Cross Cultural Book Review

Life of PiBeing a train commuter, I get the chance to read quite a bit. And being a member of the Chicago Public Library, I am able to check out the newest books of the season via my Kindle.

Parameters: I enjoy books which address human suffering, complicated relationships, or ones that enlighten us on life.

I’ve attempted to write a one sentence summary of my thoughts after reading the book, or what I felt the book was trying to accomplish.

 

 

BEST

  • The Life of Pi— a friend recommended this book to me, and I did expect a profound ending. This book is pure imagination, and only for those who let their minds go on an adventure. I don’t want to spoil the end, but I enjoyed the philosophical underpinnings of the story.
  • My thought? “Illusion helps cover pain.”
  • The Help– I had several “aha” moments when it came to topics discussed in this book: racial tensions, white guilt, and modern prejudices. I found this to be uplifting and lighthearted despite the heavy subject matter.
  • My thought? “I still have negative perceptions of Southern culture.”
  • The Jungle– understanding the patterns of immigration in Chicago, and the difficulties in the meat packing houses of early 1900s Chicago. Reinforced my decision to life a vegetarian lifestyle. This book left me with several strong emotions- just when this guy’s life started to get better, it got worse.
  • My thought? “Every criminal has a reason for the decisions they made. Whether they were wise or not, many people’s lack of choices lead them to crime.”
  • Marriage is for White People– I also had several aha moments while reading this book on the challenges that the African American community faces when it comes to family and marriage.
  • My thought? “A lack of marriable men in a society, causes a whole slew of  problems.”
  • The Mahabharat- Sons of Gods–typically a rusty, poorly translated epic, only this particular translation captured my attention, and expressed the real heart of the story in English. The author basically translated this in “thought for thought” method rather than “word for word.” Sort of like “The Message” versus “The King James.”
  • My thought? “Aahhh, now I get why Arjun is a big deal.”
  • Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism– one of the most challenging philosophical and comparative religious books I’ve read. He is deeply mechanical with his analysis, and uses many “behind the scenes” examples which are very anti-Abrahamic. This guy really hates Abrahamic religions and has obviously been wounded by Jews or Christians in the past. This book is a reaction to people thinking that Hinduism is merely animistic.
  • My thought? “This author’s agenda—dharmik philosophies are the only world through view to subscribe to, and if you disagree, you’re an idiot.”
  • Dreaming in Hindi -one of the best practical linguistic books I’ve read coupled with a woman’s personal journey of learning a new language in her middle age years. I could relate to some of her struggles, but certainly not all of the problems she brought on herself from bed hopping and flirting with random men.
  • My thought? “There is definitely a right and wrong way of learning a language within the subcontinent, and this woman did it right.”
  • When She Was White: Biography of Sandra Lange  This woman was born into a white Afrikaaner who was born with African black African features.  During the time of deep segregation, family people who were between the lines got trampled on. Sandra Lange is an inspiring character, but also has a sad story.
  • My thought? “Seeing deeply wounded people change their behaviors is almost impossible. A very uphill battle.”

WORST

  • Gora– I read the most horrific translation of this book ever known to mankind. But I muscled through it and finally got to the end since I heard it was such a great book. I couldn’t keep track of the characters. The only way I made it through is because I knew the ending. I was honestly just looking forward to the ending. It was awful.
  • My thought? “People are judgmental until it hits too close to home.”
  • At Home By Bill Bryson– this didn’t capture my attention until page 250. By that time it had taken me so long to get there, the book was due back and magically disappeared off my Kindle and back into the Chicago Public Library archives.
  • My thought? “Do I really care about the history of the armchair in England? No.”
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson– by far the most boring book I’ve ever attempted to read. He starts in the stars and the galaxies, and ends in the garbage dump. Basically I felt like this book was just propagating a particular worldview more than entertaining the reader.
  • My thought? “Wow, if you don’t prescribe to this worldview there is nothing for you in this book.”
  • The Invisible Man– This classic left me disappointed – I was expecting some philosophical ending, but was left underwhelmed.
  • “That’s it?”

