Caste discrimination banned in Seattle

This past week the City Council of Seattle voted to ban discrimination based on caste. This references the hierarchical social division in South Asia which places some castes, such as Brahmins higher than lower-ranked castes, particularly Dalits (formerly called “Untouchables”). As Seattle is not located in Asia, but in the US state of Washington, this action might appear surprising. There are, however, a large number of South Asians in Seattle, many drawn to the city to work for tech companies such as Microsoft, which are located there. In India, discrimination based on caste still exists despite being officially banned. The ordinance from the City Council is designed not to prevent discrimination against Indians or South Asians in general (that’s already illegal) but targets discrimination within the immigrant community. There have been several legal cases in recent years from Dalits who allege unfair treatment in employment. The public radio program The World did an illuminating series on caste in America.

Many in the US are likely to be unaware of caste distinctions and probably would not be able to tell what caste someone belongs to. How do Indians themselves tell? An Interview recently on the World with Yashica Dutt, the author of “Coming out as a Dalit” pointed to the different ways that Indians can determine what caste a person belongs to. The first is the person’s name, which can reveal information such as the region of India your family is from, your native language, and your religion – all information that points to caste identity. An online Indian name decoder provides such data based on family names. If the name is not revelatory, according to Dutt, the person might be asked where they are from and whether they are a vegetarian (Brahmins are). Additionally, someone’s clothes may be an indicator, especially if they are wearing the “sacred thread” (an indication that one has passed through a Hindu rite of passage). Another interesting tell for South Asian professionals she mentioned is to find out what a person’s rank was in engineering or medical college in India.

For foreigners the caste system may be invisible but for South Asians it is quite real and can have real consequences on how one is treated by others. In that way it is a bit reminiscent of colorism in societies where there tends to be mixed populations of dark and light-skinned people. That includes Brazil, South Africa, the United States, where often darker-skin people are discriminated against.

Teaching in India

logo Coming to India to teach intercultural communication seems like taking coals to Newcastle – seems odd for an American, coming from a foreign language phobic land, to be telling multilingual Indians how to get along with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. In fact, one of the main themes in the course was the Western controlling influence over the traditional narratives around intercultural communication, with individualism (identified with the West) being seen positively – enabling creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurism – in contrast to the groupthink, passivity, and rigidity of collectivistic cultures. The course was live-streamed on YouTube, then archived: Intercultural Communication in Global Virtual Environments.

My colleague here at the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur) has mentioned that in her classes she typically has students representing a number of Indian states and a variety of Indian languages. English is the language of instruction, but it isn’t anyone’s first language. During breaks from the classes during the course, I heard a lot of code-switching among the participants. There was one student from Nigeria in the class – it was interesting to compare the different effects of British colonialism in both countries. Nigeria has a similar multilingual make-up; the student indicated that he regularly used four different language at home, the main ones being English and Housa, plus two local languages.

I learned some history of the Institute here that I hadn’t known, namely that it was the site of the Hijli Detention Camp, housing those fighting for independence in the 1930’s. This is now the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology. The site was used as a British Royal Air Force airstrip and later as a US Air Force base. In fact, I was told yesterday that the Enola Gay refueled here on its way to drop its atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

I am heading back to the US tomorrow. I will miss being here, and especially the contact with the students, but will not miss the weather. It was 110° F when I came and has been hotter than that some days; for Thursday the forecast says 117°.

Returning to roots

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

Residents of ShantiNiketan, a retirement community in Florida (NPR)

There’s an interesting new series on NPR called Invisibilia which “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions”. A recent show dealt with categories, with an interesting story about someone who alternates between male and female personas and has as a consequence a much harder time than transgender individuals, who at least can be put into a category. The story that I found particularly interesting was about a retirement community in Florida – nothing unusual about that, but in this case it is dedicated to individuals from India, or their descendants. The community is set up to make retirees feel like they are back in India, with not just Indian food and Bollywood movies, but houses arranged to imitate an Indian village with low houses and a big courtyard. The big attraction, however, is the opportunity to be with other Indians. The concept proved to be very successful, with the condos selling out quickly. The fact that it is a gated community may raise concerns about excluding others, but the organizers insist anyone is welcome, it’s just that non-Indians were not interested. One of the retirees expressed in the piece how comfortable she felt in the Indian environment created in the community, with the comment that “it can be exhausting to live in a culture as an outsider”. In the retirement community, she was no longer a member of a minority group. One of the commenters on the story put it well:

I can definitely sympathize with the people in the news story. Their culture is even more dissimilar and there’s only so much that a first generation immigrant can adapt. It’s no surprise that the elderly would seek to remove some of that stress from their lives. And it’s the simple things that make the difference. The neighborhood will serve authentic Indian food, and you don’t have to drive miles to the nearest art-house theater to watch the new Bollywood movies. Furthermore, I do believe that there is a great deal of difference between individual racism and institutional racism. A white person might experience isolated incidents regarding racism, but racism pervades every aspect of life for a minority.

One of the points made in the story was that as we grow older, we tend to want to be with others like us in fundamental (cultural) ways:

According to Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, if you raise the specter of death in a person’s mind, Christians like Christians better; Italians like Italians better. Even Germans, who are usually pretty lukewarm about other Germans, if you get them to contemplate their own mortality, suddenly they really like Germans. “If you interview Germans near a funeral home, they’re much more nationalistic,” Greenberg says. And the reverse is also true: We like people outside our group much, much less. “People become more negative toward other cultures,” Greenberg says. “Because death haunts us as it does, we have to do something about it.”

According to Greenberg, being around people not like you makes you in some sense feel invisible, and that’s a feeling that increases significantly towards the end of life. Being with others like you, particularly late in life, gives you the impression of being significant. I have to say that this has not been my experience personally in growing older and facing retirement. I find myself thinking more and more about the attractions of living abroad (Ireland!).

Non-verbal India

namasteOne of the interesting aspects of being in India is to observe non-verbal communication. Indians by and large are big talkers, but they also are very expressive non-verbally. Well-known is the greeting using the folded hands in front of the chest, often while saying “Namaste” or “Namaskar” (from Sanskrit, “I bow to you”). The gesture is accompanied by a slight bow. At the hotel where I was staying in Ahmedabad, the hotel employees greeted me that way every time we met. I have also noted while I’ve been here that, while Indians love to talk, they are also more comfortable with silence than most US Americans. There is not the same compulsion to fill pauses in conversation with chatter.

My colleague here told me of a personal experience of hers illustrating a difference between US and Indian behavior in this area. She was a graduate student at an American university and had, she says, been slacking off on her work. Her graduate advisor called her to his office to lecture her about buckling down. Abashed, she kept her head down during the conversation, not looking him in the eyes. This was her acknowledgement of his age and seniority, as well as a way to show her own awareness and confession of her guilt and shame. He didn’t take it that way, and became increasingly angry in the conversation, interpreting her not looking directly at him as a refusal to accept his views and to acknowledge her fault, in other words, the opposite of what she intended to convey. India is a hierarchal culture in which it’s expected that one show respect for age and authority. One way of conveying that is to lower your eyes.

The most intriguing gesture in India is surely the head wiggle. This is a circular bobbing of the head (like a bobble head) from side to side, neither a nod nor a shake. I have seen this gesture used very often and in many different contexts, and I just realized yesterday evening that I was unconsciously using it while listening to a colleague here tell me about her family’s tragic experiences during the separation between India and Pakistan in 1947. In this case, I was expressing sympathy and indicating Yes, I am listening, go on. But that’s just one use of the head wiggle. Depending on how it is done – how fast the wiggle – it can also mean yes or I agree. In other contexts, particularly if it is slow and subtle, it can just be an acknowledgement of the presence of another person – a kind of minimal greeting. According to one account, it can also be used as a non-answer, to not respond yes or no to a question, request, or offer. That kind of ambiguity can be quite useful in a culture in which it’s not acceptable to make definitive refusals of offers.

