Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Cultures Losing Their Identities

I think it is natural for a tourist to go to another culture and see something different, unique, and perhaps ancient. However, we should understand that what we (as tourists) might value might be useless to the residents.

Don Boudreaux of Café Hayek made this point beautifully in his post Blarney, a letter to Mr Ebnet [link via India Uncut] who thought Ireland was losing its identity:

This friend of mine – like you, Mr. Ebnet – selfishly wants other people to be museum pieces for her enjoyment. You and she dislike signs of material progress in Ireland because you live in the United States, with ready access to an abundance of material wealth that the Irish are just now beginning to enjoy themselves.

You blithely wish that the Irish had remained poor so that you would have continued, during your visits from America, to luxuriate in their quaint languages and enjoy gazing upon Ireland’s natural vistas unaffected by advanced commerce.

And you want other peoples to reject the wealth that the Irish (and Americans) now enjoy so that they retain their "identities" – identities as poor, peasant-dominated societies.

Why should other people want to make these sacrifices for you, Mr. Ebnet? Are you willing to make like sacrifices for them? Are you, for example, willing to go off to live in the Minnesota woods in an unheated log cabin with no running water or electricity? No car? No supermarkets? After all, I’m sure that visitors to America would really appreciate gazing upon a true American pioneer, living just the way our great-great-grandparents lived.

Minnesota without heat - I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. He could have easily changed Ireland to India above and made essentially the same point.

Gaurav Sabnis (who writes a very nice blog) writes:

This post on Cafe Hayek (link via Amit Varma) describes perfectly the sentiments I felt a few chapters into Mark Tully's book 'No Fullstops In India', and the reason I chucked the book.

He describes the royal treatment he gets at a wedding he attends in an Indian village. Later on he laments how Indians, especially those in the cities are "losing their identity" by "copying the West". I find a link between the royal treatment and this desire for a status quo.
A person defines, discovers and shapes his own identity, and is proud of it. By hinting that anyone "loses one's identity" because of some changes made in lifestyle or thought process, the very definition of identity is turned on its head. All these changes are made out of choice.

Now here is a little piece from Nilu’s blog:

I met a foreign student today. She totally agreed with me that Bangalore was indeed the Pretence Capital of the world. Suzane is from Tanzania and she is studying Law at Bangalore University. She actually told me this (I swear am not making this up) - "People here are simply losing themselves in the name of whatever it is that they are aping. In the last five years that I have been in Bangalore, I have seen it go from bad to worse".

Of course, it could be that Nilu is merely agreeing with Tanzanian foreign student because young men tend to agree with whatever young ladies say, especially if they find them interesting. But it does sound like Nilu and the Tanzanian student are disappointed with the choices that people in Bangalore have made.

Here is a little piece from that excellent blog Sepia Mutiny about the new Infosys campus in Bangalore, with some excellent photos: just posted photos of the Infosys campus in Bangalore. Wow, Karnataka really can be sterilized so it’s just as boring as Santa Clara. But it’s nice to see homo technorati in their natural habitat.

Most people might have looked at those photos and been rather impressed by the progress than Indian IT corporations have made. But implicit in Manish Vij’s piece is a disappointment that India was looking too much like California.

What I’m trying to do with these various posts is to show varying levels of acceptance of the changes that are sweeping India and the world. While people like the increased wealth that Globalization brings, they decry the loss of “local color” that comes with it. But as Gaurav Sabnis said: “A person defines, discovers and shapes his own identity, and is proud of it.”

As someone who will (hopefully) visit India in the coming months, I will keep an open mind about what I see. I hope I see some happy people, that's all.


  • I had always thought with the Mahatma, "I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."

    And had even written to Amit regarding this, but after seeing the excerpts of Gaurav Sabnis' and Manish Vij's posts, I feel probably I need to think deeper.

    By Anonymous Srikanth, at 9:41 PM  

  • Michael, I have always been intrigued and even amused by this 'losing identity' game. It is like somehow we have acquired new skins and shed our old ones, much like snakes do.

    What I see happening around me is more a process of assimilation - absorption of new ideas and in the process, values. At the same time, living with our existing ones. And I believe this is a part of the process of progress.

    It is sad to see the condescending attitudes of visitors who come to india with romantic visions of "developing world", who find themselves disappointed...

    By Anonymous Charu, at 10:54 PM  

  • Michael,
    This reminds me of the chapter on Norse Greenland in Jaredn Diamond's book "Collapse". Amit recently wrote a review of it I think. You might infcat have read it.

    Anyway the point of the post is this - societies tend to adapt to sorroundings but they also have want to project an identity. What they choose to identify is really important in what happens to them in the future. Identity plays a large role in how they deal with adversities but then if you dont adapt your identity - you could easily get stuck in a mess. So the topic is of great importance - the interesting part is how things evolve

    By Anonymous lswswein, at 12:08 AM  

  • Yeah, identity is the root of civilisation. Identity is the cultural currency inherited from our ancestors. It is therefore no surprise that people fiercely fight for their identity. History has shown ever more instances of it.

    Why do the Kurds refuse to assimilate with the Turks? Why did not the Native Americans simply assimilate with the settlers? Why do tribes stay apart the world over? It is not just a matter of power but also identity.

    yum yum

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:31 AM  

  • The point I a trying to make is that the "adaptability" of the identity is also very important.

    By Anonymous lswswein, at 1:15 AM  

  • Yes capitalism will destroy identities. It is not just people in the Third Wolrd who are losing their identities. In a way, in the First World people have sub-contracted out their culture to corporations. Yes adaptability is the only attribute of value in face of the onslaught of capitalism.

    yum yum

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:24 AM  

  • Hi Srikanth, Charu, Iswswein, and Yum Yum
    Srikanth: I think the Mahatma's quote pretty much nails it. It's all about choice: what you choose to accept and reject.