OTHERS I READ, BUT DON’T HAVE A STRONG OPINION ON

  • Crazy Love by Francis Chan– since many were in a craze, I also jumped on the bandwagon. A straightforward, to the point, inspirational piece on rekindling a relationship with God.
  • 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra– you can’t teach yogic philosophy in a book. Had some good summaries, but I can’t imagine anyone would retain this without actually practicing yoga.
  • Multiplication is for White People– this book probably could have been 20 pages and made the same point it did in 200.
  • Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy– another foreign woman’s adventures in India. While part of it I could relate to, much of it I couldn’t, but still a well written memoir on her experience.
  • Ishmael– This classic left an impression on me for a couple weeks, and I was surprised at the philosophical conversation this turned into. It brought up some challenging thoughts on the environment, ethics, and supremacy of man.
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson– another hilarious Bill Bryson memoir. Look out for bears.
  • Three Cups of Tea– I read this about 4 years too late., as the controversy about Greg Mortenson had already arisen. He did many things “the wrong way” when it comes to development and many things “the right way” when it came to building relationships and caring about people. I felt like this was a case of the headstrong American doing whatever he wanted, even if half of it was stupid. Very entertaining and imaginative story.
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DC Metro and Chicago CTA: A Comparison

One thing that a city dweller has in common with any other city-dweller in the world is that we all have the tendency to complain about our city’s public transportation system.  But after experiencing one of the nation’s ‘top’ systems in Washington, DC, I’d like to reflect on how it compares to Chicago’s.

Pros

A far stretching system. The system goes all the way out to the suburbs in many areas! This makes the city accessible to more people and serves the widespread suburban population. While many people might not LIVE downtown, they can access it easily without having to take a bus, a train, then another system train. This was the biggest advantage that I saw over Chicagos multi-train system (CTA for the city and close suburbs, and Metra for the far flung burbs.) For Chicagoans, this can be expensive if you live in the city and work in the suburbs, as you then have to buy monthly passes to both systems.  Looks like in DC, riders just have to buy one.

Very nice busses. The busses in DC (at least that I saw) looked like charter busses. They were clean, freshly painted, and shiny. And even though they service far out areas in the suburbs- they still had people on them. How do they manage to keep ridership that high?

Peak and non-peak times. This incentivizes customers to use the Metro throughout the day—which I know is an issue in Chicago. They are constantly changing the train times to try and figure out when people are using the CTA. Having a system like this would incentivize people to use it other times besides just their morning and evening commute.  This also makes transportation cheaper for people who are students and typically don’t travel during peak hours to get to class.

Zone based fees— This seems more fair. You ride farther, you pay more. Rather than a flat $2.25 (Chicago price), in DC you can pay a pretty penny. I think I saw like a $7.00 fee for one place. But again, you still only have to take ONE system to get far out. So I guess you’d pay that much in Chicago anyway.

Signal underground How did I manage to have an AT&T signal on my phone even in the tunnel?

The self-serve machines take Credit Card. This was great that I didn’t have to have cash to buy a train pass. Big Big help for the out-of-town-traveler.

Friendly staff—I had a man come up to me and help me figure out how to use the machine to buy a card. I feel like this would not happen in Chicago. Apparently, CTA drivers are amongst some of the unhappiest people on the planet and this shows in their behavior towards riders. Thus visitors usually have to fend for themselves.

Cons

Ill placed maps— The maps are on the sides of the train rather than above the doors. See the photo below  to understand why this is a problem of visibility.

Carpets– gives a nice ambiance during the summer, but I can’t imagine how filthy those things get in the winter. Also, if you spill something you’d feel really guilty. In Chicago, at least if you spill a Dunkin Donuts coffee, the liquid slides back and forth to the feet of all the other passengers on the train and spreads out until it becomes a sticky dried layer of brown goo thin enough to air dry.

No vertical poles— This feature does not maximize space. You can’t stand really close to other people, without accidentally touching their shoulder or awkwardly bumping into them when the train sways. There is nothing to hold onto if you’re standing. In Chicago, we like to pack them in, so these intermittently placed poles are necessary.

