Thursday, September 3, 2015

The "Indian Culture" excuse


"It is just Indian culture..."

One of the recurring things that happen when you marry into an Indian family, and thus become married into a culture that is not your own - is the fact that when problems arise, they may be blamed on culture. This typically happens when your Indian family cannot explain things to you, and instead chooses to blame it conveniently on "culture", because they think that you, as a Firangi, simply could not know any better. It is generalizing and using "culture" as an excuse for often-times bad behavior.

The issue with this is that it actually gives a bad name to "Indian culture" to many Westerners who have little to none connection to "Indian culture" outside their sasural (marital home). Now, if the Firangi Bahu has other Indian friends or exposure to different parts of India, their bullshit detector may beep a red alert whenever this "Indian culture" excuse is given. For Westerners who do not have a connection to India outside their sasural, they may generalize and assume that ALL of India will be like this.

Besides, what is "Indian culture" exactly??? Especially in a country as diverse as India? Of course, from a Westerner's objective perspective, there are similarities such as arts, mannerisms, traditions - but if you look closer, each region in India is vastly different. Even within a region, there are polar opposites, and even within the same caste - take the Iyers and Iyengars for example! Not only that, but each family will have a familial "culture".

Rather - this excuse - a favourite by many Indian partners and inlaws alike, is automatically given whenever you start to question dysfunction within their family. Especially when the dysfunction seems archaic and backward. Which gives the impression that "Indian culture" itself is archaic and backward - which it is really not...

Say, for example, when a sister-in-law acts selfishly (god forbid a daughter in the family ever be questioned), the automatic response will be "it's just Indian culture". Similarly, it happens when people are late, rude, or especially I see it as an excuse given for controlling spouses. And literally "Indian culture" always seems to be blamed for the worst of the Indian MILs who make their DILs suffer. Or even anytime I get into a fight with one of my Indian family members - apparently the first excuse given is "Indian culture". Someone will say something extremely nasty to me, and it will be blamed on good old "Indian culture". To me, it seems that "Indian culture" is given as an excuse for bad behavior - plain and simple!

That is why it is always a good idea to have Indian friends or have a secret ally within your sasural's extended family - specifically so you can ask them point blank - "IS this Indian culture???" when things like this arise. It's kind of like getting a second opinion from a doctor on a medical procedure - only it is a cultural doctor. That way you can discern by what is really cultural, and what is actually dysfunction.

Whenever I see Westerners generalize about Indian culture (which I have also caught myself doing this many, many times) I wonder how much of it has actually been fed to them by their Indian family. And whenever I question any kind of dysfunction within our own Indian family, and I am given the "Indian culture" auto-tune, I know I am on to something! Especially when it is said in an exhausted, I-can't-explain-to-you kind of way.

My family members are no angels either, and we certainly have our own share of dysfunction and problems, but I wouldn't be caught dead saying condescendingly, "it's just Western culture"; or "it's just Canadian culture" to cover up crappy behavior. A lot of these things have nothing to do with culture.

In an intercultural relationship, a lot of cultural things do come up, but more often than not, "culture" seems to be used as a convenient excuse, by Indian families themselves.


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Dear readers, has your Indian family/spouses ever used the "Indian culture" excuse on you?
If so, in what way?
Do you think "culture" is conveniently blamed for what is really bad behavior?
Please share your personal experiences.


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15 comments

  1. As a South Asian man, I must say, "Preach it sister!" But I can guarantee you there will be many among us who would criticize you from an irrational, reflexive defensiveness, because too many of us value our 'culture' over any individual self-respect. Why? Because in my opinion our Asian societies are too communal-minded rather than individual; since we come from areas with a lot of people and scarce resources, we are too dependent on what our families and others think of us. Our self-worth is usually based on our familial/social 'role' and duties, rather than being value for who we rightly are as unique individuals. When was the last time you heard of a baby being killed in the West just for being born a girl? Or how about a grown man/woman being publicly shamed or killed just because they bring 'dishonor' upon their families? Never - but you hear it all the time in the East. A lack of real self-worth and dependency on others means people displace their innate self-authority and project it onto society; to the extreme, this easily leads to an authoritarian/patriarchal system where people are expected to follow outer standards- they feel secure, but at the cost of repressed freedom and impulses. When people do not give vent to their individual drives and assertive natures, they repress them and creating catastrophic individual and social imbalances. This, I believe, is where the 'eve-teasing' and rape epidemic in India comes from. This is also why we are so defensive about our culture, especially from foreigners: our psyches are rooted in inequality (caste system, etc), which is a very poor sympathizer with self-worth. A socially-based sense of identity, compounded with an inferiority/superiority complex, means that most of us are so identified with our cultures that we take any slight against it, personally. (To be fair, I know this is not only with us Asians, but still we seem to be very bad at it) People get offended at cultural accusations when they don't feel they are individually strong enough to break free from them.