A YouTube video demonstrates the different uses of the head wiggle:

My colleage att IIK-Kharagpur pointed me also to this clip from the TV series Outsourced:

Languages in India


Autorickshaw in India

One of the more interesting experiences I have had in my time here in India has been to experience the reality of the multilingual environment. Many Americans when they think of India and languages (which they do rarely), their assumption likely will be that English is all you need to communicate effectively in that country. In fact, I have encountered that view when discussing with colleagues at VCU the decision to start teaching Hindi as part of our language program. The reality on the ground is quite different. I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), where I’m giving a series of lectures this week. She is from the north of India and grew up with Urdu, Hindi, and English (at a school run by an Irish nun). Now living in Kharagpur, she told me she had to learn Bengali in order to live here. In fact, she said that in her spare time she is also learning to read Bengali (which uses a different script from Hindi). She described her impression of speaking Bengali as speaking Sanskrit with your mouth full. Bengali is widely spoken in India and Bangladesh. In fact, it is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world (ahead of Russian, Japanese, German or French). When I was in Ahmedabad last week, I experienced a similar phenomenon, namely that everyone was not speaking either English or Hindi, India’s two lingua francas, but rather Gujarti. Gujarti was the mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi. Both Bengali and Gujarti are Indo-European languages (Indo-Aryan branch), but other language families are represented as well among the 22 official (indigenous) languages of India: Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, and a few minor language families and isolates.

In my experience here, English is in fact a language that lets you navigate everyday life, but it doesn’t allow you full access into Indian culture. That comes only through the local language, and to some extent, through Hindi. It’s also not the case that everyone in India actually speaks English. Even those who have learned it in school may not be proficient in spoken English. That includes Indians in service industries that cater to tourists. My difficulties undoubtedly derive not just from a lack of proficiency on the part of the Indians, but more from my lack of knowledge of the Indian cultural context. Not knowing how many things work in India, or what the expectations are for holding conversations are, means that often we are approaching a topic from widely different perspectives. Of course, sometimes, it comes down to differences in the meanings of common words in American and Indian English. When I arrived at the Ahmedabad airport, there was no taxi stand in front of the airport. After asking fruitlessly a number of by-standers (including a policeman) about taxis, I asked a young man running a small drink kiosk. He asked if I wanted him to get me an “auto”, which I was happy to accept. 45 minutes later (not the 10 minutes he had promised), what pulled up was in fact not a car, but a motorized rickshaw. In Indian English this is a autorickshaw or “auto” for short.

Functional chaos: A model for learning?

trafficeI’m been in Gujarat, India for the past 4 days, visiting VCU’s partner university in Vadodora (The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda) and attending the conference on “Globalization and Localization in Computer-Aided Language Learning” (GloCALL) in Ahmedabad. Yesterday, one of the speakers, Vance Stevens (founder of Webheads in Action, an ESL community of practice), spoke about MOOCs and language learning. He cited George Siemens’ views on the ineffectiveness of structured learning, with the idea that learners should be finding their own learning paths, not following in someone else’s footsteps. Rather than swallowing down pre-digested information, the learner assembles a unique, individually designed dish, assembled from ingredients gathered from a variety of sources. In a sense, connectivist learning follows the model of how things tend to work in India: functional chaos. This is how traffic flows in India – there seems to be little rhyme or reason and few rules (most traffic lights remain on flashing yellow). Everyone has the freedom to find an individual path through the mass of cars, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows. Instead of disorder, the chaos works. When I took a taxi to Vadodora (2 hours away from Ahmedabad), the driver often had to slow to maneuver around other vehicles or to weave through incoming traffic to make a right turn (driving is on the left in India), but he never had to stop, just kept moving.

As is the case for outsiders encountering the traffic chaos of India, new learners in a connected learning environment, it seems to me, are likely to wonder how to make sense of what they encounter, seeking order in a seemingly random array of blog posts, tweets, and videos. There’s no doubt that successfully navigating one’s way provides a sense of accomplishment and builds learner autonomy, central to real engagement in learning. Vance pointed out in his talk that real language is complex and chaotic – there are rules but no one follows them. Rather, there are patterns that are used to create new utterances, each unique and suitable to the context of use. Language learners pull together into new combinations what they encounter in terms of sentence patterns, word usage, stock phrases, and their interlocutor’s speech, creating each time something unique and personal. In that sense, language is also functional chaos. However, the learner needs to have available some basic building blocks for creating language. If that it a first language, those are absorbed transparently. For second language learners (as adults), I continue to think that there is in fact a role for structured learning. This is particularly the case for a highly inflected language such as German or Russian, not to mention languages such as Mandarin or Arabic (for native speakers of English). It is true, though, that at some point in the learning process, the training wheels come off, and into the traffic you go.