 

Minimum payment for one time user– In DC, they make you put additional money on the card even if you only need to go $3.50 worth of a ride.  So it actually costs $4.50. I don’t get this.

Incomprehensible announcements—Passengers can’t understand the announcements that the driver is saying. The speakers are very quiet and all you hear is a slight mumble. I seemed to be the only person bothered by this, however.

Those of you who take the DC Metro regularly, please comment. I’d like to hear your thoughts, complaints, or praises on the Metro. Also, feel free to give perspective to any of my one-time observations.

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.”

Nirmila

At my company, we were recently asked to write a story that motivates us to advocate for financially underbanked/underserved consumers. I wrote this story about an elderly Nepali-Bhutanese refugee woman as an expression of what motivates me.

Nirmila

As she sat in the apartment complex in Louisville, Kentucky Nirmila thought to herself “The streets in America are so lonely. Where are all the people?” Nirmila reflected on the refugee camps in Nepal and instantly recalled the musty smoke of the mud stoves, the sharp crackle of buffalo gobar they used for fuel, and the nightly trips to the market to buy fresh spices, beans and herbs for the evening meal.

She missed the smell of incense, the sounds of goat herds settling down for the night, the look of a light glow as the family sat on the floor to eat dinner, laughing, shoveling down handfuls of fresh hot daal-bhat (lentils and rice) and the neighbors stopping in to get coal out of the small pile they shared.

All of these things brought back the close feelings of community and love in the camps in Nepal. Louisville was so cold. The walls were so white. The glass windows in their apartment kept the sounds from the outside world far away and muffled.

Nirmila was born in Bhutan as part of an upper caste Brahmin farming family. She is a part of a community of 300,000 Nepalis who immigrated to Bhutan and were cast out due to a form of ethnic cleansing in Bhutan over the past few decades. Until recently they had been living in refugee camps in Nepal after having been stripped of their wealth, dealt with split families and experienced culture shock. Her husband died from tuberculosis in the refugee camp. She has 3 sons- all married with 6 grandchildren. They all came to Louisville, Kentucky in March of 2010 as part of the United States asylum agreement with Nepal to re-settle the Nepali-Bhutanese.

Nirmila lives in what is called a “joint family.” Grandparents, children, and grandchildren all live together by choice. Multiple generations under the same roof is what the Nepali Bhutanese have always been used to and have continued that same pattern in the US. Nirmila’s son Alok has works nights at a meat packing facility. Her other two sons are still searching for a job and hesitate working at the meat packing facility since they are Brahmin and for generations have strictly stayed away from eating meat, much less butchering a large animal like cow or pig. Only Alok has a car and they rely on him heavily to drive the family for groceries, doctor’s appointments, the 6 children to school, and for any other appointments family members may have while he is not working. The two other brothers are learning how to drive, but it will be several months before they are ready to take the drivers test from the DMV.

Any money they have left over at the month goes into visiting relatives in other states, seeing friends who were resettled in other cities in the US, and saving for the weddings of younger members of the family. Their big screen TV is a status symbol, and provides entertainment for the whole family.

The banking system in the United States was a brief part of their orientation, but access and practicality is lacking.

Wearing her jewelry is part of her daily routine. A large nose ring was a gift from her mother in law when she married her husband Vishnu at age 15. Part of the inheritance passed down from generation to generation. Nirmila also prizes her mangalsutra (a locket and chain) as well as gold earrings that were passed down. She has worn this jewelry since her wedding day and it is more of a marker of status than a matter of personal style. With the rise in gold prices in the past few years, the value of gold jewelry in their home probably adds up to about $15,000 USD. In her mind, the safest place for it is around her neck, and on her ears.

With only one family member with a car, and the bank hours only open from 9-5pm, going to the bank is a huge inconvenience. Often times the family keeps their cash in jars in the kitchen, under bags of rice, and stuff precious family heirlooms inside plastic bags in clothes drawers.

