Category Archives: Cross Cultural Communication

How Not to Handle an International Travel Crisis

As a family who travels a lot together, we recently experienced a travel debacle of great magnitude. Call it bad luck, a huge failure, blunder, disaster, crisis, whatever you may. It was horrible.

With two small children we were traveling from the US to India. We had a stopover in London and due to extreme exhaustion, being distracted by small children and having too many bags, our most valuable possessions were stolen. Without sharing too many of the painful details, our bag with passports, visas, money, credit cards, laptop, phone, and many other important documents- including originals was stolen from right beneath our noses! We were in a foreign country and because of the magnitude of the loss, we were stranded in London for 12 days.

From someone who has just been through the crisis of losing all their most important stuff, here is my advice.

#1 Don’t Let Panic Paralyze You- Let it Drive You to Action

There will be a time for you to sit down and mourn the loss of your things, money, travel plans, etc – but it is not right now. Get busy. For us, we never expected to have all of our most important documents stolen, but we quickly jumped into action and prioritized which things needed to be taken care of first. Imagine the worst thing that could happen and take care of that first.

The first 24 hours are the most crucial any time you go through a crisis. Within hours of our stuff being stolen, our list panned out like this:

  • Buying local SIM cards for our phones
  • phone calls to credit card companies to cancel cards
  • going to the police station to make a report
  • trip to the US embassy to apply for emergency passports
  • trying to track down iPhone, computer via FindMyiPhone (although this rarely ever works, we tried it anyway)
  • trip to Indian consulate to inquire about getting replacement travel docs (visas/residency)
  • contacting close friends and family to let them know what was going on.
  • extending AirBNB stays, getting groceries, explaining the crisis to our kids and preparing to stay put since we knew we couldn’t travel
  • contacting work and letting them know of our crisis and about the work responsibilities we would be missing. In our case it was delayed reports that were due, overlapping travel plans with a colleague and meetings that were going to be missed.

#2 Do Not Carry Cash

The era of cash is dead. There is no real reason to carry more than $200 cash, ever.

Make sure you have good credit cards and the phone numbers of your credit card companies readily accessible.  Be sure to spread credit cards throughout several carry ons so you have a backup if one of your bags gets stolen (like ours did!) Have various methods of payment set up on your devices (Apple Pay, PayTM, etc)

#3 Do Not  Play Hot Potato with Bags

Have a plan with your travel partner of who is responsible for which bags.

We always do this but somehow deviated from that plan due to sleeping children and exhaustion. We had an excess of bags and simply couldn’t keep track of all of them. It was taking us multiple trips up and down the stairs to bring them all up to our various places of residence. It was just too exhausting to carry all this stuff around and that certainly contributed to our nightmarish scenario.

#4 Do Not Blame Your Travel Buddy

Bad stuff happens to everyone. Blaming your travel buddy (spouse, business partner, friend, relative, etc) is not going to help anything. Neither is continuing to blame yourself. I can’t tell you how many times during our crisis we said “I wish that I would have…” Just stop. You can’t change anything now.

#5 Do Not Underestimate the Importance of Documents

We all know that making regular backups of our computer and phone is a best practice, yet we rarely do it. If you aren’t good at doing this, buy a service that does it automatically for you like DropBox or iCloud. Make paper copies of everything important and keep copies separate from your originals. Keep copies of important documents in your home where someone trusted can access them in your absence.

Take it from us, documents are the worst thing you can lose. Protect them with your life.

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If you want to hear more of the painful details of our experience and how we survived it with most of our sanity in tact, listen to our podcast –Invisible India on iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

Follow Invisible India on social media as well:

Instagram –https://www.instagram.com/invisibleindia/

Twitter- https://twitter.com/IndiaInvisible

Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/TheInvisibleIndia/

__________________

Header Photo by Caroline Selfors on Unsplash

 

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Why Indians and Americans Make an Epic Combination

Everyone is talking about the recent marriage of Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra. While most seem to be focused on the looming age gap between them, few seem to be talking about the cross-cultural element of their relationship.

I have to admit that I don’t known a lot about the Jonas family, but Priyanka Chopra is a global icon whose domination has spanned decades.  She is a high achiever, a powerful woman, and I imagine that some Indian men may be terrified of her credentials, wealth and prowess, especially in a society that is all about status. Nick Jonas seems to me to be an all around sensitive, nice American boy. He has had professional success, but doesn’t let it go to his head.

