18 and out? Not in India. (A study of family life.)

At ninety years old, my grandfather was on his own. His nearest child, my aunt, was 120 miles away. He cooked for himself, he cleaned, he paid his bills, he drove himself to breakfast with his buddies every morning, and he beat me at cards every single time. And while my family certainly wanted him to move closer to one of us—he refused to leave the town in which he’d lived all his life, even though his last kid moved away in 1976—we all admired his independence.

His independence horrified my Indian friends.

While Ganga and I worked hard, Grandpops watched over us. Click for a bigger picture. To explain the pose: I’d asked Grandpops to pretend he was a rapper, and this was his response.

I’d see shocked condemnation in their eyes when I’d tell my Indian colleagues about Grandpops. What is wrong with the Prager family, they’d obviously think, that we’d so coldly abandon our patriarch? And what kind of family would ever let a grandparent live alone in the first place?

This leads to another of the cultural variances this blog dutifully documents: in America, family life generally has an expiration date. In India, family life generally takes precedence over everything.

For most Americans, this expiration date is the light at the end of our tumultuous teenage tunnel. Our 18th birthday pulses in our adolescent minds, because that’s the accepted age at which we either set out for university or set out on our own. In my family, 16 meant it was time for a job, 18 meant it was time for college, and 22 was the first day of the rest of our lives (“You’re off the payroll,” as my dad always put it.)

This isn’t unusual: most American families break up by the time the kid is old enough to drink. Some see their kids move to condos in the same city; others, like our parents, watched their kids run off to Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC, and India. My grandfather’s children scattered across the country in a similar manner. Even when my brother briefly moved home after university, the first thing he did was find his own place. Living at home is not in our cultural vernacular.

In India, the opposite: families generally stick together until marriage or economics force them apart. Houses typically contain multiple generations of multiple branches. If the American narrative is “18 and out”, the Indian narrative is three patrilineal generations under one roof, with the eldest son regularly consulting architects for new floors to house additional wings of uncles.

Most of our unmarried friends and coworkers lived with their parents, and most expected to remain with them until a job moved them to a different city or, in girls’ cases, a marriage moved them into a different family’s orbit. A few coworkers lived with their parents in the far outskirts of Delhi, despite the 2-3 hour commute this obliged them in each direction. The few bachelors or bachelorettes we knew who lived on their own did so only because their families were in Orissa or West Bengal; only a tiny fraction of our friends or coworkers lived on their own even though their parents were also in Delhi.

Observing this, we developed generalizations: in India, family comes before self. In America, self comes before family. In India, parents make decisions on the child’s behalf long after he or she has embarked on his or her career; in America, the child’s struggle for independence begins the moment they enter the teenage years.

In the long run, this means that Americans make decisions with little but advice from their parents, for better or (often) for worse, while Indians spend their first three decades knowing their holiday plans, career decisions, and sometimes even wardrobe choices are subject to parental veto. The most extreme example of this deference to ancestry is in marriage, of course: very few American children would ever allow themselves to be sat down, handed a cup of tea, and informed of their recent betrothal. Americans usually marry regardless of their parental approval—indeed, when parents express reservations about a marriage, that usually just strengthens the resolve of the children to go through with it.

Our divorce rate attests to this.

In India, the consequences of disobeying are staggering. We knew one thirty-something girl who was in love with a guy—heads-over-heels, stand-up-in-a-restaurant-and-shout-it in love—and the guy reciprocated. But her family didn’t approve. And when she made her wishes known to her parents, she was given a simple choice: the man or the family. She could not be part of both.

In America, self is more important than family. Everyone in my family wanted Grandpops to move closer to them, but none of us were willing to give up our own lives to live with him in Connecticut. In India, where our friend had no choice but to break off her relationship with this man she loved, family is more powerful than anything.

25 responses to “18 and out? Not in India. (A study of family life.)

  1. May the force be with you grandfather!
    Well nothing insightful in this post, as you said these are generalization. Other points could be added such as there are different names for relatives based on whether they are from your mother’s side or father’s side. So there is one word for paternal uncle and another for maternal uncle. Even in-laws have specific names rather than *-in-law.

  2. there are social reasons for this: poverty and a discriminating judiciary.

    I talked to a Nepali 55 year old years back about this. He: “Living with parents together?? What is so great about this?”

    Divorce rates lower in India? That’s no wonder with deep entrenched caste thinking and discrimination of divorced women.

  3. I can confirm the statements of the post. In India there are more or less the same rules in place as have been in Europe about 150 years ago. Europe is somewhere between US and India.

    The economy does not allow the “love marriage” (as the Indians call the western style marriage) but only the “arranged marriage” organised by the parents, since kids and their family are actually your social security. There is neither a social security scheme from the state nor a pension scheme from your company, therefore the prosperity of the kids family is an important part of your own prosperity once your not anymore able to go to work.

    Once a girl get married she does not belong anymore to the family of her parents, but only to the family of her husband. Since family of the husband has to support that new family member in the future there is also a mitgift required …

  4. I am the reverse of the Delhi Struggle couple (can’t say am a fan of the title) and am ‘struggling’ on the west coast of the US. Many of the comment posted (specially by Peter) nails the economic truths about this cultural behavior, but I would also add to that the aspect of Identity, that comes with cultural and historical depth of Indian societies. While most of the time these are huge burdens on the youth of India, but at same time the psychological stability they provide to an individual is overlooked. The benefits of which one can see in the US where its mostly absent. Much of the youth over here have the world and some in terms of resources, but they often seem to spend a lot of time finding themselves, thus loosing much of their productive lives just trying to figure that out. Indian kids having some of that from their cultural and historical context deal with this much later in life where when they are more mature to understand things. I’m not taking sides here, but its just an observation.

