Cultural (Un)Differences

I’m a feelings person.

What does that mean? It means that I associate with places and people through feelings – sights, noises, smells, oh the smells. Now I don’t know whether all people are feelings people or only some people are, while others fall into some other, equally curious categories. But the one big thing that comes of being a feelings person is that you get to attached to those very things, which are often, coincidentally, also the things that can define a culture or a cultural experience.

Tourists who come to India often say that the one thing that they are surprised/shocked/excited/irritated by is the explosion of all these ‘feelings’ elements and how suddenly one is bombarded with them all at once. So whenever I hear that, I always say, well that’s India for you, it’s part of our ‘culture’. And until I came to Oxford, while on the one hand I was not entirely sure what ‘culture’ meant, on the other I also always wondered whether cultural differences could be so strong as to hinder people from forming true bonds (It’s curious how our own thoughts can sometimes be so conflicting). Not because people may always be unwilling to cross that divide but because there might be some things – ways of thinking, language quirks, perspectives of the world even – which may perhaps be inexplicable and therefore, un-shareable.

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But over the time that I spent in Oxford and also in travelling a little bit around the UK and Europe at large, I came to realise how hollow the term ‘cultural differences’ really can be. Yes, every group of people (from the same country, religion, political leaning) have things in common – people from the same country maybe more so than other groups. But every person is, at the end of the day, defined by his or her own experiences more than anything else and when I say that something is ‘Indian culture’, I’m unconsciously imparting my own meaning to the term, which may or may not be shared by the billion other people in my country. At the same time, the opposite could happen too. 3 of my flatmates over the last year were an American, a Canadian and a Dutch-Turk. And while we looked different, talked in different accents, had different religious beliefs and studied different subjects, we became as close as a family, over a shared love for cooking. And that became OUR culture. Not mine, not theirs, ours. Yes, we didn’t agree on everything but we had a similar world view and believed in certain things and not in others and that lack of a ‘cultural difference’ or almost a cultural un-difference, became instrumental in our lives.

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My point is simply this – when we go out into the world, move out of our comfort zone, move to a new place – people around us always seem to warn us about adjusting to a new ‘culture’ or being wary of ‘culture shock’. And while I’m not against the content of what they are referring to, perhaps it is more helpful in an international setting to focus on the un-differences – things that can be shared, that people can bond over irrespective of where they come from. Just as people define their own destinies, people deserve a chance to define their own ‘cultures’. So maybe the next time you move to a new city and meet new people, ask them what they would like their culture to be, rather than what it already is. 🙂

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