BOOK REVIEW: Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal

InheritanceInheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

I read at least one piece of literature from every country I visit, and I picked this book for Singapore. In a way, it’s an odd choice because – while the book is set in Singapore over a two decade period — the story revolves around a Punjabi Sikh family. The family consists of single-parent father, two sons, and a daughter who is the youngest child. The father is a police officer who’d been posted to Singapore before it became an independent country. (Singapore is a small [in size, not necessarily in population] island nation that was a British colony, was under Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and then was briefly part of Malaysia — before gaining its independence in 1965.) Given the facts that: a.) Singapore is so fundamentally multi-cultural; b.) the setting substantially influences the nature of the story; and c.) the author lived in Singapore long enough to convey its feel, I stand by my choice.

The story revolves around the damage that can be done by shame and the dark side of traditional values – especially when transplanted into a society that is highly competitive, orderly, but also indulgent. That’s where the importance of the Singaporean setting comes into play. While it’s a strict society that prides itself on order, Singapore is also a mega-Asia metropolis where anyone can find a dim recess to do whatever he or she wants.

Amrit, the young woman in the family, is the single biggest point of shame for the father – and, to varying degrees, the rest of the family. She drinks to excess, is promiscuous, is generally dismissive of traditional values, and all of this ultimately results in her being unmarriageable [at least not in a traditional wedding to a family of equal or greater status as is so coveted in Indian culture.] Early in the book, she disappears for several days and throws the family into a lurch. One would think that concern for Amrit’s well-being would be the over-riding emotion during her absence, but it’s tainted by fear that she’ll make the family look bad. The problem is that Amrit is bipolar but no one recognizes this because all the family can accept is that she is misbehaving – perhaps because she never got to know her mother. Because of this, she doesn’t get treatment for her condition until long after she should have. The fear of her being seen as “mad” and the effect that would have on her ability to be wed keeps the family from helping Amrit get the medicine that would allow her manage her impulses and make better decisions.

The middle son, Narain, is a quieter embarrassment to his father. While Narain is not the kind to go on benders or to draw attention to himself, he is gay – in both a culture and a country that are intolerant of homosexuality. At the beginning of the book we see him being sent away to America to college after being prematurely discharged from military service. His father thinks college in America will make a man out of Narain, but what it does is expose him to an environment which is more permissive but at the same time which drives him away from the Sikh values with which he was raised. In short, it does exactly the opposite of what the father hoped for, and we can imagine Narain would have gone through life playing a part as dictated by traditional norms (getting married, having children, and either repressing his sexuality or leading a secret double-life) had he not spent time abroad.

Even the eldest son, Gurdev, is a disappointment to the father despite the fact that he lives life by the traditional script, marrying a wife who has traditional Punjabi values, and having three children who are successful in school. (Though the fact that they are all girls may be an unstated element of the father’s disappointment, it seems to have more to do with the fact that a cousin who was orphaned and spent time with the family is progressing more quickly in his occupation than Gurdev.)

I enjoyed this book and found it quite illuminating. One sees how tradition and modernity come to loggerheads, and how the outcome is influenced by taking place in a setting that is still trying to get a footing on how to be a country – as Singapore was at the time. It seems fascinating how culture and traditional values form – for good or for bad – blinders. The father can’t fathom that Amrit has a mental condition, not just because he’s in denial, but because it’s not a construct that’s part of his world. Narain, at the start of the book, is extremely aware of cultural norms (e.g. in the opening, we see that he won’t step on so much as a brochure because it’s a violation of the tradition he was raised in to step on the written word.)

I’d highly recommend this book. It’s especially good for those who are seeking to gain insight into Singapore, Punjabi culture, or who want to see how mental illness is swept under the rug to the detriment of all involved.

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What RYT300 Taught Me About Fear

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I recently completed the RYT300 course at Amrutha Bindu Yoga to obtain my RYT500 yoga teacher certification. (i.e. The 200 hour course–which I completed a couple years ago–plus the 300 hour course are the primary requirements for the 500 hour certification.) The essay below is about one of the key lessons I learned in this phase of training.

 

I walked through the streets of Bengaluru barefoot and with not so much as a 5 rupee coin in my pocket. [If your response to that is “big whoop,” you probably live somewhere like Singapore, Helsinki, Kobe, or Calgary where the streets are immaculate and the rats aren’t so bold. If you’re familiar with what goes on in and near the streets in India, you may be wondering what the hell is wrong with me.]  It was an unconventional teaching tactic to be sure, but it ranks among the most valuable lessons of the training—surpassing no small revelations about postural alignment, pranayama methods, bandha technique, physiology, and yogic philosophy. It was even up there with the experience of advanced shatkarma (cleansing practices) that were completely new to me.

 

What’s the lesson?  If you’re going to teach yoga–particularly at the intermediate / advanced level that RYT500 is intended to prepare you for–you need to work on not being ruled by fear. That isn’t to say one must be fearless. We imagine fearlessness to equate to courageousness, but courage is action under fear. Neuroscience tells us what a fearless person is like. We know from individuals who’ve had the parts of their brains damaged that are responsible for the emotion—they are paralyzed by indecision. Our emotions provide a basis for choosing–at least as a tie-breaker when no clearly superior path exists. We need our fear, just like our other emotions, but if you can’t move forward because of it you may have a hard time keeping learning.

 

Not being ruled by fear isn’t just—or primarily—about being able to keep practicing advanced techniques until you can get a grasp on them.  Yes, mastering a handstand requires a fair amount of falling down (hopefully, in a controlled fashion), and that’s a lot of potential for anxiety, but there’s more at stake.  What precisely? One might start, as many do, with what Patanjali has to say on the subject, and one can start from square one. “Chitta Vrtta Nirodhah.” (Quieting the fluctuations of the mind.) Many of the fluctuations of the mind result from anxieties and our obsession with solving them. Our brains are wired to try to anticipate worst case scenarios so we can develop ready-made solutions for them. This can result in excessive pessimism, extended stress, and all the problems that go along with that stress.

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There’s a popular saying that goes, “money is the root of all evil.” But, I think it’s wrong. Fear is at the heart of all evil—not to mention a fair amount of run-of-the-mill pettiness.

 

So what is the path to anxiety management? Start small, and dispassionately observe your discomfort. Don’t try to squelch the emotion, just watch it while trying to avoid putting good or bad labels on it. Of course, sources of anxiety are personal. As far as prescriptive yoga practices, that depends upon one’s personal anxieties. For some inversions might do the trick, for others extreme back bends, for some external breath retention, for others it may be balancing. Then, of course, there are the advanced shatkarma practices I mentioned earlier–such as vaman dhauti (cleansing by vomiting) or poorna shankhaprakshalana (i.e. clearing out one’s digestive tract via massive ingestion of salt water.)

 

I recently finished teaching a Kid’s Camp (a post about that to come.) At the beginning of the camp, I was telling someone that the kids were fearless, but what I came to discover was that kids just allow their enthusiasm to swamp their anxieties. I had seven-year-olds doing pinchamayurasana (forearm stand) and vrschikasana (scorpion) within the first few days. That would be a hard sell for adults. [I don’t think I’ve ever taught those postures to adults.]  It’s not just that kids are bendy, they’re also ready to get up after they fall down. (And since they’re not stressed about the possibility of falling they don’t tense up and get badly injured.) Someone posted a great meme on Facebook recently. It said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, doesn’t go, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’”

The Non-shopping Firang

20140316_160803With the notable exception of books, I hate shopping. There are few endeavors more painfully tedious to me than wandering through stores looking for clothes, tsotchkes, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, widgets, or doo-dads. I do go shopping, in part because I like to eat, and in part because societal conventions require that I wear clothing (you’re welcome.)

 

Were I not married, I’d be a complete fashion nightmare because I have only three questions when shopping for clothes. 1.) Does it look like it fits? 2.) Does it look comfortable? 3.) Is the price reasonable? (i.e. given that I’m a cheapskate for which stylishness and/or trendiness mean diddlysquat.) If the price of two shirts of the same size is identical, I will buy the one that’s closest to the cash register–or which will otherwise get me out of the store the quickest.

