Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Americans Have a Harder Time Adjusting to India than Other Expats

I've been talking to several of my non-American friends lately and I've noticed something quite interesting. The people who had the hardest time adjusting tend to be Americans. Now, I'm not saying other expats don't have trouble and I'm not intending to belittle their culture shock but there are some very vast differences I've noticed between the cultures that non-Americans just don't face. I'm also not discrediting those who are better at adjusting naturally as each of us is an individual first and a culture second.

America is a consumer-driven economy. All our lives revolve around money and time. Time is considered to be a valuable commodity here and how you spend it matters. Thus it is often maddening to adjust to both the relaxed time standards in India and massive differences in consumer goods availability. This part might be hard to explain if you're not American or if you are American and you've never been to India but think of it like this.

From the time we are born, most Americans have more possessions than they could possibly need. Our refrigerators are full of food we may or may not eat before it spoils and we still go out to eat anyway. We have enough outfits to go a full month without wearing the same thing twice and some of us have equally as many shoes. This starts even before birth. We are constantly bombarded with images and icons enticing us to buy, buy, buy and people even make comments about how another person's time is valuable and it's respected as such.

Our commercials are not like the rest of the world. They're calculated formulas to subliminally entice you to purchase things now and to buy more than you need. There's massive research that goes into them. We even incorporate advertisements into TV shows and movies to make sure not a single opportunity is missed to sell something to the next consumer that sees it. Most Americans don't even realize just how intense marketing is in this country and they don't even know why they have that craving or mood to purchase things.

Even less Americans understand the symbolism and logos they are bombarded with from the instant they open their eyes in the morning.  No other country in the world advertises this intensely. In fact, our media marketing pushes the borders into blatant mind control starting with babies (Yes, we have TV channels devoted to children who can't even speak yet!)

Then you go to India. Not only do you not understand the culture and language, etc. in most advertisements, they are drastically different. The subliminal aspects are not nearly as strong. This creates a sense of shock to our systems. Couple that with time no longer being a valued commodity and your culture shock soars.

While America is not unique in it's cleanliness habits, this level of consumerism filters over into our hygiene ideals. There is literally a special cleaner for every tiny little thing. Houses are kept to clinical, white-glove standards more often than not. In many American homes you could literally eat off of the floor without the worry of getting dirt in your food.

Drop off this white-glove clean freak into the cleanest home in India and they will still find it's been a while since someone scoured the base boards or dug into the cracks where they met the wall with a pointed object to remove even the finest speck of dirt. There will still be chipped paint and leftover rainwater debris in the window sills and you'll still likely find the bathroom/shower walls still cleaned with water only.

Still harder to digest are the dirty streets. In the US, cleanliness has become such an intense spectacle that most cities own street sweepers that come through on a regular basis to literally sweep the streets. In India, only a few cities do this and sometimes there are neighborhoods where people pay maids to clean the street immediately in front of their house. In the US, you won't see visible dust collecting in the corners of the road or trash in the streets of most places but you'll still look at the road as being dirty. So even clean, is not quite clean enough.

We're raised from the time we're little not to cough on people, wipe our nose on our shirts, wipe our hands on our pants or even go out in public while we're sick. In India, we're likely to feel assaulted when someone coughs right at us, farts or belches while sitting beside us, or continues about their daily life while fighting off some illness, no matter how common it may be.

Here we don't expect anyone over the age of 18 to act like a child while in India, children can remain children well into their 30's sometimes. At the age of 14, most of our children are already seeking jobs, earning their own money, spending it how they see fit and learning how to manage their own finances. In India, some don't learn this until well after marriage and a job isn't expected at all until you've completed all of your academic studies.

I'm sure some of these things happen on some level in other countries as well but I'm certain it is not to the clinical standards we seem to work hard to uphold here in the US. This is part of what makes us seem so individualistic to Indians. We exercise these same ideals with our immediate families (small children of your own excluded). There are rules to our rules and things are enforced at a much higher rate here than in India where exceptions are made for the individual's needs.

