By Isheeta Sanghi
I read The Namesake when I was in my first year of college. It was a very delicate time in my life, as it is in the life of any college going student. I was separated from my parents, not simply by state borders but by countries and oceans. College is a very important time in life because we can reflect, and really think about what it is that we want for ourselves and our future. After reading The Namesake, however, I didn’t think so much about myself relating to the character depicted by Kal Penn in the celluloid version of the story, but rather I thought more about Ashima and her story, and how I could relate all of her experiences to what my Mother must have experienced, moving to a different country after marriage.
Though my Mom grew up in the metropolitan city of Delhi, and had elder sisters who were married, two of whom had already made the journey westward, and was well educated, the fact remains that when someone is taken out from their natural surroundings naturally life becomes tough. I don’t know much about my Mothers past, but what I do know is that I could picture her standing by the stove cooking beef for the first time in her life, crying because she had grown up in a vegetarian household, and had to bear a smell that was devastating to her. I could picture her standing innocently by a street light not knowing that in order for her to cross the road she had to press the button on the pole. I had a sinking feeling in my heart throughout the book because Jhumpa Lahiri has so beautifully depicted those emotions that I’m positive had been felt by my own Mother.
What I hadn’t pictured at the time was the fact that I would go though those same emotions because I was to be in the same position as my mother 20 years later. After moving to India I had to go through the same thing, I was taken away from my natural surroundings, away from my friends, and all things familiar. I can’t say that my experience was entirely the same, because my Mom didn’t have her parents with her. I was lucky enough to have the support of my parents and my brother. Though I shut them out for the longest time I realized in due time of course that they were my support system; they were going through everything I was going through.
Building a support system is the best thing that someone relocating can do. When you have friends that you can email and who reply back to you honestly, when they are brave enough to make the journey to India to visit you, the whole process becomes much easier.
Getting involved with organizations like the American Women’s Association (AWA) or Overseas Women’s Association (OWC) allows you to meet women that are going through the same things you are, and you can easily relate to them. Even though many of us want to befriend the locals, it becomes tough because you just can’t relate to them, and they are often cannot relate to you, even though they want to.
I went through that in college. I tried really hard to blend in, but it wasn’t possible. I was greeted with nasty notes on my desk like ‘Psycho Isheeta’ presumably because I was the only regular student, didn’t treat teacher’s questions as rhetorical and the only one who showed up to class a few minutes before it actually began. Sure, at first I was hurt, but what I realized was that they really don’t know better, and quite honestly if that was the level of maturity for 20/+ year olds then I didn’t want to associate myself with that type of crowd anyways.
Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions outline the differences in culture world over and I have to say that after attending that fateful lesson in Human Resource Management class, my life in India became so much better. He outlined differences that actually existed and it and confirmed that I was not crazy at all.
Power Distance– the way we view people in a position of power,
Time– long term/short term outlook,
Masculinity/Femininity – degree of gender differentiation,
Uncertainty– the way we deal with unfamiliar situations, and
Collectivism/Individualism– the way that we solve or make decisions.
Not surprisingly, America and India were always on opposite poles, though it should be noted that the results are generalized and do not speak for the exceptions- there are people who are not at all like the generally defined set of society.
Americans have a low power distance, which is why we can call our bosses by their first name, and no one is taken aback. In India, feudalism prevails and the cultural hangover is ever existent. Everyone (even in college) is called Sir or Ma’am, that is something that I could not do, which is why I always added the prefix of Mr or Mrs, which took teachers by surprise.
In India, time is circular, and in America time is linear which is where the whole philosophy of ‘time is money’ comes into effect. In the West we value time and enjoy being a few minutes early or exactly on time, but never late. In India uncertain situations are embraced whole heartedly, whereas in America we try to avoid uncertainty all together, hence why so many people keep emergency kits in their homes, and why so many buildings throughout California are on wheels.
As someone once asked me ‘what does the ‘I’ in America stand for?’ It stands for Individualism. It is a characteristic that we (Americans) are very proud of, in Asian countries though, Collectivism is embraced and Individualism is looked down upon.
In the States, gender roles are clearly defined and still, it is viewed as a Man’s world. India and America didn’t differ too much in this one category, the roles are very defined in India as well, the only difference is that American women have broken away from the ‘Norm’ created however many years ago.
My Mom was able to adapt herself entirely in the US because it was a much more accepting society. Surprisingly, it is back in India that I feel like an outsider, and feel discriminated against. The fact remains that you have to find a way to deal with it. Even though you may want to assimilate into local society it’s hard because you often can’t get past the cultural barriers. That’s why you find other ways of making friends, and keeping your sanity- though great international organizations, and your support system at home.
Isheeta Sanghi recently relocated from San Diego to New Delhi and now writes about the cultural implications of returning to India from the US.