Thinky Post: “India Syndrome” Podcast, How Do You Decide What To Believe About Another Culture When it Interacts With Yours?

I listened to a really interesting podcast! One of those that circles around and around and doesn’t really answer any questions, but brings up some interesting thoughts. It’s called “Astray” and focuses on a few sample cases among many of young non-Indian men who went missing in Rishikesh, never to be seen again.

What I like about this podcast is it does that thing where you make a sweeping statement, disprove that statement, and then re-prove it at a smaller level. It’s that last step I find so impressive. It’s easy to make a sweeping statement and to disprove that statement, but drawing a line and saying “there’s no ‘sweeping’ answer at all” is super tricky and super brave.

The sweeping statement is “India has a mystical magic power, especially Rishikesh and other places like it, which overwhelms visitors and causes them to walk away from their whole lives and wander the earth”. The disproving it is “no, that’s an easy lazy answer that helps rather than harms tourism so all the local embassies and police and media go along with it. In fact, tourists are mugged and murdered because it is a dangerous place to visit”. And then the careful line, that’s where it gets good.

The line the podcast lands on is “India can cause overwhelming culture shock to travelers from westernized countries, and certain places really do have a special beauty and power that changes you. All of which leaves visitors vulnerable to a variety of threats in the area, and those threats can be easily hidden simply by the locals choosing not to get involved. No big conspiracy, but also no magical mystery disappearance.”

Christine in Dil Chahta Hai, she tricked and robbed Saif. If he had been traveling from out of the country, lost his passport when she robbed him, had no friends and didn’t speak the language, and couldn’t convince the cops to do anything or get the embassy to care, then he could have been one of these stories.

I’ve visited India twice and I’ve definitely experienced all those things that could have lead to danger for me. The worst thing that happened was I got charged an enormous amount by one rickshaw driver. One person in the both trips and all he did was charge me too much for a ride. But I was dealing with low grade heatstroke and jetlag and altitude sickness much of the time, I was very aware of how much I stood out as a foreign traveler, and although I tried to be careful with what I ate and drank, I wasn’t as careful as I probably could have been. Plus, I was traveling and seeing all these new things, I was too busy looking at trees and old buildings and street vendors to pay that much attention to my bag or if I was being followed or whatever. So no, I didn’t have a mystical experience and go off wandering. But I was “wandering”, dazed and lost and clearly out of place. Luckily most people are super nice and helped me rather than take advantage of me. And I had some small awareness of the danger I might be in, enough that I almost never went anywhere alone and I had a host situation instead of a hotel or hostel. Most importantly, I was a young woman. As a young woman, I already knew not to be out after dark, and to have a secure bag, and all that fun stuff. If I were a young man, I would have been totally vulnerable. Disoriented, slightly ill, but too confident to realize what was happening and take any sort of precaution. Especially since India-the-tourism-industry is not thrilled to say “by the way, also, don’t eat or drink anything any stranger hands you, never go down alleys at night, don’t trust wandering wisemen, and maybe be careful with the cops too”.

Something else I found interesting about the podcast was how they brought in an Indian producer, a journalist in India to help with research from that side of things. And they interviewed a variety of Indian based experts, a psychiatrist and a spiritual seeker and one other person I can’t remember. Just talking to those people wasn’t interesting, it’s basic good journalism. And it went a long way to dispel the myth of “India Syndrome” as a mystical part of the country by talking to folks who just live there all the time. What I found interesting was the tone of the conversations. The American journalist asked simple straight questions, and got long clear answers. Which shouldn’t be a bad thing. But in a podcast that seeks for the shades of grey, there was less questioning than I expected of those long clear answers.

This is something that is firmly in my area. I study and write about something outside of my own culture. When I talk to someone from that culture, especially in the first 10 years or so I was studying Indian film, I listened to them and considered what they were saying. That was the easy part, it’s always easy to learn things like a sponge. The tricky part is to start sifting through and figuring out is if the source I am listening to is a good source. Do they actually know what they are talking about? As in, the person who confidently tells me that Shahrukh Khan secretly married Priyanka Chopra, do they really know that or is it just something they read in a fan magazine (yes, I was told that. Very confidently and surely as inarguable “Truth”)? And second, do they look at the world in the same way as me, do I agree with their judgements? As in, if someone tells me “All Hindi film is trash and there is no reason to watch it because it gives Bad Morals”. Well, maybe for them it is “bad morals”, but maybe for me rebelling against parental authority and marrying for love is “good morals”.

When I first got into the movies, I was told 100% that the fiance in DDLJ had killed a tiger in real life and was in trouble for it. I believed that and repeated it (I should say, I was 19 at the time). And then I actually researched and learned it wasn’t true. And then years after that I put it together that the person had confused DDLJ and KKHH, Salman and Kuljit, and tigers with Black Bucks. None of it on purpose, none of it meanly meant, just an incorrect statement I took at face value because it wasn’t my culture.

