Monday, May 27, 2013

Cultural learnings of an Indian immigrant to the US

 Indians were among the first to come out of the hunter gatherer stage. We had an advanced civilization  back in 3000 BC (Indus valley civilization). We had literature back in 1500BC (Vedas). We were in the forefront of human development up until a few hundred years ago. That's when we  reached a stage where we divided and started fighting among ourselves. As a nation we became very weak. That led to foreign invasions, starting with Mahmud of Ghazni around 1000AD ending with the British colonial rule in 1947. Even though it has been many decades since the independence, we still haven't pulled ourselves out of the muck that we are in right now. Think about this, after the devastating second world war, the Germans were not far ahead of where we were in 1947. But they managed to develop a positive culture and find their way out of it. We on the other hand remain to be a predominantly poor nation where our major focus remains to be putting each other down. To help address some root social problems in our nation, I will be presenting my top 6 observations as an Indian immigrant to the US and juxtaposition them with our culture in India.

1>Independent thinking is strongly encouraged in this country

One would wonder, why in spite of having such a large IT force, no major IT innovation has ever come out of India. In this case, we can't even use lack of infrastructure as an excuse, because it took nothing more than a computer and internet access to start off companies like Google and Facebook. That is something every IT professional in India has access to. Here are my 2 cents on the cause.
   While attending school in India, I was taught to accept the words of my teacher as words of God and never question them. Of the few times that I do remember questioning them as a little boy, I even more strongly remember the physical pain that followed. After growing up, I remember this time, when a professor from an external college had come over to take our viva exams. He asked this one question to a guy (luckily he was not me), to which he didn't get the answer he expected. He told the student what the right answer was. The student protested and gave his reason for why he thought his answer was correct. He also made the mistake of pointing out the fault in the professor's argument. The professor admonished the student for questioning him and also told him to go out and inform all the other students of the "correct answer" to the question. If they say anything else, the professor would fail them like he was about to fail him.
    This was not one of a kind incident. All through out my schooling I had to take things for granted without knowing why they were true. If you were Einstein attending school in India, you would probably never graduate. The reason being, you are expected to give the "right answer" in the "right way". If you solve a math problem in a way different from what they expect from you, you fail. By the time a student gets through 18 years of this conformation enforcement formal education system, all creativity is more or less dead.  That is why in spite of having such a large IT force, no major innovations have ever come out of that country. We never think outside the box.
   When I attended school (Master's program) in US, I totally fell in love with their education system. Contrary to the Indian examination system, where you would try solve as many of the past question papers as possible and try to ace this game called exam, instead here the focus is on learning the subject and putting that knowledge to some practical use. Most of the grading here is based on course projects where you actually build stuff based on what you learned. Even in schools like Harvard, where you have Nobel laureates working as professors, students still analyze and question everything they are taught. They might come to the same conclusion as their professor, but they get there on their own, instead of being forced there.

2>Genius is not confined to math and science

In India right from a very young age extraordinary amount stress is placed on math and science. One of my co workers who was raised in India like I was, wants his daughter to be an engineer. He claims only engineers and doctors are smart. Other fields are for the people with a lower level of Intelligence. This mentality in my opinion is another one of the reasons that we are far behind the developed nations. The customer service in India is deplorable. All the movies have the same story.  Most Indian politicians are cheap low life thugs. The online version of the major news papers, like "Times of India" for instance, have criminally horrible editing.( Every single time they mention rape, they put quotes around it!!! After all these years they still don't realize that quotes mean so called.) All this wouldn't had been the case if we had smart people being able to branch out into disciplines outside science, without the social stigma.
    Every one is born with a different talent. In US every field is considered important. You have really smart people (US president Barack Obama for instance) taking up non science related disciplines in college. Many of them go on to be outstanding in the disciplines they choose.

3>Being interested in politics is good thing

When I was in India, most people considered politics a field for the bad people. No decent person would want anything to do with it. And guess what? We barely have any decent people in politics for the same reason.
     In US being involved in politics is considered a patriotic obligation of every citizen. They start getting involved in rallies and campaigns from a very young age. They realize that they shouldn't vote for individuals who would cater to their own selfish needs over the needs of the nation. They also realize that contesting in elections is one of the best ways to serve the nation. Clinton, Bush and Obama are all Ivy league graduates. How many IIM/IIT grads do we know of, who have become the prime ministers of India?

4>Every individual life matters

When I used to live in Mumbai, I remember seeing these severely malnourished kids begging on the side walk with their ribs sticking out. Its no secret that gangsters own these kids and they share the loot with the local cops. They feed the kid just enough so that he can live long enough to beg another day.
      When Jessica Lal got murdered the whole nation got behind a campaign to get her justice. But no one seems to care about all the little kids who get exploited everyday on the streets of India. Why? Because we do not care about the poor people.
    US on the other hand cares for every one of her citizens. If you are a US citizen who gets kidnapped in the forests of Amazon, the president himself will get involved. If you are physically challenged and cannot earn a living, the government sends you a paycheck every month. If you are kid, the government makes sure that you are well fed and get a good education. Every single individual kid born in this nation has a fair shot at success, if he/she has the will to do so.  Giving importance to every individual life has helped them to become a nation of strong individuals which in turn led to becoming a strong nation.

5>Anger is a sign of the weak

Most of our Bollywood movies, especially the ones with Salman and Shahrukh Khan, have notoriously glamorized anger. We idolize Sunny Deol, when he throws a person across the room for insulting him. When this plays out in real life, we have people attacking each other for the flimsiest of reasons. Its not uncommon to read news articles where people kill each other in road rage or over a cricket match. When travelling in the local trains in Mumbai, fists fights are a very common occurrence. For us fighting like street dogs, is the answer to all our problems.
     The concept here is, if you lose your temper, its because you are a weak individual who knows no other way to deal with his problems. If you ever lose temper in public, you are immediately ostracized. Kids here learn this from a very young age. Early in life, they learn to express their disagreements through speech instead of fists. As a result, most of them grow up to have amazing debating skills.

6>Reward works better than punishment

In India at most work places the boss scares you into getting the job done either by threatening or insulting until he gets what he wants. In the western world the threatening is replaced by the enticement of rewards. You get praised and rewarded for a job well done. Most psychologists agree that honest praise works far better than criticism. In the western world human behaviour tendencies are given a lot of importance. We Indians on the other hand have created a system where we treat humans like robots. We fail to realize that without appealing positively to the emotional part of the human brain, it is hard to motivate people.

Even though most us from India conveniently attribute all our problems to our oversized 1 Billion plus population, the bitter truth is, that's just a comfortable lie that politicians want us to believe. Until we address these root problems, we will forever be damned to remain as a developing nation.

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