Category Archives: Individualistic Culture

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!

 

 

 

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Making the “Love Languages” Cross Cultural

If you’re ever heard of the “Five Love Languages” concept, you probably know about its popularity and worldwide reach. The love languages books have been translated into 50 languages around the world, but are they all applicable to other cultures?

Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Gifts and Acts of Service are the five ways that identified by the author Gary Chapman. The idea is that different people have different pathways in which they receive and give love. Meeting the needs of those in your life according to their way of receiving love is the main thrust of the concept.

For the most part, I think these five “languages” cover a broad spectrum of human need in relationships, but they aren’t entirely translatable cross cultures.

First example, in some Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, directly giving words of affirmation is very awkward and not well received. Praising that person to a third party else is more highly valued when they hear about what you said about them through the grapevine.

Secondly, public physical affection between spouses or romantic partners is also taboo. Holding hands walking down the street is scandalous. Even physical touch (hugs) between brothers and sisters are not common. These are two love languages which are dominant in the West, but much less prevalent in non-Western cultures.

I’d like to add a couple more “love languages” which I see as being central and unique to non-Western cultures.

Food

I believe this one has the weight to stand on its own. If you’ve ever had relationships with folks from a non-Western culture, you understand how important food is. Food is a shared experience. Sitting to eat together is a bonding experience in every culture, but the fast food mentality of the West has degraded its depth. In cultures like India, the time and effort put into cooking a meal for another person communicates depths of love, duty and respect for the person. Not offering to serve someone drink or food is a direct insult. The acts of serving food and sharing food are mediums of building and maintaining strong relationships.

Respecting family

Respecting the family of one’s significant other, particularly in honor/shame cultures, is an overlooked approach to showing love to one’s spouse in the “Love Languages.” For example, making an effort to get along with a spouse’s family and understanding the interconnectedness of family relationships is an important part of many non-Westerners lives.

In many cultures, the joint family system is hinged on the importance of a new spouse getting along with all the other family members. If the daughter-in-law and mother-in law don’t get along, the husband/wife relationship is in trouble. Likewise, this can be said for building love in non-romantic relationships. A wife showing respect for her husband can build love between her and her mother-in-law. A father teaching a child to respect and honor his grandparents shows love to his parents on a different dimension.

Showing love to one’s spouse who lives in a communal society looks very different from the Western approach. Saying to your spouse “I love you because you are smart” may not have an affect. But showing love by cooking for a spouse’s parents speaks much louder to non-Western minds.

The Love Languages are a great concept and have undoubtedly helped millions of folks from non-Western countries improve their relationships, but pointing out the nature of indirect communication and the importance of family networks is crucial to making it a truly global concept.

Rachel Dolezal is a Product of Extreme Individualism

America is individualism to the extreme. We let the “self” define everything. To us, societal and family ties mean very little compared to other parts of the world where you are defined by your group. In the West, we have this idea that we are the author of our own future, our identity and fate. Some of this is good, but when we take it too far.

There are some cultural trends in Western culture, which in my opinion, have swung in a negative direction:

  • Pursuit of the individual over community (family, group of origin)
  • Breaking from tradition, just for the sake of it

Family – We white people are particularly guilty of this. In general, in many white communities, we seek autonomy with our parents. Parents become friends rather than someone designed to be in authority over us. Respect for parents is considered to be antiquated,  only for the small-minded and religious zealots.

Tradition – We have decided that it is fashionable to break from tradition just for the sake of breaking from tradition. Many people would do anything else rather than to follow the religion of their parents.

How did our culture become such that each person becomes an individual molder of their own identity?

How do other cultures handle individualism?

Lets consider a place like India- where billions are born into a caste and die in that caste. Nothing can change that. In Indian culture, the young are free to pursue careers to a certain extent, but in many cases, the individual does not have power to make individual choices. Parents and elders dictate the values of the community and values of the individual. The community is more important than the individual. When these young people become the elders of the community, they instill the same values. The idea that you could change your family or racial identity is absurd.

Take a country like South Africa- where race was painfully defined and has carried out a societal structure. From this point of view, where racial identity is so well defined, it seems absurd that someone would “choose” a race for themselves. As if it was that simple.

Extreme Individualism

It is true that race is a “social construct.” But, social constructs are called social constructs because they are defined by society, not the individual. Just because one person have a different idea, doesn’t mean that we can topple a social construct with an individual idea.

This type of extreme individualism that we embody in the West, leads to an internalized belief that “I can be whatever I want.” Taken too far, we get Rachel Dolezal and the idea that one can pick their own race. If we look at the patterns of other societies, this idea of being “transracial” is totally corrupt.

Its like white privilege and Western individualism had a lovechild and Rachel Dolezal is what we get as a result.

The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “individualism” in the West. I predict in future generations, we may come back to a closer balance between the individual and the community.

 

Firangi Bahu- Does This Really Represent Indian/Western Marriages?

