Culture Shock Raises Its Ugly Head

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Just a precursor to this entry: I wrote this as part of my Service Learning Class Journal, but I’ve decided to post it here because it seems relevant. This was, unbelievably, nearly 3 weeks ago, though it feels like yesterday – it’s one of those experiences that will stick with me for a lifetime.

September 20, 2012

Last night I encountered the most drastic culture shock I’ve had in my nearly one month here. The night started off normally, my roommates and I hanging out with two of our Indian friends and their group of friends, walking around Ulsoor Lake, watching the immersion of idols in honor of Ganesha Chaturthi. However, it quickly took a new path as we left the Lake and went to one of the friend’s houses. 

This house was absolutely unlike any I’ve seen, even in the U.S. – gorgeous, enormous, modern and immaculate, with a gated entry, marble floors and chandeliers, balconies and terraces, 2 huge flat screen TV’s, dozens of bedrooms, etc. It was like walking into a marble palace where you expected to find a dingy flat. Like so many others scenes of Indian wealth (or lack thereof) the house is bordered on 2 sides by scenes of poverty, humbling and inconspicuous – a dingy bar next door and a few shacks across the street. It was utterly disturbing and mind-blowing to be sitting in his house, on his spotless white leather couches, listening to American pop music on a hi-def stereo system, with everyone around me drinking imported American Whiskey and then contrasting that with what it looked like outside his house, a normal Indian neighborhood – a few small houses, mostly apartment buildings, and some sketchy bars and convenience stores.

What really got to me though, was the presence of his family’s personal live-in cook, Ramu, a man no older than 25 who was called in from watching the festival in order to cook for us. When we found out what was happening, we protested, asking our friend to not ask for anything – he tried to console us, telling us it was just Ramu’s job, etc. but we were distracted when another boy appeared, probably only about 13 years old. At first, I thought he was just our friend’s brother, but then I noticed his clothes were far more ragged, and when Ramu was finished making chapati and sambar, they both went outside of the main living room to sit on the floor (right next to chairs obviously not in use) and to watch the cricket game on the big-screen TV from afar. When we asked our friend about the boy he just tried to make it sound like they had adopted him, that he was part of the family, almost like a brother. They pay for his schooling, house him (not in the house, but in a room/small guest house with Ramu?) and in return he is another “brother”.

However, determined to understand what was actually going on, when our two male friends left the room, we asked our female friend at the party what his role was. She sighed before telling us the truth, saying that he was of low caste (hence why he and Ramu could only sit on the floor instead of on the furniture, and why they wouldn’t eat alongside us) and was definitely in the role of servant in the house, though she was quick to point out that her family has a similar nanny/cook who she adores and considers another mother, though they still follow the social norms regarding eating and sitting.

I am trying so hard to come at this experience from an unbiased, anthropologically sound evaluation, yet it becomes so much harder at the thought of how racism was dealt with for so long in the United States (and how it still functions, though, like caste, in much more subtle ways). How can I stand back and let it happen, seeing it solely as an Indian problem, for them to figure out on their own at their convenience. This perspective in not one I’m used to. At home, I am an activist, undeniably committed to taking steps towards what I deem to be most equitable and just. However, who am I to do that in India, a country where I am just scratching the surface of millennia of political, cultural and economic context that I have no grasp of. The little I do know of India has been thoroughly shaped and altered by my own race, class and gender and THEN interpreted through my own cultural lens. WHERE DO I FIT IN THIS MADNESS?

 I can’t write any longer, I think this is making me go crazy. I’ll write a new blog entry sometime this week about caste and its annoying intricacies and subtlties that, as an American, blew my mind. Get excited. Ha.