What’s nice about how I have chosen to live my life and write my work is that I can listen and sift and choose what to keep and what to throw away without needing to confront the person in the moment I am talking to them. Sure, older man at a party, tell me allllllllllll about how Telugu cinema is the only cinema with real “values”. I will listen and smile and nod and then go away and think “well, he was wrong in many ways”.

But listening to this podcast I was hearing a veeeeeeeeeeeery familiar kind of conversation. Only, this was an interview, a recorded and then broadcast interview. Where was the moment when she challenged the assumptions? When she was told “India has very strict religious rules but the young people are rebelling and looking more for a general spirituality”, why didn’t she say “can you give me more examples? What group are you talking about specifically as rebelling?” And why didn’t she follow that up by asking anyone else to provide a contrasting opinion? Or do some research to provide that herself? I’m not saying it would be easy, and I’m not exactly critiquing the failure, because I think it is less of a failure and more of a blindspot? There is a temptation to take the One for the Whole when you are taking to someone from another culture. I guess all you need to do is acknowledge to yourself that this is just a One. No one person is qualified to give the definitive answer on anything in their culture, I know I am not.

Let’s see, what else? The podcast dealt with the way the Indian police/government are really not interested in going after Gurus and it can take a lot of pushing to get them to move. Again, no Vast Conspiracy, just a learned respect for the role.

Oh, and this was REALLY interesting, it argued that the Indian method of seeing enlightenment is way harsh. Meditate, starve yourself, push yourself to the edge to have that one great vision. Versus, say, go to a nice weekly bible discussion group for 20 years and then have a vision. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it is true! And it’s why people go to India also. They want that forced meditation, that extreme environment, to shake them awake. But somehow there isn’t the safety net their should be for that situation. Silent meditation for days on end is SCARY and DANGEROUS. So are extreme fasts, or taking drugs in order to force visions. It can all go wrong very easily but if you go to a Guru saying “I want enlightenment above all else”, the Guru is going to take you at your word and push you until you break.

So, I guess I have 3 thinky thoughts?

  1. It’s dangerous to go to India because it does alter your emotions and body and everything in a radical way, leaving you vulnerable
  2. There has to be a line between respecting other cultures, and understanding that the particular person you are speaking to is not that entire other culture.
  3. Going after enlightenment hardcore may leave you enlightened, but also starved and a bit crazy and possibly suffering a psychotic break which will take a lifetime of medication to cure.

Okay, what do you think about those thinky thoughts? What are your own experiences, if any?

18 thoughts on “Thinky Post: “India Syndrome” Podcast, How Do You Decide What To Believe About Another Culture When it Interacts With Yours?

  1. Okay, so I know the theme is regarding other cultures but I kept thinking of my own small town and my husband’s experience as a reporter in our own small town. You wrote this: No one person is qualified to give the definitive answer on anything in their culture, I know I am not. – And I’ll take that further to say that no one person is qualified to give the definitive story, on anything. Be it a cultural story or a historical story, or a news event. I may have already told you about the various stories regarding one of my community members who wears a beard, dangly earings, and old granny dresses? Anyway this seemingly nice man walks around town in what at first glance looks like play costumes. My husbands students told him a story about the man, saying he lived with his mother and when she died he was so sad he started wearing her clothes. But the man bought books from the bookstore I worked at for 10 years and he told one of the owners that when he quit his job at Fish & Game and realized he could wear whatever he wanted he realized he wanted to wear these dresses. But if you ask me the point is not why he wears the dresses, but that in a small somewhat conservative town this man is not harrassed for wearing different clothes, he is noticed, but accepted, even if stories are concocted to help others accept. But does that mean my towns accepts everyone who looks different? Oh hell no. You could use the story to say that we have a nice open culture, but I don’t think that is true. I don’t know how many people are inviting that man over for dinner.

    And in reporting my spouse found that rumors were 10% true and 90% false – almost every time. For example before working at the bookstore I worked at a nonprofit. Before I left that nonprofit I secured a raise for the staff under the programs I had managed. We found out years later that there was a rumor I embezzelled money from the non profit. The truth is that the person who took over my job demanded (perhaps rightly) more money and I’m not sure the staff ever saw the raise I got them. So promised money didn’t appear – 10% truth. But there were people who were totally sure I embezzelled. (I did steal a mug – It says Head Start Thinks You’re Special and the handle broke off and I am so attached to it that my spouse JBwelded it back on – it’s the only good thing I have from that hellish job).

