Think of a culture, any culture.
If you picked your own, your mind is probably going in a million different directions thinking about all the places, foods, memories, and everything else you’ve experienced in your lifetime. What part of my culture am I supposed to think about?
If you picked a culture other than your own, your mind probably gravitates to a smaller and more simplified image, depending on how familiar you are with that culture. If I asked you to describe the culture you thought of, you could probably give me a few key words or ideas to illustrate it.
I thought of Italian culture.
What is that like?
Ummm…it’s kind of like a lot of talking with your hands, and [imitates Italian accent] and they eat pizza and pasta, lots of famous historic sites – it’s a great place for a vacation.
I’ve never been to Italy, nor have I really ever researched it, so it’s understandable that my perception of Italian culture is limited. But if one day I do decide to visit or research, I will undoubtedly learn that my perception may only be somewhat true in some areas, and certainly not exhaustive of all Italian culture. Moreover, my perceptions will still be limited by the information and experiences I gather – especially if I travel there as a tourist (versus a student, permanent resident, etc.).
Having a limited perception in itself isn’t a problem – we can’t know and understand everything in the world, so of course our perceptions will be limited in some way or another. Rather, the problem lies in failing to recognize or accept that our perception is limited, and believing that something (such as another culture) is as simple as our understanding. We need to recognize and accept our ignorance.
I was first inspired to write this post a while ago, when a friend posted an article to our Facebook group titled “32 Photos Which Show How Different India and America Are”. The article attempts to create humor by juxtaposing an image of “how things are in America” with an image of “how things are in India”. Aside from the glaring issue of reducing two diverse and complex cultures into grossly oversimplified images, the article is also a prime example of how limited perceptions are perpetuated:
- The article uses purely negative examples that depict India as a backwards, outdated country that pales in comparison to the United States. It fails to mention any situations in which India has the upper hand.
- The examples in the article do not have any descriptions or explanations, leaving the reader to draw their own assumptions. This is especially dangerous because…
- The article was published on Buzzfeed, which has a widely Western audience. Most readers likely do not have a deep knowledge of India and its culture to be able to gauge the amount of truth in the (attempted) humor.
The most surprising thing to me about this article is that it was written by an Indian. I’m sure the author thought himself to be innocently poking fun at his own culture, but unfortunately he failed to realize that the article would be viewed by people outside his culture. Ultimately this only serves as a disservice to India on a global scale.
Many (if not all) of my Indian friends were offended at the way India was portrayed in this article. I agree, and I’m not even Indian – but I would be just as upset if I saw an article by an American using extreme, idiotic, and ultimately untrue examples to illustrate “what America is like”. All it does is perpetuate negative stereotypes to the rest of the world that aren’t even true, and definitely aren’t funny.
The U.S. is fortunate to have a generally positive global reputation – modern, wealthy, and civilized. Unfortunately India isn’t quite as lucky; much of the world still has a limited and outdated perception of India as being overly traditional, exotic, and untouched by the modern world. Articles like the aforementioned Buzzfeed piece simply perpetuate that perception, and serve to highlight the differences between India and America rather than the similarities.
It’s because of articles like this that when Americans find out that I was married in India, they ask if I rode an elephant (no) or if I ate anything besides “curry” (yes) or if it smelled bad (no, except for a couple small areas. But you get the point.) These are stereotypes, and they need to be stopped. India is more than this.
This is the reason that Coldplay and Beyonce’s recent music video for “Hymn for the Weekend” got flack from many Indians. What was the purpose of setting the music video for a song that has nothing to do with India, in India, if not to exploit the novelty of its exoticness? While the video does beautifully celebrate India’s rich cultural history, it fails to depict the modernity that is so present in today’s India, and perpetuates the image of “traditional, exotic, 24/7 color throwing” that has permeated Western perception for ages.
Of course the Buzzfeed article’s depiction of India is cause for concern, especially when put on view for the entire world. But the article is also an embodiment of something that has bothered me for quite some time, which I hadn’t figured out how to articulate it until now. There is a serious problem with the way the article idealizes America.
The images used – and even the institutions mentioned – indicate a wildly flawed and painfully limited understanding of America. I can almost guarantee that the author has never been here – if he had, he wouldn’t have used half the examples that he did. In the article, everything from politics to police to parenting and more is depicted as “better” in America – well-established, well-equipped, well-informed. In reality, there is controversy and debate surrounding each of these topics: police brutality, vaccination disputes, Islamophobia, legislation surrounding the LGBTQ community, micro-scrutiny of parenting techniques, immigration issues, Donald Trump. Not to mention that you’re 10 times more likely to be killed by a gun in America than in any other developed nation. But according to the Buzzfeed article, everything in America is clean and everyone is middle class and above. Oh, and pretty much everyone is white. (Seriously. Look at the pictures the author uses.)
