Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My host family; and thoughts on Western invasion

22:30, 5/9/2012

Greetings from Raja Park, a southeastern neighborhood of Jaipur, the 3-million-person capital city of the north Indian state of Rajasthan!  I have been living in the neighborhood since Saturday afternoon, when I moved in with the Mathur family-- my host-mom Manisha, a strong and spirited woman and a professor of public administration at a local girls’ college; my host-dad Shailendra, a mild-mannered businessman; their son Manu, a first-year student of computer engineering at a local university; and his brother Anu, a junior in high school, who plans to study mechanical engineering.  We live on a busy market street: the front door is easily missed in the messy collage of signs and storefronts and the display mannequins that leak out towards the cars, taxis, auto-rickshaws, and motorbikes which chaotically bustle along the road.
The house is small-- a family room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and a storeroom-- but it is comfortable, and well-suited for a very close family.  Even though they are all quite busy, each family member spends much of the day sitting together in the family room, where they talk, eat, and watch TV (Dad never misses his soap-opera, on weekdays at 8:00pm.)  The boys also sleep there-- they gave me the second bedroom to myself!  The family offers me privacy, but they don’t seem to need any from me or each other.  The parents’ bedroom is public space (we sometimes sit and eat on their bed) and they seem to tell everything with each other.  (Perhaps this is unfounded, though-- I can’t hear the content of their conversation in Hindi just yet!)  There are kind, hardworking, and hospitable people.  
In some ways, they fit the classic stereotypes of Indian culture: they are devout Hindus and vegetarians, and the parents had an arranged marriage.  And in many ways, the family embodies “the New India”-- that is, the trends of a growing educated middle class that has emerged in recent decades (which is by no means the experiences of all Indians, or even most.)  They live in a city.  They prefer to speak Hindi, but they are fluent in English.  They are highly educated, especially the woman of the house.  The boys are pursuing careers in engineering, a major sector in the emerging Indian economy (which has become increasingly capitalist since it liberalized in the 1990s.)  
But more striking to me (and to my partial dismay), they are in several ways highly influenced by “the West.”  The boys in particular are infatuated with iPhones, mTV, American films and music, and “western-style clothing.”  The older brother Manu dreams of moving to the States to work for Apple, and to bring his family with him.  He doesn’t listen to Hindi music, nor does he own a single piece of traditional Indian clothing.  His bedroom walls are covered with pictures of New York City architecture and the landscapes of northern Minnesota, and not just as a welcome to me.  Most startlingly, Anu showed me that he and his Hindu classmates recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning at school. The school is not Christian, nor are any of its students.
A weekend shopping trip confirmed that they are no anomaly.  I had envisioned buying Indian kurtas from a market vendor when I asked to go shopping for clothes, so I was slightly shocked when my family took me to a four-story shopping complex, and a large store full of familiar dress shirts, trousers, ties, shoes, plaid shirts, blue jeans, and all other “western” fashions.  I was attacked by cunning sales attendants offering discounted dress slacks as I marched toward the tiny “Ethnic Clothing” section in the far corner of the store. 
I can’t help but feel like many Indians are so infatuated with the “comforts of the West” that they have neglected the value of their own culture.  Much of what I’ve been reading for my courses so far has been about two separate-but-related topics of colonialism and “Orientalism” (essentially, the prevailing western perception of “The East” as a mystical, uncivilized, and societally-inferior land of snake-charmers and mystics.) I can’t help but believe that since the arrival of British colonizers centuries ago, Indians have been trained to believe that western clothes are more professional, that capitalism is the most wonderful method of trade, that English is the most valuable language, that American culture is the best.  Some would say that it is happened naturally, just like any other cultural blending throughout history (i.e. the arrivals of the Aryans, the Mughals, and other groups to India over the centuries.)  But I say it’s cultural hegemony, and that it’s a shame.  India, after all, has incredibly sophisticated traditional culture, including elegant languages and texts, mathematics, four major world religions, intricate music, incredible artwork and architecture... the list goes on.  I, for one, appreciate the simplicity of the “Eastern toilet”: it is more sanitary, and uses less water.  (I used one for the first time this week. though I’ll spare you the details, I am pleased to report it went well!)
I decided to study abroad in a developing country in the eastern hemisphere because I wanted to experience the diversity of the human experience-- to see how completely different some people’s lifestyles are from mine.  I can honestly say that less than two weeks in India has already done that.  Now my hope is that such cultural diversity is preserved-- that is does not fall victim to the influence of the West.

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