As an American citizen born in India, I have spent 25 years fielding some strange questions and generalizations about India and its culture.
Most ethnic comments are innocent simplifications, some are pure myth stemming from ignorance, and others are accurate observations.
In this article, I’ll navigate through some common misconceptions about India.
While communicating with friends and co-workers from a different ethnic background, be mindful of the subtle difference between genuine curiosity versus ethnic profiling. For the sake of world peace, let’s start by understanding each other and educating ourselves on different cultures.
Here are some myths and pet peeves most Asian-Indians have heard enough.
Hi, I Love Spicy Indian Food!— Most people love to point out how much they relish Indian food, and that’s wonderful. Indian cuisine is delicious and flavorful, no doubt. However, one of the most annoying comments you can make when you meet an Indian person for the first time is blurting out, “Oh, I love Indian Food. The Taj Mahal restaurant up the corner is my favorite eatery!”
Can we please stop!
I’ve never heard my Chinese friends being greeted with, “Oh, I love Chinese food. PF Chang’s is my favorite restaurant!”
On the same topic, I often hear people raving, “My favorite dish is vindaloo chicken, I’m sure you Indians love it too!”
That’s simply awesome, but did you know India has 27 states and each of them has a distinct cuisine! Your favorite, Vindaloo chicken comes from one really tiny state called, Goa. So don’t be surprised that most Indians have never heard of Vindaloo Chicken.
Another common quip, “I love Curry” — To which I ask, “Cool but for what kind of cuisine?” They look baffled.
Curry simply means sauce. So, any cuisine that prepares its dishes with a gravy base can qualify as Curry.
Also, there is no Indian Spice called CURRY POWDER! It’s a marketing gimmick to satisfy the ignorant.
Once the Vindaloo Chicken is located on the menu, most people proudly order the Naan-Bread to go with it. Excellent choice, but did you know, naan means bread? So don’t call it BREAD-BREAD! The same goes for CHAI-TEA.
ALL Indian women wear a 6-yard cloth draped around their body with a DOT on the forehead.
It’s called a SARI — mostly worn by the Boomer Generation and rarely by the newer and millennial generations. It’s not an everyday attire for most Indian women. Simply for the complexity involved in draping 6-yards of cloth around your body and moving about in it.
Yes, we have a variety of colorful ethnic ensembles in our Indian traditional wardrobes, but most are only worn during festivals and weddings.
That DOT on our forehead — is a traditional make-up accessory called a ‘Bindi’. Worn with traditional outfits. Nope, we’re not covering our third eye with it.
Thanks to the Slum-Dog Millionaire, the country is a slum, and everybody is poor.
While a high number of people live under the poverty line, not ALL Indians are poor — In fact, I only realized how poor India was considered in the West, when I watched the Red Cross TV Ads.
Contrary to popular belief, India has a significant portion of the world’s richest people and there are many Indian nationals who are billionaires; both within the country and abroad.
Showcasing hundreds of years of rich culture and opulent heritage, India has 80 palaces across its landscape. Most of them are so grand that the Buckingham Palace looks gray and small in comparison!
True, there is a great divide between the Have and the Have-Nots, but the Haves of India includes a burgeoning middle class, who thanks to higher-paying jobs, live a life of luxury and comfort. It’s not uncommon for even the most middle-class families of India to have a full-time daily help/cook and driver to chauffeur them around.
Snake Charmers Everywhere!
Definitely not. An old tradition started by a small tribe called the Bedia, snake charming has been banned for over 4 decades and is considered illegal.
Don’t worry, if you suffer from ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), India doesn’t have ‘snakes-in-a-basket’ at every street corner.
Indians speak Hindu.
This is a common error and easily confused. Hindu is India’s dominant religion, and Hindi (pronounced ‘Hindee’) is the national language.
With the second largest population of 1.3 billion people, it’s the biggest democracy in the world. Given the sheer diversity and size of India, there are 121 (yup!) different languages spoken throughout the country.
English is the 2nd most common language in the nation. Given the variety, it’s not unusual for most Indians to know at least 3 or more languages.
Another interesting fact from the nation of spices.
India gifted the world with Zero!
The biggest and the most important contribution to the history of mathematics was ‘Zero’, which is literally nothing, but without it, there would have been no binary system or computers. Thanks to the mathematical and astronomical talents of a man named Aryabhata, Indians were the first to use ‘Zero’ in mathematical operations, such as addition, subtraction.
Though computers came to India rather late, in the early 1990s, the country quickly caught up with the rest of the world and is the largest exporter of Computer Parts and IT Software worldwide!
There are some rumors about India and its culture that are true.
Most Indians live with their parents… forever. True.
It’s a social country with strong family bonds. Plus, it makes economic sense across generations.
Most marriages are arranged rather than free choice — True.
So far, a successful model for its society as witnessed with India having the lowest divorce rates in the world.
Multi-Day Grand Weddings — True.
If you’re invited to one, hop on that plane and immerse yourself in a colorful multi-day celebration, gastronomically rich and steeped in tradition and culture. You will not be disappointed.
Indians value Education over Sports — True.
Although the mindset is slowly changing, most Indian parents do favor academics over sports, for their children’s future. No surprise that the country spews out more than its fair share of Doctors and Engineers.
Finally, It’s True, INDIANS (HINDUS) DO WORSHIP COWS!