I am grateful that my Indian friends are extremely open-minded and socially aware – I would say many are even more so than I. But I would be lying if I said I’d never had conversations with other Indians (both in the U.S. and in India) where I could tell that when they asked about “American culture”, they were subconsciously asking about “white middle-class American culture” as if they were the same. This puts me in a difficult position, because I am a white middle-class American and even though I am very open-minded, those are the experiences I grew up with. How do I ensure that my experiences and opinions aren’t taken as representative of my whole culture? This is something I continue to struggle with.
So Americans view India as traditional and exotic, and Indians view America as white and fancy. Where do these stereotypes originate? If you ask me, they come from movies.
As Americans, we watch Hollywood movies that are comedic, romantic, action-packed, dark, and just about any other genre you can imagine. They make us laugh, cry, cry-laugh, jump out of our seat, and really think. But when the credits roll, we understand that it was a movie – the action was too flippy and fiery to be real, the weddings were too glamorous, the humor was too slapstick. We give American movies creative license to make these things larger-than-life, and we suspend our disbelief to allow ourselves to be entertained, all the while staying subconsciously grounded in reality.
But for some reason, that suspension of disbelief is gone when Americans watch Bollywood movies. We don’t afford these movies the same creative license that we do for their Hollywood counterparts. We view Bollywood with an overly critical lens, and take what is presented on screen as an almost literal representation of the culture. We think the weddings are as big and glamorous as they show in Bollywood movies (when is that ever the case in Hollywood?); we understand the melodrama as juvenile communication rather than exaggerated comedy; we translate the song-and-dance sequences as a goofy and unrealistic distraction, rather than a unique storytelling technique. We see the movies as outdated and traditional, which causes us to view India as outdated and traditional. As Americans, we compare Bollywood to Hollywood, rather than accepting two different styles of something that we often forget is art.
And while many Americans have never seen a Bollywood movie, the stereotype of the films and the culture pervades our society. Add in a few reinforcers like the Buzzfeed article and the Coldplay music video, and the stereotypes practically perpetuate themselves.
The same thing happens in India too. The Hollywood movies that become popular in India are often action and comedy movies that primarily star white middle- or upper-class characters and are heavy on sex, drugs, money, and violence. This leads to a (somewhat true, yet) highly skewed perception of America. My husband admitted to me that when he first came to the United States, he was expecting it to be like the America he saw in American Pie. (Yes, I’m serious, though he obviously knows better now 🙂 )
Both of these examples show people – lots and lots of people – neglecting to acknowledge their ignorance of another culture. They take what they see at face value and do not ask questions, then generalize it in ways that are highly damaging and that hinder true understanding. It creates the illusion that another culture is some sort of interesting idea or a foggy concept, rather than a very real construct with very real people. It’s this kind of mentality that breeds cultural appropriation, racism, and worse.
It’s reassuring to know that not everyone in these cultures believes these things. Not all Indians have such a narrow view of America, and not all Americans have a narrow view of India. In fact, our community in Minnesota continues to do wonders in breaking down barriers and fostering a greater sense of understanding between cultures. But ignorance is still there, however small it may seem. There are still many people in each culture that are content in this ignorance, and that is exactly who this post is for.
Degrading any culture for a cheap laugh isn’t cool, and neither is idealizing one. It gives the false illusion that you know all that you need to know, and stops the exchange of ideas, traditions, and cultures before it even starts. It doesn’t help anyone out and actually creates more space between cultures that are naturally becoming more and more intertwined.
It’s important for everyone to remember that there is no perfect culture, no culture is better than another, and no culture is as simple as you think. Every culture has its own unique problems, and every culture is modern and traditional in its own way. But most importantly, cultures are made of people who are more like us than we realize. Instead of focusing on our differences, we should be focusing on our similarities. It sounds like something you hear in kindergarten, but I’m repeating it because we’re adults now and we’re still not doing it. At the end of the day we all commute, we all go grocery shopping, we all make weird faces before we sneeze, we all embarrass ourselves in front of our crushes…we’re all human.
I hope you enjoyed listening to me rant about something I’m passionate about! I would love to hear any thoughts or questions you may have in the comments!