After about a month in India, I began a two week homestay with the Gupta family in the small town of Aligarh. On a car ride to the market one afternoon, Mr. Gupta asked me what my father’s occupation was. I responded that he was a geologist, and attempted a joke about all the large rocks strewn about my yard which my Dad called “landscaping.” Mr. Gupta did not laugh and instead told me I should respect my father’s work, and his ability to provide for my family. “Didn’t I want to be like my father when I began a career of my own?” he asked. Realizing my point had not been understood, I quickly apologized and assured him that I respected my father very much, but that interestingly, I wanted to become a lawyer, like my mother. “You should study science, like your father,” he quickly shot back. “Unfortunately, I am not very good at science,” I said, “but my mother is a very successful lawyer and I know I will be good at practicing law as well.” I could see Mr. Gupta’s hands tighten on the steering wheel and realized I had said the wrong thing yet again. “This is what is wrong with American women,” he said. “You make money, but you cannot cook a meal for your family every night. My wife and my son’s wives are educated; they have college degrees, but they know their responsibility is to be there when their husbands get home from work and to not make him wait on his dinner.” Though it took an incredible amount of effort on my part, I did not rebut Mr. Gupta’s statement, and instead just nodded my head and spent the rest of the car ride in silence.
Richard E. Nisbett’s article entitled “Living Together versus Going It Alone” stated that “the values of individuality, freedom, rationality, and universalism become progressively more dominant and articulated” in western civilizations. I believe my conversation with Mr. Gupta is a perfect example of such a cultural difference in “the values of individuality,” manifest in differing verbal and non-verbal communication styles. I was direct in my responses to Mr. Gupta, a characteristically American communication style. His subsequent questions were indicative of an indirect communication style which uses “suggestions, body language, or pauses” to communicate meaning. Mr. Gupta obviously disagreed with my statements and used follow up questions, tightening his hands on the steering wheel, etc. to reveal such disagreement. However, when Mr. Gupta stated his theory of the problem with American women, I would term it idea-oriented communication. Though I was deeply offended by his statement about “my mother,” I observed in India that people often made such sweeping generalizations about “all Americans.” These people were not personally attacking me, but instead seemed to truly believe that certain stereotypes and pop culture references were true of all Americans. In this situation, Mr. Gupta and I were not only communicating in different styles about a topic, but the topic itself was viewed by each of us in very different ways based on our individual cultural contexts.
Culture is multifaceted: certain parts of culture are shared globally, other parts are rooted in one’s country of origin and are shared by people of a certain nationality, and a great deal of culture is individualistic. Mr. Gupta’s views about what makes an ideal woman could be attributed to his upbringing which emphasized “traditional” roles of women, a view shared among people from older generations in India, a personal gripe with women who pursue full-time careers, or to a number of other reasons as well.
It was my natural reaction to take offense to Mr. Gupta’s statements. After all, I take great pride in having a strong female figure in my life who does manage to maintain a high-powered career and a family on a daily basis, and I felt sorry for the women of the Gupta family who possessed college degrees but were confined to the house. My swelling American pride in India was a direct representation of “the tendency to consider one’s own culture as being superior to other cultures;” (McConnell) a tendency that is often heightened when abroad. When so many things are different or uncomfortable, it is easy to label those things as “wrong” or “inferior” to our own beliefs, when in fact they are simply a result of one’s presence in an unfamiliar culture. Based on the knowledge I have gained through Carolina Navigators, I am thankful for my ability to better understand and attribute some of the criticism I faced in India to differences in what the Iceberg Concept terms “deep culture.” As my favorite Henry Miller quote states, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Further India Resources: