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Of Apple Pie and Curry

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
January 2016
Of Apple Pie and Curry

Who is more hardworking, the American or the Indian? Here’s looking at the kaleidoscope of stereotypes, and how they continually shift shape when churned around.

As Indian-Americans, we are experientially equipped to better empathize with the proverbial two sides of issues. Our immigrant experiences can potentially make us champions of the vaunted grey areas of life—unlike the black-and-white rigidities of those who have a singular cultural background. Fundamentalists of all kinds come to mind when we think of those who do not embrace cultural, religious, social, or national diversity.

This, we hope, would help us see through common stereotypes that invariably fall short of sizing up “Indians,” “Americans,” or for that matter any national, religious, or ethnic group. Indeed, it is fun to play around with stereotypes, and see how they are often all roundabout and warped.

Take one trait, for example, that of hard work. Who is more hardworking—the typical American or the typical Indian?

When I first came to this country in the late ‘80s, I was quite impressed with the work ethics of Americans. It was common to see people work hard at the office and at home. That was mostly unseen in the India that I had come from, where afternoon naps were not entirely uncommon, and where, maybe because of easy availability of domestic help, people were rarely industrious at home. In contrast, an American couple is generally busy with unending chores: dishes, laundry, vacuum, repair and maintenance…. Even adolescents take up things like babysitting, pizza delivery, lawn mowing, house chores, and what not. The lemonade stand by young neighborhood kids is one of the signature slices of American life. Again, in contrast, in India, if a youngster strived to earn money with such enterprises, then there would be questions raised about the financial condition of the family: “Poor family, must be going through hard times, even the kids are working.”

Work, no matter what kind, is deeply respected in American culture. In India, on the other hand, sahebi (the tendency of bossing around, and being smart enough not to work) seems to get the subtle edge.

Does this mean Americans are more hardworking than Indians?

Here’s a question to flip this stereotype on its head: Which immigrant trait is most cited as the reason for the success of immigrants? Their hard work, of course! Time and again, we hear how Americans are too lazy to do the jobs that Latinos will gladly do. Or that Asian and Indian immigrants are taking over retail businesses like convenience stores and dry cleaners as they don’t mind the long hours and hard work that such businesses demand. In corporate America, too, the number of Indian executives is high, relative to their minute population. The word, it seems, is that immigrants can be counted on to put in the dedication and long hours needed at such demanding positions. In fact, right from elementary education, if stereotypes are to be believed, Indian students are far more studious than mainstream students.

So then, does that mean Indian culture instils a better work ethic than American?

Let’s flip the perception once again. When it comes to common markers of hard work and good work ethics—punctuality, timeliness, and follow through, most Indians would admit that compared to Americans, Indians fall far shorter. Broadly speaking, projects are never known to finish on time in the Indian parlance. We, it seems, have a far more laissez-faire cultural attitude towards things, and therefore are not inclined to work that hard to meet deadlines and follow through on commitments. Jokes about the “stretchability” of Indian Standard Time are a cliché. In contrast, Americans take pride in taking pains to come through on business and social commitments.

So then, who’s more hardworking?!

Have you heard of the stereotype of how resources are tight in countries like India, and so “survival of the fittest” forces people to work hard? And how the American, blessed with abundance, values leisure and other pursuits of hobbies and interest over slogging at work?

Confused? Good! That’s precisely the thing about stereotypes—they are inherently contextual, often contrasting, and rarely conclusive.

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