Monday, October 30, 2006

The ugly Indian

There was a time when I was fed the myth that almost all Americans are ignorant and blissfully unaware of the world outside America. This myth was particularly strong before I came to the States, and continued to occasionally make appearances after I came to the States, in some gatherings of desis. Sure, there remain plenty of Americans who don’t know that Sri Lanka is a country, do not know the difference between the world’s forth most widely spoken language (Hindi) and a person claiming faith to the world’s third largest religion (Hindu), or that the US is not the world’s largest country (in terms of population or land area).

But I also learnt that this ignorance is not unique to Americans, and seems to be a rather strong human trait. Many of my own friends or acquaintances in the States are Indian. Almost all of them have advanced degrees and high paying jobs in tech or science industries. And many of these people roll their eyes in horror and depreciation when some average American still doesn’t know where Iraq is. But many of them are just as guilty of similar ignorance. Here’s a smattering of questions some desis I know were clueless about.

What is thanksgiving celebrated for? (One worthy answer said “it’s some special religious thing for Americans”)
Whom did American get independence from (for the 4th of July celebrations)? (One classic answer I heard was slavery)
Why was there a civil war?
How is the president elected?

When I occasionally ask why people didn’t bother to learn about these things, they said it was because they didn’t really care and it didn’t matter much.


Postscript: Sometimes I feel the larger and brasher the society (and I include an “Indian culture” in the brash category), the less the individual feels he/she is compelled to learn about others (I could probably say the same about sub-Indian regional cultures). But people from smaller countries often feel the need to learn about the big ones. You hear about ugly Americans or Indians or Chinese or Germans or Brits. You don’t hear about ugly Lituanians. And the few Lithuanians I’ve met have uniformly been well aware of the world they live in. Doesn’t prove anything, but perhaps there is something here.


witnwisdumb said...

Great post. That is a myth I have heard very often too. And just like you, I too observed that it isn't just Americans who are ignorant.

In your examples, you speak of desis who don't know much about American culture or history. While it definitely reflects poorly of a person if s/he doesn't know anything about the country that s/he is living in (i.e., in this case, the USA), I think that it is even more pathetic if they don't know much about their own country of origin. Especially considering how most of them profess to be the greatest patriots on the face of the planet.

Most people I know wouldn't know exactly how many States and Union Territories exist in India. And it would be an even smaller percentage of people who could list most, if not all, of the States. Goes without saying, the percentage that actually is aware of the capital cities of States (especially the North Eastern ones) are a microscopic minority.

What's more, considering the fact that India is a country where politics is given so much importance, surprisingly many people aren't aware of how the government machinery functions, and how their representatives are elected.

The connection you draw between the size and brashness of a culture, and the ignorance of its people, is a very interesting on indeed. I hadn't thought of it before.

Anonymous said...

The previous commenter has a valid point. Not only are most Indians blissfully unaware of their own country (geography , politics, etc..) but they are also pathetically unaware of their own history and culture.

And there are a whole lot of them, right here in India.. no need to look for them in the states.

Anonymous said...

The best post I have seen in a while. And i really like your analysis of the reason. I think it has merit.

Speaking aobut desi gatherings deriding americans it just seems to be a pet peeve and a feel-good topic. One common peeve I hear is about the education system etc. and how much India is better.
All said, I beleive America has a good education system and people come from all over to study here precisely because they are doing something right.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Interesting post - however most of the questions might be more subtle than you might have implied. For example, how the President is elected is really quite complex and most Americans really don't understand it fully. Historians keep arguing about all of the motives and issues surrounding the Civil War - it wasn't just about slavery. Thanksgiving is - as the name implies - a day for giving thanks but it is quite accurate to say that it all started with the Pilgrims in the oft quoted story - it was really created by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War (although probably inspired by the old story).

Anonymous said...

I am often appalled at how little we are taught about other countries in high school and college - the concentration on "Western Civ" is all well and good - we need to know about the foundations on which our society is based. But this is often at the expense of study of other countries. I knew very little about India until I started reading about it intensely about two years ago. And when I went there in June, I had no idea of who Tippu Sultan was, or that Mumtaz Mahal was the queen for whom the Taj was built.

Our lives should have a "continuing education" component where we seek to learn something new about things that we are not familiar with.


Anonymous said...

"How is the president elected?"
Wait I know, they put manipulated machines and counting by hand is made illegal by the presidents brother ;-) In fact no one in the US really seems to care, so why should desis?

