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Cultural Differences

My online friend Indu Jalali, an Indian woman living abroad with a keen sense of human rights, brought this article to my attention on Twitter yesterday.  If you have the time and patience to follow the link, you will read the report that an Indian couple has been arrested by the authorities in Norway for attempting to discipline their son.  Reading this report made me shake my head in despair.  The world is getting smaller.  Why is it that there is such a lack of understanding of different cultural norms?  Apparently, the boy is now in protective custody while his parents are under arrest.  This is madness.

Worse - the boy's parents apparently threatened that they would send him home to India if he didn't improve his behaviour.  What's abusive about that?  I shudder to think what would have happened to the Irish mothers who I saw around me when I was growing up in Ireland.  Some of us in Ireland (not all, lest I make the mistake of generalizing) have the habit of using gross exaggeration in our speech i.e. 'I nearly died!', 'I'll go mad,' and so on.  We use horrid sounding words like 'kill' or 'murder' with abandon.  I don't know how many times I heard a mother say 'I'll kill ye' or 'I'll murder ye' to their misbehaving child.  Did they mean it?  Of course not.  It's just  a figure of speech.

About six months back it was widely reported that two Indian infants had been removed from the care of their parents about a year previously.  The Norwegian authorities had been indignant that the young children still slept in their parents' bed and were fed by hand.  By taking the children into custody at that tender age, the authories must have damaged the children far more than their parents upbringing might have done.  The children were eventually released into the care of their paternal uncle and sent home to India.  Meanwhile, the relationship between the parents collapsed under the strain and the mother, once home in India, had terrible trouble trying to get to see her children the last time I read.

It might sound horrifying to some people that two infants were sleeping in their parents' bed, but it is not so long ago that the practise of co-sleeping as it is called, was practised worldwide.  In early society, no one would have dreamed of allowing an infant to sleep alone and the safest place to sleep has traditionally been beside the mother. Living in India, I slept with all my babies when they were small and I never had to stumble out of bed on a cold night to attend to a howling infant in another room.  I never had the agony of putting a child down to sleep and sneaking away to get some sleep myself.  Co-sleeping makes a child feel wonderfully secure. Along with the industrial development of society, a type of distance seems to have grown up between parents and children.

India got industrial development rather late in comparison with the rest of the world, hence, traditional methods of child rearing are more common here.  Take breastfeeding for example.  I took full advantage of the fact that I was a stay at home mother to breastfeed all my kids for years rather than months.  I was able to do it because in Indian society, breastfeeding is considered very good and desirable. Sadly, in the west, some people look upon breastfeeding - the most natural way to feed a child - with disgust.  The breast has sexual connotations and must not be bared in public!  This is an obscene idea to my mind.

People in the west often fail to understand the pressure Indians who move to the west face from the expectations of their friends and family members back home in India.  I met Annie, an Indian nurse, when I was in Ireland during the summer.  She told me how her family members and in laws back home had high expectations of her wealth and affluence, believing that the streets of the industrial west were paved with gold.  Annie had seen the harsh reality.  With three kids,a mortgage and a husband who was working hard to succeed in business, she didn't have much cash to spare for gifts to relatives back home, but did the best she could.  Her thoughtful gifts (perfumes, fashionable handbags and umbrellas) were sneered at and thrown aside by disappointed relatives expecting iPads and gold chains.  This is one of the reasons why Indian people would try to rent the smallest, least expensive flat when they move to the west, to try to save some money so they can feed the hungry crocodile of misinformed relatives' greed.  If you were to look at their small living space disdainfully and tell them that it was abusive to their young children, they would not understand you.  Besides, Indians use the indoors primarily for cooking and sleeping.  Many of them tend to put a premium on outdoor space, they love to sit in the garden and get fresh air.  When the sun is not too strong, that is.

I remember reading about a young mother from a Scandinavian (Sweden or Denmark maybe?)  country who visited the United States with her two year old daughter.  She was truly astonished to be arrested for the criminal negligence of her child when she left the infant sitting outside a restaurant in a pushchair while she dined inside with a friend.  She said that everyone did that in her home country.

The truth is that every culture has it's accepted norm when it comes to child rearing, but what is acceptable in some cultures is sometimes unacceptable in others.  For Indians moving to the west, some kind of preparational counselling is required to understand the society in which they will be living.  It is also  imperative that the host culture tries in some way to understand the culture of the people who are coming to live among them to avoid misunderstanding.  Because misunderstanding can have tragic consequences.  Just ask that Bengali mother whose marriage was destroyed and whose children were removed from her care in Norway.

Since I published this blog post, the unfortunate parents have been sentenced to fifteen months and eighteen months imprisonment respectively.  I really feel that with some understanding, this situation could have been avoided.  To read Indu Jalali's take on this, go here.  Indu Jalali is an Indian born woman who is resident in Europe.


  1. Beautifully written n hope it is d start of a new phase!

  2. Thanks Indu. I know you know where I'm coming from!

  3. I never cease to be amazed by the cruelty of so called experts who think they know best.

    Love your back drop,
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  4. Balderdash. If Indians go overseas on assignments, they should first learn the local laws and their employers should counsel them on some of these nuances. One cannot plead ignorance of the local laws and plead for mercy due to cultural differences. Irish women in Saudi Arabia when going shopping will wear burkhas won't they?

  5. @Rummuser - of course you are right. That is exactly what I am saying. I took years to learn what it was like here. I'm still learning. At least I didn't end up in jail.

  6. Well said, Maria! This is world wide and we also face these problems.

  7. Hey Maria!

    Very interesting post.

    I understand you well, because when I go to Brazil to visit my family, I feel I educate my daughter differently than my sisters, for instance. Even though I'm Brazilian, now as a mother I see things differently.

    It can be frustrating, but I try not letting that get to me.

    Americans raise their kids to be independent and self-reliant from an early age, compared to Brazilians. It's not better or worse, just different.

    It's sad though that sometimes things are taken out of context and the parents and family pay a hefty price.

    The Scandinavian lady who left the kid outside while she ate inside – I understand it’s different where she comes from. But unfortunately there are a lot of crazy people out there, and it's better to be safe than sorry. It’d be nice to live in a world without people who can harm your child.

    Anyway, great post!

  8. @Carmen - I love what you just said. *It's not better or worse, just different.* So true. I also feel that I've brought up my kids differently than I would if I'd been in Ireland. Mine are very over protected as I'm not over confident living in a society other than the one I'm accustomed to. I wonder how will I make them street wise and how will they handle college, for instance. And at the same time, I think I've tried, as best I can, to raise them to have opinions and ideas of their own and to stand on their own feet. At least in some ways. I wonder how they'll be eventually. Hopefully grounded and confident, not caught between to cultures.

  9. @Nas - I think it is so important for people to try to understand where the other one is coming from. A little understanding can make all the difference.

  10. @Maggie May - Maggie, it's lovely to see you over here, I've been out of the loop with my regular blogging for a while. I'm coming to visit yours soon.

    Education is supposed to make people more aware. Isn't it strange how it sometimes fails to do so?


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