Saturday, February 18, 2017

Unique Aspects of Indian Academic and Social Culture

Missouri State has created a very useful and succinct guide to walk advisors through the basics of interacting with international students, the expectations of international students and some of the cultural differences of the major student groups on campus (Chinese, Indian, Saudis).

The Guide for Advising International Students is found here.

I would like to share some of my personal feedback on the Indian cultural section as I have almost 10 years living, studying and working in India. I had spent about 2.5 years living in Chennai where I earned my Master's in Social Work from Madras Christian College (as the only direct-enroll American student). Also, I have been living in Kochi, India running my own business since 2011.

I would like to highlight a few points from pages 14 & 15 of the guide I found interesting or different than I experienced.
  • Note: Though Hindi is one of the national languages of India, it is not known by everyone in the country. Hindi and variants of Hindi are most commonly spoken in North India. However, North East Indians and many South Indians may not always be fluent in Hindi (speaking, reading or writing). Also, some may be able to speak a language, but not read or write it, or vise versa. I have experience living in Tamil Nadu and Kerala states in South India where many may not speak Hindi as the languages of those states are Tamil and Malayalam (respectively). It is often the case that the state a person comes from in India dictates the Indian national language they speak.
  • Batchmates: I also experienced what it says in this guide. I was in the same class with my batch 8-10 hours a day for 5-6 days a week for two years. We did not mingle with our juniors or seniors in class; nor did we happen to change rooms for classes. Students were to sit in the same seat all day, everyday, only the teacher changed. It was quite a shock for me coming from a very diverse schedule of classes in different buildings and different campus at SUNY Buffalo. 
  • Preset curriculum: I never had to talk to an advisor when studying in India to set a schedule. Everything was predetermined and set in advance. In the case of studying a Master's in Social Work, each student was assigned an 'advisor' to guide them in writing their thesis, but not for selecting their class or setting their schedules.
  • It says, "In India students cannot address professors by their names, wear hats in class,or chew gum (in some cases)." It's true. Actually, I always called my professors in India 'Sir' or 'Ma'am'. Hats were not a common accessory when I studied in India. Chewing gum was not common where I lived and studied in India. Additionally, students MUST stand when the teacher enters the room. Students were not allowed to eat or drink while class was in session (no one was seen bringing coffee cups to class, for instance). And, students were to wait until the teacher enters, regardless of how late the teacher may enter the room (In the college I went to in the U.S., there was an unwritten rule that if the teacher was more than 15 minutes late the class was cancelled. This is unheard of in India.) 
  • Not only can all students in a group hand in the same exact assignment, but tests must, in many cases, read word for word from what was given in class by the teacher or the book. One must not question the teacher or the book (I found out the hard way!). 
  • Because people do define themselves by their group- groupism is very strong in India. This coupled with the fact you are with your classmates for so many hours in a week, month, and year, you really bond with each other and know each other very well. I had never experienced anything like this studying in the U.S. This kind of behavior is also translated into many workplaces in India, as well. 
  • It is true that shaking hands is done frequently in India. In many offices I had worked in in India (I have worked as a consultant in more than 40 different companies in India), people may shake hands in the morning to say hi, and in the evening to say good bye. I do not remember so much handshaking on campus among students, though. 
  • In larger companies, handshakes can be done between women and men. I personally  have not seen any hesitation in this in larger cities like Kochi, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Calcutta, and Hyderabad. However, if in doubt, it's ok to hesitate to shake hands with an Indian woman (if you are a foreign man) and see if she extends her hand first. 
  • Regarding the section on gift giving etiquette, I feel the only entry that can be applied to many parts of India is in relation to the giving of gifts to Muslims. Indian customs vary so widely from state to state, area to area and based on a person's religion or family custom that it is very hard to generalize. For instance, in these tips, it says not to give anything made of leather to a Hindu. While Hindus in most parts of India do not eat beef (Kerala is an exception), leather products are not typically taboo. Many Indian Hindu friends I have carry leather purses or wallets, for example. In my experience, the safest gifts to give are a box of local Indian sweets or some trinket or toy from your country to any children of the house. 

I'd be curious to see what your impressions or feedback is after reviewing the guide. Thank you for reading.

Learn more about the International Students Services at Missouri State.

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