My Problem with the Word “Westernized”

For months, I’ve been using the term “Westernized” to refer to specific kinds of Indians. A friend recently pointed it out, and it bothered me once I stopped to think about it.

“Chris, does it seem like our next host in Delhi will be cool?”

“Yeah man – she seems pretty Westernized”

Westernized. What a loaded word!

But before getting into it, allow me to say the term isn’t completely without utility. On a surface, I think it works well to describe Indians who have adopted consumption and lifestyle habits similar to those of Europe and the US. For instance:

The westernized Indian is the housewife who discarded her mother’s saris for Nike designer yoga suits. She goes to meet her friends at the gym on Mondays and Fridays.

The westernized Indian is the gangly teenager who nervously takes his first date to the cinema to go see the latest James Bond movie. He’s bummed his parents gave him an 11pm curfew.

The westernized Indian is the businessman who orders his cafe Americano with an extra shot of espresso, steamed milk, but — please, hold the sugar. He’ll take artificial sweetener; He’s trying to cut his weight.

The Oxford English Dictionary and I have no issue here. It’s no small secret you can walk into a mall in any Indian city and see the overbearing influence of American products and advertising agencies. For better or worse, Indians are buying it up.

The word only became problematic was once I started throwing it around to describe Indians who share deeper values with my own. Specifically, I was using “westernized” to refer to the types of Indians I considered most likely to become my friends. It was a very biased definition.

My version of the “westernized” Indian not only understood the basics of US lifestyle, but was well-educated. Their education took them beyond rote memorization, and citing strings of HTML and PHP codes they learned at Indian Tech Universities. They were critical thinkers, able to challenge me in conversations. They were relaxed around foreigners, because if our relationship was too formal I wouldn’t connect with them. And last, they could speak English — not just textbook English, but honed to the point where they could understand things like sarcasm and nuance.

In this definition I projected myself, and what I wanted in my friends, as the archetype of what should be “western.” It was a selfish – almost imperialist — way to look at it. Moreover, while they usually fit the criteria, the very Indians I became friends with turned out to have other value systems very unique to their Eastern heritage.

Anand was one friend we made in Hyderabad who, over the last decade, had traveled to all 48 continental US states. After seeing more of my own country than I have, he ended up falling in love with a community, and a girl, in upstate Minnesota. He established a happy life there, and says it’s his favorite place in the world. If you ever wanted an example of a “Western” Indian you probably couldn’t find a better candidate.

Then he told us how his parents had called him in Minnesota and told him to return home to India for an arranged marriage. He couldn’t deny the request, sacrificing everything he had in the States, including his girlfriend. He felt compelled to uphold his family’s honor, and the wishes of his parents. I had a hard time imagining myself doing something similar.

Anu Sharma is another example. Anu runs the equivalent of a youth hostel for couchsurfers out of her small living room in Northeastern Mumbai. It is wonderful. You can walk into her apartment on any given day of the week and encounter travelers from Germany, couples from Sweden, or tourists from the US.

Anu loves being with people from around the world. When we stayed with her, we became fast friends. She understood my jokes, tested me with stimulating conversation, and chilled out with us while we waited through the pelting rains of Mumbai’s monsoons.

But like Anand, calling Anu “westernized” would be premature. What emerged out our time couchsurfing was that Anu has a whole other spiritual side to her tied intimately with everything she does. A devout Hindu, she explained how all of our actions are guided by cosmic energy and karma. It was way beyond me, but what became apparent was that it was unlike anything I’d encountered in the states.

So I realized that by using the term “Westernized” to describe Anand, Anu, and others like them, I was being lazy. Sure, it works in the sense that they understand, and adhere to many surface traits of American culture — but by using the term to describe their core values I was cheapening what was uniquely Indian about them. Or uniquely Anand. Or uniquely Anu.

I’ve since decided to use a different term for that specific set of traits I look for in people likely to become friends – education, worldliness, comfort around foreigners, and nuanced English. “Cosmopolitian.”

If I was to be asked that question again, “Hey Chris, does it seem like our host in Delhi will be cool?”

“Yeah man” I’d say.

“She seems pretty cosmopolitan.”

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4 Responses to My Problem with the Word “Westernized”

  1. anonymous says:

    Very well written. This has been my favorite piece so far. :)

  2. CA says:

    This is a well written, thoughtful and insightful piece. I have recently been recruiting Indian graduates to work for me in South Africa, the USA or Australia. When I identified my best candidate she knew exactly what we were expecting of her, ie to spend a couple of years overseas becoming familiar with our corporate culture before returning to India to work in our Indian locations. I went through the entire process confident I had chosen someone with a bright future in the company. When she received the offer letter she declined, I couldn’t understand, but she explained that her family believed it was her responsibility to stay close to them. Though she would very much have liked the role and the opportunity to travel she could not go against the wishes of her family. In my experience of western grads, they can’t wait to get away from their family. Heck, some even prefer to circumnavigate the globe rather than return to the parental nest.
    Oh, and as for those MBA’s, I should have read this before I recruited. In my experience they produce people who are no more rounded and capable than a typical US undergrad, though there are gems available if you look hard enough.

  3. Anu Sharma says:

    Thanks Morgan and Chris for this lovely article. I love your writing style.. I miss you two :) ) Hope to meet somewhere, sometime :) )) Hugs and love… Stay blessed always..

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