Thursday, July 12, 2012

China-India: the cultural myth

In the Indian media, China and India are often clubbed together in political and economic discussions. There is a tendency on the part of Indian journalists to refer to the two countries as one intelligible unit, mainly using the perspective adopted by certain international bodies and organizations in matters of economic policy. However, aside from the obvious and well-recognized fact that there are gargantuan differences between their respective socio-economic profiles, there are also great cultural differences that are elided when such references are made in the media.

From a lay perspective, Chinese culture and Indian culture most certainly fundamentally differ in an indefinite number of ways. Let's look at it from the point of view of migrants. The Chinese migrant in a foreign country forms or reinforces a distinctive cultural identity and usually becomes part of a visible and cohesive group of fellow compatriots. The Indian migrant, like the African emigre, does not necessarily become part of a cohesive group. There is a discernible lack of cohesion in Indian migrant communities, and there are several linguistic and cultural factors underpinning this diffuse state of being. There might be specific instances of well-formed and discernible groups of Indian migrants, but if you notice a little more carefully, you will usually find that they belong to a single ethnic or linguistic community. This difference in tendencies of migrant group-formation is reflective of internal cultural vicissitudes. While the Chinese can claim to have a certain degree of linguistic uniformity, Indians can only claim the exact opposite. There are several other factors that contribute to their mutual distinctiveness, and many of these are less palpable. There are subtleties of speech and conduct that cannot be adequately translated from direct experience to writing.

How does one explain the difference in the approach of the Chinese storekeeper from that of the Indian storekeeper? The petty bourgeoisie as a class constitutes the most visible segment of all migrant communities taken collectively. In my experience, while certain storekeepers of Indian origin (including those from countries such as Mauritius and Fiji) express a sense of familiarity that borders on the curious and informal, Chinese storekeepers tend to assume a more incurious, subdued and taciturn demeanour. A strict sense of formality marks their speech and interaction with customers in general, even their Chinese customers.

One gets the sense that the Chinese emigre is more inward-looking and self-content, exuding a sense of self-sufficiency quite unique in international settings, and yet simultaneously more likely to become part of a support network of fellow migrants. The Indian emigre does not identify with a pre-existing or nascent group of fellow migrants as easily. Considerations of class, language, ethnicity and background tend to effectively create more lacunae among Indian migrant communities. There are many different facets of each culture that cannot be adequately understood from this limited perspective, but overall, there are several nuances that distinguish the two cultures. Any and all references to the China-India combine as a homogenized entity, particularly in the Indian media, are, as mentioned earlier, not only politically and economically inaccurate but also culturally misleading.

1 comment:

Monkey said...

There is less linguistic uniformity in China than one might think. Apart from the obvious Mandarin/Cantonese divide, even within these two languages are - like in India - several hundreds of dialects, to the point that somebody from Beijing may not understand somebody from Sichuan.