Cultures: Talking About Diversity
Importance of Family in South Asian Culture
by Fazal Siddiqi
Last year I conducted an online survey to ascertain what is important for South Asians.
I received responses from South Asians living in Canada, Unites States, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The family, relatives and family values came out as the most important and universal considerations for South Asians. An interesting response from a South Asian respondent from Vancouver, Canada is quoted below:
“When I’m in the west, I think more about myself, my freedom; but when I’m in the east, it’s not all about me but also my family and friends around me, and this change happens very unintentionally.”
The above response highlights the fact that our feelings and focus as humans are deeply rooted in our culture, traditions and environment. A person living in the west is mostly concerned about herself; that is, her freedom, her goals and her ambitions. The same person when they live in the east is focused on family and friends. It’s important to note that this shift in focus happens unintentionally.
Human cultures and traditions are formed over a long period of time. In the west, there is a strong judicial system and infra-structure support from government and society. Most people believe that they will be heard and provided with justice and given timely medical assistance, and these necessities are available without help from family and friends.
This belief creates a sense of security in people in western societies that makes it much easier for them to live independently.
In South Asian culture, family support is considered vital in times of need, so people stay together. I believe that family provides the same sort of safety and security to eastern cultures that westerners get from the system itself. Thus, living together and staying in close contact serves the immediate and collective well being of everyone in the family. And when South Asians refer to “family”, it is often not only the immediate family but it includes extended family as well.
Moreover, many social and environment considerations like animal rights, global warming and environmental pollution that are significant and widely ingrained in western societies, are less profound in South Asian countries and culture. For many people in Canada, environmental and social issues take precedence over other considerations because other factors, such as family needs, are met by independent family members themselves and through the support system. Adherence to family gets “diluted” due to involvement in other external challenges that are considered critical for the society and its future well being. These issues are not considered as critical in South Asian countries, because people are chiefly focused on their families. Thus family values and considerations drive major decisions for South Asians, whether it is about career, education or selecting a life partner.
A relative of mine sent a good depiction of cultural difference between East & West. These images by German/Chinese artist Liu Yung (www.yangliudesign.com) candidly compare some cultural differences. The western lifestyle is shown in blue and eastern in red.
Figure 1: Way of Life
In western lifestyle people go about their lives individually. In eastern or South Asian culture, people move together in groups. So if South Asians want to go camping, two or more families will go together. If a woman wants to go shopping, mostly the whole family will go together and the shopping will possibly end with a feast.
Figure 2: In a Party
In western lifestyle generally people mingle in smaller groups in parties and gatherings. In eastern or South Asian culture people interact in larger groups with family and friends – the more the merrier!
As highlighted by the above images, driven by family considerations, South Asians live in communities and habitually move in groups. This is, however, not exclusive to South Asians. It is commonly observed that people of same origin and heritage tend to live in communities, especially if they are new immigrants. The strong family orientation in eastern cultures adds to the cultural diversity in Canada. It brings in the required balance in society, a balance between independence, freedom and family. Moreover, it also helps new immigrants to pass through their initial settling-in phase with mutual financial and motivational support.
I believe that government institutions and business organizations could leverage family orientation, influence and its importance in South Asians to more effectively reach them in large groups with its messages. It is easier to spread an idea in South Asian communities through word-of- mouth, and a tipping point for a message or an idea could be achieved sooner in South Asians groups. This could be used to keep South Asians involved in national issues, challenges and opportunities for mutual benefits.