How to tell if you're Indian
by Apurva Mishra
Another response to my How to Tell If You're American page.
Apurva Mishra comes from Ranchi, India; he studied engineering in Mumbai (Bombay) and Boston, and now designs computer chips
in Portland, Oregon. He likes photography, hiking, and other outdoors activities, when he has time.
If you're Indian...
You mean it's not all tandoori chicken?
- Freedom of speech generally exists, but is not guaranteed.
- The main characters of popular culture are gods of Hindu mythology.
Depending on your demographic, you may also be familiar with movie stars
such as Amitabh Bacchan, Rajesh Khanna, Madhuri Dixit, Hrithik Roshan,
Rajanikanth, Mohanlal or any of many others.
- You know nothing of baseball, basketball or American football. You might
play soccer, cricket and field hockey (or variants of them), in addition
to domestic games such as kabaddi.
- Vacations usually consist of visiting relations (American-style
"getaway" vacations are unheard of).
There is no standard length of vacation time; it depends on one's livelihood.
- You almost certainly believe in God; for most Indians good deeds result in
either heaven or promotion-type rebirth and bad deeds result in hell or
- McDonald's or KFC are for occasional outings for upper-middle-class folk in the big cities.
- You probably do not own either a telephone or a TV. The masses do not have bathrooms and do their thing in the open air. They have dirt floors. They eat sitting cross-legged on the floor.
How big would a lakh of those seeds be?
- You don't consider insects, dogs, cats, monkeys, or guinea pigs to be food.
In fact it is very possible you are a strict vegetarian.
If you do eat meat it is probably either mutton, chicken or fish. It is
expensive and not something you can afford to indulge in everyday. Many
people can only afford two meals a day anyway.
- It seems natural to you that the telephone system and railroads are either
run by the government or by government enterprises; though things are
changing towards more privatization.
The train system is the only mode of long distance transport for over 95% of people.
- You find a multiple-party system natural. You expect politicians of all
parties to be corrupt and inefficient. Socialism used to be taken seriously
till around 1985.
- Instead of "black" and "white" there are thousands of castes forming an
elaborate system which governs the social order.
- You think most problems could be solved if only people would be decent.
- You have a court system which is relatively clean and just, but immensely
slow. Moreover the illiteracy and poverty of most people and the corruption
of administrative and law-enforcement officials make justice-for-all a
- You'd respect someone who speaks English, since it is a mark of the affluent
classes. Other European languages are largely unknown.
There is a great deal of glamor associated with Sanskrit and Persian; they
are traditionally the languages of the learned and the well-read.
- School is nominally free or very cheap; but still beyond the range of many people. Infrastructure is totally inadequate and it is often an economic
necessity for children to assist parents with earning money. Paradoxically,
the best college education is highly subsidized.
No Monicas here
- Mustard seeds are bought whole. Shaving cream comes
from solid round tablets. Milk comes in the milkman's aluminum cans and is
decanted into your container at your doorstep, or at the dairy.
- The date comes first: 15/8/1947. (And you know what happened on that date.)
- The decimal point is a dot. Certainly not a comma.
- A billion is a thousand times a million. But you would be more likely to
talk in lakhs (a hundred thousand) or crores (10 million).
- World War II is not terribly important. India's struggle for independence is
a more passionate memory.
- You always expect marriages to be arranged by third parties. Getting married
by a judge is not something you want to do; you might resort to it if you
are eloping. Most marriages are religious ceremonies. All except Muslims are
required to be monogamous; Muslims are allowed upto four wives if they
- For men to have sex with other men is almost totally unheard of. There is a
very small number of genuine homosexuals in the big cities. On the other
hand, there is a complete absence of American style homophobia in Indian
society; it is very common for men to express affection by embracing each
- Once you're introduced to someone, you will call him/her by name only if the
person is a peer, subordinate or junior. Anyone who is senior or higher in
the socio-economic ladder must be addressed with great respect.
Name that celeb
- If you're a woman, you are very modest with your dress. In some Hindu and
Muslim families you may feel pressured to avoid visual contact with
unrelated men altogether.
- A hotel room has a private bath.
- You do not watch any foreign films.
- You never ever expect to be able to transact business, or deal with the
government, without paying bribes.
- The nature of Indian conservatism being what it is, no Indian politican has
ever cheated on his wife.