Are you American? If so, have you been to other non-American and non-Indian cultures?

Have you seen this in your experiences?

What are some things you feel are really difficult for Americans to adjust to that may not be as hard for other expats?


  1. loveonthebeach.wordpress.comJune 11, 2014 at 6:13 AM

    Lack of organization, last minute planning, and inability to make decisions - all of this bothers me in Indian culture and I'm an American :) All three of the above seem to be a regular way of life in Indian culture - everything is "don't worry, no problem" and then everyone sits there doing nothing! Also the lack of directness in Indian culture - you are supposed to know things without them being said, even the Indian head bobble is confusing... yes, no, maybe?!?

    As an American living in London, I find the British to be very self depreciating which can come across as lack of confidence. Americans are taught to be very confident from the time they are born, "you can do anything / be anything you dream to be." British people can seem to be negative, while Americans are constantly positive and overly enthusiastic about everything.

  2. Doesn't this consumer culture creates immense pressure to buy things which you don't need. New gadgets, new clothes and I don't think there is anything called bargaining in America. You go to the supermarket and get your things. You don't have a corner shop in the neighborhood where you can bargain and gets goods at a cheaper rate or for that matter vegetable markets where you buy vegetables and households goods/clothes at reasonable rate. You have to go to a supermarket and buy branded goods. We go to a weekly vegetable market twice a week and pick up our daily vegetables and goods. With better upkeep there is not much difference between Rs.300/- and Rs.1000/- shirt. I heard that Indians and Chinese are looked down upon in America because they are always looking for a cheap bargain. We have started to follow American consumerism these days, the Indian middle class wants to make up for lost time. In our times, there was simply no room for luxury. Even if you want something you never had enough. We were told that except education and food everything else was unnecessary.

    There is also something else. There is still no pressure on an Indian teenager to have a girlfriend/boyfriend or loose one’s virginity. I find this pressure to be a little odd. Schools for us were serious business. I felt that American teenager have lot on their minds. At the age of 14, you should be more worried about passing your maths test than whom to take to the prom party (this may be an exaggeration but even if 10% of it true). This push towards early adulthood, I don’t know, does not feel right to me. In one of the TV shows, the teenager tell his class mate “history sucks, you know I got a C”, followed by laughter. As shiver went down my spine, such casual attitude towards education. I heard that almost anyone who wants to go to college in America can go to college. There is a policy called “no child left behind” by which the Government makes sure that every child, even the weaker student pass high school and go to college. After reading this, I felt, American children are lucky. It is this confidence that each American has in his Government that allows him to lead a life of independence. In India, you cannot leave your child alone, because it is not a safe country. Parents cannot send out their daughters to other cities for job or studies, because it is just not safe for them. Though this attitude is changing. There are more and more young women these days pursuing their passions. Academic is competitive in India, children do not have the time to pursue anything else. There is neither the culture nor the opportunity.

    This is not an attempt to give explanation for Indians but I guess the socio-economic conditions determine what society values more. People in America think about pursuing their passions because the quality of life is good, so they define happiness differently. Happiness for us is defined by a good job, family prestige, social pride and whole lot of other things which determine our behavior. Thus, we are crazy about education.

  3. Oh I agree! We organize everything and even have TV shows teaching more organization. That was very hard for me to adjust to in India where you could have your things in one place one minute and the next someone else has moved them without even telling you! The last minute planning and non-decision making had their good and bad points but it was so hard to see that while I was living there.

    I found Indians to be quite negative below the surface. Sure they act positive but I found a lot of that fake. It's interesting you saw such negativity in Britain.

  4. You don't have to explain. Our cultures are just different and promote different attitudes about life. Neither is wrong.

    And yes, our environment presses an immense need to buy things you don't need, buy more of them than you could ever even use. We have multiple stores to buy used goods all over the place and you can always find products there that are still brand new with the tags on them because someone has bought so much they never even used them!

    We do have some bargaining culture here. We have yard sales, flea markets and such where people bargain and sell cheap goods. That's a huge part of Southern American culture for sure.

