Friday, October 29, 2010

Innocuous Encroachment. An Inch At A Time.

I do multiple assignments for multiple teams. One of the teams takes care of business processes and the clients are all from America only. Recently I was on a conference call with the onshore coordinator who works in Washington. While taking stock of where certain assignments stood, their status and dates of completion, she laid out before us her plan for the next day. I told her at once that the next day was a holiday on account of the Dasara festival and no one was working.
To which she said that this particular team would be working. As all the clients were American, the team did not go by Indian holidays but had a separate holiday list which was the same as the American holidays.

I told her however that I was not planning to work that day. As I was working for this team only part time, I could take such liberty. She did not raise an objection. So I had my holiday.

But this brief but close encounter with Americanization left me feeling disturbed for a while.

Working in night shifts, taking on pseudonyms to put the American callers at comfort and speaking in a foreign accent and all were the lot of the far and distant BPO's and call centres that had only been the subject of my armchair analysis.

But this time, how close it had come to me.
It was just a brush, but I recoiled.

This agitation is not so much about a holiday denied.
It is alarm at the Americanization of such a personal matter as festivals and holidays.

It is anger and dismay at how thousands of people have to forgo very personal things of cultural value (just a few days a year to begin with) and adapt to foreign ways without as much as making a fuss.
It is indignation at the domination of a foreign culture over ours through the backdoor.
It is disappointment about how we let this happen for the sake of lucre.

It is the struggle of life being uprooted from one soil to be planted in another soil.

The tragedy of the whole thing is most of us don’t even realize what is happening. And worse, even if we realize, we don’t care.

We invent words like ‘flexibility’ and ‘adaptability’ and such noble sounding terms to make our helplessness seem like a meritorious virtue.

I just finished reading Arnold Toynbee's (a great British scholar) lectures and essays on the encounters between different civilizations where he points out that it is not possible to take one aspect of a foreign culture without taking another aspect of it. 'One thing leads to another' until you have accepted the foreign culture whole and soul.

He illustrates this phenomenon using the examples of non western countries taking to western technology during early 20th century.
Russia, Japan, Turkey had to learn western technology for the political purpose of protecting their frontiers and once they adopted western technology and warfare, other aspects of western civilization - culture, lifestyle, ideas, ideology etc. also entered these nations inevitably.

Technology does not exist separately from religion and culture.
Most of the non western cultures that had initially resisted attacks from western cultures took to western technology later, thinking they would stop at that. But there was no stopping. They were not aware of this truth that fragments that we perceive are an illusion of our own creation. In reality, everything exists as a whole.

E F Schumacher makes the same point in his “Good Work”.
‘…Prime minister of Iran said – “There are many aspects of the west that we particularly wish to avoid in the industrialization of Iran. We seek the west's technology only, not its ideology. What we wish to avoid is the ideological transplant.”
The implicit assumption that you can have a technological transplant without getting at the same time an ideological transplant; that technology is ideologically neutral; that you can acquire the hardware without the software behind; is a bit like saying - I want to import eggs for hatching but I don’t want chicks from them but mice or kangaroos...’

So you cannot adopt the western ways at work without adopting other aspects of the west. Gradually 'one thing leads to another'(as Toynbee puts it), and what innocuously entered our society as an employment opportunity salvaging the millions of jobless, eventually starts eating the very roots of our culture.

Now that I find myself on this subject, I will recount a related incident of three years ago that happened in my previous organization, although it is a slight digression.

I used to contribute to this quarterly newsletter.

I have grown up studying British English at school and I am scandalised by the way American slang and colloquial have diluted our language standards. I treasure my worn out Oxford dictionary because the newer editions have included most of the popular slang and sms lingo while excluding many obsolete English words.

So I spell my words the British way.
When MS word (stupid software) underlines in red the word c-o-l-o-u-r in my documents and suggests c-o-l-o-r, I right click the word and add it to my dictionary.

I tried to change the settings by selecting 'English UK' and not 'English US' and it still continued to underline c-o-l-o-u-r(stupid software), until I added it to my dictionary, that is.

So when I submitted my articles to the editor, I received the reviewed copy where all my spellings had been changed to American.

The fact that the editor was an Indian brought up in America for most part of her life (she called herself Indian perhaps because it sounded fashionable), made things bad enough.

Her argument was that we worked for an American company.
I explained to her that it did not make a difference for the purpose of the newsletter. Only our product documentation had to be in American English since we get paid for it. But our newsletter was our creative work for which we did not get paid by Americans.

