On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows*
As an AIF Clinton Fellow, I’m living and working in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The city, dubbed the “Pink City” because of the pink-painted buildings, is popular with tourists who fight through the crowded streets of the bazaar, haggling with vendors, and dodging reckless motorbikes in search of an “authentic” Indian experience. My co-workers who are locals from Jaipur, however, never go to the old city.
They prefer new restaurants and trendy cafés, the brainchildren of burnt-out engineers and office workers who, like many U.S. Millennials, quit their secure, well-salaried jobs to focus on designing a cute café with brunch and the perfect avocado on toast. So, what is the “real” India? The old city, steeped in history but choked with tour buses, or the new developments filled with shopping malls, modern cinemas, and the burgeoning Indian middle class?
Several years ago, when I was living in China, I introduced my friend (a Chinese girl in her early twenties) to a friend from New Zealand. He reached out to shake her hand and she looked surprised, saying “wow, you greet in the traditional Chinese way!”
I thought it was a strange reaction. Didn’t she know that shaking hands was a Western greeting? How did someone with a decent education get that confused?
As I thought more about it, I began to realize that we don’t know the origin of many of our customs. Every time an American sits down to enjoy some fries, we probably squirt on a large helping of ketchup, which comes from the Hakka region of southern China and previously referred to a type of fermented fish sauce (Wiggins, 2014). Beyond that, fries and hamburgers are distinctly un-American in their origin as well (FitzGibbon, 1976). French fries don’t originate in France, by the way… That’s a public service announcement from Belgium (Hiskey, 2018). The U.S. is not the only country that is a mishmash of different cultures. My favorite snack in India, samosas, originated in the Middle East sometime before the 10th century (Pal, 2018).
If something is commonly available when we’re young, we assume it is “ours” unless we learn otherwise. It only takes one generation for the transformation to take place. Foods move from foreign to normal and necessary, borrowed behaviors and trends become the way things have always been. The handshake becomes traditionally Chinese (at least in that one person’s mind, but probably in other young minds too). Sharing cultures is a normal part of being human. We’ve borrowed, traded, stolen goods and ideas from every corner of the world.
Think of the number 13. Bad luck, right? There is rarely a floor number 13 in American buildings. Additionally, the 13th floor is rarely found in China or India. In fact, the 13th floor has all but disappeared. But why 13? Is this humanity’s universally unlucky number?
Not exactly. In China, the number 4 is considered unlucky because it sounds too similar to the word for “death.” Conversely, 8 sounds like the Chinese word for “rich,” so it’s extremely popular in phone numbers, prices, and WiFi passwords. In India, superstitions vary depending on the region, but my co-workers in Rajasthan told me that gifts of money for weddings or birthdays should always end in 1 (for example, INR 11, INR 21, or INR 101).
But, while high-rise buildings in Delhi and Beijing have opted against the 13th floor, the U.S. continues to have 4thfloors and give gifts without the auspicious 1 at the end. Culture exchange seems to flow strongly in one direction. Why?
Modern cultural exchange goes beyond the simple sharing of cultures into a pattern of one culture dominating another. Since the industrial revolution dramatically raised wealth in Western countries, “Western culture” (don’t ask me to define what exactly is considered “Western” because that’s another long discussion) has been the dominant player on the international scene. Hollywood movies, consumer products from jeans to Nescafé, and music have spilled out into the world and, all too often, crowded out other cultural touchstones.
However, it is important to note that not all modern culture is “Western culture.”
A friend once told me, “In America, your culture is to have small families, but here in India, the culture is to have many children,” and this is a fair assessment at this particular point in time. However, just a few generations ago, things were different. My grandmother was the youngest in a family of thirteen children, a family size that was not particularly unusual at that time. The difference is that I was born up in an urban area and my grandmother was born on a farm. In an agricultural setting, having more children made economic sense. In my parents’ time, having three children was much more reasonable because children don’t contribute much to the household besides love, headaches, and student debt (not necessarily in that order). When I’m ready to have children, I expect the number to be even lower (maximum two children) as education and healthcare costs increase. What seem like cultural shifts are sometimes actually shifts to modern economic realities, just as having many children was the reality of a not-so-distant agrarian past.
What is the answer to the question in the title of this post? What is the “real” India?
I think most people would agree that history is an important part of culture and it should be cherished and remembered (with the understanding that history was probably not as rosy at is seems…) but I argue that we should also allow people to define their own conceptions of culture. Appreciating history is great and wanting to experience traditional cultures is fine, but we shouldn’t forget that modern urban culture reaches more people, and it’s something we have the power to shape because we’re in the midst of the cultural movement now. Writing modernization off as “inauthentic” is not only inaccurate, it also wastes the opportunity to recognize and shape the culture around us right now.
So, let’s enjoy the winding streets of the old city, watch a Bollywood film at a shopping mall filled with teenagers snapping selfies, and order the traditional Rajasthani dish dal baati churma from our smartphones because, in reality, it’s all India. The mix of the traditional and the modern. The remembered and the lived.
FitzGibbon, T. (1976). The Food of the Western World: An Encyclopedia of Food from Europe and North America. Illustrations prepared by George Morrison. London: Hutchinson.
Hiskey, D. (2018). “The History of French Fries.” Today I Found Out. Available at: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/09/the-history-of-french-fries/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018].
Pal, S. (2018). “TBI Food Secrets: Unravelling the Fascinating History of the Samosa, India’s Favourite Street Snack.” The Better India. Available at: https://www.thebetterindia.com/80824/samosa-history-india/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2018].
Wiggins, J. (2014). “The Plate: How Was Ketchup Invented?” National Geographic. Available at : https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2014/04/21/how-was-ketchup-invented/[Accessed 6 Dec. 2018].
AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.
About the Author:
Molly serves as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Frontier Markets, a social enterprise in Rajasthan. She has extensive experience in fundraising, project management and NGO communications, acquired in West Africa and East Asia. During her three years of Peace Corps service, Molly managed development projects funded by USAID, Rotary International, and private donors to set up libraries and deliver malaria and HIV/AIDS awareness raising campaigns in rural Burkina Faso. Before joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Molly spent three years in China where she developed project proposals and managed donor reporting for Save the Children’s China Program in the areas of disaster risk reduction and inclusive education. Molly is planning to complete her MSc degree at the University of London’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in 2019.