Built on drama, jealousy, lies, and mistrust, Firangi Bahu was just like every other saas/bahu drama on Indian television, with one exception, a British bahu instead of a homegrown one. After one dreadful season, Sahara One cancelled it.

firangibahu-indianwesternThe show shows Camili (British born 20 something) who met Pranay (a wealthy Gujurati boy studying in London) and secretly get married after a whirlwind, short-lived stint of infatuation.

Pranay was a  babied son who didn’t know how to balance the challenges of family responsibility with having a love marriage. Camili was a naive but sweet spirited girl who desired to please people around her and fit into the conservative Indian Desai household she found herself a part of.

Like many other serials on Indian television, this show skewed several portions of reality. The show did a good job of breaking down negative stereotypes of Westerners, but unfortunately reinforced negative views of Indian families:

Exaggerated View of Dysfunctional Families

Fortunately, many foreigners who have experiences in India know that the dysfunction of the Desai family is not the reality for most Indian households.  This show had all the stereotypical “worst case scenario” characters –a vindictive older bhabhi who was trying to control and hurt others , a mother-in-law who was desperately trying to maintain power over a changing household, and an unsupportive and childish husband who was easily manipulated by catty female relatives.

This show was not unique, as many of the family serials thrive of jealous relationships, and mere emotional drama to keep ratings high.  Sadly, shows like this make Indian families look horrible to the outside world. I’m calling “bluff” on these negative stereotypes.

Inflated “Love” Story 

Pranay and Camili’s meeting and marriage was based on almost no true relationship, but pure infatuation. The scenes of their “love story” mostly consisted of bumping into each other at the train station followed by eyelash batting and romantic music playing in the background. Not much you can tell about a person by just batting your eyelashes at them.

Most of the successful Western/Indian marriages I’m aware of were based on two people having common interests, mutual friends, common values, and healthy friendships. Most couples get to know each other, spend time together in a variety of situations, and do their best to see the “true colors” of their partner before making a lifelong commitment.

Camili and Pranay got married without his family’s knowledge, which is also rare from what I’ve observed. From any cultural perspective, families are bound to be very upset if a young person does this. In my opinion, the characters started off on the wrong foot to begin with. Things are bound to get rocky when a couple doesn’t have a strong foundation or a shred of family support.

Excuses Abuse of Women:

A recent episode showed Pranay confronting Camili by grabbing her by the face, pinning her arm behind her back, and falsely accusing her of being unfaithful and getting pregnant with someone else’s child. I was a little shocked, although I know Indian television and movies show this kind of behavior all the time, and excuses it as just “the way things are.” I know this kind of abuse does certainly happen, but I especially want to emphasize that this is not the norm of cross cultural relationships.

Camili is a girl who had no father, was raised by an alcoholic mother and has now found a new variety of abusive relationships in her sasuraal.  In the West we call this kind of person someone with a “victim” mentality. Camili seems to be to be a woman in love, but someone who didn’t get the whole picture before diving into a lifelong relationship. She is now married to a pampered adult man who thinks it is ok to abuse and manipulate women in his life.

Pranay is portrayed as a “typical Indian boy” who loves his family and would do anything to protect their honor, even if it means rooting out people who attempt to dishonor their reputation. In the beginning of the show, Pranay was understanding, sensitive Camili’s family problems, and seemed to be an advocate for her finding acceptance with his family. His colors changed as soon as he was back in his native environment. As soon as he was faced with a major conflict, his prejudices and fears about white people all emerge and were acted out against his wife.

Most women I know who have willingly married their desi partner would not put up with this kind of abuse, neglect and blatant mistrust from their spouse.

firangi bahu relationships

Balance this Show with Real-Life Family Situations

I don’t believe this show portrays reality of most Indian/Western marriages. Camili is now stuck in an abusive family with a husband who treats her poorly. Of the desi/non-desi couples I know, these kind of dysfunctional situations are not the norm.

A family (from any cultural background) who mistreats their daughter-in-law with this kind of extreme abuse is unacceptable, and certainly not the norm in Indian families. I’d like to see a show which portrays real issues that cross-cultural Indian/Western couples face.

But functional, happy marries don’t make for good TV shows.

I’d also like to disclaim and say that the word “firangi” is not an accurate word to describe many of the non-desi wives of Indian or Pakistani men I have met. Firangi has a connotation of being a complete outsider and someone not to be trusted. The word “Videshi”, or just simply “Australian”, “American”, “Peruvian”, or “British bahu” are more appropriate. Its kind of like calling a Chinese or Korean person “Oriental.” It is degrading, antiquated, and inappropriate language.

Conversion vs Covenant: White Hinduism-a Religion of Its Own?

What does it mean to be a Hindu? Lately I have been confronted over and over again with the question if people who were not born into the Hindu Dharm can be true Hindus?

The fact of the matter is that Hinduism can hardly be called a “religion” is the first place. There is no central doctrine. No set of laws. No requirements of lifestyle or dress. It is a way of life, a broad philosophy, a wide cultural precept.