Later today, I’m off to Kolkata and from there to visit another partner university, the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. I’ll be leaving the clean living environment of Gujarat: a dry state (knowing that, one of the conference participants from Japan brought a case of beer with him on the plane) where I have yet to see anyone smoke and where vegetarianism is wide-spread (as it is throughout India). Added to that is the spiritual side – the large number of temples I’ve walked by, as well the numerous figures in religious robes I’ve seen. Let’s hope I’ve experienced some physical and spiritual cleansing through my visit here.

What’s beauty?


Miss America 2013

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is determined by the beholder’s cultural values.  Beauty pageants have been in the news lately.  The selection of the first Indian-American woman as Miss America is a clear signal of the diversification of US society but as well a demonstration of the wide-spread prejudices that still exist against Americans of color.  Racist tweets abounded after news of her selection.  The new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is not the first woman of color to win the crown.  There have been seven black Miss Americas, starting with Vanessa Williams 30 years ago. A Hawaii-born Filipina won in 2001. Interestingly, it’s been pointed out that Davuluri would not have been likely to win the Miss India title:  her skin is too dark.  Bollywood beauties tend to have whiter skin. In fact, Davuluri performed a Bollywood dance in the talent portion of the contest.

Also in the news recently was the winner of the World Muslimah 2013 contest, a Muslim-only beauty pageant in Jakarta, where according to the Guardian, participants were judged not just on their looks but their ability to recite verses from the Qur’an and their philosophy on modern-day Islam. The comment by the winner, Nigerian Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola, after the contest:  “We’re just trying to show the world that Islam is beautiful.”

Finally, there’s also the news that the French Senate has voted to ban child beauty contests.  Reportedly, the law was prompted by an infamous photo spread in the French Vogue in 2010 of then-10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau in sexy poses and heavy make-up. It seems Honey Boo Boo won’t be moving to France any time soon.

Sarita’s World

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12-year Sarita Meena

In the past few months there has been a lot of coverage on the gang rape and subsequent death of an Indian student in New Delhi.  The tragedy has shone a spotlight on the treatment of women in Indian society as well as on the caste system, as the victim (as were the majority of the perpetrators) were from the Dalit caste (“Untouchables”).  There is a perception that lower caste women are “free game” for men from the higher castes.  This case, however, does not follow this pattern and brings up the additional issue of the migration of rural inhabitants to cities and the social difficulties that often arise from that situation.

A recent story on the radio program The World discusses girls in rural India and how their role is undergoing significant changes.  The story follows a young girl named Sarita in a rural, very conservative area, who is seen (with hair cut short) playing sports with boys after school.  That would have been unacceptable not many years ago, as in fact would have been girls just attending school in that area.  The majority of women in the school did not attend school and are illiterate.  The girl’s family is unusual in that the two older sisters have been sent away to college.  Sarita herself dreams of being financially independent.  At the same time Sarita follows Indian traditions in a number of ways.  She worries about her parents, when she and her sisters marry and, as is customary in India, go to live with her husband’s family.  When it is suggested to Sarita that she could perhaps have her mother come and live with her future husband’s family, she rejects the idea out of hand:  it wouldn’t be seemly. Like other women in India in a changing environment, Sarita will have to decide how important it is for her to keep to traditional ways of life or strike out in new directions.

A video on YouTube shows a typical day in Sarita’s life:

Chicken conquers the world

Chicken Tiki Masala

Chicken Tiki Masala

One of the wonderful benefits of having a great variety of cultures in our world is the diversity of foods that results.  An article in the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine points to how popular chicken has become and how many different ways cultures have made it their own.  This includes the legendary Indian-British Chicken Tiki Masala, which then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called in a speech in 2001 a “true British national dish”, as a way to point to the benefits of a multicultural Britain.

This presents an interesting contrast to Angela Merkel’s comment in 2010 that in Germany “Multikulti ist gescheitert, absolut gescheitert” (multiculturalism has utterly failed).  That speech was given in Potsdam, not far from Berlin, where the  Turkish Döner Kebab has become the most popular street food, over the traditional Currywurst.  The article points to an interesting take on chicken today in China:  for many Chinese, cooked chicken on the go means only one thing:  KFC.  Why?  The most important is that KFC has adapted their menu to Chinese tastes.  But the article points to an additional humorous explanation:  the resemblance of Colonel Sanders to Confucius!