Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Westerners Have No Culture

This is no doubt something you are going to hear (if you haven't heard it already) at some point in your desi/pardesi relationship. You may not hear it from your desi, you may hear it from your friends, family or somewhere online where you interact with other desi's. It's another product of culture distortion. It may have been distorted for you growing up, in your exposure to the desi lifestyle or in other places.

Is it true? Nope. Not at all. What some people don't understand is that American culture, like many other "western" cultures is not void of cultural aspects at all. They are just different from desi culture. The most simple way to put this is that desi culture is eccentric while many western cultures are just the opposite.

Let's compare and contrast some of the differences:

Indian American
Mixes bright colors Mixes monochrome tones
prints are common solid colors are common
playing loud music is common has laws against loud music 
Arranged marriages are prevalent Love marriages are prevalent
People are greeted based on their religion People are greeted in similar manner without religious affiliation
Believe in using spices for health benefits Believe spices incite specific feelings 
The concept of ahimsa/tolerance believe in fighting for basic individual rights
More apt to speak negatively, rarely smile Generally always positive, smiling, etc.
Has a heirarchy system among all citizens Believes in equality regardless of social status
Respect is demanded based on relation and social standing Respect is mutual - you get as much as you give 
Overt caste system Implied caste system
Family oriented Goal oriented
Tasks are completed hastily and often in the spur of the moment Tasks are planned and organized
Prefers stability Prefer mobility
People rely on others for most things in life People are independent and self-reliant
Do not live by the clock Consider time as a valuable commodity
Are highly competitive in all aspects of life Somewhat competitive but more concerned with fulfilling their own needs rather than beating others
Prefer verbal communication Prefer written communications

And now let's look at some similarities:
  • Both countries are structured on religious principles and concepts.
  • Both have stories and folklore used to teach and raise children with societal values.
  • Both have specific cuisine shaped by the immigrants that have come to the country. (Indian spices originated from Portuguese cuisine and a lot of American foods come from Dutch influence for example.)
  • Art is shaped by the human mind and reflects a lifetime of learning from the environments around them. Thus India's artwork centers on Hinduism and festivals often and American art centers around the Christian church or the battle of good vs. evil in both countries.
  • Both have media that misreprents the majority of the country, it's lifestyle, etc. in the interest of becoming popular with others or inciting strong and exaggerated emotion in the people.
  • Both have developed and augmented their languages over time with words from foreign languages. 
  • Both have specific styles of dance that are unique to the country (both historic and modern)
  • Both have an unspoken North/South divide
  • Both have extremely diverse demographics
As you can see, both have culture. They are just different from each other in many ways.

I've both seen and heard that it is very easy for an Indian to integrate into American culture because of the similarities I listed and also because our differences are not difficult to adjust to. What is your thoughts on that? Has your desi partner had difficulty adjusting to life here? With what aspects?

Are you Indian? Did you have trouble adjusting to American culture? What are some cultural aspects that you prefer about American culture?

For my pardesi readers, what things did you find easy to adjust to in Indian culture? What are some cultural aspects you prefer about Indian culture?

Those of you married to or from other desi cultures, what are some differences you noticed and were they easy to adjust to?

Share your thoughts in the comments!


  1. Great comparisons..my husband (Indian) told me when he first moving to Australia, his first cultural shock was dining out with other westerners...rather than sharing food, everyone ate from a separate plate and paid their own way, right down to the last dollar and cent! He is suprised of how individual the culture is from friends to even family..
    On my side, living in India..I found it difficult with all the obligations of been in an Indian family, of been a wife and a daughter in law ( such as fasting for husbands well being), been 'expected' or told that you 'have to' to this and do that....hmm..many other things, but these examples stand out the most to me

  2. Ah, the old "Americans have no culture" canard. I've heard it two ways: one cynically ("Americans don't have a culture; they have a market") and one in a way where their culture is invisible to them "Well, since I'm American and I don't have a culture, why shouldn't I adopt my boyfriend's culture?"

