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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Culture # 6: Shifting Values and Finding Love

There is much, much to say about the complexities of how many developing nations are interacting with the still-dominating cultural export of Western nations, the US more than any other, about people “aping” the West, rejecting it, merging and blurring it into something new. It is all very rich and takes a great deal of finesse to wade into. I do not have that finesse so I’ll comment only on a couple specific areas on the matter of love and relationships that have caught my attention while being here.

You can’t miss it: billboards are adorned with hearts, newspapers advertise restaurants and dating sites and the pressure is on for young people to have a date tonight. Yes, India has adopted that most pressured and commercial of holidays: Valentine’s Day. It is a day for couples to canoodle, restaurants to be booked solid and stuff to be bought and given in an assortment of heart-shaped packaging. For a country where the dominant culture and tradition frowns on public displays of affection, where marriages partners are chosen by parents and dating is still often a secretive thing, this is quite the shift. But India is changing. And fast.

How I interpret this particular change is a challenging one. Celebrating this is very new. People hear can clearly demark that as recently as 5 years ago, this was a different place. Like my visit to China, being here now, in what is so obviously a transition is very interesting – good to see the places now because tomorrow they will be different and the next, different again.

To put it simply, I believe it is fair to say that the youth are in the midst of a revolt against the traditional and restrictive values of their parents and culture. They are fast joining the new and now global fast-paced, interconnected and free culture. My views and understanding of this new culture are still very much in flux, but I like that as each country joins the globalized crowd, they bring their own cultural elements and particular style to it. What I don’t always like is that the basis and I believe still the vast majority of the global cultural values are imported directly from the lead of the West. But regardless of where it comes from and whether it is entirely a good thing, it is happening everywhere. In India, in matters of relationships, there is a drive to more freedom from parental control, freedom to choose partners based on love (or attraction or whatever criteria suits your fancy) and freedom to go out dating to movies, malls, coffee houses and fast food joints. Ah, the joys of modern society. Life as I’m used to it back home is being built here fully and completely. There is a new food court and hang-out place up by the university IIT’s Madras campus. It could be the University of Toronto: KFC, chicken burgers (pretty good ones actually), young people chatting wirelessly on laptops or cell phone and mixed groups of guys and girls in jeans and t-shirts (well, at least more than elsewhere in Chennai). Of course, I personally think that freedom to choose is a good value and particularly the independence and empowerment of women that goes along with it, but recognize the shake-up it is inflicting on the culture as it runs through.

The other side of the holiday though, the dark side if I may dramatize, is the blatant and psychologically manipulative commercialism that comes with Valentine’s Day. India’s youth may be adopting Valentine’s Day as a rallying cry for their pre-existing drive to new freedoms, but there can be no doubt that the charge is being led by the usual glut of billboards, ads and stuff to buy. There are the usual chocolates and flowers, cards and calls, but as with North America, everyone and their brother is getting into the act regardless of their obvious link with romance. Cell phone companies advertise special ring tones and deals on new handsets, malls try to draw customers and couples to shop more and even financial institutions are getting into it, all the usual suspects of enterprising advertisers trying to convince us that love and romance somehow connects to buying stuff. They are trying of course to make it another generic gift-giving holiday. It is no longer just diamonds and flowers (although those are both in major force in the billboard rotation), but giving anything to express one’s affection. What a sham. And a shame.

But commercialism seems here to stay and India has adopted it whole-heartedly so one must expect them to discover for themselves the selling power of the heart. Indians are quickly joining the rest of us in learning to be neurotic about being single today, about professing your love through gifts and being implicitly allowed to ignore it the other 364 days.

I came across this article this morning on the apparent shift in China towards the Western tanned look as a mark of beauty. While there is still a strong tradition of valuing paleness, in some circles tanning is coming into vogue. I can appreciate this; when I was there I recall the glut of whitening and SPF creams (I noticed because I found it very challenging to find regular SPF sun-block lotion before venturing into UV-zapping Tibet) focused clearly and strongly at the culture’s prizing of pale, flawless skin. But perhaps things are shifting in the urban areas. That is what the article says. Interesting change.

If that is a real shift however, it contrasts with India’s continuing obsession with fairness. It is remarkable in its pervasiveness here: billboards and radio, TV and print ads, creams and lotions and treatments all promoting products that fill India’s fetish for fairness. And both women and men are subject to this desire.

This can be seen most dramatically in the classifieds. The most popular personal classified section here is not dating ones, but marriage ones. They may highlight homemaking skills, they usually highlight degrees granted (Indian are very highly educated, partly due to its commoditisation as a criterion for marriage selection, but that is the subject of a whole other article), but nearly every ad will highlight how fair (light-skinned, not good in disputes) the person is. And as I have been told, there is an unsurprising fudging of just how fair a person is. There is no celebration of dark, brown, mocha or chocolate. It is "fair" or that middle ground, "wheatish". And if you aren’t fair enough or can’t lie about it sufficiently, the transnational beauty and skin corporations have happily filled that need. I’m sure you can imagine the ads – just watch one of the many anti-wrinkle ones we get (although those are of course here to) and replace "reduces visible signs of wrinkles within 7 days" to "improves fairness 2 shades within 7 days". In fact, just imagine the teeth whitening ads: the script is identical, with the same “it’ll make you popular” message.

Here are a few real examples for ya (I’ve x’ed out the names and numbers for obvious reasons of privacy):
FATHER Nxxxx - Mother Gxxxx, invite alliance for their son B.E., MS-US (DoB 30-06-80) employed in Singapore seeks fair, smart, well educated bride. Contact: xxxx
Axxxxx AFFLUENT very fair 32/165 MBA 30 Lakh per annum sub caste ok send BHP to Box No. xxxxx, THE HINDU, Chennai-600002
RC AD 25/164 M.Sc, Anna Univ NET qualified working Statistical Analyst MNC 2 lacs pa, wheatish beautiful seeks well settled groom from RC AD. Send BP. Ph xxxx

Unequivocally, this is one of the cultural elements of broad Indian culture I find most troubling and hard to accept. In a country of such rich diversity of shades and shapes, colours and creeds, that they would not lead the world in celebrating that is truly sad. They are a republic of many cultures, (mostly) tolerant of many languages and religions, a group that has agreed to get along together regardless of different histories and beliefs – but not in skin tone. And although I am very uninitiated in the subtlety of its effects through society, I have been told that skin tone can sometimes have implications on career and other success, not just in marriage opportunities. This is of course especially poignant in South India where the dominant skin tone is a dark chocolate or coffee shade. And of course coming from a country where a darker, rich tanned shade is seen as healthy and attractive, a little colour is a nice thing.

As a final short aside, the diamond solitaire ring is making in-roads to India as a necessary component of a marriage proposal, again driven purely by advertising and the desires of companies to sell and expand as opposed to any rebellion against traditional jewellery for innate reasons. The marketing campaigns to back this push are large and pervasive. All the expensive spots of TV and print media prominently display diamonds with all the usual emotional ties to love, commitment and desire.

I don’t claim to understand the Indian psyche in any depth or breadth, but these are three parts of love and life you cannot miss walking the streets today. I’d love comments and ideas on understanding these ones more.

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