Jonas and Chopra have broken barriers in many ways with their relationship. We are going to see even more interracial and inter-religious relationships blossom. And there is a reason for this. Americans and Indians are an epic combination.

So, why are Americans and Indians so often romantically drawn together?

1) Americans and Indians are wired to be achievement oriented.

From childhood, both Americans and Indians are all taught that achieving something is the highest goal you can attain in life. For Indians, that is mostly education and career based, and for Americans it can really be anything – image, music, career, snagging a successful life partner. Both cultures praise the underdog for coming up, and are quick to highlight those who rise to success.

However, the motivations behind these aspirations are different. For Americans, it is individualistic while Indians are generally motivated to achieve to make their parents/elders and community proud.

2) Indians are attracted to the down-to-earth nature of Americans.

Despite the glitz and glam that Hollywood portrays to the world, Americans are very down to earth. Being “nice” and avoiding being seen as snobbish in our DNA.

Some American men are highly secure with a confident and high-earning woman. In India, most men have an inferiority complex to a woman who is powerful, high-earning and driven.

American culture pushes equality between men and women. I commend Nick Jonas for having the confidence to pursue one of the most recognized celebrities in the world. Few Indian men would have the self-assurance to marry someone of such high caliber and status. For Indian males, if your wife is more accomplished than you, you’re a loser. I have to say, that Jonas looks a bit like Chopra’s arm candy and seems comfortable in that role. I commend them for reversing the trend!

3) Americans are attracted to the exciting and mysterious nature of Indian culture and families. 

Indian culture is mysterious to Americans, who see the diversity, colorful personalities and contradictions of Indian life as fascinating. And as Chopra put it herself, some fetishize Indians for being “Exotic.” For more on cultural relationship fetishes, see my article “We are the 15%.

The closeness of a typical Indian family is something refreshing to individualistic Americans. In the US, a person who is close to their family generally is viewed as a weak and vulnerable sort of person who can’t survive without the support of others. Indians like Chopra who are high achievers yet still remain close to their family are fascinating and appeal to the desires that Americans have to be a part of a community.

 

I predict that we will see many more Indian/American couples in the near future. In the meantime, I salute Chopra and Jonas for breaking barriers and pursuing happiness.

 

Photo Credit- Priyanka Chopra’s Instagram

Efficiency VS. Tradition- Two Polarized Notions

Which is better- efficiency or tradition?

Anyone who has spent more than a few days in India will notice that efficiency is not a top priority. As outsiders have studied the subcontinent, this efficiency “problem” has been brushed off as a “developing country problem.” But I believe that the pushing aside of efficiency is more deliberate and has a deeper root in Indian culture.

In Indian culture, efficiency has never been the highest goal. And whenever that is the case, a culture doesn’t operate on methods of making life easy, quick or streamlined. But there are reasons for this.

I’ve outlined two Indian habits that point to the tension between efficiency and tradition: 1) the toil of simple daily survival activities 2) the obsession what other people are doing.

#1 Being Overly Occupied with the Simple Tasks of Life

Here is a small example that shows the complexities and frustrations of day to day life:

This family lives in a small hut on an empty plot. I watch the main woman of the house out my window every day. She is ping ponging around most of the morning, shifting wet laundry to the driest spot on the clothes hanging line. As you can see, every available place to put clothes is covered. She goes in and out of the outhouse washing dishes, washing more rags, all the while, chasing her half naked child so he doesn’t end up in the busy street outside the poorly latched gate.

I see her life and realize that most of her energy is spent on just the basic survival within the daily tasks of food, clothing and keeping the children safe.  Where are the men? Why are they living on this plot of land? My observation is that she is fulfilling her duty as the dutiful daughter in law. She spends her time fulfilling tradition, not disturbing the men to help watch the child, spending her time cooking hand made food, piping hot just at the right time. Traditions of caste keep the men of the family in certain jobs. Societal traditions keep the whole family as caretakers where they will be the watchmen of the land owned by their “malik” or “boss.”

Even though there is a large economic disparity between this woman and the middle class, most women can relate to her plight. They feel the weight of dutiful household responsibilities, the chaos of shifting priorities and being at complete mercy of the environmental factors around them. Yet tradition and honor must be carried on.

