Heading into my India trip, I knew that I knew nothing about India. It’s fair to say that most people probably spend a good amount of time researching a third world country before they attempt to travel there. Well, not me. I didn’t buy any books about India. I didn’t google it or wikipedia it. I didn’t even look at a map of the country. I just went.
Not surprisingly, I was surprised by much of what I saw and experienced. Having no frame of reference for most of those experiences has forced me to spend some time seriously reflecting on how they have affected me. One major motif that really stands out from my trip was the recognition of and interaction with the distinctly different Indian culture. Different, of course, from my own “American” culture.
Wikipedia offers this definition of the word culture:
“The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group.” (Don’t you love that I used Wikipedia to find a word definition but not to learn about India?)
My understanding from my very brief time in India is that the religion of Hinduism shapes much of the Indian culture. Many, if not most of the “shared attitudes, values, goals, etc…” in India stem from the learned principles and practices of the Hindu religion. The intriguing thing to me is that the core of Hinduism is self-progression. Basically, Hindus believe that what they DO in this life will determine what the next life is like. The result: a country full (and with 1.2 billion people I do literally mean brimming full) of people looking out for number one. I should have been more prepared for this effect when I witnessed an India woman cut in front of four white people to steal the airplane lavatory on the ride over. It left me wondering, “How could she possibly do that? I don’t care what culture you’re from, that’s just not cool!” But apparently in India, that sort of self-pleasing, others-provoking action is totally acceptable. In Hinduism, you’re not worried about anyone else, especially strangers (and I would add, white people). You’re mainly concerned about yourself.
Chew on this for a while: that kind of thinking utterly destroys my “American” concept of “common courtesy.”
Since the day I was born, I’ve been taught to hold the door open for strangers, say “thank you” when the bagger bags my groceries, and let other cars pass in front of me while on the road. I’ve also been taught to smile and say “hello” when I pass by other people on the street. Up until this point, I would have argued until I was blue in the face that this is how people all over the world ought to conduct themselves. But after immersing myself for three weeks in a culture that is very near the opposite of my own, I’ve taken a giant step back. I’m still struggling to understand how a culture can be so self-absorbed. It’s still not making much sense in my American brain. But as crazy as it seems, and as different as it is, I now have a much deeper respect for India culture, and every other culture for that matter. One of the many things I learned in India is that my way of living life isn’t the only acceptable way. There’s a whole lotta people out there living life a lot differently than me, and that’s OK. I’m learning to really appreciate the differences between us that make us such a diverse race.
I will say, though, that when I went back to work the day after I returned from India, it sure was nice when someone actually stopped to let me pull out of my neighborhood in front of them