Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blending Cultures

The other day I passed a bunch of kids returning from school in NZ. They were laughing, kidding one another and generally having a jolly old time. What struck me about the group was that it was totally multicultural and yet, undeniably, each of those kids sounded like New Zealanders or Kiwis. This set me thinking - will the blending of cultures eventually produce one homogenous block of humans who, whether in London, Mumbai, Brazil or China, will lead disgustingly uninteresting and similar lives? Mere shadows of one another?

Well, for starters we already do. Giving in to peer pressure, be it to people who belong to the same community or to different communities, is much the same thing. When someone insists and we capitulate (eagerly) to their demand that we look and sound exactly like them before they accept us, it is a subtle play of dominance-subjugation. It happens, to varying degrees, wherever there is a majority or, wherever there is muscle power. Youngsters are especially vulnerable.  I believe objections to such capitulation are justifiable. Don't give up a part of your cultural identity simply because it might be more circumspect and convenient to do so. Children being especially vulnerable, teach them to appreciate those aspects of your cultural identity that you like, respect and enjoy.

Peer pressure aside and purely because we are human, we pick up things from other humans. It is a natural instinct. It stems from the desire for self preservation, safety and a sense of belonging. It makes us fashion ourselves along the lines of other humans we admire, enjoy or feel safe with, or, would like to call our inner circle. If an aspect of another culture is sometimes more enjoyable to some folks, the communal minded are umbraged. [How can someone like something from the other culture so much that they are willing to give up part of ours?]

When we migrated to NZ, my family and I were following a dream. We wanted to be amongst people of various cultures, especially cultures that we didn’t see much of in our own neighbourhood. We read about them, were fascinated by them and in some ways, identified with them. An objective outsider (or an insider from that other culture) would have rightly said, we had romantic notions of this other culture. When we did settle here we realised it was a mixed bag. Not everything (nor everyone) was as wonderful as we’d imagined. There was much that we thoroughly admired and wanted to absorb from the new culture. But there were things Indian that we realised we preferred and wanted to preserve.

These are some of our initial reactions – that the local kids weren’t able to shine as much as our Indian kids at studies; but they were really good at sports and music (which were much harder to earn a living off, weren't they?); that we enjoyed our culture of home cooked food versus fast food; stay-at-home mums who welcomed kids back home from school, helped them with their studies and generally provide stable home lives. But guess what?

Our perceptions began to change. We slowly began to understand that our kids were brilliant because of rote learning; that experimenting, researching and looking at knowledge from different angles, questioning the written word and drawing our own logical conclusions was brilliant too; that fresh air, the outdoors and enough play time was essential for our kids and not just being bogged down by mountains of homework and mugging what had been taught; that besides being lawyers and doctors there were many fields they could follow; that one could actually link one’s extra-curricular activities and interests to one’s earnings.

Next, our ideas about stay-at-home mums started changing slightly. Of course they started changing in India too. Sheer economics, a desire not to waste qualifications, to be out and about amongst peers, made us stay-at-home mums seek careers. Were we giving up our culture by going off to work? Perhaps, to a degree – but it wasn’t because of pressure from the west. It had not only become a necessity, it was quite desirable too. Mums started working while their kids were away at school. Here in NZ we’d secretly felt sorry for kids who were sent to baby-sitters by their career oriented mothers. Now we were considering the same. What we began to understand and appreciate was that women here had managed to combine both, their professional and family lives, with a tougher set of options than their counterparts in India. In India, we had the best babysitters in the world – grandparents, to nurture and supervise, as also cheap, paid help to do the hard domestic chores of cooking and cleaning. Over in NZ, the extreme anxiety of having to leave kids with relatively unknown people had produced a win-win outcome too - professional baby-sitters.  They underwent training, learnt how to deal with emergencies, their houses were inspected for cleanliness and safety and, there was a strict ratio of the number of children to the number of trained sitters looking after them. And if we found someone who, over the months, proved to be kindly and affectionate with our children, a little more of our anxiety gave way to relief. Another tradition sacrificed? To my mind, just two different but equally good choices made available – one from our traditions and one from theirs.

We appreciated the fact that we could earn a decent wage working part time. So some of us worked part time to be back in time to welcome kids home from school. Whether we did so or stayed longer at work, when we got home, there was no paid help to do our cleaning, washing, cooking, repairing, building, painting and gardening. We – both partners - did most of it ourselves. Or, if we got paid help, we paid a good rate by the hour, which couldn't be less than the minimum wage as set by the NZ government. The paid help drove up to our homes, worked for about two hours each time before driving off until the next week or the following fortnight.

Continued as Part II: Do I think, after we’ve incorporated so many changes that suit our family’s life style and beliefs, that we've completely capitulated to the west?



  1. Really enjoyed this note. It would be wonderful to live in a world where so many cultures mixed together without any clashes. Its so important to hold onto our cultural identity so we don't all become uninteresting and identical communities. I find there's so much to learn from other cultures.
    I don't think we've completely capitulated to the West. Yes, there's a massive massive influence, but we still have some traditions across the country that remain uniquely Indian :)

  2. You are right about our unique qualities P&p. And thanks for the thumbs up :-) I hesitate to tell you why I think we would never be identical as that would give away what I've written in part II. Please bear with me until I finish and post that next week.

  3. You are right. I had my first exposure to different cultures when I stayed in the US. I do agree that it is easier to push our kids to be totally westernized in order for them not to stand out, to assimilate but maybe lose out on their own culture. Also, agree with what you say about working mums and changing perspectives. But, you know what, things are changing with regards to grandparents too. My mil is retired and yet prefers to stay on her own. She cherishes her independence. I feel it is not fair for me to expect her to babysit my kids because I want a full-time career. So, I have tweaked my career. I work as a freelance writer from home. Thus, I can manage the kids as well as my career. From being a qualified Marketing professional and MBA, I took up my hobby and became a professional content writer. Yes, I do have a maid who comes in the morning. But, the other things I prefer to do myself. In the community where I live, there are doctors, engineers, MBA moms who have taken a break from their career to have kids and then later in their children's initial years. Most of them don't have parents who can come and chip in with the kids. Thus, things in Indian cities have transformed drastically.

  4. I guess grandparents do have more options today than simply living through their kids or their social responsibilities. One more choice for them and rightly so. As for the way you've managed to fine tune your family and career, more power to you and people like you.

  5. the "professional" babysitter thing about NZ is so amazing. the govt inspects every aspect - wow, that's great to know

    when i had left my little daughter in a baby care, i really had no choice. it was a housewife who managed nearly 20 kids & it was purely money making venture for her. my daughter constantly fell sick & eventually i had to quit my full time job.

    its true, blending in completely & the whole race becoming one homogeneous entity is a scary thought. the fact that we are all different - nations, cultures language, food, dress etc - is what makes living & travelling exciting.

  6. One thing I do not wish to convey is that it is all rosy in NZ. I've heard of horror stories of baby-sitters being sweet while the parents are around and then being cruel or neglectful. On the whole though, the system works reasonably well thanks to the basic training and those checks and balances.