So lets look at another behavior that hinders efficiency.

#2 Being Overly Occupied with Others’ Activities

(aka “nosy auntie syndrome”)

 

In comparison to Westerners, Indians spend an amazing amount of time thinking about what other people are doing. Social norms require it.

Where I live in Bihar, someone once told me that Indians will ask you 20 questions before they tell you one thing about themselves. The skilled conversationalists already know a lot about you just from what they have seen. Conversation is stemmed from observation.

After years of living in India, I find myself doing the same thing. For example – the other day when a friend pulled up to the gym late, I found myself thinking, “She must have come around the train tracks because of construction on the main road her near her house. I bet she doesn’t have a meeting today because she is arriving a bit late. I wonder how her meeting yesterday was. I bet she is skipping out on the office today because her meeting went poorly.” The thoughts went on.

As an American, I rarely would have these thoughts in a Western context. Spending energy mulling on who is coming, going, what they are doing are seen as totally irrelevant wastes of mind space . Before living in India, I used to be totally occupied with my own thoughts on work, my own projects and my family, the news, etc.

In India, if you aren’t a few steps ahead of people in conversation, they will think you are self-absorbed. 

This is why Westerners sometimes label Indians to be a bit nosy or too into their business. Westerners spend very little time anticipating the actions of other people, unless it is an immediate threat or benefit to them. But in India, it is seen as a sport or hobby and even a requirement to having a connected conversation.

Americans have invented the copyright on productivity by being obsessed with efficiency.  But in this obsession, there is much that is lost. We lose the nuances of relationships. We reinvent ourselves so much that we forget what is important in our most basic needs. We suffer with affluenza. We lose contact with each other. We forget what really matters.

Time Magazine Cover 2006- captures the tension between efficiency and tradition

So, which is better? Efficiency or tradition?

From my observations- The highest priorities in Indian life are maintaining traditions and honoring relationships.

These are the questions I have for today’s generation:

Are efficiency and tradition really as polarized as I think?

If so, what do you think India needs more of?

Does India need to sacrifice tradition for efficiency or can they take place at the same time?

Any habits that we need to dispose of to increase efficiency in society?

Any aspects of efficiency we need to dispose of to maintain tradition?

What do you think? Leave your comments for me and lets discuss.

 

Why Can’t Americans Learn Other Languages?

Around the world, its a well known fact that Americans are some of the worst language learners in the world. Is it nature? Is it nurture?

I have observed four things which I believe make us the way we are:

#1 Childhood and Education

Lets start by examining the typical American childhood. Our education system is focused on well-roundedness, which is a wonderful thing. However, there are some dangerous omissions in our education process which keep us blinded.

In K-12 education, World History is really more of a smattering of “what formed Western civilization.” We learn about the Greeks, the Romans, the World Wars, and then a few brief chapters on the Crusades, Buddha and vague paragraph or two on Chinese civilization.

Our education system encourage us to take a foreign language in school, but our overall culture espouses xenophobia. Language is best learned from people, not from books. If we demand that people of other cultures “assimilate” to American culture, we lose out. We have stopped giving them permission to be themselves and turn them into a prop of diversity, rather than a living, breathing person to learn from and exchange ideas with.

 

#2 Our Work Culture

We are career and success oriented, because we are addicted to productivity (not to mention dependent on our jobs for health insurance). This motivation makes us some of the most innovative people on the planet since we are always thinking of solutions to problems, but sometimes makes us poor empathizers and incapable of seeing gray in non-black and white situations.

Americans have a reputation to be communication bulldozers. If I say it louder, clearer and more directly, we expect the recipient to  understand us. The rest of the world doesn’t operate like this, and speaking is not how language is learned- listening is.

Learning a language is nuanced. And Americans generally suck at nuances.

We are amazing speech givers and “communicators” – as long as it is one sided. We are not known to be the best listeners in the world. In fact, we are kind of horrible at it.

 

#3 Media

We Americans are very good at thinking that we “fully understand” something if we have read an article about it on the internet or seen a documentary. We generally have a great deal of confidence and a low ability to read between the lines. If someone is taking too long to get to the point, we tune them out and make a mental note to Google it later. These kind of skills retard the ability to learn language.

