Imagine Culture Complexly

Although this project is called uncultured (a description of myself), culture matters a lot to me. This is because I seem to have to two feet in two very different cultures. There is the one I was born & raised (“The West”) and the one where my parents came from in Bangladesh (“The East”).

This duality has made me realize that people with both feet in a single culture often fail to grasp the other. To paraphrase my friend John Green, we fail to “imagine complexly” the cultures we were not raised in. And, when we fail to imagine complexly, we fail to see the real story.

The reason why I’m talking about this now is because I recently read a blog post by Adrienne Villani – a New Yorker living in Mumbai. She recently wrote about the difference between social entrepreneurship in “The West” vs. “The East”. I’m going to quote the article below:

The truth of the matter is that entrepreneurship is hard. It’s really hard. Venturing out on your own. No steady stream of income. No way to know that your idea will be the one that works, not the one that fails. No stability. No demarcation between life and work. People constantly questioning your progress. You get the picture. It’s hard.

Despite this, entrepreneurship, and particularly social entrepreneurship, are in vogue. They are cool. Everyone wants a piece of the action. What is cooler than chasing your dreams and having a social impact? No one is ever going to accuse you of selling out to the machine, of being a slave to the man. Instead, you are going to sit with your MacBook, in your Ray-Bans and Birkenstocks, eating organic dried fruit, and bring affordable drip irrigation to 5 million indian farmers in the next three years. Yep, that is what you are going to accomplish. No sweat.

Yet it is increasingly becoming clear to me that this is the western conception of entrepreneurship, the view in the hallways of western universities and western corporations. Romanticized. The holy grail of individuality, of being your own person, of choosing your own path. And this is where the stories are coming from.

In the east (yes, India is the east!), there is no such romantic vision of entrepreneurship. No one coming out of business school wants to chance this life of instability. Instead, they want to join the most lucrative graduate scheme – Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, ICICI Bank. Their families will be happy because they will be professionals, something to brag about back home. No way does any Indian mother want to say “My son’s an entrepreneur.” She wants to say “My son’s a banker/doctor/lawyer/engineer.” She wants a son who she can marry off. This is the reality.

So, are we even having the same conversation? Do we need to be having two conversations? Is one somehow applicable to the other? Or not? Maybe we need to begin the dialogue anew, starting from the different cultural conceptions of entrepreneurship. And only then can we chart the way forward.

Click the jump to read my thoughts on Adrienne’s critique of Western social entrepreneurship.

First, let’s call a spade a spade. I don’t own any Ray-Bans & I had to look up what Birkenstocks were after reading her article, but it’s pretty clear what her feelings are to people like me: people who take a risk, grab their MacBook, and run off to see what they can do to make a difference.

According to Adrienne, this is but a romanticized concept of what social entrepreneurship really is – it’s just something made up in the ivory towers of academia and hallways of corporate America. As someone with a foot in “The West”, I kinda agree with her.

But as someone also with my foot in “The East”, I can tell you that Adrienne couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it’s actually Adrienne that is romanticizing what she sees in “The East” through her oversimplified conception of one of my cultures.

I grew up in a South Asian Household. Which meant I really had only three career choices to make my family happy – I could be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. As a kid when I said I wanted to be a garbage man (no joke) because “someone had to do it” I was well on my path to disapproval.

I definitely didn’t like the pressure I was getting from extended family and family friends to become a professional, find that corporate job, and get that wife. But, having gone back to my parent’s home country, I can understand – and even appreciate – why that pressure exists.

For countries in “The East”, like Bangladesh, the middle class is fragile. Not only is it extremely cost prohibitive to attain higher education – but a higher education degree by no means guarantees that you will be end up in a job that will give you the resources to raise a family and let them have a better future.

Because, of the fragility of the South Asian middle class, there is an intense pressure to do everything perfectly: get the best grades in school, get the best diploma from the best university, and get the best job at the best corporation. Because, competition is fierce and success is far from guaranteed.

Contrast this with the options college graduates have here in “The West”. Having lived on a graduate student stipend (which added up to essentially less than minimum wage), I know it’s possible to have access to clean water, electricity, and roof over your head even on a low income.

I also know that with a college degree, and barring an even bigger economic meltdown, I will be able to find a minimum wage job for the rest of my life. It won’t be glamorous, but I will have access to clean drinkable tap water, electricity, and a roof over my head.

That’s more than most Bangladeshis can say.

The problem isn’t that social entrepreneurship in “The East” is different from “The West”, it’s that the fragility of the middle class means that there is an overwhelming impetus to secure the basic minimum required for human survival. Think if of it like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

When you are in a country where the vast majority of the population don’t have access to even the “physiological needs” (food & water), there will be an overwhelming impetus to focus on acquiring and securing those basic needs. This is compounded if socio-economic stratas are far less stable than in “The West”.

That’s why my parents (middle class Bangladeshis) and so many middle class South Asian Families pressure their kids to get the best grades, go to the best university, and get the best corporate job. They maybe in North America, in a new environment, but the cultural momentum still exists.

You’ll notice that I keep saying middle class. This is actually my second major point about Adrienne’s blog post. She fails to see the diversity in South Asian culture. Yes, there is pressure to become a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. Yes, there is pressure to get a corp job and then get married.

But have you seen how the rich kids live?

You’ll find that the kids of the super rich – the elites if you will – are no different than the majority of college age people here in “The West”. They may have an extra air of entitlement and they may be extra oblivious to the glaring poverty in their own country – but they have a more “Western” conception of social entrepreneurship.

In this blog, I’ve often talked about some of my aunts and uncles who have since become part of the super rich elite of Bangladesh. I have a few cousins born to these super rich elites and one of them was actually allowed to skip college. Instead, he decided to travel the world. Afterward, he decided to go into the risky business of opening a sweet shop in Dhaka.

The fact is, he had this leeway to do this because he knew his father’s (my uncle’s) wealth was so expansive (and his connections so extensive – yes, nepotism counts in “The East”!) that he could do anything and would still end up with access to a roof over his head, electricity, and access to clean drinking water (with success and a life of luxury far better than any American living on minimum wage).

I don’t mention this to portray my cousin as a spoiled brat. What I’m saying is that, whether you are in “The West” or in “The East”, when you have enough economic certainty and when the fear of losing the basic access to survival is diminished, you have people who strive to become self-actualized. Whether it’s seeing the world, taking risks, and doing something that will outlast you.

It’s not about the conceptions of social entrepreneurship in “The East” vs “The West” – everyone wants to pursue their dreams. It’s just that not everyone is born into a set of circumstances or conditions in which they can. By failing to imagine a different culture complexly, Adrienne ended up failing to see the common thread of humanity that makes us all more alike than we are different.

That’s why we need to imagine complexly.

6 Responses to “Imagine Culture Complexly”

  1. 1 Zak

    Very good article and a nice read. Can’t believe I read the whole thing 🙂

  2. 2 Zak

    Very good article and a nice read. Can’t believe I read the whole thing 🙂

  3. 3 Shawn

    I’m glad someone did at least – thanks Zak 🙂

  4. 4 Shawn

    I’m glad someone did at least – thanks Zak 🙂

  5. 5 Sunny

    A point very well made. As a fellow SE I agree entirely.

  6. 6 Sunny

    A point very well made. As a fellow SE I agree entirely.

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