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In-Between Cultures

Cultural Immersion in Bangalore, India

Article and Photos by Diana Jue

Vegetable Stand in Bangalore

Here is a list of phrases that I wrote to describe Bangalore immediately after I returned to the United States: meandering cows, trash, spit bins, extended families, the head nod with multiple meanings, auto rickshaws, colorful saris, noise, outdoor eating, markets, no maps, two wheelers, temples, men holding hands, masala dosas (a Southern Indian omelet), spices, bucket showers, squat toilets, hard mattresses, crazy traffic with underutilized lanes, broken infrastructure, and learning to cross the street without getting killed.

The list revives memories and encapsulates that indescribable air, that je ne sais quoi that left me in love with Bangalore. Perhaps the best name for what I fail to describe is culture, which has the anthropological definition of “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” However, this definition implies cultural stagnancy, but Bangalore’s urban culture was obviously dynamic.

During the fall semester of my junior year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I studied abroad on a comparative cities program that traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina; Bangalore, India; and Beijing and Shanghai, China. I’m a double major in urban studies and planning and economics, and I am currently interested in the nebulous professional field of international development. Before the trip, my formal education had been highly quantitative and analytical. Therefore, I was surprised that something non-technical and observation-based like anthropology–or really, the study of the people who surrounded me–interested me and enveloped my thoughts and questions. I shouldn’t have been too shocked, though. I decided to study abroad precisely because I knew I couldn’t learn certain things from a classroom in Boston, Massachusetts.

The global economy is characterized by the cross-national exchange of goods, and inevitably, ideas, values, and cultures. New city developments were built for a global audience to attract foreign investors and gain worldwide recognition. Bangalore had Brigade Road where I stopped by the McDonald’s for lunch; Shanghai had a downtown that was accurately painted as a New York-like city. As a result, these developments were more Western and would not seem out of place in the United States. But does development have a direction that is predominantly Western? Do development and Westernization necessarily have to coincide?

Western influences were embedded in lifestyles of Bangalore’s young people, which starkly contrasted their parents’. My host cousin, Vinay, was a 22-year-old college graduate who loved all things American. On his bedroom wall, he plastered America’s poster boy and his role model, the Top Gun-era Tom Cruise. As a support guy for Australia’s Symantec users, Vinay had a sizable income for a single guy. With that money, he bought a new car.

Around midnight one Friday evening, Vinay and two of his female cousins showed up at my house to ask if my host brother, roommate, and I wanted to get ice cream. The innocent request for a play date turned into an hour-long joy ride (minus the theft) through the Bangalore’s empty nighttime streets. With the six of us crammed into his tiny blue sports car, Vinay sped on a roundabout route across the city to the Leela Palace, one of Bangalore’s five-star hotels that was one of few places with a late night food joint. Along the way, Vinay blasted his favorite CD mix of American pop, hip hop, and country music. With the windows down, sporadic motorcyclists staring at us in bewilderment, driving through a city I barely knew with people I had just met, I can honestly say that this was my most ridiculous yet favorite way so far to sing along to N*SYNC’s Bye Bye Bye.

Midnight joy riding was probably not a regular activity enjoyed by the previous generation. They lacked the disposable cash of today’s young urban professionals. They didn’t grow up with satellite television, an ubiquitous fixture of Bangalore’s middle-class homes that transmitted images of Western lifestyle. India’s education system produced a high tech generation that gained global awareness and connectivity through the Internet and cell phones.

A changing culture was evident in fashion; among young urban women, jeans were gaining popularity. My host sister, Swetha, rarely wore a sari. It was evident in food; I met Bangalore natives at Pizza Hut for lunch. It was evident especially in consumption patterns; my host brother splurged on a brand new stereo system for his father’s bedroom.

Changes were also evident in the family structure. My host mother didn’t work because she was born into a well-off merchant family and few women of her generation held jobs. However, her recently married daughter works full time at Accenture. My host parents had an arranged marriage, but Swetha had a cross-caste “love marriage.” My host family used to lived on a multi-family compound behind the grandfather’s store. Now, most relatives live in nearby single-family homes.

Technology in a Bangalore home

On one hand, the changes extended rights to women and otherwise outcast members of society. On the other hand, the changes seemed to normalize everything that made India unique and exhilarating. The new Bangalore was boring, more of the same, run of the mill.

On a backwater tour of Kochin, a fishing community, a friend and I were mourning over how Kochin citizens were displaying themselves like animals in their native habitats for tourist money. Then we realigned ourselves. Were we maintaining over-romanticized notions about untouched natives who would progress economically if they opened up to outside influence? Was it wrong for us outsiders to insist on the preservation of a local culture?

Every Friday and Saturday evening, my host father, Prabhakara, sat cross-legged on the rug in front of his television to watch his favorite show, Star Voice of India, India’s version of American Idol. For the next two hours, our house teemed with the powerful, fluctuating Hindi vocals of young Indian Bollywood star wannabes. The show's emcee and judges spoke Hindi smattered with English; I understood every five words on average.

Here was a national pastime based on the global singing competition phenomenon. However, Indians adapted it to local flair through music, tongue, clothing, dramatic filming style, and public behavior such as displays of emotion and affection between men. This wasn’t the culture clash I had envisioned mourned. The local culture expressed its national identity by giving new meaning to an element of global culture. There was no cultural genocide, cultural sharing, or cultural selling out. Star Voice of India was a prime example of cultural adaptation—locally initiated effort that was all Indian and hopefully an example of development to come.

I know that I would not have tightened grasp of the cultural components of international development if I had not traveled. This trip gave me my first real experience of cultural immersion, and it revealed so many personal biases that I held as an American. The way that I understood international development as a linear process—one in which there is an end-point that happened to be Western in character—was completely backward and insensitive.

One important life skill that was honed on this trip was the ability to understand people based on keen observation. This skill is not something I can only apply to the strangers who surround me when I’m in a foreign land. It’s applicable daily with anyone, anywhere, particularly with people I already know. The ability transcended my life’s academic and social realms, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to discover it through studying abroad.

Diana Jue is a junior at MIT who is double majoring in urban studies and planning and economics. She is interested in issues of developing nations and the people living in them. Diana is originally from Los Angeles, California and enjoys writing and conversing about life.