She argued that "Still, we are an American company". She was a chicken brained woman who did not have too many arguments.

I did not want to waste my time so I asked her to remove my name from the article or to put her own name if she wanted or to leave it anonymous otherwise and never to ask me to write any more articles for her. I would not have my name associated with American spellings.

The whole thing was not so much about English spellings. English is not even my mother tongue.

It was a question of having to let go of my present ground for appeasing someone.

How easily we Indians let go our ground and not even lament it!
How submissive we are. How practically non-existent is our self respect! How keen we are to appease!

I mean, for years, for decades we speak a certain tongue; and the minute Americans throw dollars at us, we are ready to forget that tongue and take to another tongue in order to appease the one throwing lucre at us!
(Keep aside for a while, the fact that, British English is correct English and of the highest standard and when we have chosen to keep English, we might as well keep the purest of it)

Is this not why we were dominated by the British, by the French, the Portuguese, the Mughals and others?
WE have a low self esteem problem.

Returning to the subject of slow and inevitable encroachment…
Yes. Toynbee said it was a universal phenomenon, a natural law. But I have hope. Whenever we have encountered other peoples in the past, we have assimilated them. They went through metamorphosis to become one among us. Or there was a synthesis between two cultures.
But one thing is for sure, we never lost ourselves completely; no one was able to wipe us out.

But today, with our own people rolling the red carpet for our obliteration, cooperating in the transplant, reveling in self deprecatory talk, I am not sure.
As diverse cultures with their distinct nuances are now tending towards a nuance-less homogeneity - of the all pervading shopping malls, multiplexes and software profession, I am not sure.
Already, in many places, I see that only the superstructure of our culture remains while the insides are moth eaten. Only the external symbols have been picked for ostentatious display while the soul of the culture is gradually dying.

But fortunately, there are other places, where I see a ‘going back to the roots’. And that’s my only consolation.

I hope and pray that we will prove an exception to the law that Toynbee has proved to be universal.


Saro said...

I agree, especially with this: "Already, in many places, I see that only the superstructure of our culture remains while the insides are moth eaten". What I'm not completely too sure of is, that it's a bad thing, to be homogeneous. Culture is not stagnant but a changing fluid state of being. I'm a huge star trek fan, and I've always thought the ideal world would be a world that's one and whole. And wouldn't homogeneity inspire oneness. Agreed, we'd be a single dimensional highly 'boring' culture. But we'd still be one. And as much as Americanization is apparent, I don't think it's a one way transfer. As you said, I see a synthesis. And I see a choice, yes not everyone can afford it at the same time, but the fact is, once they move out of their roles, they gain the ability to have a choice. Not sure if I'm making sense, too late at night to be sure, but the point is, I don't think all is lost or ever will be lost.

Rishi said...

Good points but I wonder we only see it from our side only.
Ofcourse Americas are the dominant side but I believe some of our stuff we pass that side too. In my experience I see two different things. One I see a respect from American side of Indias capabilities and that includes adaptability, second a lot of Indian in that side.

Also our superstructure remains the same not because we are maintaining it as measure with some double standards but because they are strong and the insides are not necessarily moth eaten. With history of so many changes and forces we have remained the way we are and ofcourse we have only developed for better.
We have been a tolerant race and for that if we have to adapt little bit here and there we do but that not necessarily means we are changing.


Sowmya said...

Both of you are giving me assurance that all will not be lost. So be it :)

Parag said...

What the? It's not appropriate to say that British English is correct english. British English is only British English, and American English is only American English (not correct English and wrong English). American English is correct from the American perspective. You may say American English is 'different' than that of Britain, but not 'wrong'. Your statement is like saying American Pizzas are wrong and Italian are right!! No!

And as for Word, it's not stupid... it's just that you were trying to set it in the wrong place. Don't forget that people in Britain use Word as well. You need to select the default language in Control Panel > Regional and Language Options > Keyboards and Languages > Change Keyboards > General > Default Input Language. Then return to Word and watch it point your American spellings as errors. That's being impartial.

Also, Indians not having a holiday for Indian festivals is really not true. Most Indian companies, even American companies in India were closed for Diwali. Only a few critical teams were working, and you cannot blame them any more than you can blame the Indian Railways for not granting a holiday to it's employees because it had to operate trains on Diwali day!

Sowmya said...

Hey Parag,

Thanks for the guidance about control panel settings. I followed your advice and now 'All is Well' :) Color has a red underline :)

The British were the ones who taught English to the whole world. So shouldn't that be the best, purest form of the language, and the rest of the versions somewhat distorted?