One of the aid workers that assists in resettling the Nepali-Bhutanese community suggested using a safety deposit box for their valuables, but Nirmila had no understanding of this. She thinks to herself “Why would I keep my jewelry in a box!? And what if we get called for a wedding last minute and need to wear my gold (as often happens in the Nepali-Bhutanese community)? How will I get my jewelry when the bank is miles away? I don’t trust anyone to keep my valuables outside the home. Last time we put our valuables in the care of someone else, the government took it away.”

People like Nirmila who have huge cultural boundaries to cross are an example of people who are good at managing their money, but whose needs are not met by the rigid structure and hours of a bank. Financial services that are easy to use, flexible, and accessible by families like Nirmila’s are much needed.

3 Reasons Why We Need to Change Our Minds About Bihar

As I am now a regular visitor of Bihar, I hear a lot of talk about Bihar being lawless and corrupt. The picture of the past is still lingering, but people either haven’t seen the new Bihar, or are unwilling to let go of the old dusty stereotypes. For too long, Bihar has been seen as that weak little brother that everyone likes to make fun of. I find a different and promising Bihar.


1) Language and Cultural Stronghold

While Bihar has a reputation for being uneducated and backwards, I find that preserving culture and language is a priority here. Unlike some other places in India, where kids are growing up with butchered Hinglish, I’ve been shocked with modern youngsters in Bihar who are comfortable with speaking high level “shudh Hindi” in normal conversation along with studying English in school. In places like Delhi, I hear youngsters who can only speak their parent’s mother tongue half-heartedly or revert to English entirely. I can’t remember the last time in Delhi where I heard someone give me change at a store and without thinking hand me over “ek sau teis” rather than “hundred twenty three” rupees. Its refreshing to see high scale malls unashamedly flaunting billboards in pure simple Hindi, rather than adulterated ads like “Drink Karo, Enjoy Karo.” Bihar is a Hindi learner’s paradise.Another complaint of urban Indians is that highly populated cities are becoming Westernized in all the wrong ways, but I don’t find that in Patna. I find the people very connected to their traditions while also moving forward for a better Bihar.

2) Tourist Attractions

Although Bihar might not be the first place you think of when you think about the sights of India, but Bihar hosts international tourists at spots like Bodh gaya. Between 2003 and 2008, the inflow of foreign tourists to Bihar saw a near-sixfold rise from 61,000 to 346,000. (Wikipedia) Who knows what else is around the corner?

3) Developing Forward

Nitish Kumar

While the memory of Laluji still lingers on, the legacy of Bihar belongs to progress. If one plans to carry on any intelligent conversation, you cannot underestimate the importance of knowing about Nitish Kumar. He is leading the way in development and showing other states how to do it.

In 2011, Bihar was actually identified as the “least corrupt state” in a study by economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari.

Most of the people I find who criticize Bihar are A) people who have never here B) people who only know manual laborers and gypsies from Bihar who have settled elsewhere C) snobs from other states who are trying to prove their state is better. The future of Bihar is promising. The tides have turned. The old stereotypes of a rough, backwoods Bihar needs to be unraveled and forgotten.

Why I’m OK Being White

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed that many caucasian people I’ve come in contact with are experiencing a growing discomfort with being white. Something within us feels a bit guilty, like we are the ones who have caused the world’s problems. We think of the Nazis, the British in India, slavery in the US, and remember all the times in history that white people have made non-white people’s lives miserable.

Authors Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp have so appropriately named this comfort “Great White Guilt” in their book Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World. This feeling makes us feel like somehow our ancestors were responsible for suffering in the world and that we today are responsible. We hear the voices from the from the outside world, and the more powerful feeling from within. Something that tells us that being white is not OK.

In my community, I spend time with a lot of non-white people, and the white people I do spend time with behave with some level of “brownness.” There are some people who I meet who it is so obvious they are trying to fit into a brown culture that they’ve totally lost themselves. And I don’t blame them, because it is very easy to. I lived in India for a number of years and there was a lot to pressure to “be Indian”. To dress Indian, to eat Indian, to walk Indian, to talk Indian. There was simply no other right way, and when nearly everyone in society corrects your “white behavior”, the pressures wear on you. Finally, you start to think less of yourself and question if being white is really OK. Then you feel that being who you are is wrong or shameful. Being white becomes not OK.

