India Part 1: Major differences between India and US culture

So it's taken me a while to determine where to start my blog following my trip to India this semester. It was about a month-long immersion focused on understanding people with very different practices and beliefs and using methods learned at the IIT Institute of Design to create systematic solutions to address different components of healthcare- from learning about health, to monitoring and treating ailments.

 The entire group of participants for this project, including our dean, Patrick Whitney Photo credit: Pallavi Lande Metkar

The entire group of participants for this project, including our dean, Patrick Whitney
Photo credit: Pallavi Lande Metkar

 My Team! (From L to R: Ankur, me, Reena, Szu-Ying, and Ranjit)

My Team! (From L to R: Ankur, me, Reena, Szu-Ying, and Ranjit)

I traveled with 6 of my peers from the school to Mumbai to meet up with a large team of Godrej employees that came from all over the company, such as HR, industrial design, business, and more. Multi-discipline, multi-cultural teams were formed which incorporated 2-3 graduate students and 3-4 Indian colleagues. My team is pictured to the right. My peer Claire (Szu-Ying) is also from the Institute of Design. While I'm mainly going to focus on the differences I noticed in India and less on the work I did, I'm happy to talk about the process we took and what the experience was like conducting while simultaneously teaching frameworks and innovation methods to people from another country.

That said, I'm likely going to focus on more of my personal observations about culture, practices, craft... and less on the specific outcomes of our work.. primarily because our concepts and prototypes are actively being developed and built upon within the innovation center of the company.

So what major differences did I notice?

Dependency and India's Service Industry

One immediate element I noticed of Indian culture is that there is no task too small. From guards watching over parking lots to the men and women who cooked our food, cleaned our clothes, drove us around, guarded our house... it seemed that you could hire someone to do almost anything for you at a relatively very low cost (as compared to American standards). This was very interesting to me on a variety of levels.

  • Conservation: Firstly, I had never had someone do my laundry for me, so it made me think a little more about what I was throwing in the hamper. At home, I'd just throw all my used clothing into the bin, but knowing another person had to wash everything themselves made me think about whether something "really" needed to be cleaned. I found myself hanging up and re-wearing clothes that weren't really dirty.
  • Labor and Time: In some ways, India has the resources the US needs and vice versa. India has lots and lots of people with a good amount of time on their hand, while American labor is much more expensive and time is extremely limited (especially given our laws that require lunch breaks and more). We're wiling to pay for the raw resources of extra men and their time, even when it means training new armies of people.
  • Independent vs. Inter-depenendency: I constantly wondered about the culture of having everything done for you. Is there a certain level of learned helplessness embedded in the design of a culture in which others do whatever you need (granted, of course, that you can afford it). I noticed some of my friends I visited in India said they refused/preferred not to drive, and instead used a family or familiar driver to travel around Mumbai. There seems to be a certain balance between our two countries:
    • In the US, independency is in huge demand- everything empowering the user to understand and self-manage their credit score through sites like Credit Karma to expressing your unique style through sites like Pinterest are huge. You even see it in our laws, where children's health and school records are cut off from parents after a certain age. Our culture also focuses on internal attributes like ability, personality, intelligence, preferences, rights. It also suggests we should be unique and expressive. That said, crowd-sharing and the sharing economy is starting to take root with millennials... which might suggest a shift towards interdependency for transportation, tasks, and more (Uber, TaskRabbit, etc.). An interesting shift for sure.
    • In India, inter-dependency is built into cultural expectations around relationships, obligations, social responsibilities and often times have assigned roles or tasks for people of certain demographics (such as women's role in society, types of jobs young adults hold, and respect for older people). I found my female friends stressing the importance of me arriving home before 8pm (despite me trying to shrug it off and stay out later) because women are expected to not be out alone at night. Its also more common to keep in closer contact with family over there than in the US. Whereas I may call my mom once a week, I knew some friends who would talk to their family daily or at least every other day. It's also very common and perhaps somewhat expected that young adults may stay living with their parents. Although I'm sure family dynamics differ from family to family, it's not uncommon for parents provide shelter, food, and more to their children without any form of compensation. I have a hard time believing a traditional American family would have the same level of open arms for their adult children moving back home after college; I know plenty of peers who were kicked out of the home after turning 18. Pairing the relationships and dependancies within families with the plethora of service workers (guards, cleaners, drivers, and more), it seems like India is much like a complicated web of inter-dependencies woven in tandem with objectives of daily life.