One can be an atheist and be a Hindu. One can worship multiple representations of God and be a Hindu. One can worship one God and be a Hindu. One can be a vegetarian or a hefty meat eater and be a Hindu. One can go to the temple regularly or not at all and be a Hindu. One can be a Vaishanvite, Arya Samaji, Swami Narayan follower, Shiv Bhakt, Hare Krishna or almost anything else…and still be considered a Hindu.

With this incredible diversity, is there any one string that holds the concept of Hinduism together? What makes someone a Hindu?

Dharm.

Hinduism is encapsulated in Sanatan Dharm. Many have defined Dharm as Duty, but this is a shallow definition.

I recently heard an enlightening presentation by a friend of mine, Tim Shultz,  who has been observing the South Asian community for decades. He suggested that we can look at Dharm as a COVENANT. And this covenant is something one is born into.

Is Sanatan Dharm a religion that one can convert to?

So why do we see bhakti yogis and celebrities like Julia Roberts claiming to be Hindus? Performing the rituals, chanting the Hanuman Chaalisa, reading the Bhagavad Gita or following a guru does not make someone a part of Sanatan Dharm. Its all about the covenant of dharm.

This “white Hinduism” is something else.

I am going to pick on the white people, since we are the people in the world that seem to want to adopt other people’s religions. When I see white people like Julia Roberts or Katy Perry who identify themselves as Hindu, I feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Julia Roberts and her Guru
White Hindu?

When I look at folks like the bhakti yogi movement.  Many of these people LEAVE their family and family traditions rather than draw closer to their family. The opposite of what Dharm truly is.

Some of the aspects embedded in Hinduism that I find that most white Hindus are attracted to are:

  • Non-violence
  • Vegetarianism
  • Worship of Mother figure (feminine aspects of God)
  • Anti-war/pacifism
  • Verbal and physical forms of worship

These people “follow” some principles of Hinduism, but the principles they choose to follow within Hindusim are the principles that differ MOST from white cultural Republican Christianity in America. What about family values? What about respect for elders? What about sacrifice? Essential parts of Dharm which are neglected in this brand of “Hinduism.”

Is “white Hinduism” merely a reaction to a decayed brand of cultural Christianity? An exotic escape? The newest religious fad?

Can we call someone a Hindu that does not embrace and embody dharm?

 

 

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Additional note: due to high volume of response to this blog, I feel the need to set some qualifying ground rules.


Any personal attacks or bullying against others readers or myself will not be tolerated. If you are looking for a place to discuss and share your thoughts on this topic, please submit comments for review. If you’re looking for a place to debate or bully others please find another blog, because your comments will not be published. This is a blog for discussion, not judging others.


“Dusro ki jaya se pehle khud ko jaya kare.” – “Before winning over others, first win over your self.”

Cultural Values in Kids’ Movies

Movies reinforce ideas of family, culture, and societal expectations to kids, but especially they reinforce expectations of love and relationships. If I ever had doubts about this, they vanished last night as I watched “Shrek Forever After”. An innocent kids movie, as I watched it I realized how much these kids of movies subconsciously influence kids in their expectations of how relationships work.

In this movie, Shrek is trying to win back his wife Fiona after a confusing bout with Rumpelstiltskin. Due to a magic spell, she doesn’t know who Shrek is and he has to convince her that he knows her and in a previous time they were in love.

One dialogue goes something like this:

“Fiona I know everything about you.

I know that when you see a shooting star you close your eyes and make a wish.

I know that you don’t like the covers over your feet when you sleep.

I know that you only like grape jelly, not strawberry on your toast.”

Notice that every single statement is a very personal and focused on her as an individual.

My husband laughed out loud and made the comment: “In knowing so much about her, he didn’t say anything about her family, her upbringing, or her education.”

He was right. In America our love stories are based on affection between two people. A common understanding. The here and now.

Often times our view is, if you find someone who can understand you completely and that you get along with, those are real signs of a long lasting relationship. But is that a faulty expectation that comes out of our individualistic culture? These simple quote from a movie are small pointers to individualistic values communicating through film when it comes to love and relationships.

Imagine this same dialogue in an Indian (communal) context:

“Fiona I know everything about you:

I know that your mother made you moolee parantha every morning for breakfast.

I know that you got your family wanted you to go to IIT, but you did not get admission.

I know that your father had to take out a loan for your sister’s dowry that took him 13 years to pay back.”

Most likely, every statement would be family related!

I’m not saying that Indian culture is superior, just pointing out the differences in priorities and examining the differences in traditionally communal and individualistic cultures.

What do movies communicate about relationships?

After growing up in the US, I have been desensitized to see cartoon characters kissing. After several years of being immersed in Indian culture, I was very weirded out to see that they showed cartoon ogres kissing. Kissing was a central part of the story…and therefore a pointer to True Love. I never uncoded it as a kid, but now as an adult I can clearly see the message.

What kind of things are we teaching our kids with these movies? It is intended as an innocent fairy tale, but we need to be careful to make sure our kids understand that real love does not have to be wrapped up or expressed in physical affection.

And maybe we can learn to be careful what kind of values are being reinforced with film love stories like this. Is the here and now and personal preference all that matters in choosing a life partner?