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Indian Culture: Some General Observations
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Our Cross-Cultural Wedding
About sixteen and a half years ago, my wife and I were married. Because she is from India, this created some complications. We decided to make the wedding day a bi-cultural event by having two ceremonies: first a Catholic wedding, and then an Indian ceremony. The day started off basically as planned. We had the Catholic ceremony, took the standard pictures, and then my wife and I went our separate ways in order to prepare for the second wedding. This is where things went a bit off script.
The pundit (priest) was delayed several hours for reasons too complicated to explain here, and the ceremony eventually started on the standard Indian schedule: about three hours late. It was as hot as heck that day, which was a particular problem because the ceremony was conducted around a fire in a non-air conditioned temple. It was also difficult for the non-Indian members of the audience to understand what was going on since they could not hear anything. In a sense, however, it didn’t matter. I doubt that many of them had recently brushed up on their Sanskrit.
So after a couple of sweaty hours, we finally made it to the reception. We got in some good dancing, managed to squeeze in some portions of the catered Indian food, and were able to talk to some of the guests who were still standing. All and all, it was quite an adventure. Looking back, the craziness of that day is a big part of why it was so fun and ultimately memorable. Our wedding day was truly unique, and it could serve as an effective metaphor for what happens when you fuse two cultures: a little disorganized and chaotic, but always interesting. Many friends, particularly non-Indians, said that it was a wedding(s) that they would never forget.
Over the years, I have gained a certain amount of familiarity with and appreciation for Indian culture. I can truly say that a cross-cultural marriage has been a blessing, and I would recommend it to others who are looking to someday get hitched. So here are a few, overly generalized observations about Indian culture from a western (white boy), semi-outsider.
Apparently India, along with much of Asia, has developed over the centuries a concept called “flavor.” It turns out that food tastes better when it is prepared with a wide variety of spices and/or covered with something called “sauce.” For an American like me, this simple fact was quite a discovery. After all, I live in a country whose contributions to taste and sauces are ketchup, Tabasco, mayonnaise, and thousand-island dressing. And when we really want some flavor, we turn to our favorite food enhancers: fat and salt. If there is any such thing as American cuisine, then it can best be described as bland and fatty.
Now I am not a completely bad American. There are times when I can really go for a burger, steak, or some crispy fried chicken. But if I were forced to permanently choose between Indian and American food, I would pick Indian without much thought. I’ll take tandoori, naan, curry, chicken tikka, alu gobi, seekh kabob, chole, and rice any day of the week over good old-fashioned American meat and potatoes. The only “white people food” that I would struggle to live without would be Italian. If Indians could just do pasta, then I would be set for life.
Sense of Metaphor
Hindu ceremonies, like the faith in general, have an amazing sense of metaphor. You see this in particular with the puja, a traditional ceremony performed to coincide with major life events such as childbirth, weddings, funerals, and important decisions. During the ceremony, all sorts of objects are set up and used in a ritualized way: food items, flowers, fire, etc. Each object symbolizes a concept or an aspect of the divine. Much of the ceremony, as I understand it, is a ritualized effort to invite the divine presence through the offering of gifts to various objects that represent this ultimate life force.
To a westerner like me, the whole thing is baffling if it is never explained. All that you see are a pundit and participating family members reciting chants in Sanskrit, placing food and flowers in front of coconuts or into a fire, and tossing a powdery substance or some sort of cooking oil into this fire in order to fan the flames. But when you see the meanings behind these concrete objects that represent abstract, ultimately unknowable concepts, the beauty of the ceremony starts to come out. American culture in some ways has lost touch with metaphor. To many Americans, a puja would seem like an idolatrous ceremony in which people are worshipping coconuts. In American religion, there is often an emphasis on the importance of believing in “true” doctrines that are often presented in literal terms. This is why so many people in America view the stories of The Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark as literally true. The idea that truths could be presented in a metaphorical fashion is completely foreign to them.
Strict Rules of Etiquette
Indian culture is big on etiquette. Rules governing social interaction are much more formalized and strict than in the United States. When people come over, or if you are hosting an event, guests must be fed (a lot). Over the years, I have attended several lavish parties that were thrown by Indians. When you are visiting a house for the first time, you must bring a gift. When something happens to a family member or close friend, you are supposed to be there for them immediately. Now there are some Americans who may still practice these basic rules of conduct. In America, however, it is not nearly so scandalous when people break these simple rules. Because American culture is so young, diverse, and individualistic, it is difficult to determine sometimes what the rules even are.
I imagine that many Indians must be annoyed with Americans’ lack of basic etiquette and their inclination to look out for themselves first. Americans must often seem cheap, self-absorbed, and not particularly welcoming. Of course, this sense of individuality can also be a source of strength. It may be part of the reason why the United States has been, for some time, so wealthy and innovative. It doesn’t, however, make us good hosts or visitors.
Indian culture (like many cultures) puts more emphasis on extended family. Cousins are like brothers and sisters, and close family friends may as well be part of the family. One of my best friends – who also happens to be Indian – introduced me to both Indian culture and to my eventual wife. I used to tag along to his family parties attended by his various cousins and “aunties.” By and large, I could not figure out which people were blood relatives and which had become family through friendship. In America, of course, we tend to define family as the nuclear family. Grandparents often play an important role, but aunts, uncles, and cousins can frequently be pretty distant. Once again, in our individualistic culture, we often want to maintain our space.
Materialism & Appearances
Many Indians are very concerned with material success. I get the impression that there is a lot of pressure put on many Indian kids to go out and make a lot of money. This is part of the reason why you see so many Indians in high paying professions such as medicine, engineering, computer science, and dentistry. There is also a strong entrepreneurial spirit that can be seen in their dominance of certain industries. And like Americans, and probably most peoples of the world, some Indians display a tendency to show off all of this wealth (and their high achieving kids).
To a degree, certain aspects of Indian culture, from what I can tell, are about keeping up appearances. Sometimes, it seems that people care more about what others think about their families than they do about the actual quality of their family life. Problems are kept hidden or swept under the rug in order to maintain appearances. The lavish parties and adherence to rules of etiquette may sometimes be motivated more by performance than by legitimate concern for the needs of others. So in that sense, we Americans and Indians are not all that different. Materialism, conspicuous consumption, and concern with social status may be cultural universals. Ultimately, we are all dealing with the same, basic human nature.
So there you have it. Maybe in another sixteen years I will have a greater understanding of the similarities and differences between the native cultures of my wife and myself. I definitely look forward to a future of good meals. My wife has definitely improved her Indian cooking skills over the years, and the best should be yet to come. And someday, when we hit a major anniversary, maybe we can do a repeat of our wedding day. We’ll see if we can get the scheduling to work properly the second time, although that might be a little boring.