the terrace of that restaurant was on the side of a small plaza, where the girls were playing, so I went there and they where exited to have a new friend to play with, they played hop scotch and it was fun. Then I went telling my parents: "I don't think Africa is all miserable, and kids are unhappy, I met only kids that wanted to play with me and they even know how to play hop scotch!" My parents smiled, because our many trips of travelling the "rough" way was to exactly show my sister and I that. That no matter where you go you'll have poverty and misery but also wealth, joy and happiness, and that you can't trust everything the media tell you.

    That was when I realised that if you want a complete picture you should learn to read between the lines. And I think that is the single most important lesson I have ever learned in life. I am so grateful to my parents for what they did with each and every single holiday trips we took, be it all across Europe, Turkey, and North Africa. School taught me how to read and count, my parent's love for travelling taught me everything else I know today.

  2. What a great story. Thanks for sharing. You're right. There's poverty and wealth everywhere. You can't judge people by what the media says, how they look or where they live. We learned just that this week watching a story unfold here in the news. A police officer gave a homeless man boots, then the homeless man hid them. As we found out more and more, the man wasn't homeless, had been refusing jobs and liked sitting on the streets looking pitiful. This is just like some of the issues we see in other countries as well. People are the same everywhere and we shouldn't make any decisions without seeing things for ourselves first hand.

  3. As I have mentioned before - my other half has a really distorted view of western culture thanks to tv - we all cheat, divorce, don't take anything seriously, etc etc . . Yeah, thanks Jeremy Kyle. - even I watch that program and am ashamed that people must think this is what British people are like - when in fact it is a snapshot of what is generally the underbelly of Britain. - the jobless who take advantage of the over-generous benefit system in this country who have no incentive to live a better life - who get paid by the government to - well- sit around watching Jeremy Kyle actually!

    And then of course there's my parents impression of india from tv, shortly before my trip there this year there was a documentary following various people. - poor people - a family who lived on a beach for example - my parents were shocked after that that my photos of a mumbai beach didn't have a shanti town and rubbish in them, not to mention the countless other things shown - some of which even scared me a little - but it is only once side of a multi-faceted country - and this frustrates me the most since TV and media is the only link for my parents to Indian culture, and this is what causes them such cultural angst when it comes to my relationship! I guess a middle class Indian family wouldn't be so interesting to tv producers!

    Grrr , makes me so angry!

  4. Thats the third time I am reading an article describing the same problem and each time I can't agree less. I'm not much of a TV person and I've never been to US but every time NGC or Discovery have some light on India in one of their shows I can't stop but laugh. Seriously? India is just dust and desert and snakes and camels? The next most popular thing I see is women with ghunghat/pard(using the Chunri/Dupatta to hide face from strangers/elders). Well as you are from US and you know how ridicules it is what we see in movies and TV about west but at least mostly your own countrymen make those TV shows and when making any show about India I think they should at least consult with some educated Indians. And whats more funny is the taglines of these shows about India: Real India! , Beauty of India!, India - Behind the curtain! , True India!, India - An insight. WTF
    Before Internet and before I started talking with foreigners my view of America was "drug addicts with slutty attitude" no offense but thats what I saw on TV and movies when I was a kid.

  5. It is ridiculous how these shows make us look. I'm sure Britains are like Americans, we know these shows are so ridiculous that all we can do is laugh. We all know the shows find the worst people in society they can find and then those people try hard to act as awful as possible. We can see how fake it is and we know they're acting but other countries don't know that. They're not used to how we really act.

  6. This is where the problem lies. Hollywood decides they need to make shows about other countries and they make them for Americans and go by our typical standards of drama, etc. They've used real things but added as much fake drama as possible so they can get us emotional.

    Somehow Hollywood has the idea that Americans don't want the truth. They like to mislead people because they think it will make them money. It's wrong. I think that's why more and more Americans are paying less and less for movies. We're sick of this crap!

    I'm not offended by your observation, I would say the same thing myself. Even if I only watched American TV shows her in the US I would agree with you. I can't say for sure about the rest of America but where have lived on the East Coast, we do not dress or act like that. I hate watching that stuff here in the US. It's worse seeing it in India when I know it's misrepresenting us. And just for the record (not that you implied anything bad), I don't watch those crappy shows about India you wrote about either. I don't like fake stuff and so they don't appeal to me. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Hmmm, I think it´s too cheap a shot to only call out the media for this. It´s more about people who are not willing to take the time and effort and educate themselves (given that there is a growing number of people who, due to their economic situation, don´t even have the time to go on the net or read a book). And when talking about Africa (me only generalizing on Nigeria, Benin and Cameroon) the fact that people who emmigrated don´t tell the truth to their people (it´s a cultural thing).

    I know I pounded over my Germaness quite a bit here but I think it´s relevant. For decades we were depicted as mean Nazis. Every of the first few James Bond movies had a German actor as villain. Saturday Night Live showed females in Dirndl who didn´t shave their armpits and still in 1988 there were German terrorists fighting against John McClane in Die Hard. The art is to simply not care. So there is yet another movie about Hitler and the Nazis and how horrible the German language is? So what! Let ´em be. The people who really care will see that some of us are actually quite nice. The other ones shall say and think and watch whatever they want.

    Ignorance is a bliss!

    Besides that. India is a tough country. So are the African countries I´ve seen. And honestly I prefer having a negative picture in my head and being prepared for the worst and being positively surprised than dreaming of glass palaces and beautiful gardens only to awake in Mumbai traffic with a half dead baby in my lap and it´s mother begging for a few INRs (happened to me not too long ago!).

  8. While the media isn't the only culprit, they do play a big part in promoting this distortion. It seems to me that each country seems to promote the ideal that all other countries are bad in some way. It is very disheartening.

    I don't watch the movies you mentioned that portray Germans as Nazi's. I'm glad because that is ridiculous too.

  9. A very thoughtful article ! What I personally feel is that each country or region has a culture that suits its people best. Every culture is made by the people and not that people are forced to accept the culture of their land. And people accept the culture of their land because they are satisfied and happy with it. All things which are unsuitable to people of a region are discarded from their culture with the passage of time. Thus, any prevailing culture is the best for the people who follow it.

    Still we can find people who are immature enough to consider one culture to be better than the rest instead of accepting differences in cultures. A very common example is of some Indians who are so bitten by the American bug that one feels sorry for their state of mind. One such example I found here :

  10. Thank you. Your thoughts are good, I agree with a lot of what you said. I found a very interesting article discussing just what you said today. It was talking about how genetic traits that are disappearing over time and how people are becoming more and more alike across the globe.

    I think we are also seeing some of what you mentioned in India now. The recent unfortunate events have sparked the people to demand a change in the people and the government. People all over the world do similar things to get rid of what they feel are bad aspects of their own cultures.

    Thanks for your comment!