There are many stereotypes of Americans, some positive and some negative. “Lack of cultural awareness” is one of the negative ones and to a certain extent, I have found that to be true in my experience. There were the occasional “did you have elephants and tigers in your neighborhood?” type questions when I was studying at Clemson. “How is it that you speak English fluently?” was more out of surprise than anything else. Of course, this was in 1992, a time before the internet. It was also just after the collapse of the Soviet Union when there were no perceivable external threats on the horizon and it was easy for America to look inwards.
Over the years though, I have been pleasantly surprised to meet people who have had more than a passing knowledge of India. While I admit that some of them were drawn to the East’s mysticism, there were others interested in other aspects of India. I met Tom when I was working at IBM in South Florida. He was visiting from Kentucky and one afternoon, he stopped by my cubicle and asked me in Hindi “Aap kaise hain?” (How are you?). He must have seen the surprise on my face and he chuckled. We chatted for a little while in English, breaking off into Hindi now and then. He was part of the generation of Americans who had flocked to India drawn by Yogis and had spent some time in a few ashrams before returning to the US. “I am always fascinated by foreign cultures,” he said. “The other day, a gentleman won the lottery in Kentucky and he was interviewed on TV. When he was asked what he would do with his winnings, he listed a laundry list of items that he would buy. Not a word about travel, of visiting other countries and soaking in other cultures.” As he was leaving he complimented me, “your Hindi is not bad for a South Indian!”
While growing up in India, the state-run news channel and others newspapers covered the rest of the world extensively. Granted that this could have been the legacy of the British Raj, but I think Indians are inherently curious people (inquisitive even) and are interested in other cultures. I was surprised to find that most news channels that I watched on TV while at Clemson, covered local news and when “other side of the world” was mentioned, it referred to California! In retrospect, I think people who were interested in international news probably tuned in to one of the major networks.
Sometimes, people are drawn to other cultures due to a life-altering moment. My manager at IBM was an efficient, no-nonsense person who had grown up in New Jersey. One day while at work, she received a shocking telephone call informing her that her sister had been killed in a road accident in Maine. To say she was shattered is an understatement. It was probably a couple of months after that tragic incident when she asked me what I knew about Buddhism. “A little bit” I replied. I tried to answer her questions about karma, moksha, and nirvana to the best of my ability. She said she had started wondering what happens after a person dies and was curious as to what other religions say about this. A couple of weeks later, she mentioned that she had bought a book called “Old Path White Clouds” on the life of the Buddha and it seemed interesting. I ordered my own copy but didn’t read it right away. I left that job soon after so I never got to ask her opinion about the book.
When our daughter was born, my wife and I met Dr. Dan Kraft, the doctor on call at the hospital. His clinic was located conveniently close to our house and so he became our pediatrician. We got to know him over the years and as a doctor who had Indian professors and colleagues, he was reasonably well acquainted with Indian culture. He insisted that we drop the “Dr. Kraft” and just call him “Dan”. On one of our trips to India, he requested us to bring back alphabet books on an Indian language. We brought the ones in the languages that were available locally.
As we got to know him better, he surprised us one day by saying he was reading RK Narayan. Now RK Narayan is a famous Indian author, known to the West but his stories are all set in the Indian context. Even today, when I read his stories, I can picture small-town India and the characters that he describes in the book. A passing interest in India is something, but reading Indian literature was very impressive to me! Shankar Nag, the renowned Kannada actor, had produced a TV series called “Malgudi Days” in the mid-eighties. Based on RK Narayan’s collection of stories by the same name ( published 1943), it was very well produced. I gifted the DVD collection to Dan, with the hope that he could now visualize the characters and locales in the book. While the town Malgudi itself is fictional, the series is shot in Agumbe in the southern state of Karnataka. Dan had always expressed his wish to visit India, I thought the locales in the DVD would whet his appetite and also show a side of India far from the beaten track. Dan and his wife Meryl are still good friends and they finally visited India in 2019. It was very interesting to hear their perspectives and observations after their visit.