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  2. If you're Indian married to an Indian from a different region, you will hear the "our culture" thing. As a woman, you are expected to shed "your culture" and embrace "the boy's culture". During my wedding, I realised my MIL was making up her culture with abandon, traditions that noone had heard of except that she wanted to do them and was finally in a position to call the shots. Her excitement is amusing in retrospect, at the time it just made me want to scream.

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    1. Yes! I find culture is most commonly used as an excuse when my Indian family wants me to conform to their "culture" or do something their way that would be out of the norm for me as an individual. I find it manipulative, because most people (including myself) don't want to be viewed as being disrespectful to a culture, therefore you accommodate various requests that are against your nature.

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  3. Ah the great "culture" excuse. Actually, I have realised this is not only in India but all over Asia. I have heard the same thing from so many east Asians- "it's our culture". I have experienced it less in India because I am not a foreigner but experience it in other parts of Asia.

    People sometimes walk away when i am asking something because they are uncomfortable discussing it - when I call that out as rude, they claim it is "culture" ha ha.

    All traditional societies and a lot of Asia is the same in this aspect - not discussing problems, brushing things under the carpet, using traditions and society as an excuse when it suits them and sometimes, it is too tiring to have to explain to a foreigners who question instead of blindly following like the locals because most Asians will just accept it and follow instead of questioning and looking for a logical reason.

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  4. "it's just Indian culture" = "We are like that only"
    (Hinglish translation)

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  5. @Alex

    It is also due to the fact that we have tonnes of literature, history, heritage, cultures etc. which many Indians have not idea which is a basis for our culture. What we have is popular narratives passed down from generation to generation. Probably nobody has read the vedas, upnishads and other literatures because they were in sanskrit which nobody except the brahmins understood. What we do have is a interpretation which is at best manipulated by vested interests. It is the british who made a serious attempt to discover India's past and most of what we know about our history is through english translations. Ofcourse they used their own cultural background to interpret religious texts. Then there is the problem of somebody writing something and somebody else writing something a few centuries later and then everything got mixed up. There may be alternate interpretations of the same text which we do not know. The popular narrative is often msygonist, castetist.

    A very good example is the myth that Hindus worship cows. Is cow sacred?? why?? Is cow divine?? There is very good reason for it. When nomadic aryans settled down as agriculturists, cow proved to a very useful animal. It provides ready source of nourishment, animals for fields and manure. It was a very important animal for rural economy. A man's wealth was assessed in terms of how much cattle he owned. That is why our ancestors declared cow as sacred so that it is preserved. Many hindus don't know about it. They are puzzled when they are asked. Every cultural/relgious practice has a context and if you don't know about it, you are at loss. I am not saying that we defend rank bad behaviour in the name of culture but we need to know a lot about our culture, so that we can put our culture in perspective.


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    1. This is true. My boyfriend's dad (Indian) often says that I am learning more about Indian history/mythology in my Vancouver-based Integrative Energy Healing college program than people of my generation in India.
      Meg

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  6. Then there are practices like dowry which is practised all over the country but its manifestations are not the same. In many communities a token dowry is taken which consists of traditional jewellery, utensils, furnitures etc. Everybody knows what to expect. Then there are communities where a list is made of different items of dowry cars, tv etc. Here dowry is more like extortion and often a matter of social prestige. These are the communities which have maximum cases of dowry related cases. These communities typically like to show off their wealth on social occasions.

    So, everybody is not hungry for dowry in India but outside India the impression goes that everybody is into the dowry extortion business in India. Then, within the seemingly male dominated system in India, women wield considerable influence in certain communities. Less aggressive culture, more inclination towards education/arts etc. determine that women are more independent and are able to express themselves. This is why generalization of culture of India is not appropriate.

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    1. All the societal misfits are nothing but the untied elements of the social fabric which are bound to surface the culture and pose a wrong impression of "US" to the space/world.While the remaining are busy trying to hold the fabric together to preserve it and hence an outsider has to break away his filter and dig beyond the surface to view the core.

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  7. I think in general people tend to say "its just our culture" when they do not want any new fancy ideas ( =we have done it like this for centuries, and we do NOT wanna change it") ... Good read, Dear Alexandra- happy to re-discover your wonderful blog:-)

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  8. So what if it even is someone's "culture"? You don't have to accept them acting like jerks just because their culture sanctions it.

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  9. It's the worst excuse! When I was in an abusive marriage, most of my family was like well that's how men are, that's how indian men are, that's how it is. Uh no, that's not how all men or even all indian men are, it's just a bs way of making excuses for unwillingness to progress or change behavior.

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