    I can't really say if people look down on India and China for being cheap because of that culture. I actually am much more of a cheapskate than my husband lol. I simply won't buy something unless I can get it dirt cheap and brand new. For example, I spend about $8 on a pair of Tommy Hilfiger Jeans and would never dare paying the full $60 price. It's against my belief system lol. So I would have no right to pick on anyone as my husband would gladly pay that $60 and I would panic over it lol.

    Americans are routinely pressured all the time to grow up quick, do something with their lives, buy more stuff, spend more money, etc. Our lives are filled with social pressure that is very intense. This pressure doesn't exist for us in India and we go into a sort of withdrawal. No longer are we being told what to do, what to buy and we can just do as we wish and IMO, I don't think we really know how to do that.

  5. There is also the way eastern and western cultures look at intelligence. Western culture believe that you are born intelligent/genius. Intelligent people are different from others and, therefore, they are 'nerds', social outcasts etc. The eastern cultures like Chinese and Indians believe that anyone can become intelligent by working hard at something. This is a very interesting difference that I picked up from various internet blogs. The emphasis that both cultures put on education is also very different. One puts emphasis on creativity to the extent that hard work is neglected and one goes the other way putting emphasis on hard work and stifling creativity.

    There is a saying in Hindi which I read in my childhood, which goes something like this:

    “By regular practice, even a dumbhead can become intelligent, just like the constant friction of the rope with the edge of a well while drawing water, makes a deep depression on the edge”

    The idea is, if something as soft as rope can make an impact on something as hard as a stone, then human mind is immensely more softer than a stone and can be made sharper through constant practice.

    Alas, these proverbs were used on us to make us study hard.
    BTW, good to learn that barganing is common in southern american culture. I always knew Indian culture share commonality with southern american culture.

  6. All of what you wrote is so true. I think there are aspects that each culture can incorporate from the other although on the hygiene aspect, I'll go with the Americans, thank you much. As someone born and raised in India but living in US for a long time, I can say with some authority that India as a whole gets a zero on hygiene. There simply is no comparison. Compared to US, it is a pig sty.

    About the 24x7 consumer culture - have you seen an American home where the garage is still used to park cars? The car sits outside and the garage is used to store stuff. More and more useless stuff that we buy ends up there. We are all becoming hoarders.

    There is a lot of difference between the two countries when it comes to how we value education. Indians value education a lot. And I mean a lot. It is everything for them. You will not find a contrary opinion on that no matter what the current social status of the person you may be discussing with. Also, highly educated people get a lot of respect in society just on that account alone. This varies in US. It could be exactly the same in some sections and some sub-cultures (take Jewish people for example but not necessarily limited to them). On the other hand, there are many that value skills over formal education.

    Another difference: In US, you can be a moron and still be super confident and have a sense of high self-worth. In India, a moron knows his place. Society makes sure that he's not forgetful of that at any point of time.

  7. The Brits have a tendency to start every conversation with strangers with "I'm sorry" and "if you don't mind, please" even when it comes to mundane acts like ordering coffee at the local coffee shop.....more than viewing that as being self-deprecatory, I take it as them being just super polite.

  8. I think our ideal of intelligence at birth is different than being academically intelligent. It's hard to explain but our ideal is that we're born with the potential to be whatever we want to be and we can lead ourselves because of how our brains function. We celebrate even small achievements. Academics isn't always emphasized as strongly as there are many forms of intelligence and each of us is strong in different ways. Some people are academically smart (book smart) while others have a sort of maddened genius like Albert Einstein and some others are exceptionally good at things in life while having no real education.

    Southern Americans definitely have a good bit in common with Indians. Joint families are more common here (though still not nearly as common as India) among many other things.

  9. LOL on the politicians. I couldn't agree more. It's funny, my mother has a 2 car garage, a shed and a carport. They do use the garage but only for the cars they don't drive. Because for 2 drivers in the house they have 5 cars. I think she's the only one I know who still uses hers for actual cars though. I know while working surveillance it's rare to see cars actually in the garages.