So, why does all of this matter? Well, for one, motivations are different. One thing I hadn't considered as deeply until now is our (US student team's) biased perspective of how and why people care for themselves. In the US, it's personal tracking, personal hygiene, personal fitness, personal goals. It's about YOU. Some people can afford trainers, but even then, the trainer is focused on YOU. What if this model for wellness, which focuses on personal change and personal responsibility was somehow flipped so that independence was shifted to interdependence... so that somehow, your success and failures impacted others working towards wellness goals as well. Perhaps teamwork might play a role in the future of personal healthcare in India. Then again, maybe the service culture has such a profound impact on what individuals are willing to do for themselves that some things will always be off limits, like cooking for yourself or riding a bike instead of a auto-rickshaw. What do you think?


Auto Rickshaw ride the morning after I arrived in Mumbai- Talk about diving right in!

Chaos was something that continuously fascinated me during my trip. At first glance (actually for my first week), I saw the lack of organization in the city around driving, timelines, and legal upkeep extremely unnerving. I saw how many people were creating chaos in one of the hospitals we visited, along with the cats, dogs, pigeons, cows and everything else wandering around outside and within the hospital walls. I couldn't believe that a system and a society with this many people could effectively function without the strong confines of order enacted from government or another higher entity. I was surprised there wasn't more car accidents. I was surprised there wasn't more crime. I was surprised there was such a high level of care in the hospitals. I was surprised at the extreme efficiency self-imposed by practitioners, especially doctors, to make the most of what they had despite the regulated need to do so. (Ok, an aside: I think American's healthcare system is built on extreme inefficiency... often using disposable/one-time-use items and tossing out or charging patients for more than anyone needs, the need for physical paperwork, and more... so I was impressed that even though doctors *could* get away with this in India, I didn't see anyone wasting or even speak about wasting even the smallest of resources.) I'm sure this partially stems from the extreme poverty of many in the country and the doctor's recognition of this in their aim to deliver affordable healthcare in reflection of this. 

 Hey look! No lanes! No speed limits! Still, people don't get into as many accidents as you might expect.

Hey look! No lanes! No speed limits! Still, people don't get into as many accidents as you might expect.

That said, I had an interesting revelation about chaos and order in India which provided a nice lens to look at all the other "chaos" within the city. I saw hospital staff running everywhere, all on separate errands, without computers, papers in hand, working hard to attend to patients in all different parts of the hospital, surrounded by animals lying on the stairs, soon-to-be patients lined up in the hallways, and massive rooms filled with old metal beds with occupied mattresses. I made some comment like "I can't believe anyone can get anything done within this craziness". One of my Indian colleagues responded back... "Think of it less as the craziness of the entire system, and more that the people causing the disorder are the ones actively managing it." That really got me thinking. Looking at it from a macro-level, a colony of ants running around their home appears chaotic and unorganized, but once you look closer, you start to notice groups of ants acting together to carry food home, search out new food, defend the colony, etc. In many ways, the hospital is like that ant hill- Apparently chaotic from far away, but an efficient and relevant self-correcting system in which those creating the entropy (therefore the experts on whatever they're disrupting) are the ones working to re-organize it.

Once I realized that the responsibility of quelling chaos resided in those at the very ground level, it made a lot more sense why it was more efficiently taken care of. This applied to traffic as well. Instead of the model used in the US, where entities higher up get involved in the case of an accident (police, insurance, policy-makers) to identify blame and provide appropriate compensation and punishments, I saw several "accidents in India. In one case, the driver from the front car jumped out and demanded money from the driver behind him who had bumped his car. They pointed and yelled, and then the man quickly handed over some decided-upon allotment of cash and drove off. Happy with his money, the first man drove off quickly after. The entire process took about 1 minute or less. I saw an instance of one auto rickshaw scraping past another one, the driver glancing down at the scratch and shrugging as he continued on his way.

I also found a lot of humor in the number of people that were often crammed into cars. I understand it's a point of necessity for poor, but the number of people being transported would most definitely be illegal here in the US. Entire families were sitting in an auto rickshaw intended for a max of 2-3 passengers. People were crammed in the trunks of cars, others were literally sitting on the tops of cars. I was shocked to say the least. I can't imagine how dangerous... and uncomfortable many of those people must have been.

I'm not trying to imply these are normal or average occurrences (though they might be), but rather illustrate this idea of managing chaos on a micro-scale. It makes sense. It also highlighted the inefficiencies large organizations tote along with them in the American system of dealing with chaos. 



...I think the US could greatly benefit from a little controlled chaos. 

Bodies! Bellies! 

I'm not sure how to make this politically correct, so I'll just say it. I noticed a lot of people with larger bellies than I was expecting in India. Even many of the skinny girls had a noticeable bump. Someone explained that it had to do with diet- which is filled with rice and dairy products (mainly ghee), which makes sense, but was still surprising.

