What Is Culture?
I’m opening this blog post with a question. What is that elusive concept which is commonly known as ‘culture? Culture is way of life. How we live. What our values are. Our customs, attitudes and perceptions. And also, I suppose, how we express ourselves in art through, such as music, dance, theatre and cinema. It’s quite a comprehensive area and not too easy to define, really.
|Travel between east and west is common nowadays|
I was born in what is commonly known as ‘the west’. I lived in Ireland for the first thirty years of my life. When I was thirty, I married my husband and came out to India to live here with him. That was the beginning of an interesting journey, which is still evolving. I must have had some east/west comparison stereotypes in my head. But in India, I found that the people I met had huge stereotypes in their heads about what they called ‘western culture’ and ‘western way of life’. Not long after I arrived in India, I was struck by the number of people who said things to me like ‘in the west, family means nothing. In the east, it means everything’.
Family Means Nothing In The West?
I wouldn’t say that family ‘means nothing in the west’. The ‘west’ being most of the developed world, Europe and north America. Family is the basic unit of any society, be it east or west. It would probably be true to say that in eastern cultures, people tend to be more emotionally dependent on family. In the western world, people tend to grow away from family as they evolve into lives of their own and build close relationships with friends. But neither type of life is absolute. Friends, especially ‘family friends’ are a rich part of Indian life. And families come in many shapes and sizes in western life, with nuclear and blended families being very much a part of the scenario nowadays. In my humble opinion, family and friends each form a significant part of the rich tapestry which is called life. I don’t think that people should be under the rule of their family either. This can lead to the most awful scenarios, such as gay people being forced to deny their orientation and marry someone of their family’s choice, bringing misery and ruination to their life, their partner’s life and not enriching the family tree. But I digress.....
|Pride of British India - Victoria Memorial Kolkata|
Religion Means Nothing In The West?
The same was often said about religion. As in ‘religion means nothing in the west, but in the east, it is everything’ I remember being furious one Sunday here in India when I went to Mass and heard the priest preaching a sermon in which he bragged that many Indian Christians had a ‘higher ancestry’ in Christianity than many ‘western’ Christians. My knee-jerk reaction was ‘so what’? I was reminded of Jesus’ famous remark about God’s being able to turn stones into sons of Abraham, in the third chapter of Matthew. It doesn’t matter how high your Christian ancestry is. Once you accept Jesus, you’re a new creation anyway. Silly priest!
I met my husband’s young cousin Shubh, not long after getting married. An earnest young fellow, he talked at length about India’s history. When the British were mentioned, Shubh’s features clouded with something like hatred. I was shocked. I told him that the old colonial system was now obsolete. I mentioned that the Britain was only one of several nations which had played the colonial game. I also reminded him that my country, Ireland, had, like India, also been colonised by Britain in the past, but that hopefully, we’d all moved on to a more evolved and aware state of consciousness. I do hope I contributed something to the lad’s awareness of the east/west equation. I think I did. He’s living happily in the USA with his wife as I write.
|An Indian giift to the world - Buddha|
The Immoral West?
Back in pre-Internet days, there really seems to have been a lot of ignorance, probably as much in the west about India as there was in India about the west. I remember, one day, when I was out shopping here in Lucknow, meeting a young American woman who had come to India to study meditation . We chatted for a while about our impressions of India and its people and also about Indian views of the western world. “They have a very bad opinion about western life”, my new friend observed. “They think that everyone in America is screwing around. And getting divorced”. That observation made me laugh. These things can happen to anyone, anywhere in the world.
I remember reading in the local newspaper about a delegation from the jail service in Uttar Pradesh, the state where I live. This delegation had gone to England to study the jail system there. The group made observations and wrote about their findings. They compared the British jails they had seen with the Indian jails. Then they gave a press conference to the local newspapers about it. One of the observations they made, was that prisoners in western jails were more likely to be in solitary confinement and therefore, suffering from depression. Indian prisoners in overcrowded jail cells, it was reported, were far less likely to be depressed. My late father-in-law found this hilarious. “At least our overcrowded Indian jails have some reason to feel proud “, he said, laughing out loud.
No Relationships In The West?
However, when it came to the rehabilitation of former prisoners, the most interesting observaton was made. The Indian jailors shared that Indian prisoners were generally welcomed back into their families once their term was served, but western prisoners often had no family to which they could return. The Indian jailors put this down to the fact that ‘In the west, there is no concept of family or relationships”. I remembered reading in a magazine around that time that female Indian prisoners were likely to be deserted by their families and their husbands often divorced them and remarried while their wives were still in jail, whereas males could still return to their wives. The Indian jailors didn’t have a thing to say about that.
Indian classical dances are truly beautiful. The dancers are disciplined and give their teachers the same reverence they would give to God. They have to practise their art for many hours to achieve perfection. This was pointed out to me by some of the people I encountered here. What they call ‘western dance’ is often a series of disconnected movements, shuffling to the beat of popular music. I asked a couple of questions and it subsequently realised that the people who were extolling the dance forms of India had no idea that we have classical and traditional dance forms in the west too. The same goes for music. I mean, our western culture has many traditional arts which are based on discipline and which are wondrous to behold. I get goosebumps when I hear opera by composers like Bizet. And ‘Swan Lake” (that’s a ballet) leaves me breathless. Both east and west have many wonderful cultural art forms. Whether it’s opera or Irish sean-nos traditional unaccompanied singing, the west has no way less to offer than the east when it comes to the likes of the performing arts. I firmly believe that.
Christianity Is Not Western
Asians often have the impression that the western outlook is based on Christianity, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. Christanity is middle-eastern in origin, as is Islam and Judaism and can as easily be found in Asia as in Europe. In fact, I’ve heard it said that the western philosophical outlook is based on the teachings of the classical Greek philosophers. They are definitely pre-Christian. Interesting, huh? And western philosophy is known to be quite atheistic in comparison with its eastern counterpart. I’ve been surprised to come across Roman Catholic priests here who are referred to as ‘Baba’ or “Swami’ rather than ‘Father’ and who dress in the style of Indian hermits, with their dhotis and kurtas. These are not very common, but they are definitely around. The Hindu religious traditions and Christian traditions complement each other beautifully once an effort is made to do it. It’s something I’ve noticed many times.
|Irish sheep on a hillside|
Internet Increases Awareness
I’m really glad to say I don’t hear as much ignorance here about ‘western culture’ as I used to hear and it’s perhaps due to the spread of the Internet.
Third World Countries?
What’s a third world country? The correct term is, I believe, ‘developing country’. Yet it’s surprising how many enlightened bloggers from western countries can be found referring to ‘third world countries’ in their blog posts. I had to write to more than one very famous blogger and ask them why they were doing this. It’s kind of gratifying to see that they took my observations on board.
|An Irish beach in turbulent weather|
The Twain Shall Meet
Rudyard Kipling famously observed that ‘east is east and west is west and ne’er the twain shall meet’. But the world is turning into a global village. The Internet has accelerated that growth. There are a lot more east/west marriages nowadays than their used to be, just like my own. These marriages may encounter problems because the patriarchal influence on Asian males is a lot stronger than it is in males of western origin. But no problem is insurmountable. The main problem is to understand the reason for the difference in attitudes and to work on adjustments as required. Understanding is everything. It also helps to be a bit open minded and realise that there are more attitudes in the world than just our own. Unlike Kipling, I truly believe the twain shall meet. In fact, they already have. I consider myself and my family to be the living proof that Kipling's theory is wrong.
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