American culture not totally shocking to India’s millennial women

Akshita Gupta
Akshita Gupta, from Northwestern University does not even consider it to be westernization. (Abhinanda Datta/MEDILL)

By Abhinanda Datta

A steady diet comprising American pop culture and the gradual infiltration of western practices into the traditional ways, have rendered millennial women coming to the U.S. from India partially immune to the effects of westernization.

Sneha Srinatha, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, said that westernization has been a slow and gradual change over time and the liberalization and changes in societal norms in India can be attributed to the western influence.

“American influence is pretty widespread in the Indian society as well as the Indian corporate environment,” said Srinatha, who is studying analytics. “Living in a cosmopolitan city back in India and working in the Indian office of a U.S. firm, I might have a skewed view on this subject.

“For instance alcohol being served at professional networking events, addressing people with their first names etc. are norms in most MNCs [multinational corporations], by virtue of the western influence and there are conventional Indian firms that still avoid it.

“Probably as a result of my past conditioning, I didn’t see any drastic differences in the culture when I moved here, especially in terms of clothing, food and dating.”

The effect of westernization is a gray area for Madhura Duttagupta, a graduate student of molecular and cell biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It has not affected me massively but at the same time I am not totally unaffected,” Duttagupta said. “There was considerable exposure to American culture from TV shows and anecdotes from friends who moved here a couple of years ago, so it was not a total culture shock.”

Akshita Gupta, 26, a graduate student of Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, does not even consider it as westernization.

“I wouldn’t really term it westernization, because growing up I never categorized activities, music, films, book etc. as ‘Indian’ or ‘western’,” Gupta said. “I would say it was a matter of choice. I didn’t think to enjoy one, you could give up the other.”

Despite their acquaintance with the American culture, these women have faced a fair amount of culture shock and while certain things baffle them, others seem admirable.

“There are little things which still amaze me. For example, the sheer enormity of choices available at supermarkets,” Duttagupta said. “In India there would only be two options for apples, a low-priced one and a higher-priced one. Here when I go to the market there are 15 varieties of apples and not just food, the width of choices available on other trivial things like toilet paper are mind-boggling.”

She continued: “I have been impressed by the independence and self-reliance of young people here. Even in our early 20s, we in India are coddled a lot more. I have particularly been thinking about our approach to life in general.

“When I talk to my other Indian classmates, our issues in life revolve around our academics or scholarly struggles. We primarily still view ourselves as students, whereas our American friends are dealing with problems like making an appointment with the vet or upgrading their car insurance. Basically they are fully functional adults while most of us still are barely learning the ropes.”

Srinatha said: “One thing that I changed about myself is greeting strangers. It is a cultural norm here to smile and greet strangers, but this would probably be viewed as intrusive back in India.

“Other than that, I am not very comfortable speaking about my accomplishments as Indians value humility, and initially I had problems at interviews. But in America, marketing oneself is perceived as a sign of confidence.

“In terms of general observation about American people at large, their patience and adherence to rules are some things that did surprise me. Nobody honks the car horns, people queue up to board a bus, everyone waits for their turn– there is no sense of urgency.”

For Gupta, this has been a journey of great learning and a way to express herself without any constraints.

“I’d say I’ve learned to be individualistic rather than go with the crowd, to have an individual opinion, the power of open communication.

“Another significant learning I picked up from the West is that it is okay to do what you ‘want’ to do, as opposed to what you ‘should’ do, as it normally is in the East, where society in general expects you to conform to certain norms, even if you don’t particularly agree with them.”

Rochona Majumdar, the director of graduate studies of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at The University of Chicago said that because of  globalization certain things are homogenous between the two cultures, but heterogeneity does present itself in certain practices.

“There is a difference of class. For example, despite India embracing the structure of supermarkets, not every one can afford them and for some, the local markets are still the only option,” Majumdar said.

“Culture shocks are not always a bad thing, in fact they make us miss aspects of the Indian culture deeply. Just because of TV shows and books,cultural differences cannot completely disappear. They are two different cultures and differences will be there.”

Photo at top: Akshita Gupta, a graduate student at Northwestern University, says her American experience has taught her how to express herself without any constraints.(Abhinanda Datta/MEDILL)