Sitting facing me, she looked at me in the eyes, so I knew she was about to say something important. “Jennifer, life is tough. Don’t take it lightly and always take the advice of elders. I did not have this luxury growing up. My parents left me alone. Even my aunts and uncles. They said I could make my own life; I had it in me to do it on my own. They left me alone. I don’t know how I made it when I saw all my other friends have their parents find their partners; I was left by the wayside. I never thought I’d get married. I was getting older. As I got older, my friends got married one by one, all to spouses their families helped them pick. I had no advice. I had no one to guide me to tell me about anything. Then, my friends all had kids one by one. I wondered if I would ever join the society and be normal. Then, by god’s grace, I found someone who cared about me. He did not worry much about my family. I was ashamed. I had no one to give me away in the marriage. We figured it out. I finally got married. Now I have a good family with children and a caring husband who allows me to work in a high position. Things worked out well. But this was not a typical situation here.”
When she told me this, I had been in India maybe six months. I had been involved in trying to learn and understand Indian culture for about three years already. I intellectually knew what she was saying, but it had no emotional connection for me.
After all, in the US, it’s considered respectable to take initiative and do things on one’s own. It’s not considered selfish, but part and parcel of the American way. This probably stems from the explorers and immigrants of not too long back who came in to the US when global communication was not easy or non-existent. Now a days, we have the luxury of pinging our friends, family or colleagues through SMS, Instant Messaging or other digital means to get almost instantaneous answers or help. Not too long ago, this was not the case. People had to rely on their own intuition and wisdom, make and take their own decisions or perish.
It’s that spirit that flourished and made its way into American culture today. I think many Americans struggle with the dichotomy of independence vs. dependence now. The thought lived on, but the social situation has changed. It is with this context, that I’d like to share a story.
Between 2005 and 2011, I was involved in the Malayalee community in the USA where I lived. Due to the communication and cultural differences, it took me time to warm up to those in the community. There is one particular person I’d like to talk about. Out of respect and affection, I will call her only by ‘chechi’ (which means ‘elder sister’ in Malayalam). Chechi helped me take this Indian value of ‘advice from elders’ – even elders that are NOT blood relations but highly respected in the community internalize it, understand it and create an emotional connection to this value. While I wanted to be open to her [unsolicited] advice, internally, my initial American reaction was ‘Why she’s treading on my land, doesn’t she know that I can make this decision on my own?” (Incidentally, I think some Americans have this defensive reaction even when they go around asking for advice!) But, after observing how others in the community really respected her and took her decisions- and their life did not seem so bad after all- maybe I was missing out on something here. Maybe her wisdom is beneficial to me too! Why not? If I can accept her and her wisdom then I am one step closer too to being accepted more fully into this community of which I don’t look like a member on the outside, but somehow on the inside my heart feels so connected. Then I fight within myself- this is not the value I grew up with, why does it fit me well? If I take up this value, which is in direct opposition to my family, how will they think of me? Where will I fit in? Then I realize, I fit in in the middle with both Desis and Americans depending on the issue, but inside of ME I am at peace. That is where it matters most. (Maybe an American value there too!).
But all this being said, after coming to terms and appreciating this part of Indian culture now intellectually as well as emotionally, I have come to a new understanding of the story that started this article. I understand now why that woman felt like a black sheep. Why she felt so bad that she was NOT getting advice and guidance from elders. But now, too, I can read another message in that story I could not before- SHAME. She was ashamed of her family background. Maybe she could not admit this story to another Indian because it would have shown disrespect to her family and elders which most people as I see do not do in India. But I am not Indian, I am American so some people feel safe to tell me these stories because they know I won’t judge them like an Indian would and quite frankly some may think I don’t understand the real social and emotional implications so it’s SAFE to tell me, like a confessional. I still may not understand all the implications of her story, but now, more than ten years later, I do understand more than I used to.
This is the true lessons of intercultural relationships and friendships. We can wear each other’s clothes or take up each other’s accents or even learn each other’s languages fluently- but to truly live that life and understand it – to learn to walk in another’s shoes and empathize with them, we must try to dig deeper and understand the true feelings and meanings of things. These are interconnected webs. We have to be patient with ourselves. We will NOT understand today or tomorrow if we started learning about the culture yesterday. It takes time and a dedication to learning about the culture and being open to it.
Thanks for reading this article.
Author Jennifer Kumar helps Indians and Americans bridge the cultural and communication gaps in the workplace and beyond.
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