Zach, outbound to India

Hi there everyone! The date is 17 April and a fit of inspiration has come upon me, so I rushed home to convert it to journal format as soon as I could. The topic of this journal will be three qualities that I think are direct causes for Indian society.

I would be amiss if I didn't mention, before I begin, that my mother came here for about two weeks. I showed her around Bharuch and the neighboring city of Baroda, and then we went to Delhi, Darjeeling, and Bombay. It was a fantastic trip, and a great time was had by all. Seeing my momma was great and it made me even more aware of how close I am to the end of my exchange.

Anyhoo, back to the sophisticated, high-brow stuff. I was brainstorming causes that are irrevocably bound to Indian society, and three qualities remained at the forefront of my mind. These are: the population of the country, the almost unbelievably immense regard with which they hold the family unit, and the slow speed of change, which is what really cements it all together. They blend together to a certain degree - for example, one reason they're resistant to change is because of their large population, and one cause of their large population is the family values. I'll go one by one, explaining as well as give examples for each, before I try the impossible task of boiling down life in India to a paragraph or less.

First things first, the population. There is, if you didn't know, quite a lot of people in this country - 1.2 billion is the stated number. I personally believe it's higher than this, however, as I imagine it's quite difficult for a government to get an accurate census over an entire subcontinent when the infrastructure is, in some places, terrible or even nonexistent. What this massive population does is render most forms of rules completely ineffective. For example, if you find a sign near a building that says "DO NOT PARK HERE", it's probably a safe bet that you'll find it surrounded by scooters and motorbikes. This is because there's no other place to park. The population also has a role in the traffic, which, as I've stated before, is without a doubt the most beautifully rendered version of chaos I've seen on earth. They drive like maniacs because there is, at any given time, tons of people (and animals, for that matter) on the road. This population also leads into a lot of the more serious problems that affect the country - too many students and not enough teachers, lots of crime and corruption that are very difficult to track down, and, unfortunately, far too little clean water to distribute among millions of families. It's not all bad, though. Everyone here has quite a lot of friends. There's a funny statistic, though. If you tell someone in India that they're so special, they're "one in a billion"... well, here, that means that there is someone exactly like you in every way.

The second quality I want to talk about is the family unit. In the States, of course, we have the nuclear family, uncles/aunts/cousins/grandparents, and -if you're very lucky - a good set of in-laws. In India, there's a phenomenon called the joint family. This joint family is massive - I've seen some in excess of a hundred members - and in some cases some of the members don't even know each other. The way these huge units are created is through very close, deliberate tracking of each child, that child's spouse (and their family) as well as their children's spouses. My current host family has a joint family that keeps track of all the families that sprung from a great-great-grandfather who had five children. Think of that for a second. That's five spouses, and we'll go low and say they each had two kids. Then you have ten more spouses, each, we'll lowball again, with two kids apiece. We're already at fifty, and we haven't included in-laws or the youngest generation's spouses. So it's easy to see how joint families can realistically and easily grow into the massive affairs they are.

However, more than just their size (which is, as I said, just a result of really great tracking and get-togethers), families in India have a degree of control over their members that would positively shock the normal American. And it's here, unfortunately, that many of the stereotypes about Indians prove true. You want to get an education? Great, try to be a doctor or engineer, anything less and we'll be dissapointed. You want to get married? Fantastic, we'll look in the newspaper (this actually happens and it makes me sick) and find you a good match, and the family a good "alliance". You earned some money from your job? Excellent, just put it in the family bank account and if you want to use it for something, your parents will decide. These situations aren't hyperbole, I've seen examples of each several times over here. And those three examples I've given above are really indicative of how much control the family unit has over an individual's (and, in consequence, the society's) life in India. If you doubt how comprehensive this dynamic is, ask yourself what you would have the ability to control in your life if your education, romantic future, and finances were dictated to you by someone else.

Once again, though, it's not a complete negative. Indian families are closer and more loyal to each other than many I've seen in the US. And here's a thought that I won't pursue here (cause God knows I go off on enough tangents as it is): the percentage of marriages that end in divorce in the US is over fifty percent, whereas in India it's miniscule, less than twenty, I believe. In the States, we have no barriers on who we can marry, but we evidently end up making the wrong choice more often than not. Here, Indians don't have a choice but they stick it out much better than we do. So the question I would ask is, "What's the better type of marriage for an individual? For a society?" I'm pretty sure that most everyone in America wants to choose their own spouse, and I'm no different, so I'd say that I'd prefer the Western style for my individual marriage. But I am also a child of divorced parents, so I know how disruptive divorces can be to children. Is that enough for me to say that it's more beneficial for a society to have arranged marriages than love marriages? I don't know. What I do know is that this ability to learn to love someone you've never met is a trait that I greatly admire in Indians, and it's a big part in my final summation of their culture that you'll see below (we'll get there, I promise). Oh, I guess I pursued that thought that I said I wouldn't pursue. Sorry.