- Credit cards are unknown except in big and expensive stores in the big
- A private sector company can fire just about anybody. For the goverment or
for a goverment enterprise it is quite impossible to fire anybody.
- You do not eat bacon.
- There is no Labor Day.
We got rid of the Brits too
- Western pop culture icons are unknown to you unless you are an urban upper
middle class youth. You would very likely know the following Indian figures, however:
- Sports: Cricket reigns supreme as the Indian spectator sport of choice. Some
of the more popular players are Sunil Gawaskar, Kapil Dev,
Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar.
- TV shows: a music game show called Antakshari and its anchor Annu Kapoor are
extremely popular. There is a host of popular serials too numerous to name
ranging from soap operas to comedy.
Classical: Bhimsen Joshi, Zakir Hussain, M. S. Subbulakshmi.
Folk: Ila Arun, Shubha Mudgal.
Movie soundtrack music (very popular in India): Annu Malik, A. R. Rehman.
- Good medical treatment is a luxury for the upper middle class. For the
majority, it is very possible to die of cholera or other Third World
diseases. You do expect very strong measures to be taken to save very ill babies or people in their eighties, but you know that such measures are in
vain. You think dying at 65 would give you a long life.
- If you are upper middle class you went over Indian and world history in
school; and the ignorance of college educated Americans amazes you.
- You expect the military to fight wars, not get involved in politics.
Girl, have a twinkie!
- Your country was colonized by the British till fifty years ago.
- There is a lack of choices for almost anything you buy, but this never even
strikes you until you visit the US.
- For the most part you measure things in metres, kilograms, and litres. Feet
and inches are used almost exclusively for describing the height of people
or small objects. Indian measures are still used in some contexts;
e.g. a unit of weight called tola is widely used by
- You are probably a farmer (or farmhand).
- Comics basically come in two varieties: newspaper comics and magazines; the
latter either feature superheroes or Archie etc.
- The people who appear on the most popular talk shows are mostly
entertainers, politicians, or rather strange individuals. Certainly not,
- You drive on the left side of the road. Traffic lights exist only in the big
cities. If you're a pedestrian you watch out for your own safety.
- Cars are a luxury of the rich.
- The police are typically not armed, unless they are guarding VVIPs, in which
case they might tote submachine guns.
Meet the parents
- If a woman is plumper than the average, it improves her looks. (i.e. what a
person considers 'ideal' is likely to be plumper than the American ideal).
- The midday and evening meal are equally light.
- The ethnicity people most often make jokes about are the Sikhs (colloquially
referred to as Sardars).
- Sikhs are widely considered to be dumb and good-natured;
Biharis, loutish; Gujaratis, money-minded; Bengalis, impractical and talkative; Delhiites, rude and loutish. (Unless of course you belong
to one of these groups.)
- There's parts of the city you definitely want to avoid at night.
- You feel that your kind of people aren't being listened to enough in New
- You expect both inflation and unemployment to be very high (say, over 15%)
at the same time.
Space and time
- You care very deeply what family someone comes from and what their caste is.
- When a couple dies, there are different ways to handle the estate: (1) it passes
on to the eldest son, (2) it is divided equally between the male progeny, or (3) it is
divided equally among all their children.
- Opera and ballet are unknown. Street plays or shows, singing and dancing are
very popular, especially in the countryside. Many of these take place at
fairs or festivals.
- Christmas is in the winter. If you're Christian, you spend it with your
family, light up your house and go to church.
- You are used to not having a state church and the possibility of such a
thing has never even occurred to you.
- You'd be hard pressed to name the capitals or the leaders of all the nations
- You've never left a message at the beep.
- Taxis are generally operated by ordinary people; they only exist in the big
- Welfare, unemployment payments, social security, and Medicare are unheard of.
- If you want to be a doctor, you need to get a bachelor's first.
- There are some lawyers; they do not particularly make a lot of money.
- If you have an appointment, you'll mutter an excuse if you're an hour late.
- If you're talking to someone, you do not get at all uncomfortable if they
- You expect to bargain for everything.
When you offer a price, you aren't so much probing the seller's minimum, as signalling how much you really want the item.
- Even once you're past college, you might often simply show up at someone's
place. People may invite each other but don't have to.
- When you negotiate, you may play convoluted games to get what you want.
Also, in social situations, it is sometimes considered improper to be too
- If you have a business appointment or interview with someone, you expect to
have that person to yourself, but the business may take any amount of time
depending on context.
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