    Charu: What you are seeing around you is the interesting process of adoption and adaption of culture. It is a little like the violin in Indian classical music. It is obviously a western import - but in the context of Indian classical music it doesn't sound at all like the western violin.

    The new Indian culture that is emerging will be uniquely Indian by definition. You might notice borrowings from other cultures but the combination is unique. Maybe a better analogy is Indian cuisine. You borrow the potato from South America and the tomato from Europe and maybe onions and carrots as well (and some other veggies) plus some India spice and make subzi - a uniquely Indian dish.

    Iswswein and Yum Yum: The idea of identity is interesting and I can see that it could be very valuable. My wife speaks Tamil and she, of course, thinks it is one the world's great languages (I don't doubt that it is). So I can see that the Tamil culture is intrinsically tied to the use of the Tamil language and people would be very sad if it died out.

    As an American, I don't have so much of an inheritance of culture, so to speak. The language I speak was borrowed from England. The food we eat was borrowed from everywhere. The only thing that I could point to as being typically American is a love of freedom (although it really should be universal). Americans were first to really embrace this idea, and it still runs through our culture. Indeed, I am always saddened when I see freedom nibbled away here and there.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 10:44 AM  

  • So your wife is a Tamil. Send her my greetings. No wonder you are among Indians a lot here.

    There are fiercely independent minded tribes/people all over the world. Of course, you were not saying that 'a love for freedom' is unique to Americans.

    American culture has many unique attributes but corporations are bringing a form of uniformity. Matt Taibbi even said that America now reminds him of Soviet Russia in a saddening way. Maybe you can think up and post about the unique attributes of American culture in time.

    yum yum

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:17 AM  

  • Michael.....I've pondered over this question a lot myself. What is an "identity" that needs to be preserved?

    Especially with the churning that's happening in India.

    But India confounds every one. It's going to take something from somewhere, and make it its own, a new unique form (which will be replaced by something else in the future). It always works that way in India.......:-)

    By Blogger Sunil, at 11:53 AM  

  • I have seen this observation in so many places - India will absorb the new cultural forces of globalization and create a unique culture out of it. I don't deny it. But we have to realize that the people who crib about 'losing identities' play a huge role in creating this 'unique culture'. If no one opposes the travesty that is going on in Bangalore, it is likely that Bangalore will end up as a poor imitation of Silicon Valley. It is only because some people care about preserving existing culture that atleast some aspects of it will possible be retained. So why should we disparage such people?

    Perhaps we can make one distinction.
    We don't want outsiders (like the tourist to Ireland or Mark Tully) to bemoan our lack of cultural identity because that's condescension. But I think it's perfectly alright for Bangaloreans (like that student from Tanzania) to rant about this.

    By Blogger Eswaran B, at 1:40 PM  

  • Hi Sunil and Eswaran
    Sunil: you always do such a fine job with your thought provoking post, maybe you could take a stab at this subject. I'm sure it would be good.

    Eswaran: You make a valid point, Indian people will have to decide what they want. This might be partly individual and partly collective. Generally, I would think that it would be better to let these decision be made by individuals. But I have to admit that if every home were the unique vision of the owner, it would be a strange neighborhood.

    I wish I better understood what was so "wrong" with the way Bangalore was becoming. I've never been there (I told my wife that I wanted to visit there if we go to India). The pictures of the Infosys campus didn't bother me any. If you don't like the look of it, work somewhere else I suppose. It actually looked quite comfortable.

    But I'm not sure exactly what Nilu and the Tanzanian lady (who, incidently, would have to be considered a verdeshi like Mark Tully and me), were really objecting to.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:33 PM  

  • Michael,

    The only Bangalore I have ever seen is the new Bangalore and I have not understood what the old-timers are complaining about either. I worked in a software company(where else? :)) and absolutely loved the modern workplace - so what if it's like California. I am only saying that the folks who complain about Banglore losing its identity may have a valid point. Resistance to change is what creates a unique mix of the old and the new.

    With that said, I am irritated by the comment of the tourist to Ireland but not so much by what Nilu's friend(lived in Bangalore for five years - not an outsider anymore!) said about Bangalore. To me, one looks like condescension and the other genuine concern.

    Nice to know that your wife is a Tamil :-)

    By Blogger Eswaran B, at 12:22 AM  

  • Eswaran
    It is true that if you live somewhere for several years, it becomes home. And everyone has a right to their opinion.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:06 PM  

  • Let me start of with a cliche - Only change is permanent. And as Charu says - it is a process of assimilation.

    No one culture in the world is pure. Cultures can survive only with interaction and with that comes change automatically. Like you said, Indian cuisine is made up of borrowed ingredients - even the spice and garnishings!!

    That said, what bothers me most is for many Indians (that I know) - Mordenization = Westernization. A person I recently met from Bangalore said that he was stunned to see college going women wearing half-sarees (pavadai dhavani) in Chennai. His question - Why would a huge metropolis like Chennai still live in the old ages?

    When I lived in the US, I regularly wore my veshti (dhoti) in summer as I feel it is the most convinient outfit for hot summer days. My western friends did not seem to mind it, but my Indian friends ridiculed me and refused to be seen with me in public. Unfortunately, I have never got an opportunity to wear my veshti out in Trondheim.

    I was very much impressed by South Korea in this respect. I was there for a couple of months from what I have seen, they are a very mordern society with a strong cultural identity (possibly too strong in their case) - No modernization = Westernization there.

    By Blogger Iyer the Great, at 9:58 AM  

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