Unrelated, I also noticed that the poor were often very skinny and emaciated. Those the poor in America are ideally better off than the poor from India, I did notice a stark difference in bodies. American poor tended to be overweight (because of cheap food, lack of exercise, health education, etc.). In other words: 

  • In India:
    • Heavier= often revealed you were better-off 
    • Super skinny= almost certainly very poor 
    • Belly= normal, expected, natural, "chubby is cute"
  • In America:
    • Heavier= Obesity often tied to low-income Americans
    • Super skinny= model/rich
    • Belly= lay off the beer, unattractive

I recognize this isn't an exact science, nor does my observation apply to every Indian or American, but it is something I noticed. 

Fantasy vs. Emotional Expression

I had the opportunity to go watch two movies in Indian theaters. I have to admit that I wasn't expecting to hear the national anthem prior to the show starting, and they still retained intermissions mid-movie, which isn't common in American movie theaters anymore. I watched an American movie and another Bollywood movie called "Roy" which seemed to be an interesting mix between westernized cinema and anticipated Bollywood themes. (They only had one break-out dance number! I was expecting more! Watch it above). I asked a few people the ignorant question of why there was so much dancing in Bollywood movies and I was usually laughed off, but eventually my professor shared a particularly interesting reason for it. He suggested that Indians go to cinemas to escape everyday life in a way. Therefore Bollywood movies are full of fantasy and singing and dancing. It's happy and exciting. Alternatively, American cinema is often viewed as an outlet for emotional expression, so we have a greater range of movie content, from really sad movies (Seven Pounds anyone?) and angry movies (Taken) to adventure and comedy. I have to say, I think I would miss the range of American movies simply because I grew up with a different expectation and experience of cinema. 

Songs constantly playing on the radio while I was in India. One of my colleagues kept singing one song in particular...I think that tune will forever remind me of my experiences in India.

On a slightly different note, Indian soundtracks and music in general was incredibly catchy and I still love listening to it. I'm actually listening to it now as I write this post. I'm curious why American music doesn't have more of the catchiness of these songs, but I'm sure it has to do with the repetitiveness and beats I hear in these songs that for one reason or another isn't as common over here. Maybe a music major could better explain. (If so, I'll write a followup post with his/her additional input). In the meantime, you should definitely take a listen to some of the songs in the video to the right. I think you'll see what I mean ;)



I have to give major credit to Google maps in India. I have no idea how they accurately determine where anything is given the fact that there's no organized street numbers to pinpoint locations. I found myself tied to my phone trying to figure out where anything was. It seemed that with the postal formats for addresses varied as well. Generally, it seemed to follow this style:

Ms. Priya Patel                     (Name)
House number H4                (House number if applicable) 
Godrej Colony                       (Complex Name)
Vikhroli West                         (Area of city)
Mumbai 110011                    (City and post code)

(I should probably clarify this is a fake address.) 

 Check out the address for this sweets shop in Mumbai- They describe it being "next to" something better known. I found that interesting but also incredibly frustrating if I wasn't aware where the 'better known' shop was either.

Check out the address for this sweets shop in Mumbai- They describe it being "next to" something better known. I found that interesting but also incredibly frustrating if I wasn't aware where the 'better known' shop was either.

From what I saw, the houses within a complex often had some sort of identifying name or number, but as far as houses on the road? I don't know how postmen or UPS guys found anyone. I guess if I were to live there, I would probably just have stuff mailed to my office (assuming my workplace and location was better known).


I saw so many beautiful crafted items while I was there, it was overwhelming. I'm not much for ornamentation, but the sheer skill and time required to create the things I saw was beyond anything I could have imagined. From walkways and building facades to textiles and fabrics, I felt so enamored by the beauty I couldn't help but buy a few things to bring home as gifts and support the artists and craftsmen who labored over these items.

My favorite item I brought back was a marble hand carved elephant which had an elephant carved within the parent. Better yet, that smaller elephant also had an elephant carved within itself as well. In total, 3 elephants! I couldn't believe the skill needed (and the patience) to create something this beautiful, so I brought it back to the US and gave it to my significant other. He doesn't live in Chicago though, so I hardly get to see it. I still love seeing it every time I visit him though. I don't have a picture of the elephant itself, but it looked very similar to the one pictured on the right. The ornamentation doesn't just apply to the carved interior of the object either. The artist has taken every space on the animal itself as an opportunity to add more detail. Mine has elephants carved into the head of the elephant itself, along with more detailed textures and patterns on the legs and trunk.


I'll get right on writing part 2 in a bit... I know it will cover more about craft and definitely a segment about food. What else are you interested in hearing about? Let me know in the comments section!