 

You’ll note, I didn’t include the question: “Does it match?” Correct. I’m not even sure I know what that means. If it’s a shirt, it matches pants because you wear them together, right? A shirt would not match another shirt, unless one could wear one over the other? If you can’t wear the two items at the same time, they definitely don’t match, but that doesn’t come up often. (I know all the bits that need covering, ergo, I can succeed at picking a group of garments that covers all the essential anatomical area.)

 

I also didn’t include “Does it look good?” It had to look good to someone–they made the damn thing. Who am I to say my taste is better than theirs? I think we’ve already established that I know not thing-one about being fashionable. Now, if it has feathers or a cape, I wouldn’t buy it on the grounds of lack of functionality (have you ever gotten your cape caught in an elevator or escalator?), but I don’t judge on taste. There but for the grace of my wife, go I… looking like non-sparkly Elton John.

 

So where am I going with this, you may ask? What’s intriguing is that, despite the fact that I hate shopping, I get asked if I want to be taken to a market, mall, or commercial district about four times per day (fyi, that’s roughly the number of times I go shopping per annum.)

 

Imagine a white person walking down the sidewalk wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, said person has a full duffle-bag on their shoulder that is long enough to accommodate a standard size yoga mat when rolled up. Where is this person going?

A.) He /she is going to the yoga studio.

B.) He /she is going to a gym.

C.) He / she is going to a martial arts studio.

D.) There isn’t enough information to determine between A,B, or C.

E.) He /she desperately wants to go shopping.

 

If you answered “D” you’re a keen and astute observer. If you answered A, B, or C, you have drawn a reasonable conclusion, but did so too quickly and without sufficient information for that degree of specificity.  If you answered “E,” you drive an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) for a living.

 

For a while, I thought that this was just blatant ignorance, as all forms of racism are. Could these drivers truly not fathom–despite all evidence to the contrary–that I (i.e. whitey) spent my time doing things other than shopping? Did they really think that my days were divided between counting infinite piles of cash and spending it on crap for which I had no real need?

 

Then I realized that it was tenacious hope that drove these inquiries, and not biases. I came to this conclusion as I was watching a few of the recent Superbowl ads. If I don’t get enraged at Madison Avenue, I can’t really get mad at the aforementioned driver. Advertisers and that driver are both just trying to persuade me that something that I don’t need and have no interest in is somehow pursuit-worthy.

 

The driver knows that I’m going to yoga or kalari or a funeral (or wherever the evidence might suggest I’m headed at the moment), but they’re just holding out the thin hope that I can be diverted from that funeral to go buy some gee-gaw from which they can obtain a commission. In a way, they’re like the guys (or girls, to be non-discriminatory) who hit on a person who is way out of their league. It takes a lot of confidence to suffer repeated crushing rejection with such low probability of success. There’s a guy in the building where I get both my haircuts and Tibetan thukpa, who invites me into his carpet shop every single time I enter the building–despite the fact that the first 100 times I’ve shown zero interest. As long as said persistent wooer doesn’t resort to stalking, it’s kind of endearing. (Of course, it’s a thin line into stalker territory, and then it becomes instantly intolerable.)

 

There’s another reason I’ve discovered I shouldn’t hold this persistence against the drivers. That’s that they’re stereotyping isn’t without basis. Most of my expat compatriots do love themselves some shopping. I’m very curious about the root of this behavior. I suspect that it’s the vestigial evolutionary programming of hunter/gatherer behavior carried over into people who don’t like to get their toes muddy, to have to touch anything “icky,” or–in general–to be outdoors.

 

However, I’m a little out of my league, because I only have this compulsion to shop for books. I’m sure that’s residual hunter / gather behavior, but there’s a goal that can be understood. Through book shopping, I’m searching for a kind of nourishment–not the kind that ends hunger pangs, but the kind that’s an assault on my stupidity. I still don’t have a theory for how this applies to Hello Kitty stickers, Chia Pets, a second (or 403rd) pair of sneakers, or any of the other inane crap the people really–but unbelievably–purchase.

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DAILY PHOTO: Food Street Bangalore

Taken on April 12, 2014 in VVpuram, Bangalore.

Taken on April 12, 2014 in VVpuram, Bangalore.

Made another trip to Bangalore’s Food Street in VVpuram (near Sajjan Rao Circle) for Rumali Roti and Mysore Masala  Paneer Dosa. Both were excellent, and the street was packed with humans, bovines, canines, and felines all living harmoniously.

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My First Tibetan Buddhist Meditation & Lecture

Having settled into life in India over the past month, I’m now getting around to some of the self-enrichment activities I’ve planned on taking advantage of here in Bangalore. Today I attended a meditation session and discussion/lecture at the Thubten Lekshey Ling Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Center. I’ve read a few books on Buddhism and even one or two specific to Tibetan Buddhism, but this was my first time attending such a session. Also, while I’ve done several kinds of secular meditation, both in a group and individually, this was my first exposure to guided meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The title of the session was As the Clouds Drift by… The first hour was the meditation portion and the following two hours were the lecture / discussion portion. The session opened with a few prayers that were chanted in what I believe was Sanskrit, but there was an English translation for newbies such as myself to follow along with the meaning. Then we did a few short meditations that were much like others that I’ve done: meditation on breath and meditation on bodily awareness. Then there was a visualization as we read a sutra in English.

Transitioning into the discussion and lecture portion, we first discussed the meaning of life. No, I’m not making that up. While it might seem like a hackneyed question, some intriguing points were raised. We were directed to think of the question as having two alternative meanings. First, why am I here? Second, what is my purpose? The conversation gravitated to the latter topic. I’m not sure if this was because there was a consensus that the question “why am I here?” is meaningless, or if the question of purpose was just more intriguing. There were various opinions about whether there was a purpose, and–if so–whether it is universal or individual-specific.

After a brief tea break, the remainder of the session involved readings from The Way of Bodhisattva followed by analysis and prompted discussion. Much of the discussion revolved around the issue of how compassion is expressed and the difficulty (or ease) of being a Bodhisattva. (A Bodhisattva is one who seeks enlightenment out of compassion for all sentient beings.)

I found the session to be thought-provoking and beneficial, and thought the atmosphere was conducive to growth. Emphasis was placed on discussion rather than straight lecturing. I will no doubt be back to visit in the future.

I did learn something interesting about myself through the process of the class, and that’s that I need to learn to be still for more than two hours. While there was no prohibition on moving around–particularly beyond the meditation portion– in an effort to not be a distraction, I tried to keep fairly still. I practically ran home afterwords. I had all this pent-up energy. I would have thought myself better than average at sitting in a contemplative state. I’m a writer for goodness sake. I spend entire days at my computer. However, in truth, I rarely sit more than an hour without getting up and stretching or doing some sort of movement to limber up my body and get the blood flowing. I was raised Catholic, and so I’m not new to sitting quietly for long periods of time. Though that was a long time ago. I also have three college degrees and have spent more than my fair share of time in classrooms, but the wandering mind is not discouraged in that environment–in a way it’s encouraged.

7 Perqs of Life in India

1.) Vegetarian restaurants: While I’m not of the vegetarian persuasion, my wife is. This can make finding a mutually acceptable restaurant a pain. However, it’s vastly easier to pick a restaurant in India. Except for the very rare American-style steak house, she can eat anywhere and the menu will be at least half vegetarian.

In Atlanta, I’d estimate that she could eat healthily and well in about one in five restaurants. American Southern cooking doesn’t offer one a side of green beans without a ham bone in it. I’d say we’ve cut our restaurant selection time to about a quarter of the time it took in the US.

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2.) Cheap books: While English is secondary to Kannada as the spoken language here, it’s not second  in the bookstores by any means. Bookstores are common and offer some new options. I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores, so I usually don’t see a lot that’s new, but there are books printed by Indian publishers here that don’t usually appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble.

And, unlike in Cambodia where books are  cheap by means of photocopying, the books here aren’t cheap by virtue of stiffing the writer.

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3.) Amazon: On a related note, I can still buy Kindle books just as easily as I did in the states. There are some websites that don’t work here, such as Hulu and Netflix, but Amazon operates just fine.

4.) Walk-centric life: Bangalore is not an easy city to walk in because the traffic is horrendous, there is no system for traffic lights, and sidewalks are about as dangerous as walking in the street. (If your eye isn’t constantly on the sidewalk, you might just plunge into a sewer.) However, being in the heart of the city, there’s nothing I need that I can’t get via a short walk.

5.) Servants: I haven’t mowed lawn, swept a walk, done laundry, or washed a dish since I left the US, and yet it’s always done. After a brief period of feeling awkward, it’s beginning to grow on me. The hardest part will be going home, once I’ve become accustomed to a certain level of service.

6.) Climate: There’s been a pleasant breeze coming through my window pretty much all day. I haven’t had to use the AC since we’ve been here. And it’s starting to not rain every night. Of course, this one is not so much about India as Bangalore specifically. On the whole, India’s climate is not so pretty.

7.) Loan words:  I suspect it’s harder for the locals to talk about foreigners behind their backs here than most countries because there are so many English loan words. They’ll be a couple of locals talking in Kannada, and you’ll here: “Waa-wah-waa-wah-waa-wah-super convenient-waa-wah-waa.” So it’s like having a rudimentary grasp of a language, you can kind of get a feel for the general drift of what is being talked about-even if you don’t know any specifics. At least this makes bad-mouthing foreigners a mental exercise.

The Deferential Calculus of Being an American in India

Every time I come home, the security man at the desk at our apartment building jumps to his feet and proceeds to stand at attention until I pass. This makes me uncomfortable, as do the many other ingrained acts of deference that occasionally border on obsequiousness. I’ve considered stopping to tell him he can be permanently “at ease” with me, but given the language barrier I’m afraid I’d just confuse the issue–plus have him standing at attention that much more longer. So, when in Rome…

If you’re an American, but not, say… General Pershing, you’d probably find this makes you uneasy as well. I think one of the reasons that Americans have historically excelled at technological development  is that we were in a hurry to have machines do our laundry, wash our dishes, or trim our nose hairs so that we wouldn’t have to have some other human apparently kowtowing to us. (This may be why the 19th century North was considerably more technologically advanced than its Southern counterpart, which had successfully rationalized a subclass of human being.)

There’s a guy who stands at the end of the lane and lifts a swing arm up and down every time a car (or, oddly, a pedestrian such as myself) comes down the lane. The first couple times I walked around the end in hopes of indicating to him that, “Hey, see you don’t really need to swing that thing up, I can just walk right around it, easy as pie.” I think I hurt his feelings, or–perhaps worse–undermined his reason for getting up in the morning. My point is that operating a swing-arm barrier is a perfect example of the type of job that has been completely mechanized in America.

I’m sure that cultural differences are the root of my discomfort. India is coming from the caste system, whereby who you were born to determined your status in a rigidly hierarchical structure. While Indians may have dropped the caste system, the underlying thought process dies hard. I, on the other hand, come from a culture which believes that on a fundamental level we are all equal. Americans are often stymied as to why we are viewed as being arrogant by other cultures. This may be a failure to see things in the same light. It’s not so much that we project that we are better than the average Joe, it’s that we don’t accept that the kings and holy men those cultures hold dear are above us. This is true. I don’t think I’m better than the door man, but I also don’t think the King of [Fill in the blank] is better than me. [OK, the perception of arrogance is also partly that we’re loud and expect a ubiquity of comfort that is simply not available in much of the world. There is that. And the fact that our leaders often think they can fix every problem everywhere, and–given this is not actually true–we have left a lot of chaos in the our wake since our rise to hegemony.]

So the whole culture thing is part of it. However, I also worry that the man who brings my food with a warm smile and a bow is spitting in it. I wonder if the lady who launders my clothes, and then goes the extra mile by ironing them (though they mostly consist of T-shirts and jeans), might be preparing an itching powder attack. I wonder if the security guy standing at attention is just waiting for me to lock myself out of my apartment so that he can exercise some passive aggressive payback. [I suspect this is why Indian bureaucracy is notoriously slow and prickly. It’s a desire to exercise the leg up on has while one is in other ways part of an underclass.] I heard a comedienne of Indian origin say that her mother always flew British Airways just for the delight of bossing a Brit around. All of this consternation is because I worry that they think that I think I’m superior to them, which I don’t.

Yesterday I was eating at an Indian fast food joint called Kaati Zone. It’s one of those places that you order at the counter, get your food at the counter, and take it to one’s table. (FYI- this set up is much less common here except for little holes in the wall where one stands to eat.) When I was done, I pitched my trash in the trash can and put my tray on top, just like one would at a Wendy’s. When I turned around there was a young woman with her jaw agape and eyes wide looking right at me. My first thought was that I had pitched my wallet or my journal in the trash. I did a pat down and found I was alright. As I left, it dawned on me that her surprise may have had something to do with my handling of my own garbage.

Enough with the Indian Food Warnings, Already

Bengali Authentic Full Meal; Source Nandinissaha (via Wikipedia)

Bengali Full Meal; Source Nandinissaha (via Wikipedia)

When I tell people that I’m moving to India, a common–but strange–response is for them to issue warnings about the food and water. I find this odd for two reasons.

First, said warnings are often issued without much firsthand experience of developing world dining (not including high-brow resorts), and without knowledge of my dining history.

Here are few facts that might help one to better understand my approach. I’ve dined on cold seafood salad in a Phnom Penh cafe. I’ve noshed on snake-on-a-stick in China. I once supped at a home/restaurant in the Peruvian Andes whose latrine consisted entirely of a squat-hole cantilevered out over a  cliff side. A couple of days in Bangkok, I consumed nothing but street-food. I was raised on a farm with non-pasteurized milk, and had a father who wasn’t above cooking up a nice-looking piece of road kill. Not a bloated opossum mind you– but I’ve gnawed clean the drumstick of a pheasant that died not by birdshot, but on the grill of a Peterbuilt. (Funny story, spellcheck wanted to change “pheasant” in the preceding sentence to “peasant.” That would have really freaked you out.) So while my home life has been first world, I’ve got a little third world in my gut.

Now you’re probably thinking, “This idiot is infinitely lucky to be alive, and given his behavior he will probably die soon.” Au contraire mon frère. It’s not that I randomly engage in high-risk behavior. Even locals get Delhi Belly if they don’t choose wisely–despite the full panoply of aggressive gut organisms working on their behalf. I’m quite aware of the hazards, and take calculated risks backed up with sensible precautions.

It’s funny that people live in terror of street food–not that there aren’t some carts that one should run from screaming. However, do you really know what the pimply-faced teenager is touching or scratching during the act of assembling your burger at Chili’s? I know exactly what the hands of the old lady grilling my moo ping on Sukhumvit Road looked like. I got a good look because there was always a line that I had to wait in– and gladly so. (FYI – sanitary wipes or hand sanitizer are one thing you should take with you wherever you go in this world.)

I’m not saying that I’ve never gotten an upset stomach, but I’ve done some remote third world travel and never experienced anything worse than resulted from any given trip to Taco Bell.

I’m quite fond of Indian food, and am sure I will cope well with having it for the majority of my meals for the next couple years. Yes, I’ll have to severely reduce my intake of ice-cold beverages and raw foods. (Ice and wash water are the hidden killers that probably cause more food-borne ailments than anything else.) However, ice-cold beverages –while refreshing and pleasant– are not really that healthy for a body in high temperatures anyway. (Flash heating or cooling of things at the other end of the temperature spectrum is bound to cause problems–one’s organs aren’t that different.) While I like raw vegetables, the human body is more efficient at extracting nutrients from cooked food, so there’s a side advantage there as well.

I think people freak themselves out and miss out on some excellent food. One individual who traveled widely once told me that she never ate the local food for fear of getting sick. I felt bad for her. She traveled to the source of some of the world’s best food, and then dined on American fast food–that’s a squandering of no small part of the travel experience. Of course, some people have very weak systems, and that may have been the case for her. (American fast food may be bad for you, but it is uniformly bad throughout the world.)