    I am always suspicious of people looking for inner peace. I’m totally cool with self love, but the whole searching for enlightenment makes me distrustful. It’s just people hoping something outside them can make them happy. Money or meditation, it all seems like false gods to me.

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    • Yes! That makes COMPLETE sense!!! My nephew is at that age where he is trying to figure out the world, and he keeps making things up to fill in the gaps, and then if you ask him “was that real or just pretend?” sometimes he doesn’t know. That feels like the human brain in embryo. An adult is gonna do the same thing, create something to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, but they will do it so instinctively and so well that they won’t be able to answer “is that real or just pretend?” Everything will feel equally real. Also, to her dying day my grandmother felt very uncomfortable saying anything private over the phone because she grew up in a small town with a party line, and you KNOW they were listening in and building up anything you said into a story that could be shared. Speaking of my grandmother, I wish she was still alive so I could share your story about the nice man who wears dresses and everyone just accepts it. She would love that.

      Agree about inner peace! I just listened to another podcast (that honestly wasn’t very good) about a small 1970s group in Toronto. They were your standard charismatic leader, lots of meditation and aura stuff, give us all your money sort of group. But one of the interviews was with a woman who had been part of it for 10 years and then left. And she was FURIOUS about the whole inner peace idea. She felt she wasted her 20s not because she was working all the time and had no money and was vaguely miserable, but because she could have been DOING something for the world, and instead she was just meditating! This group doesn’t DO anything! Meditating is pointless! It was a really interesting interview, she was still so angry, and in an entirely external way. All that energy she wasted going inward when it could have been going outward, that’s what frustrated her.

      Also, marathons. Why do marathon runners get so much support and praise when it is ultimately a personal goal? This makes no sense to me. Why don’t they get no praise, or I get the same amount of praise for cleaning my house every day?

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      • Marathon runners are athletes so people look up to them. What is it, 26 miles? That is impressive. But yes, seeing as most don’t win, they really are just doing it for their own goals. I asked a friend once why she competed in triathalons – it took all her time and energy. Her answer “my body” – it was her way to force herself to exercise and feel good about herself. But even if you are running for a cure – are you really? Is running a race really going to cure cancer? But cleaning your house everyday – THAT gives you a clean house! Which is more than I’ve got!

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  2. Yeah, I guess the culture shock can even be a good starting point for that kind of hardcore enlightenment. Leaves you already a little unbalanced.

    But I’m mostly interested in this topic for a different reason. I’m trying to get to know another different culture from scratch; and this time I don’t even have the local films as a convenient starting point. We got a little book with “bite-sized facts” about Angola (the country our Baby’s birth family comes from). But I’m already running afoul of the “one source” problem. Acquaintances who travel to Africa regularly have confirmed that the capital actually is “one of the most expensive cities in the world”. But other claims I will take with a grain of salt. I won’t go spreading the idea that the dreadlocks were invented in Angola, not unless I’ve found time to do more research on the topic.

    Still, I think my experience with getting to know India has taught me transferable skills. I’ve heard it said that everything and it’s opposite is true of India. A sweeping generalization in itself, but still a helpful shorthand. One that will no doubt be true about Angola, too.

    Actually, your post has made me realize what exactly it is that Baby will necessarily be missing in her knowledge of Angola: She will never have that absolutely convinced “knowledge” of the local source, no matter how much research we do. Even if eventually we got close enough with her birth family to learn everything about their story, we would never just take it at face value.

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    • The nice thing is, Baby is Baby now, so you’ve got a good 3-4 years before you have to answer any really hard questions. In that time, you and your wife can give yourselves the sort of intense education that lets you see lots of perspectives on a culture and figure out what is worth adding and what should be rejected. I can give you what I know about Angola, which is unfortunately really really ugly. According to an African history class I took in college, and some American history books I read, Angola was supposed to be a good place to get “house slaves”. They were prettier, smelled nicer, and were more pleasant. That’s the incorrect end conclusion, I look forward to you discovering the socio-economic history of Angola which lead to the population sold into slavery being seen as “better” than in other places (for instance, other areas tended to sell a lot of POWs, so angry fighting young men, and the wisdom among slave owners in America was that you wanted to use people from those areas as field hands and keep them far away from the house).

      And now I am going down a rabbit hole of thinking how HORRIBLE that was and I am sorry I even brought it up. Baby is Baby! How could anyone look at her and see her as a commodity? Well, good luck with integrating that whole aspect of her cultural heritage into her knowledge base. And never NEVER let Baby come to America, it is a terrible place and it will hurt her.

      Now I am thinking about my experience growing up within my own culture. I think, or at least hope, that my parents taught me never to make sweeping assumptions even about the culture I think I know best. So maybe Baby isn’t missing that much. You will teach her not to make sweeping confident statements about the country where she is brought up, or her country of cultural heritage, or anywhere else in the world. Oh, except that I don’t think she should come to America because she is Baby and I don’t want her to be hurt.