  5. Fully agree with Injun’s observations.
    Wud love to add..Bt guess it wud jz start becomin a Blame-Game type of thing
    Wud jz say t’was a nice Post 🙂

  6. Yes there are generalizations but very nicely put. thanks and more more! 🙂

  7. BTW, I have a 84 year old father living by himself in Delhi, even though my sister lives in Chandigarh.I think many kids live in their own homes, rather than with their parents. The problem is when they need medical care and someone to watch them until they recover.. its at those times that you wish they lived closer. I recall making a trip from Boston, at a days notice, when he was hospitalized a couple of years ago… could have been easier if he had agreed to live closer to my sister.

  8. And have you been to Gujarat? Families get stauncher to this end. But I guess, the Indian generation is in a struggling condition. They can’t escape their families, they want to be on their own self, they don’t want to stay away from their families, they don’t want to be totally on their own. So, like because of western and eastern mix, they are pretty confused.

    Take live in relationships for example. What do you have to say about that?

  9. great post..my best friend who’s indian lives in a “joint family”, meaning, along with her parents and siblings, she also lives with her extended family(her paternal grandmother, 2 paternal uncles and their respective families, a paternal aunt and her spouse and son). When i was invited over for my first sleepover, you can imagine my surprise on finding out she lived in a house that was 2 storey high and had 14 rooms(YES! 14 ROOMS). On top of that, her live in maid and the maid’s family lived nearby in a separate “servant’s quarters”. When i asked my friend how it was growing up around so many people. She didn’t seem too happy. Apparently, her dad doesn’t get along with his brothers and would prefer to move out but didn’t dare mention moving out for fear of upsetting the matriarch of the family-his elderly mother. It was funny to see how happy her uncle and his family acted when i was there when in reality, they didn’t get along at all.

  10. Its interesting how this is an overriding factor in the mind of all non-Indians (or rather, Westerners) Ive met. The family thing.
    And now, on another blog I see almost the same topic. A little diferently.

  11. It just fascinates me. And having two teenager daughters, i wish we were a bit more like the Indian families. I am not ready to let go.


  12. Carl and Peter, I am sorry to disappoint you but not every India tradition has its roots in poverty and other social malfunctions. In fact, the joint family system has started BREAKING UP because of economic problems. People would rather maintain small families involving only their spouse and children rather than a hoard of uncles aunts parents and grandparents. Also, joint families can be found among two categories of Indians(mostly)-the aristocratic upper class (so to speak) and the poverty stricken lower class. Simply because these are the two classes which are most conscious of the age old family systems and traditions. So you can see money is really not as much a factor as family ties. Of course women’s lib also has a huge deal in making or breaking a joint family. A lot of working women choose to stay with their in-laws since they help a lot in raising the children.(Being raised by grandparents is a wonderful experience.You’d have seven year olds telling you the Indian epics off by heart!) Again in contrast, a lot of women choose to break away because of the still conservative and narrow mindset of their in-laws.Lastly, arranged marriages work. I am not talking of the economic settlements in which a daughter is sold off but the actual arranged marriage scene. Its not too different from a blind date set up by your family gone good. My parents have been happily married for nearly 30 years and they are not an exceptional example. And again, contrary to what has been said, love marriages are very common too. The main point that I am trying to make here is that family is the basic unit in an Indian society. But yes, as Astik said, our generation has been exposed to so much of both Eastern and Western cultures we don’t really know what we want. We crib about what we have and get offended when others point it out( the reason for this tiresome long comment:D)

    Great post you guys!

  13. this is so true. Even in Singapore family is very important and take precedence over individuality. Perhaps this is changing a bit with Gen Y. On the other hand you don’t have to worry about rent when you’re retrenched because your family always has your back.

  14. Pingback: Are India’s malls influencing India’s marriages? | Our Delhi Struggle

  15. India invented a system long ago to prevent societal change and degradation. It’s called the caste system and the family system which are basically one and the same. It was an ingenious system that when applied correctly prevents a breakdown in the structure of society and the cataclysmic shifts can problems that come about with change. It acknowledges the basic truism that people rely on each other. Therefore if one person breaks tradition, it puts a burden on an entire community of people. Hence, in America we have unloved parents wasting away in old people homes. We have kids making dumb mistakes and regretting later why they did not listen to their parents. It is precisely the lack of this system that has cause change to occur so fast in American society in the 20th century. And it is the breakdown of this system in Indian society that is forcing it into a modern world where every moment we deal with the constant stressing changes that are happening around us.

  16. Staying and caring for your parents when they age and require your support is something which comes with Indian values. Children feel an obligation to care for their parents and make their last days happy and meaningful. They deserve a little care and pampering in the eve of their life considering that throughout our bringing up they have made sacrifices where they have weighed more inportance to our future than their own self. No old age home or government or social security system will replace the love and care of one’s own family.

  17. what about children who come from dysfunctional families? do you think emancipation is the best choice then? i do. and i have done better away from them than i would have with them dragging me down.

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