My Upbringing in Indian Culture

Which shapes who we become…

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My son-in-law, Sean, raised in an Irish Catholic family, found it interesting how casually Indians discuss their salaries in conversations.  

Cultural differences run deep.  I want to reflect on its nuances.

When I came to America, I noticed how careful people are to not encroach on what is considered too personal, especially with acquaintances.  Indians are much more comfortable being conversationally closer with acquaintances.

In India’s 3000-year-old plus culture, closeness strengthens ties.  All family is ‘family’. We all are expected to take care of family widows and their children, even if it means less for our nuclear family.  Older parents are not just our financial responsibility, but they are expected to stay together with us — even when fully capable of independent living.

In the Indian joint family system, every adult knows what other adults earn because finances are everyone’s business.  The parents or the grandparents then freely share that information with neighbors.  Inquisitiveness is part of casual introductions: What is your name? How many kids or grandkids do you have?  How much does your son earn?

Is talking about salary showing off or signaling status?  Definitely, it is.  And in America, we show status with the cars we drive, the schools our kids attend, or the neighborhood we live in.  Will Storr, in his book The Status Game, writes the desire for status as a “mother motivation.” Only how we play this game differs with cultures.

American rules look out of place in India’s social fabric.  Most Indians consider American and Western societies too insular and sterile.  When I visited India, I used to be told that “Americans turn their kids away after they reach 18, and teenagers roll their eyes at parents.”  Indians hold parents in respect.  Parents living with children gives rise to plenty of tensions and conflicts, but the mindset is to resolve them.  We do not reject members of our family.

In India, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts are involved in finding mates for the young adults of the family.  As western culture is seeping into Indian society, the pragmatism and wisdom of elders continue to influence the choices young adults make in choosing their mates.  Western culture has a harder time understanding the concept of arranged marriages.  These marriages are not based on physical attraction and love, but on joint family considerations.  It is comparable to hiring an employee when a collective decision results in a better choice.  

Perhaps that is the secret behind the longevity of arranged marriages — with very low divorce rates.  When the entire family is involved in the selection of a mate, they also counsel couples on how to stay together.

Indian parents invest far more in their children’s education.  My parents also spent a significant part of our father’s income on our education.  In the cities, almost all children receive a college education.

One can conclude, that parents invest in the kids because it is they who would support them in their old age.

However, there is more to the story.  In Indian culture, sons — not daughters — are expected to assume the care of elderly parents.  Parents would never want to burden their daughter or her husband.  My parents initially found it awkward when they had to live with their daughters.

Most young women who live in cities earn a bachelor’s degree, and yet only 7% hold any paid jobs.  Indian women are more sheltered than American women but not considered less intelligent than men.  Many women are active in politics and business. Examples are Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar,  and the astronaut Kalpana Chawla who died in the Columbia shuttle accident.

Yet patriarchy persists.  The birth of a son is celebrated but not that of a daughter.  When I was born my maternal grandmother kept one day fast in disappointment — I was told.

As a second-born daughter, I became aware of sexism, at a young age.  I would often think about how disappointing my birth must have been for my parents.  This recognition motivated me to try harder to prove myself.  I would attempt to do everything that a boy would have done.  I volunteered to ride my bicycle to the market to pick up groceries, weaving fearlessly through the chaotic Indian street traffic.  I learned how to drive at an early age, rode horses and scooters, and learned photography, which most women of my time did not do.

Having my sister and I become engineers, however, was my mother’s idea.

I remember when I got pregnant with my first daughter while running my startup living in the US: I was not comfortable telling Greg, our potential VC about my pregnancy, because he was a man.  It was too personal a subject for an Indian woman to discuss with any outsider male.  I asked my husband, who knew Greg, to talk to him.  My husband understood my dilemma.

I was shocked when Greg casually asked me, ‘when was I due’.  As far as I was concerned, he might as well have been asking me about my sex life.  Do you see what I mean?

Cultures of unfamiliar countries are hard to explain; they can only be experienced.

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9 comments

  1. Deepka

    When my young son heard abt the word -love marriage vs Arranged marriage.
    He asked me if there were Hate marriages!

  2. Judy Seger

    Vinita, you’ve written another interesting piece. There is so much I don’t know about Indian culture. Thank you for opening the looking glass a bit for me. I’d love to learn more some day.

  3. Erin Northern

    Great article Vinita! I appreciate your vulnerability and authenticity to share your personal experiences.

  4. Vijay Gupta

    Indians discuss their blood test results and angiograms with others just as casually as they discuss their salaries. So it is not necessarily about showing off. They just have a different notion of privacy. Moreover, when you live in a joint family–and in a much smaller space–it is much harder to maintain a lot of privacy.

    Sharing personal information has many benefits. For example, sharing medical test results allows people to get help (or useful advice) because similar health issues often affect other family members, friends, and neighbrs. In the US, medical privacy rules and practices create an excessive centralization of healthcare information. The doctors and the medical industry have all the data about our health (individually and collectively) while we live in healthcare silos. We only know what they choose to tell us. Thus if a friend has figured out a better diet and exercise regimen for managing his diabetes, or has experienced serious side effects from a new drug or vaccine, we may not learn about them until it is too late. 

    Another big advantage of sharing personal information with others is that people don’t feel lonely or depressed, no matter how challenging their daily lives are. They can always come home and vent their feelings in front of sympathetic listeners!

    1. Varalekshmy Raghavan

      Absolutely right…. I got to know about a temple where we could pray for epilepsy to stop (along with medical treatment, of course) because I shared about my son’s condition to a Co passenger. And my son is epilepsy free and even medicines stopped due to prayers at the temple and treatment.

  5. Savita

    You have always been very clear of your thoughts , this analysis so nice , as I am from big family of 7 brothers , 3sisters , apart our family three family shared central courtyard , everyone know everything about each other , we loved to share , aaj bhi baat hoti hai 45 min lagte hain , I found it is very big support system not to give any way to depression , isolation .. I am totally for our Indian culture and style

  6. Prakash

    The antiquity of Indian civilization is a subject of intense study just now. The current estimates are based on an old European frame of reference. Estimates from astronomy references in ancient Indian texts, supported by recent discoveries in geology and archaeology seem to suggest that the Indian civilization could be 20000 (Twenty thousands) years old. Numerous archaeological sites on the banks of Saraswati river that went dry thousands of years back, have provided a glimpse into this antiquity. Furthermore, thousands of years’ old rock paintings continue to be discovered in India even today.

    Unfortunately, not many Americans know much about Indian civilization.

    Vijay Gupta’s comment tells us about the value of social support. James Maskell has written two books on that topic.

  7. Hemant Lall

    I have a similar cultural background to Vinita’s. I am the youngest of five siblings. We each came to USA to pursue postgraduate degrees. My siblings had arranged marriages with spouses of Indian origin. About fifty years later, they are each still married. I fell in love with a Caucasian girl and married her. We were divorced 21 years later.

    Can one draw any conclusion?

    Perhaps, my siblings’ marriages were more of a family decision and so would be their divorce. So, they tend to stick it out longer and sometimes things work out. On the flip side, there is the risk of staying in a toxic situation longer than one should.

    In my opinion, there is no single right or wrong model.

    Hemant

  8. Harjinder Ajmani

    Another interesting article that I can relate to easily and completely. I have a similar background and am of the same vintage as you.

    Something you may have heard but did not include in your article is that in India, I grew up in a joint family believing that Happiness grows by sharing and the Sorrow reduces by sharing. This may be the reason we Indians enquire and force each other to share.

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