My son-in-law, Sean, who was raised in an Irish Catholic family, found it interesting how casually Indians discuss their salaries in conversations.
The cultural differences are profound. I want to think about its nuances.
When I came to America, I noticed how careful people are not to encroach on what is considered too personal, especially with acquaintances. Indians are much more comfortable being closer conversationally with acquaintances.
In Indian culture over 3000 years old, closeness strengthens bonds. Every family is ‘family’. We are all expected to take care of family widows and their children, even if it means less for our nuclear family. Older parents are not only our financial responsibility, but are expected to stay with us even when they are fully capable of leading independent lives.
In India’s mixed family system, each adult knows what other adults earn because finances are everyone’s business. Parents or grandparents then freely share this information with neighbors. Curiosity is part of informal introductions: what’s your name? How many children or grandchildren do you have? How much does your son earn?
Is talking about salary flaunting or signaling status? Certainly it is. And in America, we show our status with the cars we drive, the schools our kids go to, or the neighborhood we live in. Will Storr, in his book The Status Game, describes the desire for status as a “maternal motivation”. Only the way we play this game differs across cultures.
American rules seem out of place in the Indian social fabric. Most Indians view American and Western societies as too insular and sterile. When I visited India, I was often told that “Americans turn away their children after they turn 18, and teenagers roll their eyes at their parents.” The Indians hold their parents in respect. Parents who live with children create a lot of tension and conflict, but the mindset is to resolve it. We do not reject our family members.
In India, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts are involved in finding mates for the young adults in the family. As Western culture seeps into Indian society, the pragmatism and wisdom of elders continue to influence the choices young adults make in choosing their companions. Western culture has a harder time understanding the concept of arranged marriage. These marriages are not based on physical attraction and love, but on common family considerations. It is comparable to hiring an employee when a collective decision results in a better choice.
This may be the secret to the longevity of arranged marriages – with very low divorce rates. When the whole family is involved in selecting a mate, she also advises couples on how to stay together.
Indian parents invest much more in the education of their children. My parents also spent a significant portion of our father’s income on our education. In cities, almost all children receive a university education.
It can be concluded that parents invest in children because they are the ones who would support them in their old age.
However, there is more to the story. In Indian culture, sons – not daughters – are expected to take care of elderly parents. Parents would never want to burden their daughter or her husband. My parents first found it embarrassing to have to live with their daughters.
Most young women living in cities earn a bachelor’s degree, yet only 7% are gainfully employed. Indian women are more protected than American women but not considered less intelligent than men. Many women are active in politics and business. Examples are Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar and astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who died in the Columbia shuttle accident.
Yet patriarchy persists. The birth of a son is celebrated but not that of a daughter. When I was born, my maternal grandmother once kept the disappointment fast – I was told.
As the second daughter, I became aware of sexism at a young age. I often thought how disappointing my birth must have been for my parents. This recognition motivated me to try harder to prove myself. I would try to do anything a boy would do. I volunteered to cycle to the market for groceries, fearlessly weaving through the chaotic traffic of Indian streets. I learned to drive very early, to ride a horse and a scooter, and I learned photography, which most women of my time did not do.
Having my sister and I become engineers, however, was my mother’s idea.
I remember when I got pregnant with my first daughter while running my startup living in the US: I wasn’t comfortable talking about my pregnancy to Greg, our potential VC, because he was a man. It was too personal a subject for an Indian woman to discuss with a foreign man. I asked my husband, who knew Greg, to talk to him. My husband understood my dilemma.
I was shocked when Greg casually asked me, ‘when was I due’. As far as I’m concerned, he might as well have asked me about my sex life. Do you see what I mean?
The cultures of unknown countries are difficult to explain; they can only be experienced.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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