Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cultural Divide: Why Whitey Doesn't Understand South Asia

I have about 15 posts I want to write swimming around in my head, but just haven't had the time to write them. The restaurant is still not open, but each day we are moving a bit closer. Something I touched on very briefly in a previous post was how the cultural divide between Westerners and people here in Nepal is both not as wide as they first think, but at the same time very vast in areas that we at first do not really comprehend. Mostly this is due to some very fundamental assumptions made by westerners that just don't get Asia.

Back in one of my first posts I listed a couple of things I thought would take a long time to get use to (link HERE), and one of them was skin whitening creams and their kind of creepy commercials. These are found in most of Asia, be it India, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, China, etc. For us the idea that beauty is dependent on skin color is a bit too close to racism for comfort, and thus we in the west have a hard time often relating to it. But it goes a lot deeper than that. This isn't just a status thing here, many Asians look at dark skinned people the same way we in the west view obese people, just fundamentally unattractive not something that is a slight preference. Most Asians are convinced that westerners have just absolutely terrible taste in woman, mostly because we don't get too distracted by skin tone, for us it's often much more about body shape and facial features. I had a successful friend of mine who was starting to see a guy who was from southern India and somewhat dark, and all her local friends were almost aghast- "he's kind of dark isn't he?". As if surely she could find a more attractive guy with fairer skin, didn't matter that the guy was rather athletic and tall- things most western woman are more interested in. I think they find this equally unsettling as we are so white ourselves.

On the topic of male and female relations, the divides go much deeper still. When we hear that countries like Nepal are "conservative" we innately think to what is considered conservative in our own society and assume that it's kind of the same here. This is a mistake. Western woman are viewed as "slutty" often by locals, and guide books like to blame western media for this, but this is not really the case. It mostly has to do with two big issues, sex and dating. See woman in the west unapologetically  state that they enjoy sex, even among some of the most conservative circles where it is not discussed it is at least understood this way. In fact we would consider there to be something wrong with someone who didn't enjoy sex. For us the assumption by the vast majority of the population is that "of course woman enjoy sex" (and if you don't think they do, then you are probably doing something wrong!). Such is not the assumption in South Asia, and it is considered somewhat whorish of a woman just to enjoy the act. While many western woman may be chomping at the bit to start screaming about the stifling of woman by the "patriarchy", let me just say as a full blooded member of that group that I would never endorse such a notion. Half the fun, if not more, of the act is the enjoyment by the other individual you are engaged in it with, to me there is nothing less attractive than getting into it with someone who has no enthusiasm for it. But here is also the difference in the outlook of what sex is, where for us we engage in it as a leisure activity bordering on something akin to a sport or at least something almost recreational, here it is something entirely different.

The other difference is a perception of how male-female relations are conducted. I have many friends here that were married to someone that they never really dated and met only a few times before the deal was sealed. Marriage is still quite young for woman, even among the higher caste educated people's of Nepal you will rarely find a woman heading into her late twenties and still single. While trends are changing slightly, the idea of serial dating with casual pre-marital sex and the fairly normal concept to us of living together before marriage to test the waters are all rather scandalous out this way. I honestly don't know how guys here handle it, as it seems like it would be rather hard to get laid- and maybe this is the reason for the over prevalence of cheesy romance themes in so much of south asian cinema, desperate men often  have equally desperate romantic inclinations. I also can't imagine getting married to someone I've never had sex with, to me that chemistry is such an integral part of the relationship that it's not something to leave to chance and hope for the best after committing to "forever and ever". But again this underscores both a different view about role of men/woman in marriage and also the way in which birth control has greatly changed the outlook in the west, and has not been so quick to change traditions in South Asia.

Beyond this the marriage dynamic is also quite different. While there is no doubt that there are loving bonds in marriage here, it is not like the west where we are looking to marry a friend and equal companion. Here it is about a division of labor, providing children, and in some circles providing a certain amount of social presentation. The more classic views on fidelity are still prevalent here, where fidelity in woman is a strictly required virtue, where in men it is viewed as of lesser importance where the main rule is that he be very discreet with his indiscretions to avoid having the wife loose face. Most of history this was the dynamic, one need only read Homer's Odyssey to see the differing standards set for Odysseus and Penelope. In fact I have come to believe that men of a certain stature often have younger lovers as much as a status thing here as much as for the fact that they actually enjoy it.