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      • Well, of course she’s pretty and pleasant and smells nice – she’s Baby! It boggles the mind how anyone could have looked at a cute toddler like that and only been waiting for her to grow up and dust the cabinets.

        I have to admit, I haven’t thought much about the slavery aspect yet. After all, she’d be descended from the people who stayed behind and only sold their relatives into slavery. There’s enough to not know about the peoples of the country and how they fared after independence.

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    • I have a book club where we travel to different countries through books – Some countries (like India & Nigeria) are easier than others because they have literary traditions AND many of their authors write in English. Others, like Tanzania, are harder. There may be no literary tradition (in Tanzania it is all about plays) or there may not be translations of works into English. Angola has a literary tradition, but most of their books are in Portugese and few are translated into English.

      One of the things I like to do is read the folktales from the country or area I am “visiting”. My kids LOVE folktales, they like the tales from some cultures more than others, and I can’t say why, but it is like knowing and loving these stories connects them to these other lands in some way. I was really searching for a book from Oscar Ribas on Angolan folk tales, but I couldn’t find it. He wrote it, but in Portugese, and if it was ever translated into English it did not make it to the U.S. But while searching I did find a free ENGLISH book of Angolan Folktales from the Smithsonian. It’s an awkward read, but the stories are there. Pick a couple, work them into your nightly stories, it will provide a connection of a sort? Perhaps more powerful than one might think at first.

      https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/folktalesofango00chat

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      • Thank you. We actually already have a collection of fairy tales from Angola, in German even. I just need to finish reading it myself before Baby’s old enough to ask for a nighttime read.

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        • There are 135 million German speakers compared to 1.35 billion English speakers, but if you want a book of Angolan folk tales, best to speak German! German publishing for the win. Now I could find books of African folk tales in English, I wonder if this plays into the cultural fault that most Americans think of Africa as a single country.

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    • So glad! I think you might be the reader with the most diverse cultural experiences in DCIB (of all our very varied cultural experienced people), so I am sure you have had many people tell you sweeping generalizations about one of your communities without realizing you are a part of it, and at the same time struggled to simplify complex ideas into statements.

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      • Tudat, as my husband would say.

        I’m half Italian, half Moroccan, grew up in Naples and Rabat, married a stone-cool Jamaican dredhead, live with the South Indian physical therapist who moved in to help take care of my husband after his stroke, and have lived all over the world. I find that peoples’ culture drives their beliefs and behavior, and while we all have the same basic instincts, one does not necessarily represent the whole.

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  3. Fantastic post! You lot are fascinating peops. I’m not at all culturally diverse, another white Brit, but planning to retire to Wales, to the house that my mother was born and grew up in. It’s only 300 miles away, but Mam told me I’d never be able to go back and live there because ‘your life has been too different’. Over the years life there has changed a lot, there are far more incomers from England, and TV (the devil’s playbook) has shifted attitudes, so she was wrong, but also right, I won’t fit in with the ‘natives’ even though my cousins still farm there. It’s a different country still, and I don’t really know it from the inside. But I still get irked by incomer friends who really don’t know it at all, don’t realise that every field has a name, that everyone is part of an information network that largely bypasses them and shares a different history… it’s going to be interesting….
    Also wanted to put in a word for meditation, it’s not always useless, though often boring asf it can be a pathway. Hard-core enlightenment techniques though, I totally agree, they can be effective, but SO dangerous, dredging up a ton of psychic junk all at once is no fun at ALL and can take years to deal with.

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    • Oh, that feeling of being outside-inside!!! My grandmother was from a tiny tight farming community, and my Mom grew up going back to visit and hearing stories. I’ve only been there maybe half a dozen times in my life, no relatives we were close to lived there by the time I came along, but I’ve heard the stories and I know the broadstrokes of how the town functions. And my larger family is actually still the dominant family in town, every third person has that last name. So in one way, I know a lot of town history and town secrets that newcomers don’t know. But in another, I’ve never lived there, I don’t know anyone who lives there now, so am I really an insider?

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      • Ha! Absolutely, not sure how it’s going to go! I remember summers when my grandmother was alive – oil lamps, feather beds, peat fire, and the constant flow of Welsh over our heads, which we never learned cos my dad was English speaking only.

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  4. I think retiring to Wales is quite exotic enough. It seems almost like a secret country. I mean, I’ve lived to forty without learning even a cliché about Wales. There was one sentence in my English textbook in school about how “Wales isn’t England”,and that was that. I’ve only recently come across a few stories that relate to Wales in one way or another, and it seems … nice. And like I should learn more about it.

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