It was 2007. I just landed in Daejeon, South Korea. It was my first international trip and I was excited to visit my lab. After I arrived, I called my lab and a lab mate came out to greet me and took me to my professor’s room. We were in an elevator when his first question to me was about my age. For me coming from an Indian background, this came as a surprise. How someone could ask my age the first time he spoke to me, I thought. Another day, during a lab meeting, a senior lab member was asked a question which he could not answer at that time. The professor then asked others. I blurted it out. After the lab meeting, I was surprised to find out that many younger students knew the answer but nobody volunteered to answer it because we are not supposed to answer because a senior could not. Later this became clear to me, as I came to learn that Korean society is a very hierarchical society where age is the most important factor, and friends are generally people of same age. On a different note, once I was asked to get some work done on a project and after working hard when I got about 80% of the targeted output, I was happy to report it. But, I was asked to keep working till I achieve the complete target. Koreans are perfectionists, I thought.
What surprised me was when once I settled in and met with more people, I found people who did not care about age and who were less stringent about rules and work ethics. This taught me a valuable lesson that, probably, we cannot and should not generalize anything. If I think about it now, I was actually unknowingly being racist when I was generalizing. What is racism? From a simple Google search, I see its definition being “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”.
During my later years, I once had a discussion with my professor and I told him about some racism related incidents that my foreigner friends had faced in Korea. For example, multiple times, when a friend of mine sat in a train, the person sitting next to him got up and changed seats. My professor was sorry but I was shocked when he told me that many Korean tourists faced racial incidents when they visited India as well. In fact, some days earlier, I saw a video where some students from Africa who are studying in India, had appealed to the mass recounting incidents of racism they faced in India. We are worried that in some countries abroad, there is racism. Racism against Indians. But, if I give myself the time and freedom to reflect, I realize that I might have been unintentionally racist all my life. In fact, we all have been. How often do we generalize characteristics (good or bad) about a race or people living in a region rather than looking at a person individually! We talk about Biharis, North-east people with Mongoloid (Asian) features, Bangals, Ghotis, Tamils etc. During my undergraduate, we used to talk about ‘Northis’ (Students from North) vs. ‘Southis’ (Students from South). Inside a state, we divide people according to which region they come from. Countless such examples! The greatest irony is even our perception of beauty is defined by skin color. In India, TV channels publicly broadcast commercial products which promise people that they will be ‘Fair & Lovely’. I would like to ask “Are only fair people beautiful”? Is the perception of beauty connected to what color your skin is?
Our innate human nature is to categorize things because this makes comprehension easier. But, we should be careful about this because we need to accept the existence of diversity. Yes, in some societies like in Korea, Japan, and China, due to their societal dynamics, it might be easier to generalize about what the do’s and don’ts in a young person’s behavior are and there will be fewer exceptions compared to some other societies like Western countries or even India. But, exceptions exist! Diversity is present! And, we should embrace this fact.
Due to my work, I have had to visit several countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. One thing which was common was that, inevitably before each visit, I had heard comments about the people in these countries. But, most of the times, my personal experiences have been different in that it is difficult to come to a general conclusion about how a race behaves. It is always about the person, and not a race in general. Before I visited Germany, I did hear that ‘Germans are rude’. My personal experience during my stay there was completely different. The people I interacted with were willing to hear me out even though I did not speak in German.
After my brief stint in Korea, I went to United States. It was a big difference in terms of societal dynamics. People there were much more individualistic and there were fewer occasions when any general taboo was associated with any domestic social issue. In my initial years, during a meeting with my advisor about my research direction, my professor asked me what I wanted to do. In Korea, I was always told what to do by my professor. Of course, we would brainstorm but it was never left completely on me. This feeling of independence was new. This was a welcome change. Given the fabric of the society in US, we know that it is a multicultural society and a country where people from different backgrounds have immigrated since a long time. Probably, this is the reason for the absence of any one defining metric. But, still there are myriads of examples of racial tensions due to skin color, ethnicity, religious background, gender, and origin. Some people also generalize things about third-world countries. So, as you can see, generalization exists in many forms; if not in traditional terms of religion, region, caste, race, or color, then in forms of development, language spoken etc.
Well, does this mean that individuality should be the norm? No, I would rather say that a balance is necessary. A culture is defined by its values. It gives us an identity as a group. And, values are something that everyone follows. So, it is generic. Also, cultural values do define the personality. But, even though we should be able to understand and perceive a culture by its values and respect its identity, we should never judge or have pre-conceived notions without being open-minded. Being free to think and act while staying within the wider boundaries of societal values might provide the right recipe for progress, understanding and acceptance. The notion of good and bad is something that needs to be cultivated in one’s self rather than blindly followed. Only then, the feelings will be just and true. Let us conclude with this thought by Ani DiFranco:
“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”