Cultural Taxonomies of India
“We live on our own solitary islands of reality, absorbed in and fascinated by our own points of view. Frequently we reach out to one another seeking to understand or be understood. The bridge between our separate realities is communication . . . To communicate is to relate. ” — Layne and Paul Cutright On February 15th, 2009 I received word that a small group of educators were being asked by the National Literacy Mission Program to volunteer in India for one year, with the purpose of “bridging the literacy gap between the urban population and the villages. As a young Master’s student specializing in linguistics, and having no family related obligations (i. e. husband/kids), I was eager to apply for the program. Approximately three weeks after sending in my application I got a phone call from the director informing me that my request had been processed and he would be happy to include me on the mission. He continued, “We have put together a group of fourteen educators ranging from the elementary level to the college level. We will be sending everyone over to Rajasthan on April 29th.
I will send out an email in a couple of days with a timeline and full details of the mission. ” As promised, I received an email highlighting every last detail of the trip along with a lengthy excerpt on our hosts culture, values, beliefs, expectations, etc. He also included about a dozen links to travel websites and cultural dimensions websites, as well as some recommended reading. Our scheduled departure was April 29th, leaving me very little time to get acclimated with the cultural norms of India.
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I began reading through the information immediately, hoping that something would stick. I read that Rajasthan had faced a serious decline in literacy rates over the last ten years, and women’s literacy rates had hit the bottom of the national charts (Times of India). I always knew that there was some gender stratification in India; however the numbers comparing men’s literacy rates to those of the women were overwhelming. I continued to read a little bit each day attempting to expand my knowledge of intercultural competence in the weeks before departure.
April 29th had finally arrived and I was excited to begin this new chapter of my life. I met the other thirteen volunteers at Denver International Airport, and with passports in hand we were off. We were to fly into Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, and from there take a small cargo plane to Jaipur Airport in Rajasthan. Overall the trip took about sixteen hours, though it seemed like a lifetime. As we stepped off the small plane I knew I was another world. There were people everywhere- all speaking either Hindi or English in an accent I could not understand.
After struggling a bit with the indistinct English of the customs agents, I produced the proper papers and waited for my luggage to arrive. People milled around everywhere and at I officially understood the meaning of “culture shock. ” All of the volunteers stayed very close as we made our way through the airport and I concluded that I was not the only one in a daze. We found no relief outside of the terminal as cars and people bustled all around us with seemingly no rhyme or reason. We finally located the shuttle that would take us just outside of Jaipur to the small village where we would spend the next twelve months.
I remembered reading that one should avoid touts and taxi-wallahs at airports due to scams. “You should assume that anyone ‘proactively’ trying to help you has a hidden agenda to part you from your money” (wikitravel. org). Based on this information, I was thankful the mission program provided us with transportation. As we made our way through the streets of Jaipur there were people everywhere, swerving in and out of traffic on vespa scooters, vans honking their horns, people walking through the road, and animals looking very out of place. It all seemed so chaotic.
Our driver was exceedingly polite and shared with us some very valuable information, including many do’s and don’ts of society. He informed us that we will never drive at night because truckers do not like smaller vehicles traveling on the highway after dark and may throw stones at the windows. Nor is it advised to travel alone, especially at night, as muggings and robbing incidents are reported almost daily. He continued, “Participating in a social events or visiting a home requires conservative dress codes. Do not shake hands with ladies. Always pick things up and eat with your right hand.
Take only as much as you can eat, do not leave anything uneaten over the dish. Do not point your finger at any person. It is taken as a sign of annoyance. Be careful of cultural and social sensitivities of the regions. Never buy food from roadside stalls or mobile canteens. Your system may not be accustomed to such delicacies and you might end up spending more time in the loo than normal. Indian English has its own delights, especially to foreigners of English nativity” (kwintessential ). He went on and on, and by the time we reached our hotel my head was spinning.
The following day, we met with the director of the mission who briefed us on the area and handed out a sheet labeled “Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions. ” This was a much more formal run down of the cultural norms and taxonomies of India. He also went over some guidelines for expected teaching styles. “As you can see in your cultural dimensions handout, India is a high power distance country. When giving assignments you should always give clear and explicit directions, and deadlines should be highlighted and stressed (geert-hofstede. com). All relationships in India involve hierarchies.
In schools, teachers are called gurus and are viewed as the source of all knowledge, so expect to be treated with a great deal of respect (Kwintessential). After reviewing the sheet we made our way over to the small school where we would spend the next six months teaching. The village was underdeveloped and there were only three classrooms in the institution, housing around 20 people in each. We were to work in conjunction with five other Indian teachers, making it roughly six teachers to each classroom. It was an interesting adjustment, as I had never worked in such an interactive and informal setting.
Over 2/3 of the students were male, bringing to light the fact that India is a masculine society, which values men over women. As promised, my students were very deferential, taking away from the stress of my new surroundings. We spent most of our time working on literacy, as that was the main goal of the mission. Instruction was often difficult because of the poor conditions we were faced with. We were low on supplies and sometimes up to five students had to share one book. Even in these circumstances however, I was amazed at how eager the children were to learn.