The second thing that I find strange is that when I was moving to England 25 years ago, no one warned me that I would be going to one of the most gastronomically unappealing places on the planet. Let’s face it, the reason Britain took over India in the first place was so that they could get something decent to eat. Curry is also the reason they didn’t let go easily.

Is there some bias whereby people tend to respond with negativity when one says that one is moving to the developing world, versus positive responses to moving within the developed world?  One probably shouldn’t respond with negativity to news someone is moving anywhere, but–if you must– you should tailor it to the individual concerned.  For example, if one said to me, “That shrill flute in their music is going to get on your last nerve.”  Well, sorry, but that’s probably a correct statement. (No offense, I’m sure it sounds lovely if you were brought up with it, but it will be–at best– an acquired taste for me.)

Outsourced as a Guide to Indian Corporate Culture?

As my wife and I prepare for our move to Bangalore, we are doing research to help us avoid inadvertent insult and blasphemy . We’ve learned such useful facts as: a.) don’t tug on a Sikh man’s beard, and b.) don’t buy a statue of the goddess Durga to use as a hat rack.

Source: Dipankan001 (via Wikipedia)

Durga Source: Dipankan001 (via Wikipedia)

These are just the kind of faux pas a well-meaning but uninformed American couple might make. (Oh, you say, not really?)

Every culture has its little proclivities that seem insane from the outside, but which are so deeply ingrained as to be invisible from the inside. (In fact, I had trouble thinking up such American cultural proclivities, but I believe they exist. Our norms are just so ingrained as to be hard to see. Of course, we are also a  diverse society, a young nation, and tend toward the irreverent in the social domain– all of which may make our cultural idiosyncrasies look a bit different from those of more traditional societies.)

We’ve been reading books like Culture Shock! India, which is one of a series of books that explain the various cultural idiosyncrasies of different countries. (I was first introduced to the series through Culture Shock! Cambodia, though I have read other such books about China and Japan.)  Such guides are extremely useful for explaining do’s and don’ts. However, they don’t necessarily prepare one for the corporate culture of India, which is a mix of Indian, Western, and   multinational business cultures. For insight into the corporate culture we turned to:

OutsourcedFor those of you unfamiliar, Outsourced was a sitcom that ran for one season (2010-2011) on NBC. The premise of the show was that the manager of a novelty company call center is moved from the US to Mumbai. He becomes acquainted with Indian culture as he must teach his staff enough about American culture  so that they can communicate with the customers they are on the phone with all day. Some of the humor comes from the exposure of a very conservative workforce to products that include dildos and slutty Halloween costumes, but much of it is just cultural tension more broadly. The show was popular with critics and Americans familiar with India. Unfortunately, that was not enough to keep it on the air, particularly when Americans who buy tacky crap and couldn’t find India on a map were the butt of the joke at least as much as were Indians. (Americans who buy tacky crap and are geographically illiterate are a large demographic within the television viewing public.) At any rate, the show was clever and well-acted.

One may scoff at the use of a sitcom as reference material, but the show seemed to be well-researched. For example, I know that its discussion of the famous Indian head bobble matched the description in the cultural guide quite well. The bobble is a non answer that can mean virtually anything. The video below gives a more detailed explanation, but the visual is not so good. From what I’ve seen, most people tend to do this action more with the top of the head staying relatively stationary while the jawline swings side-to-side.

This left us wondering whether other elements of the show will ring true. The show introduced me to a new term, “holiduping.” This is when one’s employees convince a manager that a day is a holiday, when in reality it isn’t. To get the joke, you must know that Indians have enough work holidays to make US Federal employees say, “Damn, that’s a lot of holidays!” Furthermore, not all the holidays are national. There may be days taken off in Karnataka that are not in Gujarat, and vice versa. This can make it a challenge for new comers to keep track.

I’m curious as to the views of people in-the-know about how accurate Outsourced was. Most of the cast were Americans of Indian origin, but it doesn’t look like the same was true of the lead writers.