    We do breed very strong self-esteems here and it has merit, even for the idiots. I find it hard to hear someone called bewakoof in India and other similar terms. I just want to hug them and step in and act like a human word shield LOL. Of course, I know that's ridiculous but I'm a super soft hearted person and I just think that words have way more power than we realize.

  10. I have read many American teachers lament the fact that the children are not disciplined. There is some kind of policy in American schools whereby the teacher cannot criticize or scold the children. It is taken as child abuse. You cannot fail a child because it discourages him/her. Apparently, Americans do not like being told that they can be wrong. It is also stated that even if you get a wrong answer say in maths, but you can explain it confidently, it is all right. The idea is to give confidence to the student to self explore. But how to you explain a wrong answer in maths?? American teachers have also said that the parents instead of putting effort into their child's education blame the school or the teacher. American parents instead of disciplining their children care about their self esteem. You cannot point out the mistakes of your own child. American children also spend less and less time on studies compared to children of other countries. There are parents, teachers and a whole lot of people who say the same thing. There is not one or two or ten but tonnes of articles on the subject of education, each similar to the other.

    I understand that academic achievement is not everything, but this casualness towards education of the society as a whole, is amazing. Maybe because everyone has the opportunity to go school. I was astounded because we always thought America was the best in everything. I have never been to America and not an authority on American education/society but all this seem a bit bizarre to me. It is a sense that I got from reading articles on the internet, no offence meant, I may be wrong.

  11. I haven't been in school for a long time but I do know about the no child left behind act. The way that works is that if one child is having problems learning something in class, the whole class continues to study that one problem until the child figures it out before moving on. Children can still be failed though. I'm not sure how it all works anymore.

    We're told we're wrong a lot. I think that math thing you mentioned is some new ridiculous thing called common core. OMG. I won't even get started on how outrageously stupid that mess is. Parents are fighting it because it does focus more on thinking than getting the answer right. Most of America hates it but some reject in D.C. thought it was a good idea. Idiots.

    I am a somewhat anti-government conspiracy theorist and I see your point of view on our public education systems. Our government is systematically dumbing people down in order to keep them more easily duped and controlled. I've seen it in my lifetime. When I was growing up we knew how to compute math in our heads and it was required we know how. In this generation, it's rare for kids to know that. They go for calculators and such and half of them can't even make change at the store. It's no longer required for them to know. BUT, you can't blame the person or call them stupid. They're an unfortunate product of our royally screwed up education system.

    If you've ever hear the saying "ignorance is bliss," then you'll understand why most think America is so great. Even Americans are often blind to what is going on right under their noses and has been for decades, even centuries. They simply don't care because it's more fun to see what Miley or Beiber is doing at the moment. That's why we now have such a useless leader in our white house.

  12. Visiting from UBC. I Live in Scotland and haven't ever visited India but i found this comparison of cultures (and the comments) fascinating. We are all so different as individuals and as social groups that it make the world, wherever you travel an eye-opening and enlightening experience. I believe there is good and bad in all cultures, and no one right way to live or think.

  13. Janelle Dangerfield ShankJune 12, 2014 at 10:57 AM

    I wonder also if Americans don't embrace the changes because they don't do the research or try and find out more about where they are going first?

  14. There seems be a pattern, I have found that UK, Australia and New Zealand are facing exactly the same problems. I have read similar articles from all these countries.This seems to be a cultural and social problem rather than an educational problem. The European countries are slightly better off in education.

    About common core, it a good concept in theory because it encourages innovative teaching methods but puts the emphasis on the child to explore which he may not be capable/motivated to do himself. Sometimes the teacher may not be that enthusiastic himself/herself to encourage the child. A child needs to learn the fundamentals first. Both teachers and parents hate common core. Very good concept but not been implemented properly.

