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I have been lucky enough to have traveled all over the world.
I’ve even lived and worked in three distinctly different countries. India, the country of my birth. America, my adopted homeland and a country I absolutely love (even though the America I remember from the time I last lived there is completely different now). And China, a surprising choice of destination for me but one that I loved for the five years I was there.
I always say, half-jokingly and half-seriously, that India owns my soul. India is my soul mate—but my heart belongs to America. And I mean that completely.
Both these countries, for various reasons, have left a mammoth stamp on who I am as a person, and much of who I am has been guided by them. While there are so many aspects of these two countries that have impacted me significantly, I’ve been analyzing the one key aspect that has impacted me most.
And that is the collectivist culture of India versus the individual culture of America.
Growing up in India, I was always surrounded by people. Sure, you could argue that at a billion-plus population that is natural. But it’s more than just the sheer number of people who live in India. It’s a cultural thing. Let me explain.
In India, the front door of our home was always open. And that’s because people popped in and out, all the time. From friends and family to acquaintances to support staff members and all of their extended families, no one ever called ahead to ask if it would be okay if they came over. They all just did.
I also grew up in Mumbai, the economic capital of India. It’s where people come to make their dreams come true. They say that Mumbai is a land of opportunities for Indians, and if you work hard, you will find success. While this is fantastic for every upstart dreamer, it also meant that space was (and still is) always at a premium in Mumbai.
I spent the most significant years of my life (teens and early 20s) in a one-bedroom apartment with my family of four. For over 15 years, I slept on a mattress on the floor in the living room, half of that with my brother for company since the only bedroom was occupied by my parents. This was just life in a severely space-constrained Mumbai.
So, the concept of privacy was beyond far-fetched for me. I never had any private space of my own growing up. Add to that a culture that welcomes everyone into your home; regardless of who they are and what they need and how much they put you out, you always welcome them. There is a Sanskrit saying which is part of a Hindu’s life: Atithi devo bhava, which means that your guest is your god. This explains why I was surrounded by people at all times and why I had no idea that “privacy” was even a thing.
Having so many people in my life also meant that everyone and their grandfather (literally) had opinions about my life. What I should do, what I should study, what I should eat and wear, where I should travel, which school I should pick, when I should get married, how many kids I should have…the list of things my closest relatives to strangers on the street would advise me on never ended.
While my father raised me to be independent, I couldn’t really assert my independence because ours was (and still is) a collectivist culture where the self takes a backseat to the immediate and extended family.
Needless to say, I yearned for a time in my adult life when I could have a place to call my own. When I wouldn’t be surrounded by people. When saying I want my own space would not be misconstrued as me not loving people anymore. I wanted to live on my own and be independent—truly independent. I longed to shut the door to my own space and get a few peaceful and quiet moments. I longed to make my own decisions about my own life.
And I got that and more in spades when I moved stateside for graduate school. I’ve lived in the United States off and on for over a decade; I always say that India gave me the strength and courage to dream and America gave me the wings to truly fly. It’s not an overstatement when I say that I “found” myself in America.
But when I first landed in the States, I was beyond stunned to realize that a significant number of Americans move out when they turn 18. What I thought may be pop culture exaggerations turned out to be true. Given that in a collectivist culture like India children staying with their parents even after they get married is considered completely okay, it blew my mind that that wasn’t the case in America.
Even so, boy, did I love my life in the U.S.!
From living on my own to making all of my own decisions—some easy, some hard, but all mine—my time in America shaped me into the person I am today. While in India I was surrounded, literally, by family members, in America I chose and made my own family. To date, some of my closest friends are Americans. These are people who never intruded in my life, called before they came over, supported my ambitions, gave me space when I needed it, hustled me out of my misery (sometimes self-inflicted and other times by external forces), scolded me when they knew I needed to snap out of the funk I found myself in, and then left me alone to decide what was best for me.
Like I said, I found myself in America during those years.
But then, something weird happened. I started to get older. And when that happened, I found myself making a full 360. What I once ran away from, I now yearned for. The older I got the more I wanted my family around. I no longer felt the need to close the door and be on my own.
Don’t get me wrong, I still live alone because I need my space. But I also feel the need to connect more, especially with family. And after my major loss in December 2020, I specifically wanted to spend more time with the elder members of my family. I’m not sure how much more time any of us have left to be with one another, so I want to be close to them now.
Writing this piece has been incredibly cathartic for me. I used to always think in binaries when it came to the issue of personal space versus lack of privacy, of feeling claustrophobic in a collectivist culture versus feeling free in an individualistic culture, of wanting to be surrounded by people versus being alone.
And what I realized is that those binaries worked well for me during my formative years. As a teenager, being surrounded by the love and support of my family made me the strong person I am today. And once the basics were instilled, I needed to get away and fly alone and make my way in the world.
But now, I’ve come full circle. I know who I am and what I want and don’t want. I know that I want to be independent but also be close to my family and friends. And it turns out that I don’t have to pick anymore. I can have them both!
I have no profound takeaways from this story except to say this: sometimes the very thing we run away from our whole lives is the thing that gives us the most peace. I found my independence in an individual culture only to realize that I also love and crave the support that I get from a collectivist culture. And that’s how it needs to be for me.
Does any of this resonate for you? Let me know what you think in the comments!