Change…Or Simply Westernization?

It turns out that we aren’t the only group staying at the mid-range, distinctly Indian “Hotel Kanchi” in northern Chennai. Last night, a few of us met up with some newly hired Indian bankers (here for job training), and what began as “hanging out” ended up as a sharing of views on marriage, divorce, war, and gender equality.

“One thing we dislike about America,” they proclaimed, “is the loose sexual culture”. Fair enough. But what about arranged marriages in India? Shouldn’t marriage be a choice, and shouldn’t the decision to remain in a marriage also be a choice? Things are changing now in India, too, they tell us. It used to be that no one asked whether the woman liked the man she was marrying—now that is expected. And there are strict laws against domestic abuse. (Although a recent study showed that over half of married women in the slums of Bangalore experienced domestic abuse.)

Women’s empowerment is coincidentally the topic of discussion this morning. The speaker is from a local NGO that helps rural women secure loans to start their own businesses (not just Grameen-style microfinance, but for individuals as well), while providing some basic business skills training. The question is raised as to the expectations of women: if women are now moving into the workforce, are they still expected to fulfill all of their household and child-raising “duties” as well? If not, who’s going to raise the children, especially with the fracturing of the traditional extended-family household? “Well,” our speaker notes, “that’s part of the reason there’s been a proliferation of child care centers.” And elderly homes too, I bet.

“India…is on the verge of a great change,” my friend had pronounced the night before. The thing is, we say “change” to mean progress but what we’re really talking about is Westernization. Choice in marriage, gender equality, nuclear families, the institutionalization of child and elderly care…these are all ideas that originated from the West. Many of these values are admirable but there are some ill effects as well, and the challenge in shifting from simple Westernization to true “progress” lies in whether huge emerging countries such as India and China can develop while mitigating these excesses. China’s official stance has clearly and stubbornly been one of “modernizing with a Chinese touch”. I’ve already heard equivalent phrases here in India. Can it really be achieved, or is it all just rhetoric?

(Original post written 2/4/11)

One thought on “Change…Or Simply Westernization?

  1. Funny you write about this. For my Modern Chinese History class, I’ve just been reading a few translated essays by reformist Chinese scholars during the Self-Strengthening movement of the 1870s, when China was faced with the challenge of modernization. The phrase, 中学为体,西学为用 comes to mind. Although the reformers hoped that China could acquire all the benefits of Western science and technology while still being founded in the traditional Confucian way, history tells us that such an idealistic way of thinking never came to fruition. I guess the lesson learned here is that you can’t change one part without changing the whole.

    It’s nice that you are having these sorts of conversations, however uncomfortable they may be. Keep us posted with more food for thought.

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