I’ve been told many times that I am a “white Indian.” I used to take this as a compliment as I had worked very hard to learn the Hindi language and adopt certain lifestyle changes in order to survive in India. They eventually became a part of me. Now when someone says that, it bothers me. Why?

There is a theory called the “Coconut Generation” where it has been said that some Indian American kids are “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. I find a growing trend of white people who somehow are striving for the opposite “white on the outside and brown on the inside.” Personally, I think it is a short-sighted and an awfully one dimensional way to look at a person or to view oneself.

Cross cultural change is good and important. We need to learn about each other’s lives. Adopt behaviors which come to us naturally, enjoy each other’s cultures and be comfortable in our own skin.

As we think about atrocities like slavery in the US, the British occupying India, and the holocaust, we have to consider that these atrocities were caused by white people who oppressed others out of fear because they were insecure in their own racial identity.

I’m writing this because I think that white people need to move past “Great White Guilt” and move into healthy reconciliation. There are lots of reminders and pressures in this world to make us feel guilty for bad things that white people have done in the past. We don’t have to deny this and disassociate completely. Realize that you can do your part in creating positive change in society, but don’t try to be someone else while doing it. Be yourself. Be white.

The New America at the Laundromat

There are a few places where I like to go to people watch and reconnect myself with the ever changing population of my urban neighborhood. There are some places that are thriving with life, freshness, and diversity. The Laundromat is one of these places where one can keep their finger on the pulse of “the New America”.

Few places in this country allow you to see the real grit and hardship of people. The fights they choose to pick in public, the dirty laundry they bring in, the things they keep themselves busy with while waiting for their laundry to spin…

A tragic but telling story unfolded before my eyes a few months ago. Dozens gravitated to the laundromat on a Friday night, slowly trudging in with huge bags of dirty laundry. A Pakistani mother in law/ daughter in law dragged a week’s worth of clothing, bedsheets and cloth diapers. A single African American mom fed her kids Cheetos and Mountain Dew for dinner while her hands worked almost disconnected folding clothes while keeping her eyes glued to the TV monitor above. Some brought in carts, while others dragged cotton bags across the busy streets. Around 10:00pm, two gang members rushed in chasing a teenage boy of a different color. The boy had no shirt and was running at full speed. He came for refuge, but what he got was a beating. Dozens of us stood in shock as the two boys beat this boy to the ground. Blood gushed from his nose and after about 30 seconds some other men stepped in and starting yelling. The two gang members sprinted off, banging the glass doors on the way out, and the rest of us stood in shock, some trying to mind their own business, while others looking wide eyed trying to memorize the culprits’ features so that we could report them to the police.

The Somalian woman across from me paused her phone conversation, as she stood motionaless in a purple polyester burkha with her phone tucked into the side of her hijaab next to her right ear. The Latino twins that were previously enamored with the telenovela playing at maximum volume on the TV mounted on the wall, stared at the bloody teen while their popcicles dripped on the floor, mouths hung open in shock. After about 20 minutes, the cops showed up, took the boy’s story, and took him off to a safe place. We all breathed a little easier.

Some call my community in Chicago a melting pot. I’d call it more of a stew pot. Everyone is thrown together, but people often keep separated. Indians over here, the Orthodox Jews over there, The West African Muslims over there. Living in a community where many people are FOBs (fresh-off-the-boat), sometime the FOB mentality never goes away. People recreate a community where their ethnic group is safe, protected, and free. When outbursts like this occur, you can almost feel the stereotypes of other ethnic groups being reinforced and prejudices forming. I almost wonder if our little ethnic communities are more harmful than helpful. Are they breeding grounds for prejudice, fear and stereotypes? I think about that boy and realize the impression he made on all of us at the laundromat. Will we harbor fear and anxiety about ethnic groups that we are afraid of? Or will we let it go?

Nomadic Professionalism and Living Cross Culturally