We have boxes in which other cultures belong in our entertainment media. We have a dominant style of “white English” which is subtlety expected to be spoken and received on the news and in TV/movies. For the most part, other cultures are often portrayed in the media as being “cute” or “sidekicks” as the white Americans continue to be the heroes. I appreciate TV shows and movies which are crossing those barriers and breaking stereotypes and we need more of these in the future to set the stage for a truly multi-cultural media to take flight.

#4 Geography

Yes, its true we are a large country pretty much isolated from other language groups. This is the most common excuse for being a mostly monolingual country. The comparison is often drawn with Europe, where passing from country to country only takes a few hours. We use this as an excuse for why we can’t learn other languages. The size of our country is a factor, but not the only factor.

Geography isn’t a good enough excuse. We have people from every country in the world living inside our borders. Yet, we have an overall expectation for people to assimilate or self-isolate into their own ethnic communities.

Our neighbors to the South are our most likely influencers. We like their burritos, piñatas and Despacito, but the rest we leave for them to keep. A greater deal of cultural exchange needs to take place as we rub shoulders.

When we do attempt to learn Spanish, it is mostly to “use” it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “oh yeah, you should learn Spanish so you can use it in your job.” Its not a bad idea, but we need to go beyond “using” a language to get our point across, and learn to listen, to understand what is behind the words.

We see Spanish as a language to digest, to use, disconnected from a culture to embody, respect and appreciate.

 

I can almost hear some of you saying- but it isn’t my fault, I’m trying! We are simply not nurtured to be world citizens and our culture makes it difficult. Thats true, but I have great hope for our current and future generations. As we modify our educational systems, work culture and media, we can become more versatile, interconnected and as a result, more truly multi-lingual.

In the near future, our country will not be made up of a white majority. We will be majority minority! How do we want our country to look? Do we want to allow the best of people to come out including their linguistic backgrounds? Or do we continue to force ourselves into a monolingual box?

It won’t happen unless we are intentional. Lets do better together, America!

 

 

 

Travel and the Search for Inner Peace

When someone like Anthony Bourdain takes his own life, it shakes us. But, why? He is upheld as a cultural icon of things we believe that should make someone happy.

Rags to riches. Overcomer. Self made. Irreverent. Doesn’t give a rip what others think. We idealize this lifestyle and personalities like Bourdain. The notion that a person who embodies our ideals could be so deeply unhappy is disturbing. It goes against all our narratives.

Bourdain was someone who looked like he had the ideal life. He traveled the world, met interesting people, ate the best foods on the planet and lived in one of the most happening cities in the world. He was famous and well known. And he still didn’t find it.

This goes against everything we tell ourselves in our culture – that traveling helps you find yourself. Traveling is enriching. Finding a new perspective is enriching, but it can never replace inner peace. 

It can be found in a Tibetan monastery just as easily as it can be found in an arm chair in the middle of Iowa.

That’s the paradox of inner peace. Its path doesn’t require traveling the world. The hardest criminal can go on this journey. The most unselfish aid worker can go on this journey. It’s not just for the cool guys, the saints or the yogis. The chronically ill paraplegic who never leaves the hospital bed and the guy who climbs Everest have the same access, and perhaps the same need.

I do not claim to have it all figured out, but I believe these conversations are the ones we have within ourselves with our Maker as our guide. It has very little to do with where you go, who you know, or how accomplished you are. It is all about the posture of your heart.

And that is hugely freeing.

Stable Kids in a World of Unlimited Choices

For many Millennials and Xennials, we feel the need to questions everything our parents did in raising us. Our culture is one of entrepreneurship, disruption and re-invention. This seeps into parenting as well.

Many things need to stay the same, and some things need to change with the times.

Children growing up in the 80s and 90s were surrounded by a changing world with the introduction to one of the world’s most shattering technologies, the internet.

The good parents who foresaw the changes that would change our generation, did their best to protect us from MTV, drugs that the DARE program warned us about and the potential evils of big cities.

Our parents saw we needed security and that is what they dedicated their lives to. The suburban dream was born with big yards and minivans. Our parents worked for the same company for years in order to provide us with what we needed the most, security.

Each generation has our specific parenting challenges and ways we need to parent our kids.

