At ninety years old, my grandfather was on his own. His nearest child, my aunt, was 120 miles away. He cooked for himself, he cleaned, he paid his bills, he drove himself to breakfast with his buddies every morning, and he beat me at cards every single time. And while my family certainly wanted him to move closer to one of us—he refused to leave the town in which he’d lived all his life, even though his last kid moved away in 1976—we all admired his independence.
His independence horrified my Indian friends.
While Ganga and I worked hard, Grandpops watched over us. Click for a bigger picture. To explain the pose: I’d asked Grandpops to pretend he was a rapper, and this was his response.
I’d see shocked condemnation in their eyes when I’d tell my Indian colleagues about Grandpops. What is wrong with the Prager family, they’d obviously think, that we’d so coldly abandon our patriarch? And what kind of family would ever let a grandparent live alone in the first place?
This leads to another of the cultural variances this blog dutifully documents: in America, family life generally has an expiration date. In India, family life generally takes precedence over everything.
For most Americans, this expiration date is the light at the end of our tumultuous teenage tunnel. Our 18th birthday pulses in our adolescent minds, because that’s the accepted age at which we either set out for university or set out on our own. In my family, 16 meant it was time for a job, 18 meant it was time for college, and 22 was the first day of the rest of our lives (“You’re off the payroll,” as my dad always put it.)
This isn’t unusual: most American families break up by the time the kid is old enough to drink. Some see their kids move to condos in the same city; others, like our parents, watched their kids run off to Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC, and India. My grandfather’s children scattered across the country in a similar manner. Even when my brother briefly moved home after university, the first thing he did was find his own place. Living at home is not in our cultural vernacular.
In India, the opposite: families generally stick together until marriage or economics force them apart. Houses typically contain multiple generations of multiple branches. If the American narrative is “18 and out”, the Indian narrative is three patrilineal generations under one roof, with the eldest son regularly consulting architects for new floors to house additional wings of uncles.
Most of our unmarried friends and coworkers lived with their parents, and most expected to remain with them until a job moved them to a different city or, in girls’ cases, a marriage moved them into a different family’s orbit. A few coworkers lived with their parents in the far outskirts of Delhi, despite the 2-3 hour commute this obliged them in each direction. The few bachelors or bachelorettes we knew who lived on their own did so only because their families were in Orissa or West Bengal; only a tiny fraction of our friends or coworkers lived on their own even though their parents were also in Delhi.
Observing this, we developed generalizations: in India, family comes before self. In America, self comes before family. In India, parents make decisions on the child’s behalf long after he or she has embarked on his or her career; in America, the child’s struggle for independence begins the moment they enter the teenage years.
In the long run, this means that Americans make decisions with little but advice from their parents, for better or (often) for worse, while Indians spend their first three decades knowing their holiday plans, career decisions, and sometimes even wardrobe choices are subject to parental veto. The most extreme example of this deference to ancestry is in marriage, of course: very few American children would ever allow themselves to be sat down, handed a cup of tea, and informed of their recent betrothal. Americans usually marry regardless of their parental approval—indeed, when parents express reservations about a marriage, that usually just strengthens the resolve of the children to go through with it.
Our divorce rate attests to this.
In India, the consequences of disobeying are staggering. We knew one thirty-something girl who was in love with a guy—heads-over-heels, stand-up-in-a-restaurant-and-shout-it in love—and the guy reciprocated. But her family didn’t approve. And when she made her wishes known to her parents, she was given a simple choice: the man or the family. She could not be part of both.
In America, self is more important than family. Everyone in my family wanted Grandpops to move closer to them, but none of us were willing to give up our own lives to live with him in Connecticut. In India, where our friend had no choice but to break off her relationship with this man she loved, family is more powerful than anything.