Seven Significant Ways that Life in India Differs from that in US

Perhaps you are hopeful to work and live in the States someday, thereby enhancing separation anxiety from your Indian maid and driver. Or you wish to move back to India, thereby depressing your immune system to withstand pollution in populous cities. In the former relocation, one may gain the liberties of a cleaner environment and greater regard for human life but pays for it in a much higher cost of living. In the latter, one gains in the celebration of the joyous festival seasons and sumptuous street food, yet pays in the opportunity cost of the remittances one could have sent home.

This post is from the general outlook of a middle class resident who has experienced the good and the bad in both nations, in particular Delhi and NJ. One motherland gave birth to me and the other adopted me into its multicultural family. Though I love both immensely, I shall not sing overwhelming patriotic praises of either because as Tagore once said in one of his acclaimed novels, “I am willing to serve my country, but my worship I reserve for right, which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.” (The Home and the World.)

At best, this list presents an ambivalent stance rather than favoring one over the other.

I shall not encroach upon comparisons of economic nature, but rather of more culturally palpable ones.

1. “Atithi tum kab jaoge” v/s Making appointments

Given the innumerable relatives in India, one or two would show up every so often at my residence for chit-chat, with or without warning and still expect great service. And my mom, as the perfect hostess as she aspires to be, would spend more time making chai and decorating the tray table with biscuits/samosa/kheer etc. than actually interacting with them. Of course, this is a wonderful environment, especially during the time of festivities where aunties gift you mithai from other aunties and uncles openly patronize their trophy wives. There were also the few odd ones who had no concept of time and would stay as long as we hadn’t formally told them that we wished to go to bed. (Here I must add that most of us surely have at least one aunt and/or uncle whom we abhor because of their peculiar and inquisitive nature about our personal lives. If you don’t have such a relative, then please don’t become one yourself.)

On the contrary, I have zero relatives in the US but have been fortunate to develop wonderful friendships. Even then, every individual naturally gets caught up in their lifestyles. Though I am fortunate to be debt free, most folks in the US struggle with unpleasant loan situations via education and housing and survive paycheck to paycheck. With the addition of children, weekends are exhausted in completing the domestic chores leftover from the previous week. You are your own chauffeur, maid, and caregiver. In such a scenario, time becomes a sparing commodity and appointments become imperative to snooze and socialize. Personally, my closest friends and family are an exception to this calendar culture; however, this habit of calculating time to dine and whine can seem almost robotic and superficial, especially in a time of need.

2. Culture of ‘Jugaad’ versus Suing

Jugaad is a Hindi word that implies shortcut or loophole. This term can be applied to varied contexts, whether it be banging your remote when it’s low on battery, or using a combination of contacts to get your job done through some bureaucratic govt agency, or even something as simple as applying your grandma’s joint pain oil to your nostrils to cure headaches (the last one has been employed in my home). This jugaad method is especially relevant to avoid paying fines for misdemeanors like having 3 cars parked in a spot reserved for one car or a man carrying his 4 member family on a 2 seater scooter. Of course, no one should be spared for criminal offenses but employing the so-called ‘jugaad’ in a country plagued by corruption and with minimal resources per capita is excused as a necessity than a choice. The suing culture, on the other hand, is a trademark quality of being a US resident as evident in moronic warning labels on every commodity (caution this object is hot/sharp/blunt) and millions of dollars awarded in compensation for incredulous cases of people winning lawsuits. Didn’t shovel every piece of snow on your home’s sidewalk after a major snowstorm? Well, you are open to being sued by anyone who slips on it or feigns to slip on it. Didn’t mow your lawn to keep the grass at a respectable height? Well, you are open to getting fined for mismanagement of home garden that can be an eyesore for other town residents. There are bevy of strange laws one must navigate in a country where you are likely to go bankrupt without carrying insurance for every goddamn entity, ranging from your house, car, feline, posterior etc. This brings me to the next point.

3. Consumer Trends and Commercial Content

A country’s adverts may serve as a keen insight into its prevailing culture as they set the trend for what sells best in the market. Anytime I watch Jeopardy or Modern Family on Comcast cable service, I am forced to see an onslaught of pharmaceutical sponsored drug commercials in between. They start off by addressing the disease, say irregular pooping syndrome, and then list out a slew of side-effects such as excessive farting, Honey Singh’s hypnotizing blue eyes, a third ear, furry legs and possibly death, thus relieving the company of any ethical responsibility. In Indian channels, the most common adverts pertain to some superstitious holy guru who has a new potion/mala/cow dung to improve one’s destiny, thus relieving themselves of carrying any intellect. Other commonly observed adverts include racist propaganda producing fairness creams in India versus emphasis on tanning salons and tanning lotions to get the sun brunt look in the US.

Check out this disgusting barbie factory type of commercial for fairness below.

4. Chaotic Reliance versus Silent Independence

This one hits closest to my soul. Growing up in south Delhi is not for the sensory sensitive. There is quite a bit of commotion all around, either from the repair and construction duties of manual laborers, or the jingles of vegetable sellers or just the general human populace trying to get from point A to point B. The rush of passerbys in NYC is akin to every other big city hub in India. With the general lack of safety for women in Delhi, I still hesitate to use local buses and autorickshaws to get around which made me dependent on others for transportation. At times, the dependency manifested into laziness. For e.g. availability of clean dishes depended on the chores completed by the morning maid and clean clothing, on the neighborhood dhobi. In the US, most of these problems are resolved by safer public modes of transportation and operation of machines with constant water supply and electricity.  