    There is another thing I discovered. The American engineering students cannot do simple multiplication and division without calculator. They go to college and take “Remedial Maths” which I understand is for brushing up basic maths. Then what is high school for? This was really a shocker for me. Our education system is bad but I felt as if too much experimentation is going on with American education. It is like playing baseball with education. Compare this to American colleges which are excellent. For us America is perfect but this ‘education confusion’ is beyond comprehension. America for us is NASA, Ivy League and MIT. I do believe that those who excel in academics in America do it for themselves and not because their parents want them to do it. But many talented students slip through the gaps because the environment in school does not reward them adequately for their academic achievements.

    What I like about America is the creative energy. Someone somewhere is doing something different. Some research is being carried out, may be bizarre, but somebody is trying to push the envelope. Americans have immense pride in their country which we lack and also their participation in their neighborhood, city, state is also very commendable.

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  16. We are leaving for Ecuador next week and I'm expecting the unexpected and a little culture shock. I can't imagine moving to India. I am looking forward to a less intense, less commercial, more relaxed atmosphere. http://www.notquitewonderwoman.com/homeschool-the-education-of-travel-ecuador-post-2/

  17. Very interesting topic and good read. I am an American. I haven't really been anywhere other than to the border of Mexico, which is flooded with Cartel. I think Americans are spoiled. We have it pretty easy compared to other countries, yet there are others that have it better than we do. I have always said America is like the teenager of the world... We are the youngest and behave like teens.

  18. I agree, we are spoiled but in all the wrong ways. We've lost touch with the beauty of nature and simplicity in life. At least, most of us have.

  19. Good article but I disagree about children growing up quicker in the US. Look at the child labour in South Asia! But I guess you mean middle class children. And I see the point you are making.

  20. I admit, I've only been exposed to certain factions of the Indian landscape and I do consider myself blessed that my Indian family refuses to hire any children as workers in the home. I've been fortunate not to have to see child labor at all outside of the beggars and one incident in UP that put me in tears. I can't relate to people in those situations because I have no experience/knowledge of their lives and thoughts.

  21. Alexandra MadhavanJune 29, 2014 at 6:42 PM

    Really interesting perspective. I am a Canadian who has lived in the USA but now back in Canada. And back and forth to India etc.
    As a Canadian, we have a more relaxed attitude. We still have trouble adjusting to the sounds and chaos, but I don't think we generally have such a hard time than Americans do. I think it's because in Canada, it's a little more neighbourhood-y. Like not so spread out like all the shops and malls are in the USA. Also in the USA, you have sooooo many different products which are available all the time at any location.
    I think another factor is extreme climates. We are kind of used to our time being warped by the climates, but moreover our perspective is - it's a part of life.
    About the coughing on people and being exposed to germs, my hubby says that's what increases immunity. And for the whole 8.5 years we have been together, he has never been sick!
    Great post.

  22. Alexandra MadhavanJune 29, 2014 at 6:44 PM

    Canadians are also very similar in that way. It is meant to be polite.

  23. As a European who visited the USA and India, and worked with many Americans, I think one issue is that many Americans think their way of life is the best and ultimate way of life, when it is only one of many variations. Also they are very ritualistic which can sometimes feel like rigidity. No offense meant. At the same time it is usually easier to have a straightforward conversation with Americans than most people.

  24. I'm not offended at all and I agree. We are very ritualistic in our mentality and a good many people here don't realize that our way of life is not the supreme way of living. Yes, we have a lot of luxury here comparatively but at what expense? Our families are broken, our homes are not happy and we're completely out of touch with both nature, our own bodies to a great extent and even our own history and backgrounds.

    We don't have any filter when it comes to admitting fault or opinions. There's no penalty here for being a sales clerk instead of a doctor, etc. We all feel pretty equal overall and that changes how we interact with each other.

  25. You are very very biased. You are trying to give a very good good image of America and a bad bad image of India. The 'consumerism' that you are so proud of is the main reason for the downfall of American Economy.

  26. I don't doubt I'm somewhat biased on many issues but you clearly don't know me. I have posted a few times about my disdain for American consumerism. I hate it. Even in this post I was not intending to glorify it as I abhore the system in general.