Tall, soy, extra hot, earl grey tea latte with 1/2 the syrup. This is my Starbucks drink of choice. When I was at my parents house earlier this month, my sister and I did a coffee run on the way home from the hospital. Our orders were complicated, personalized and long-winded. My poor 19 year old brother Luke was melting from embarrassment as we rattled off drink orders longer than a haiku.
In contrast, when we stop for chai in India or are given it in someone’s home, it’s usually a simple process. No one asks if we want it, it’s simply provided, and sometimes sugar is provided for us to put in to our liking. No questions about size, milk fat, foam, shots of espresso. Everyone has chai. Everyone has the same type.
In my observations and in my reading about Indian culture, I’ve learned that in India (and many Eastern cultures), the emphasis is on the communal. Rather than our Western emphasis on individual differences and uniqueness, Indian culture tends to emphasize the group as a whole.
In truth, these emphases are deeply ingrained. Although I know this intellectually, when I entered Starbucks last week with my in-laws, I just assumed a Western stance and asked them a series of questions about their impending coffees. The resulting confusion reminded me that while we are similar in many ways, our cultural assumptions are an integral lens through which we see the world.
This is part of the fun and the complexity of marrying out; discovering that our gut reactions and instincts are sometimes quite different. The Eastern value on the group challenges me to reconsider the significance I place on the individual. Where I see trees, Varun sees forests. Where I see seven individuals with similar height and fuzzy hair, Varun sees my family. Sometimes this is disorienting. Sometimes this is frustrating. Lots of the time, it’s enriching. These days, I happily accept mugs of chai whenever Varun makes it; in turn, he has developed a preference for his own sentence-long Starbucks drink.
Leslie Newbigin, in his discussion of the difficulty of assessing one’s own culture, quotes this Chinese proverb,
“If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish.”