    It is very interesting that white Americans seem to be the only people who CANNOT SEE THEIR OWN CULTURE. I say "white Americans" because even other racial/ethnic groups in the US celebrate their cultures with holidays like Kwanzaa, Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year, etc. and host 'cultural events' and the like. In India, programs of traditional dance and music are called 'cultural programs.'

    And yet it isn't 'cultural' when we have a Fourth of July barbeque or dress up to enact the Thanksgiving story. These things are just 'normal' things. It's very strange.

    One of the most intriguing blogs on the internet for me these days is Amid Privilege - http://amidprivilege.com/ - written by a woman who has identified her own niche of Americana as its own culture that she calls "high WASP," partially tongue-in-cheek. She has done a great job of breaking down this culture to its external and internal elements throughout the course of writing the blog, and examines it in the same identity-seeking manner of blogs like Sepia Mutiny and even our 'Americans married to foreigners" blog. She's got Exhibit #1 of how America has a culture - many cultures, in fact - and that it is far from boring or bland!

  3. I wouldn't say our culture is invisible. I think maybe we take things for granted the way other cultures do in their homelands as well. While in India I don't remember anyone calling holidays cultural even though you and I would view them that way.

    I also don't think this just applies to white people in America. I've never heard anyone of any color refer to the 4th of July, Easter or even Christmas as a cultural event. I've seen some holidays in both the US and India identified with religious groups and dances related to "folk" styles but none labeled culturally as you mentioned. I think culture is a word we don't tend to use often in a racial context. We don't celebrate our culture the way some other countries do but I don't think we totally ignore it. I think we just don't appreciate it like some other countries do. I think the reason other cultural groups identify their specific cultural days while here in the US is to highlight something from their own country and to help themselves feel more at home.

    I'll have to check out that blog when I have a free minute. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I think the Swiss suffer from the same "we have no culture" syndrome too but in less extent than what I heard interacting with Americans. I have no real idea why. But I think it's easy to fall into the trap of "we have no culture" and go embracing whatever exotic trends if the individual believing his own heritage is crap or bland.

    I never really feel to the appropriation trap, I never liked following this and that culture because it is more colorful or whatnot, but in the first few years living in India I was eager to try to fit in, with disastrous effects as I mentionned a couple of time on my blog. But yes I thought Swiss culture was boring, and it is normal when you have gorwn into something your whole life, you stop seeing it as special. I have seen Indians thinking their traditions are blah compared to the traditions of other areas in India, or thinking the red and gold bridal lehenga choli is boring and how they wished they could go wear a pretty white princess gown instead and how weddings in the west are so beautiful and stylish compared to the desi fare, and I have heard gori just say the exact opposite about weddings too.
    So many years in India and reclaiming my own identity as a Swiss I am realising that Swiss culture is fun, we have so many tradtions just like India has, they are different and looking at it from a distance I feel exited about them, the type of Christmas cookies you will not find anywhere else, the county fairs all summer long, the open air handicraft markets, the Christmas market, the egg hunts for Easter, the barbecues by the lake side, the brass bands and folk music choirs...No culture is boring and no one on this planet has no culture.

  5. Exactly! I hate how the term "western" is used and that's part of the point of this post. I didn't outright say it, but it is ignorant to use it as if it encompasses everyone not Indian. I'm sure you get the same feelings I do when you hear the term. I just want to smack someone but I don't hahaha.

    Germans are very different from Americans. One way I noticed was mentality. The Germans I knew tended to look at issues much different than I did. Living situations and circumstances are different, daily habits are different. Etc. I can imagine it would be a lot to adjust to. One of the prime complaints I heard was how grocery shopping was not a social outing for us the way it was in Germany. We got weekly or even monthly as opposed to daily and thus our socialization is more limited than Germans.

    I won't get started on IST lol.

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