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My First Cultural Shock!

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After spending a cool three decades of your life in India, moving gear to a totally new country like the USA is sure a change of a lifetime! In addition, if you are struck in the face with a cultural shock, it is all the more difficult to cope with the transition.

Believe me, my cultural shock didn’t come in the form of Californians wearing bikini tops and shorts to the super market. I knew the culture of America, and thanks to my avid reading habit, I knew what to expect. But, the immigrant Indians trying to copy Americans was a shock to me. The beautiful bhindis didn’t adorn their faces anymore, the salwars gave way to shorts and their hair welcomed shocking colors.

A smile escaped my lips when I saw a seemingly newly-wed couple in the Wal-Mart. The girl obviously had never worn anything short, not even her hair. And here she was trying to adjust her short skirt now and then, looking around to make sure that nobody noticed her long legs. The husband was trying to teach her to overcome her fears and ‘act’ normal. Her hair was short to her ears, what I presumed could have touched her waist for all I know, when she was in India. That is sure the tradition in the south of India to wear a girl’s hair long.

A lot of people have always asked me then, and still do sometimes even today-What is the little dot that I have on my forehead, which surprisingly looks like a tattoo to them! I simply say, “This is my culture”, they smile, admire it and walk away. Some of them, especially the ‘Iskon temple followers’, do know about India’s culture so much that they put a lot of us to shame more often. They come forward and say, “Isn’t that dot on your forehead a symbol of you being married? “Or “How did the colorful ‘bindis’ replace the traditional red dot? “, “Why do South Indians have a dot on their forehead whereas the North Indians have it in their hair-parting?” I explain as much as I can, knowing very well that as much as our lack of knowledge of our basic traditions is losing out in India, it is gaining popularity outside the country.
Now, this brings me to say that Indians who come to the US, immediately remove their bhindis, their magulsutrams and their toe-rings in order to become Americans. Knowing very well that our Indianess is writ on our face, no matter how we dress up, every lady starts to feel that a bindi would give away her country of origin! Now, I would never understand what is wrong in being an Indian!! Jeans don’t go with sindoor, toe rings don’t go with stilettos and mangalsutra shows in a tee. Nice excuses, indeed!
Even today, Americans look up to India for its rich culture, and our immense traditional living. Indian girls who look and behave Indian are given more ‘looks’ than girls trying to eat burgers with forks and mouthing ‘you-know-what-I-mean’ for no reason. I know this because, when I wear a sari and walk to my car, all the Americans around my house give me admiring looks.
The totally unknown culture or a little knowledge of any culture always arouses curiosity in people. Cultural differences will always be there, but culture and traditions shouldn’t change for anyone for the sake of changing. After 12 years of living in this country, I don’t think I have changed much except for a little accent now. My tee shirts have matching color bhindis, my toe-rings cozily hug my toes, and my mangalsutram plays lovingly on my bosom. And I have the most American friends ever possible , partying at my house, eating ‘samosas’ along with Caesar salad ; dancing to ‘kaho na pyar hai’ and admiring my kurtis worn over the jeans!!
This is culture for me.This is how I want to be known as, an Indian! Well,you know what I mean, don’t you?!!

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Good one!

I liked the article as I relate to it too. I too have experienced this with the Indians who come here on business visas with their spouses. They want to stand out as an American, talk like one and act like one. Some of them even try to wear all the bright colors that the Afro-Americans wear to stand out like them at least!

Dont force culture on others

So far I had been enjoying all the articles on this blog, till I got to read this one. So what if you like to wear bindis, demonstrate with mangalsutra and sindoor that you are married, it doesn't make others who are not wearing it less cultural. For me, all these all are forced symbols to demo your marriage in a male dominated indian society. If it is cultural, then why widows are not allowed to wear all these?

One of my tamilian colleague who is a well educated software engineer as well as fits into your definition of cultural person in US ( wears bindi, mangal sutra, toe rings to show her married status), recently refused to take prasad from a lady in a temple who was dressed up in white cloths. I didn't realize it till she told us 'proudly' how offended she was that a widow was even allowed in a temple to distribute prasad. I was shocked! But I can only expect this behavior from such cultural people only!!!

So far these symbols only serve the purpose of differentiating between women ( single/married/widow). Why should there be any such thing which differentiate women?

Great that you like wearing these.. wear them cause you like to wear them , not for preserving so called culture! I like my jeans and shorts. Toe rings bother me inside my sneakers and I dont want to add any cancerous sindoor in my maang. I like magalsutra when it is matching with a dress and love to wear 'made in china' kurtis, bought from macys whenever it suits me!


Sad to hear that!

anita.a's picture

It's absolutely fine that you didn't like my article 'RB'... Everyone to their own! Just one thing... I wasn't trying to 'force culture' onto others.. It is just my point of view!!

Have a good one! :)


brilliant co-existence

beautiful, Anita. It is rare to see Indians settled in the US talk in this tone. Most of them come back to India with sanitizers, tampons, marshmallows, and a load of wrongly placed attitude... and of course the fake accent...


Ruby Sahay's picture

Kudos, Anita! A great read, wonderfully written with an unmistakable sprinkling of humor.

It'll be worth mentioning, that while Indians in a western land struggle to be in tune with the new culture, you'll scoff at the lot that lives on the native soil. With a boom in malls and a thriving fashion industry, many of the Indian women dress in a way that neither gels with their culture nor with their upbringing. In metros the trend is clearly noticeable. While minis, hot pants and tank tops being so much an American woman's outfit, our Indian counterparts, living more than ten thousand miles away, have forsaken their sarees and salwar Kameez and have adopted Americanism in their garb.It is ridiculous to note that they take pride in this adoption and flaunt the same without caring to adopt anything that could rid them of their age old thoughts, beliefs and practices that hinder their growth and success in the modern world. You have rightly quoted the bit about the Iskon Temple followers who know much about India than many Indians themselves. What a shame!

Thanks Ruby!

Very true, indeed! On every trip to India, I observe that every year youngsters in India are changing so much so that they don't look like Indians any more! Believe it or not, showing affection in public has also become so common in the malls, like it is in the US.

Thanks Ruby!

anita.a's picture

Very true, indeed! On every trip to India, I observe that every year youngsters in India are changing so much so that they don't look like Indians any more! Believe it or not, showing affection in public has also become so common in the malls, like it is in the US.


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