I read “Old Path White Clouds” in 2007. Superbly written by Thich Nhat Hanh, it traces the story of Gautama Buddha as seen from the eyes of a buffalo boy, Svasthi who is initiated as a disciple by the Buddha. My knowledge of Buddhism had come primarily from Amar Chitra Katha comics and my religious and cultural history textbook in high school. The latter actually did a pretty good job of explaining the core philosophy of Buddhism but it was fairly limited. I enjoyed reading Old Path White Clouds and was impressed by the simplicity and clarity of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing.
Soon after we moved to Massachusetts, my daughter and I had an interesting experience when we met an elderly gentleman who conversed with me in flawless Hindi. I have recounted that experience in an earlier blog. I was also surprised to hear that our neighbor John had spent about six months in India during the late 1960s. He had visited India as part of a summer course and then stayed back and spent six months backpacking through India. He traveled by boat from Haridwar to Kanpur. He stayed with a family in the rural hinterlands. He spent time in Mangalore and traveled the length of the country. In short, he had seen and experienced more of the real India than me!
Times have definitely changed from the early nineties. People now ask me if there are any tigers or elephants left in India. The influx of Indian IT professionals has meant that at least in certain industries, people have had a co-worker of Indian origin. The soft power of Bollywood is felt imperceptibly. The Internet has shrunk boundaries. The local grocery chain carries frozen packages of Palak Paneer and chicken tikka masala. It also carries curry leaves and betel nut leaves. And once in a while, the sweet smell of the peeled jackfruit pods escapes from the tight shrink wrapping and even though I’m a world away, the sweet aroma reminds me of the markets in India when I was growing up.
It was however a recent incident that prompted me to write this blog. We live in an old house that has a septic tank. The tank needs to be pumped every eighteen months and so a couple of weeks ago, I found myself waiting in the driveway while a truck backed into position. The driver was built like a lineman with a mane of hair and huge arms. He was exceedingly polite and as he got down from the truck, I noticed tattoos on his arms. They looked oddly familiar and I asked him “Is that a tattoo of..” He smiled and replied before I finished my sentence “Yes, it’s of Ganesh and Shiva.” Two mighty deities of the Hindu pantheon, Shiva the destroyer and his elephant-headed son Ganesh, the remover of obstacles!
He must have read my mind because he smiled and asked “You probably didn’t expect a white dude to have these tattoos, did you?” I confessed I didn’t and asked him what led him to get these tattoos. He said that he had always been interested in Buddhism and his readings also led him to Hinduism. When his job at Hewlett Packard was outsourced to India, he had been sent to Chennai in South India to train his replacements. While he was there, he was fascinated by the culture and traditions and he decided to have his arms tattooed with the images of the two deities who appealed most to him.
I noticed the tattoo of Buddha on his other arm and asked him if he was still interested in Buddhism. When he replied in the affirmative, I asked him if he had read “Old Path White Clouds”. He replied he hadn’t and that he had been scouting for a book to read on his vacation that was starting the following week. “Hang on,” he said as he got his phone out, surfed to Amazon, and typed the title of the book. “Thich Nhat Hanh!” he exclaimed “I attended a talk by him around 1998!” He thanked me profusely for the recommendation and carried on with his work. I could have told him that in a way, this book recommendation had come full circle! I hope he enjoys the book as much as I did.
I was struck by his warmth and curiosity. Here was a man whose job had been outsourced to a foreign country but he had no qualms in appreciating its culture or being kind and civil to someone who hailed from there. His job was not lost to a faceless stranger, he actually trained his replacements. It appeared to me that he held no rancor. He certainly had progressed further along on the old path. I was reminded of Kipling’s “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” There is always hope though when people take the time to understand each other’s cultures. “Friendly” and “generous” are some of the other stereotypes associated with Americans. Based on my varied experiences over the years, I can certainly agree!