As a child, I wished to escape the chaos of Delhi, hoping that the seclusion would provide peace. US provides such momentary tranquility in its suburbs but at times, it can get too quiet. Summer is pleasant with folks taking out their children and pets for playtime. In the long winter months, however, the only audible sound is perhaps the ignition of a vehicle, signaling that a neighbor is back from work and the cold forces people to stay behind their closed doors. In those moments, I would pine (platonic sense) for my Safdarjung Enclave wala chowkidaar (watchman) to do his rounds and hear his whistles that managed to lull us into deep slumber in Delhi. I even missed hearing the fruit sellers who fathomed enough energy to announce their produce from a mile away and lunged their carts around for hours to accumulate their daily wages. Spending time alone on campus in the US has been empowering, no doubt, but it is also easy for the mind to sway into depression in the midst of profound aloofness under the guise of independence. The sights of less fortunate on every street corner and scarcity of running water and electricity in Delhi busies your mind and humbles you to a great extent. However, when your basic needs of food, water, and shelter are met with relative ease in US, the mind needs additional nourishment to keep itself satisfied. Defining your purpose in the midst of such abundance can pose a significant challenge to your sanity.

5. Identity Crisis v/s Self-Identity Creation

Russell Peters wasn’t kidding when he said that Indians can’t pose threats of terrorism to any other nation because we are too busy hating each other. It has been over 67 years of independence from the British Raj and we are still not free from the discriminatory assumptions of our own cultural diversity. Bollywood, the world’s largest filmmaking platform, still abuses these stereotypes like no other. For example, North Indians are Punjabis who eat butter chicken and dance to loud music; South Indians are sambhar slurping, dosa loving Tamilians. Bengalis are similarly gentle beings, who eat lots of fish and also have a general disliking for the obnoxious behavior of North Indians/Punjabis. The northeast Indians are either drivers, housemaids, or maalis for the North Indians and Gujuratis are synonymous with being cheapskates. The rest are largely ignored. To be an Indian is to be respectful of every religion, language, and cultural viewpoint and that is something that the Indian citizenry still struggles to adopt whilst politicians capitalize on these divides for the sake of power. This is why settling in the US was a refreshing change as I came across people from every country possible, from Egypt to Palestine to Colombia and Taiwan. Although some non-Indians did raise strange questions regarding Indian stereotypes (head shaking, English vocabulary, wearing red dot), the general environment allowed me to step back and develop the uniqueness of my own identity within the larger melting pot.

6. Repair the Old Versus Purchase the New

I will not extrapolate the concept of repairing versus buying in context of relationships because both sides of the hemisphere have their peculiarities with love. However, it is interesting to note that most big-box US depots and utility shops sell you a new product rather than carry a replacement component to fix an otherwise repairable/broken/old machine. I’m sure I am living up to some Indian stereotype by having an engineer of a father and a doctor of a mother. And it is an added benefit that my father also serves as a full-time electrician and repair man at home with the Midas touch. When our home juicer broke one of its parts, the company offered us a new machine and asked us to dump the old one even though my dad could have fixed it with a new part. Same case with our household water filter and microwave purchased through another company. In the US, tailoring your clothing or repairing the soles of shoes is more expensive than just simply buying a new garment or pair. This makes sense because labor does not come cheap in the US and repairing is a dying business when the Western market can cheaply import new items produced in sweatshops housed in the same developing nations that are likely to have mochis and flourishing tailors.

7.Fresh versus packaged foods

As far as I can remember, every meal at my home in India used to be freshly prepared (for which I am deeply indebted to my mother and grandmother). There was no concept of eating even a roti that was a day old (it would usually to be fed to a bird or stray cow by then) and my mother stressed that we eat everything while it was still warm from the stove. Living in the States provided a plethora of options to eat tasty foods, many in frozen, microwaveable, canned containers etc., not to mention with nasty additives and GMO ingredients. Thankfully, I have discarded all such processed foods and do my best to cook from scratch. Yet even today, it is difficult to fully detoxify oneself given that most organic, Non-GMO labelled foods (and tap water) still carry the risk of containing other chemicals that demonstrate hazardous side-effects in labs. They manage FDA approval thanks to powerful corporate lobbying (Mosanto, pharm companies) and are recalled only after the damage has been done. Though India has its own woes with regards to sanitation, tainted meals, adulterated food items and hoarding of produce, the only way I feel I can live organically in the States is to raise a cow in my backyard, grow my own vegetables, and drink from a spring.

p.s. A small addition in differences of language: British versus American English (Sidewalk versus pavement; elevator versus lift; flashlight versus torch etc.)

There are probably more examples such as the flow of black money v/s white money and the superficial emphasis on lavish dressing sense in India (inspired from saas-bahu serials I suppose) versus the casual flip-flop attire in the US. But I think it is best I end this list here. If you have any more on your end or other thoughts to share, do write to me below. Thank you for reading 🙂

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4 Responses to Seven Significant Ways that Life in India Differs from that in US

  1. Reema says:

    “They start off by addressing the disease, say irregular pooping syndrome, and then list out a slew of side-effects such as excessive farting, Honey Singh’s hypnotizing blue eyes, a third ear, furry legs and possibly death, thus relieving the company of any ethical responsibility.” LOL! so much scientific lingo! And when you finally get that cow in your back yard, do call me – fresh milk every day, all day! Paise bacata hai yaar! Dadi will make me fresh ghee too! But jokes asides, you will stay here forever with me *two teeth smiley with drool* Tata!

  2. Sarah says:

    I won’t tell you anything new, but this is the same with everything in life.
    You would think experience teaches us anything, but that’s so rare.
    Feel free to disagree but the world changes rapidly, and none of us have no control whatsoever over it.
    For instance, imagine Obama had any balls to put Vladimir to his place, but it seems like it’s never happening, welcome WW3.
    A profound post, thanks!

  3. hehe this is hilariousness multiplied by elves with funny hats and french accents.

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