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The Cultural Virus

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Look around you. Notice the clothes you’re wearing, the food you’re eating, the device you’re reading this on. Take a look into your brain. What language do you think in? What religious beliefs do you hold? What judgments do you make? Then, think about this: where have all these things come from? The thing is, you weren’t born with them. You've acquired them through the course of your life, slowly absorbing various parts of the world until you can’t differentiate between these elements anymore.

The things that you own were probably invented in some foreign country, the language you speak has morphed and shifted through time, and even the house you live in probably has signs of a multitude of cultures. All of these diverse aspects of your mundane life is a result of a process called “cultural diffusion”, which is exactly what it sounds like- the spreading out and merging of different cultures.

Imagine this. You’re cold as hell in the Swiss Alps, shivering, and your stomach is making concerning noises. The only restaurant in sight is some fancy place with half a menu of words you can’t pronounce, and the price for a single meal is the cost of your entire trip. Restricted to a budget, you decide that the next best thing to do is to find a petrol station and grab a couple of packets of chips. You drive and drive and drive, and somewhere on the horizon, neon lights proudly flicker in shades of blue, yellow and orange. Your saviour is a Burger King.

That’s right, folks. When I had gone on vacation to Switzerland, we survived on Burger Kings and this one Indian restaurant close enough to our Airbnb from where we ordered almost every night, to the point where the Punjabi guy manning the phone had our order memorised. At the moment, I might not have realised it, but the only reason that we could find any Burger Kings or Punjabi guys in Indian restaurants in the middle of Switzerland was due to cultural diffusion.

If you’re from India, you know about the Peri Peri fries the Indian McDonald’s is famous for (I will never stop eating them no matter how much I cry while doing so). McDonald’s only exists in India (or anywhere apart from the US) due to cultural diffusion, and I cannot stress how many times a random McD’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere has saved my life. Now, living in Dubai, every petrol station has one, every food court has one. After school, if I just need a bit of time to get out of my own head or relax, I can grab my friends, cross the road, and buy myself a cold softie or some warm fries. Anytime in the middle of the night I need a snack to keep myself motivated to study, it’s there. The best part is, it doesn’t even dent your wallet.

This has become an I love McDonald’s rant and I thoroughly apologise. My point here is that so many of the things we take for granted are just a result of cultural diffusion. It’s something that brings together humanity, because even in the darkest of times, those lit up double arcs will keep you full.

The hungry food obsessed human being(ish) creature who wrote this was me (Dimira :)). I’ve never had any bad experiences as such with cultural diffusion, as we travel a lot when we get the chance, and it’s comforting to know that wherever you are in the world, there’s a piece of home right there with you! Now I shall pass the mic (laptop? typewriter? keyboard?) to Aarushi, sharing her own personal experiences with cultural diffusion.

We all need language to survive. As a kid living in post-colonial India, I speak English better than any other language. Not only do I speak a sad amount of Tamil– my mother tongue– I also can't read or write it. In theory, there truly isn’t anything stopping me from learning the language, but I never did. Furthermore, there's no one forcing me to learn or belittling me for not knowing it. So why do I feel this guilty?

This defect on my part is something that I feel insanely insecure about and every time I’ve tried to learn Tamil, I end up discouraged and embarrassed. There’s even a cycle to this process: I go to a family gathering, stumble through words that I mugged up last night, make hasty, foreign-sounding introductions and then choke up every time someone mentions my horrible accent.

I leave feeling secretly ashamed and disappointed in my own inability. I go home, cry in the bathroom for five minutes and then promise myself that “starting from tomorrow I will learn Tamil no matter how goddamn long it takes”. And I'd try. I promise you, I’d try my very best for a week, maybe two: I take down notes, watch videos, learn tips, I go the whole nine yard. But then, it stops. I stop prioritising it because every time I try to speak, or write I can’t help thinking- what’s the point? The words “it’s too late” echo in my head and crushes any motivation I’ve ever had to master the tongue.

I’ve realised that speaking English has deprived me of the confidence to speak any other language in a respectable manner. The importance Indian society gives to knowing English, going to an English-medium school, and being less Indian has given me a world of heartache. English is considered a superior language, that somehow, despite there being more than a hundred different languages in a single country, the word itself has become synonymous with literacy. As someone who is privileged in that sense, I feel pitiful and inferior not knowing my own language. As though I have betrayed a part of myself and the generations of people before me who have fought to keep their language alive.

These feelings aren’t unique to me, but they affect billions of people who are living through the effects of cultural diffusion and the unfortunate repercussions it has.

As with most things in the world, cultural diffusion isn’t all good or all bad. It depends on how you perceive it. Everyone has a different story to tell and a different way of saying it. Some might like ice cream, some might like cakes, and some abnormal creatures may not like chocolate. The point is, cultural diffusion isn’t as black and white as day and night. It’s a phenomenon that’s been a long time coming, and is proof of humanity’s evolution over millions of years. Think about it- what would your life be like without cultural diffusion?

~ Aarushi and Dimira

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