An old friend asked me a question that got me going a bit and I decided to answer it here. I do have a little bit of recap and some other things lined up and cooking for the blog, but this is fresh out of the oven so I am serving it up first.
Heya Nick— was thinking the other day about how the American Dream really isn’t for me–house, car, 3.2 kids, etc. I was wondering if other countries have ideals along these lines and thought you might know about India’s.
The nature of this discussion, and with an eye towards keeping it relatively brief, generalities must be used that will not capture the nuance of individual differences. That may seem obvious and unnecessary to state at first but pause and allow it to sink in.
If we start from your premise it could not be more vital to realize. You begin by saying “I don’t fit the mold”. And you know you are not alone in this. I would imagine that many if not most of your friends (mine too) feel similarly out of touch with the common or mainstream view of “The American Dream”. With a little more digging, informal polling, and supposition, it does not take too long to discover that “The American Dream” is not really as widely aspired to as we may have been led to believe (or as it once was say in the 50s). I do think that some of the core elements that lay behind the common symbols of “The American Dream” still can and do pertain for many of us. I also don’t want the whole package. I would like a house and a better car but I don’t want any kids.
The point I think is behind the metaphor. In a word, security. The house, car, kids image conveys a degree of material success we understand even if not consciously. The people in that vision are not living paycheck to paycheck. They have enough to eat. They are not too cold in the winter. And if you are inclined this way – they have enough of their basic creature needs met that they may be able to spend some free time in intellectual pursuit (or whatever other kind of pursuit they prefer. This does end up being a bit of a Rorschach blot.). I don’t think you need to be spoon fed any more over analysis of what “The American Dream” is or isn’t but I believe that little exercise will help put any comments on the ingrained national dreams of other cultures in perspective.
India is huge and diverse. Yes, America is diverse, but we are also way more homogeneous than a place like India. I know we have poor people and poor areas and while I have not been everywhere in the US, I have never seen poverty like the poverty I witnessed in India (except maybe some of the “refugee areas” in Jordan outside Amman). Of course not all of India is people in poverty. And despite being there for about two years, I saw very little of India. I only left the state of Kerala twice (aside from international travel) and rarely strayed far from Thiruvananthapuram or Kovalam. Actually I did little more than go between my place in Palkulangara and my office in Pettah. Even in that small circle – there is a vast difference in how the people of different classes live.
There is also the caste system to consider. While officially the caste system is abolished (sort of), there is a huge difference between written law on the page and what lives in people’s hearts. If you want to pick a somewhat familiar example, race relations in the US can give some perspective. For the areas I frequented in India, I would say it is similar to how I remember the deep South in the late 70s and early 80s. A lot of white folks I knew did not behave terribly to black folks, but there was still something in their attitude and the way they talked that reflected that somehow, inside, the white folks did not view black folks as equals, as “on their level”. Like I said, the white folks may still behave fine – be polite, friendly, supportive, collegial, but you could feel the difference. I don’t believe that most of the white folks I am referring to even knew this about themselves, so deeply was this ingrained. That is probably more than enough belaboring of the point – it is a very different place from here and the people are more different from us and from each other than you tend to find in the US.
The last disclaimer (maybe) –
All that culture stuff and difference between folks well stated there is a final point. People are just people and all of us from everywhere pretty much want the same stuff. Even the people I have met that I disagree with the most on almost every single issue, we still basically want the same stuff – food, warmth, safety.
The non-answer –
All of that lofty preamble fizzes out to this. I don’t really know. My sense is that the innate diversity of India prevents enough of an unconscious consensus to form something like “The Indian Dream”. (A corollary example – in Kerala alone there are over 50 active political parties and THREE different active communist parties. Consensus is still a ways off.) My dear friend and partner Ram wants his kids to be free to do whatever they want, to follow their dreams. He does hope that they will pick a path that involves helping people and giving back. But he also recognizes that being the best you you can be no matter what path you choose is sometimes the best (or only) way to really contribute to society. But, Ram is an exceptional human.
I met many parents who had specific jobs or careers picked out for their children. I met parents who had mates picked out for their kids. Arranged marriage is still pretty common in the parts of India I know. Most of the younger folks I met (18-24 mostly guys who worked for me) wanted a wife and children. But it is hard to put your finger on the source of that desire. Is it tradition and family values wrapped up in memory from a country where large families are still the norm? Or is it more basic? Perhaps wrapped up with the two pronged fork of taboo to borderline impossibility of sexual experience outside of marriage for most folks and the lack of information about sex and birth and birth control. The age old motivator for marriage and the natural result. Most of my young buds wanted to work for an international IT company. To ensure that I am not unduly feeding a common stereotype let us keep in mind that I built an international IT company and they worked for me so I was definitely already fishing in that barrel.
I have the most knowledge of the aspirations of people of the middle to upper class mostly due to language. These are the folks who know English. I did learn some Hindi and Malayalam. (Gotta love a language whose name is a palindrome. And quick aside, why isn’t the name for a palindrome a palindrome? Somebody really dropped the ball there and that has always killed me.) But my ability to name all the lovely foods I wanted to eat in the mother tongue or pronounce the name of my neighborhood so well that the rickshaw drivers stared in amazement does not provide a solid enough base to get to the “tell me about your hopes and dreams” stage.
I think I will wrap this up for now. Good question though and you did get me thinking about some things I have left alone for some time. The last stage of this writing got me going about my day to day in India, outside of work, where I spent way more time with lower class folks. But those are tales for another time. You did get me going though. Hopefully, you will get something out of the exchange as well.
And because it feels like sort of a cheap trick to take you down that road making it seem as if i did have an answer when i did not, i will share a potentially related anecdote from Dr Cliff Edwards, Dean of the Religion department at VCU during my time there and teacher of most things Buddhist. When he was studying in Japan, one of his teachers told him this. (I shall paraphrase.)
You don’t need to become a Buddhist, and maybe it is not possible. You were born a Christian in a Christian country and you are going back home. Be a Christian. You can be a Christian and still follow the ideals of Buddhism. I don’t know that anyone can throw off the religion of their land and their parents. Be the kind of Christian you want to be.
In case this came from a dark night of the soul place instead of a curiosity place, i say, be the kind of American you want to be. That is what this place is supposed to be about after all. Having the freedom to be who you want to be and live how you want to live. We seem to forget that. (That is probably not fair. People are actually arguing over nuances of definitions related to “your freedom stops at my door/face”. But that too is a discussion for another day.)
And I’m out!