Quickly, on to point number three before my wandering thoughts get the better of me again. This final point is the slow speed of change. We have to remember, when we talk about India, that this is one of the oldest cultures in the world. They have millenia of tradition to fall back on, and in a lot of cases this is really stinkin' cool, although at times it can be a detriment. Let me give you a few examples so I can show you what I mean. The sari is a traditional dress for Indian women that is comprised of a shirt that leaves the stomach bare, a long, thin, scarf-like thingy called a duppatti, and a dress that is made of one long cloth wrapped around the body. It's a very beautiful, very traditional get-up. So when you see someone driving a car, or a scooter, or doing some other equally modern action whilst wearing such traditional garb... that, right there, is to me one of the best representations of modern India. A traditional society in a modern world.

Let me think of another example... okay, here we go. The other day, as I was continuing my endless, noble, and often ill-fated struggle to avoid boredom in Bharuch, I saw my host mom sweeping the floor (there's no carpets in India except the flying kind and Aladdin went out of business a while ago) I volunteered to help her with her task. She does all the cleaning by herself around the house and I wanted to be of assistance. She declined, saying that boys in India don't do that kind of thing. This is also a great representation of modern India - a task being more difficult than it would otherwise be if the society adopted some pretty widespread, mainstream reforms. This really slow pace is the cause of many of the unique facets of this society. We keep animals in the street? Well yeah, we've always done that. Our families are big? Yeah, that's just an Indian thing. We treat people differently due to gender and caste? Yes, because that's how it's always been. Living in India has taught me many lessons about the danger of manmade tradition. But it's also taught me how incredible it can be. Beautiful dresses, extravagant dances, social customs of respect and honor that make me reevaluate how I treat people. There is bad tradition and good tradition, and India has plenty of each.

So, now the big one. If I had to define Indians by one trait, one special quality, it would be this: spiritual toughness. Let me explain what I mean. It can, at times, be a bad thing, as Indians have a saying: "Chalega", or, "what will be, will be". Their almost unnatural toughness can be such a dominant part of their mental makeup that they will refuse to change a bad condition and instead simply withstand it. For the most part, though, this trait is something incredible to behold. Indian men who are willing to withstand terrible work conditions to feed their families. Indian women who put up with second-class status in order to keep the peace. Indian families who are willing to sleep ten people in a room so that everyone has (at least a part of) a bed. A society that is willing to sacrifice its freedom of choice in marriage, its "right" to be offended , and generally speaking, it's happiness for that of another. You could also call it, I suppose, reckless humility, or unbounding patience. Whatever its name, it's an honor to experience and hopefully adopt and something that I hope more Americans take a look at.

You know, we have all these rights in the States, and we're very polite, which is all well and good. What can sometimes happen, however, is that we'll get so used to those rights being protected, and people putting others before themselves, that if someone doesn't bend over backwards for us, we'll get offended. This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest blights on the personality of our people. I thought before I came here, and my time here has only reinforced it, that one can choose whether or not to be offended by someone else, or emotionally impacted by them in any way, really. There is no law, no instinct, no spiritual requirement or emotional quota that allows someone else to control your reaction - to anything. The only ability anyone or anything has to influence your attitude is the ability you give it. This is really what it boils down to: say somebody cuts in front of you in a line - did that simple physical action of him stepping a foot in front of you out of turn give him the mystical power to force you to be angry? No, of course not. Or if you break your phone screen - was there some part of your soul hidden in there like a Horcrux, so that if it shatters you've got to start worrying about everything for no reason? No. What logically follows is that if there is no power that can force us to have any sort of attitude, then we have no excuse for, frankly, acting like jerks to other people. That means no shouting at someone and then saying we had a long day, or being prejudiced against someone only to excuse it on an upbringing - as if the other person's day was shorter than yours or your upbringing artificially put words in your mouth. We have the priviledge, the responsibility, and the great opportunity that we can really be in control of our emotions, and, consequently, our happiness.

So hey God bless you, everybody, take it easy, work hard. Remember what's important. Stay safe. I love you all and I'll be back before you - or I - know it.