But this brings up the idea of face and public appearance and the absolute importance of appearances here. Something I've come to find in Asia is that how things appear is much more important than the substance that lies underneath them. One only need to watch any movie from the 80s in the US to know that any culture, east or west, has this to some degree, but it's just on another whole level of importance here. The west has it's philosophical foundations in the writings of the Greeks, and influence of these thinkers and what followed in the enlightenment is still very influential in our societies. Core among these beliefs is that it is the true nature of a thing, and not appearances that are of worth. Now surely we do not all act this way but if you were to ask the majority of people in the West what has more value, substance or appearance almost everyone would say substance, but such is not the case here. Here it is more important that you look the part than that you are qualified to fill the role, in fact the requirement for most positions is more one of appearances than substance. For a receptionist, it is less important that she can type quickly than it is that she can dress well and look pretty- i.e. fair skin might be more of an asset to have than say any knowledge about how to use MS Excel. For families of certain stature it is important that they own a car, even if they have nowhere to drive to, because people of their stature have cars and so they should too. Functionality is trumped by a need to look the part.

This concept also extends into complicated social interaction. Where we might value efficiency and completing tasks, for many things here it is about how the things appear to be done. For example people want to say that they are working on certain charities, or funding or running maybe some NGO- but what gets done by such an organization isn't so important. This is of course a generalization and I've also met many very committed people here, but by and large it's the appearance of caring that is the important part not the work itself. It also means that you have to be careful how well and quickly you do your work in certain situations, as you must avoid being too good at what you do in order not to make others, especially your superiors look bad. It's not nearly as important that things get done as it is that the right people come out looking good when they are finished (lol- does anything ever get finished here?). I realize this all is coming out sounding fairly negative, but I don't intend it that way, and I think it may also have a great deal to do with what our values are as opposed to the more common values in Asia where social standing, harmony between individuals and interpersonal connections trump efficiency and raw competitive spirit.

This divide in how people relate to others is also much more complicated because of the much more hierarchical way in which cultures here interact with each other. In the west, while we do not practice it any better than the above example with valuing substance over appearance another central assumption we have is about the equal value of any individual. Again this is not the case necessarily here. In any relation between two people there is almost always a big man and a little man, and knowing ones place in this chain is very important. Certain people by their position of financial standing, titles, or connections hold a certain place in society where they are offered deferment by those they interact with. It is not a one way relationship, the little guy usually gets access to those connections and favors in exchange for work, loyalty and such. It is something very similar to what Europe was probably like during feudal times. While certain forces are fighting to create a more equal environment for all, I don't think most westerners realize how centrally ingrained the notions of hierarchical standing really is in the majority of Asia. It plays a central role in how every facet of society works and underscores the most basic ways that people interact with each other. It is because of this network that things common in the west like Yellow Pages to find businesses didn't really take off over here. Why use an anonymous source for a job, when it is much more important to either forge a new connection or make use of existing one through a vast complicated network of people above or below your standing. Currency in favors trumps using the best source.

I could keep going on and on here. Sometime I'd like to talk about the difference in competitiveness (there is a reason that south Asia accounts for over a quarter of the worlds populations and less than 1% of the gold medals at the Olympics), or about what it means to be a professional, etc. but this is plenty for now and my laundry is almost done (the only reason I had an excuse to sit and write this long). The main thing to realize here is that it is not what smacks you in the face upon seeing it that are our biggest differences between societies, but instead it is when some of our most basic assumptions about what it means to be part of a society are completely different. In these cases both groups approach the other bringing their unchallenged assumptions with them, and thus see the other in almost completely the wrong light.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I can get away with saying this without sounding "imperialist" or "colonialist" or whatever they are calling it these days, but everything you describe- role of sex, dating and marriage, inter-class relations, appearance over substance- all sounds like the West a few hundred years ago. Even the obsession with pale skin, which always stood for someone who didn't have to work in the sun, whereas in the west now a tan stands for someone who doesn't have to work under fluorescent lights.

    My point isn't that the East is inexorably headed towards adopting all the same values as the West, just lagging behind. But I think that if you were to read a book from the past in the West (like I am listening to George Eliot's Silas Marner- early 1800s England, rural town) and really, REALLY try to imagine yourself being transported back in time to live in that setting, with all of your values, perceptions and assumptions still intact, it would probably be almost exactly the same experience. Wanna date this girl? Too bad. The closest you can get is looking at her across the pews in church. Think you're better at the squire's son than at administrating the town finances? Who cares? He's the squire's son and you're not.

    While you're right that the West still has its share of instances of valuing appearance over substance, there is a generally accepted philosophical sense that the meritocracy is preferable to aristocracy. That may catch on in the East at some point, or it may never. I have a feeling it will, as it obviously makes society more productive and equitable.

    Interesting post. Thanks for the perspective.


Related Posts with Thumbnails