Vikrum said...

Hi Sunil,

Excellent post. In India, I met many self-righteous Indians who felt slighted that Americans and westerners did not know enough about India. But most of these same people could not name all of the northeastern states or their capitals.

I think your analysis is a good one. By the way, Brazil is also a country so enormous that Brazilians seem to be more aware of their nation instead of others. In other words, Brazilians do not have to know much about Uruguay. Uruguayans need to know about Brazil and Argentina.

km said...

Thanksgiving is celebrated.... to promote sale of turkey and cranberry sauce?

Good post. Ignorance is universal.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the comments need to, to an extent, differentiate between things that you probably should know and things that are rote learning. Knowing all the states and their capitals is something you most probably would not remember all the time. But something like how the government works, origins/workings of some of the cultural events should be known to you as a current resident.

But I agree with the post in general.

So Halloween is celebrated to promote scary movies and sexual encounters with strangers?


artnavy said...

Thought provoking post this one.
First time herw , will be back

adi said...

One of the ridiculous post i have ever seen. the thing is, you ask american where iraq is and a desi about no. of pages in indian (or american for that matter) constitution and when both of them fail to answer, put them on same scale. as for the states and state capitals etc, they keep changing all the time!

Sunil said...

Thanks for the comments all.

witnwisdumb, vishnu....yes indeed. There are plenty of us who are pathetically unaware of India. I have some south indian friends who think ALL north Indians speak hindi. Not true is it? But that doesn't stop the jokes on Americans. systems are a complete other ball game. And as long as India struggles with less than 70% of its population even literate, there is little to brag about.

Michael...welcome back. My question was a lot less detailed than your analysis. All it implied was the difference between a presidential system here and the parliamentary system in India (where you don't elect a prime minister...but the leader of the party with the most votes becomes the prime minister).

Peter...."continuous education" is a fantastic idea. And yes, there certainly is room for change in all education systems. No doubt about that.

Anonymous, I think you just made my point. Most people don't want to learn about things they consider insignificant. To many Americans, that would be a lot of the rest of the world. To many would be anything not connected to India.

Vikrum, not being able to name the northeastern states is a rather common trend, unfortunately. It is all "Assam". Good point about the Brazilians and Argentinians. The same rules hold everywhere.

km...universal indeed. I don't like cranberry though :-)

Naveen......haloween is celebrated because it is a devious ploy of the powerful pumpkin farmer lobby. :-))

artnavy, do return.

adi....i cant find a single word in this post that asks questions about the american constitution or indian constitution. The point was, people everywhere dont want to learn much, and as the old saying goes, people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. So, there is no question of putting them on the same scale. And as far as states and capitals go, if something changes, is it alright not to learn about it just because you were taught something else in school? Do you still believe the world is flat? That changed 200 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Hey, funny! I just read something in the Indian Express that, while not directly addressing ignorance of historical facts, etc., is also an attempt to defend my admittedly sometimes ignorant compatriates that people in other countries come up with just as many ludicrous stereotypes. ...

Anonymous said...

Also, sorry. I wrote my last comment in such haste that, upon rereading, it makes nearly no sense. To be more succinct: The Indian Express ran an editorial piece called "Americans, Americans, Why Do They Do What They Do?" that was largely a rant that could be written by any person of any culture about any other culture. OK, that wasn't succinct either, and now I'm clogging your page. But yeah. I was interested to get your point of view and thought it was a cool counter to something I just posted.

Patrix said...

I swear Ash and I were talking about this the other day. Also, you should examine the issue from the point of the comparative term, 'average American'. There might be tons of things that an 'average Indian' might not know about the world. I bet a Jaywalking episode (Leno)in India would elicit similar hilarious response as it does out here.

Reminds me to write about the 'ghettoization' of Indians in the US.

Sunil said...

zoey.....i just looked at your post, and it made a nice little read. doubt about that at all. Anyway, the "average Indian" would be semi-literate (perhaps an eighth grade graduate), rural or from a small-town, probably never been outside his/her state of residence, and most likely working in agriculture. So......the average American is very likely to know a hell of a lot more than the average Indian.

Waiting for your ghettoization post.

Jules said...

No offense but you need to understand that everyone has a personal preference as far as who they consider attractive. Personally, I don't find Indian people attractive and many of them smell strongly of curry. It's just a personal preference, no more, no less.

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