Now, as we millennials and xennials are parents ourselves, we see a whole different set of needs for our kids. Security is still a need, but the way we pursue it has to be slightly different. Given the nomadic nature of careers, security based on location isn’t much worth pursuing.

Security is an illusion. It is more important to teach our children self worth and how to thrive in a tumultuous world.

This hit me when my grandmother was watching me feed my 2 year old son. I gave him a choice between carrots and green beans. She was shocked that I would ask a 2 year old this question. My grandmother made the comment – “In my time, the kids just ate whatever we put on their plate. No choices and no questions asked.”

What she said stuck with me for months.  The “do as I say, or else” worked great in that generation where you had limited choices in life- you picked a career that seemed stable and stuck with your job as long as you could. The radius of decision making was severely limited. You needed to follow the rules in order to succeed.

Our world is no longer one of limited choices. In fact, we have unlimited choices, and that can be incredibly immobilizing.

Teaching simple decision making tactics are crucial to helping this generation thrive in the midst of a world with too many choices. Our kids can travel the world, live in pretty much any location they want and interact with almost anyone they desire given the ability to connect online. Their jobs could take them to Medellin, Salt Like City or Chiang Mai. They could live in a city, a cottage or a farm. Their dietary choices could give them access to any type or quality of food on planet earth. Their future decisions could take them anywhere.

Stability means something else in this generation. Stability means that a person has the “know how” to choose their limits in a world with unlimited possibilities. Their stability may not be in a home, in a job or even hobbies. The closeness of a few key relationships, the ability to field the bumps of life and a rooted identity are what brings a person security in a global world.

So maybe my grandma was right about the beans and carrots “one choice” approach of her generation, but we need new tactics to teach decision making skills if our kids are going to be able to navigate our new global world.

 

Themes of Honor and Shame in Bollywood Movies

Two huge Bollywood blockbusters just hit theaters in the last two weeks across the world. Both are selling out as crowds flock and millions of dollars have been made so far.

On the surface both films look quite different.

Padmaavat is an epic drama about two warring kingdoms, staged in the 13th century. It capitalizes on the glamor of the royal life in the prime of Rajput glory. It has clear protagonist (Queen Padmaavati and King Maharawal Ratan Singh) and antagonist (Sultan Alaudin Khilji). The basic thrust is that Sultan Khilji becomes obsessed with Queen Padmaavat and conquers her kingdom so that he can take her for himself. Spoiler alert- in the end, upon defeat of the Rajput army, the entire clan of Rajput women burn themselves alive to prevent capture by the conquering army, thus maintaining the honor of the community.

Pad Man, is staged in dusty streets of North Indian Varanasi, in modern times. The protagonist is real life inventor, Arunachalam Muruganantham and the antagonist is society itself. He is a simple man fighting against societal norms to create low cost sanitary pads for women. The thrust of the film has created a movement across India to openly discuss menstrual health of women, a topic which has been taboo for millennia in the Indian subcontinent. He faces many obstacles, the biggest one being the sheer shame put on him from the community, accusing him of being a pervert, an adulterer and mentally ill.

However different these two films may appear, a common thread ties through both of the films – defending honor and avoiding shame.

In understanding the underlying motivations of societies, there are three worldviews:

  1. Guilt-innocence cultures are individualistic societies (mostly Western), where people who break the laws are guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify a wrong.
  2. Shame-honor cultures describe collectivistic cultures (common in the East), where people are shamed for not fulfilling group expectations and seek to restore their honor before the community.
  3. Fear-power cultures refer to animistic contexts (typically tribal), where people afraid of evil and harm pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals.

These differing worldviews are what propel a number of our East/West conflicts and misunderstandings. Grasping the shame and honor context is one of the most critical pieces to understanding modern India, as we know it today.

Most of the Bollywood films have some sort of shame/honor theme. If you watch closely, even the most seemingly glitzy and modern Bollywood films carry this theme underneath the skimpy dancing and flashy cars.

Amidst the glamor of Padmaavat and the simplicity of Pad Man, these films show how critical these motivations are to Indians. However modern, anglicized and forward India may be on the world stage, lets not confuse the true underlying motivations of shame and honor that lay in the modern Indian heart.

 

Credit to Author, J. Georges, for definition of three worldviews.