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Observations on Culture

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Robyn Morris, Burton native, in India.

By Robyn Morris, Amish Culture Tour Guide

A character in Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” states, “We must be cautious about passing moral judgement … such judgements are, of necessity, culture specific.” 

I have had the pleasure of speaking in a few local Amish schools about life in India. Because my daughter and my grandchildren live in India, I travel there routinely and have picked up a few interesting tidbits to share.

Also, I lead tours of students and adults from around the world into our local community to learn about Amish history and daily life. I have often interpreted Amish culture to “outsiders.”

In their own ways, both Indian culture and Amish lifestyle can be seen as exotic and mysterious to those who didn’t grow up in these settings.  When I am describing Amish culture for my small group tours, I point out that one’s culture defines everything, and that it is, at the same time, practically undefinable to those who are living that culture.  It is only from the vantage point of a different point of view that we can identify cultural differences.

So, what are my observations of Indian household life? Sometimes, it is so far from what I’m used to, and so different from how I raised my own children. And yet, children raised in India grow up to be lovely adults, so it must all work out.

In India, nearly every middle-class household depends on paid servants to carry out basic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry.  My daughter’s household staff includes a driver, cook, floor-sweeper, laundress, nanny, and gardener.

Indian servants: Sheffali, cook; Sharmila, floor-sweeper and Kavita, nanny. (MP Photo/Robyn Morris)

Some servants are in the house for several hours each day. Some are there for only an hour, or only a few days per week. It is a cultural norm in India that anyone who can, will pay for help, to perform certain tasks like washing dishes, hand-washing dirty laundry, cleaning bathrooms, etc.  But you need not imagine the high expense of paying all of these people. A daily maid in Delhi with very few days off per month might make the U.S. equivalent of a few hundred dollars per month, plus some meals. The servants who work for only an hour per day are paid even less, but they work for several families.  Indians who don’t pay someone to take on these domestic tasks are probably too impoverished, which is possible even if they, themselves, are working all day as servants to other families.

By comparison, it is our deep-seated culture in the US for us to be free and independent. As we are immersed in our own culture, we believe our way of thinking is just “natural”.  It’s not. Attitude comes from our family and community culture, and that culture is grown and shaped, almost as its own entity, by history and circumstances.  Our American sense of do-it-yourself competence stems from the first settlers and pioneers who, of necessity, had to take care of everything by themselves. They could not bring their aristocratic English lifestyle with them 400 years ago.  This change in culture became the celebrated independence, coupled with “roll-up-your-sleeves” know-how that we respect and cherish.  We admire hard work, toned muscles, and callouses, while at the same time, we scoff at soft hands and flab as signs of a person who is not interested in accomplishment through hard work.

My observation of middle-class Indian children is that they are to be prevented from feeling any emotional pain.  (And prevention of physical pain goes without saying.)  This means that toddlers end up ruling the household. And household servants dare not admonish a child throwing a tantrum. I observed that middle class Indian pre-schoolers seem to be less able to cope with frustration than American children, due in part to the fact that in Indian homes, every toddler’s need is met as soon as possible. I am sure that this treatment of small children as little kings and queens is meant with the utmost of love. But it merely delays the emotional work of learning how to deal with disappointment and move on. A child who has never been told “No” will have a melt-down when the grape jelly is gone, and he must settle for strawberry.

I especially want to comment on a cultural difference that can be so misunderstood by an American such as myself.  When my daughter moved to India, before she had any children, she observed to me, “Mom, can you believe that there are 6-year olds, being followed around by their Nannies with food, making sure they eat?  They spoon feed them!”, followed by, “That will never happen with my children.”  Famous last words.  It is the practice for babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers to be spoon fed their meals.  Period.  It is considered to be not only easier for all involved, but also an act of caring and love for the child.  But – I can’t watch.  It deviates too far from the importance of personal independence in the culture I know.  

I recently heard a radio interview on NPR, in which an adult woman from India was telling the interviewer that, on her wedding day, her grandmother (who had come to the US for the wedding) made her favorite breakfast and fed it to her.  She felt so loved and cherished by that act.  The interviewer didn’t fully understand it, but I did.  He said, “Oh, she made your favorite food?  That was nice.”  And the Indian woman made sure to add, “And she fed me.”

When we are judging the cultures and practices of others, we cannot help but see those practices through our own lens of upbringing and experience in our own home settings.

When thinking about groups of people who are unlike you, whether because they are from the inner-city and you are from the country, or they are loud and your group is quiet, or they dress differently, or practice a religion that is foreign to you, or choose marriage partners differently, or hold different values of what is important – remember – you are judging them based on your experience and upbringing in your own culture.

To truly understand the peoples of the world, it is important to keep an open mind and remember that your discomfort with other groups of people has everything to do with believing your own culture to be “the best”.

Watch for a series of four more articles on the questions asked by Amish school children about India.

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