Many of us who have grown up in the Western world are shocked to see how liberal society has evolved when we go back to visit South Asia. This evolution puzzles and confuses us. Naturally, we wonder why have we grown up with conservative Eastern values in the Western world. Why have our parents and Western Tamil society nurtured certain conservative cultural values in us, when it seems to be of little importance currently in South Asia? This is due to a phenomenon called “frozen values”.
Most of the Eastern values I carry are the ones I absorbed before leaving Sri Lanka. Since then, I have absorbed very few Eastern values in the Western world. If you weren’t born in South Asia or didn’t grow up there, then most of the Eastern values you absorbed were from your family and friends in the Western world. And regardless of how you absorbed these Eastern values, most of these values are “frozen” in time. They are frozen because these Eastern cultural values were captured at the point in time when you or your family left South Asia.
The reality is that some of these Eastern cultural values have changed and evolved over time from their places of origin, and will continue to do so. Certain Eastern values that we learned as kids or teenagers or the values taught to us by our parents (which they absorbed before leaving South Asia) have now either changed, or are non-existent. But as South Asians living in the West, we continue to hold onto some of these frozen values and carry them among ourselves. At some point, we need to re-examine our thinking.
Let’s separate values into two categories: “core” cultural values and “soft” cultural values. Core values are the values quoted in the Ten Commandments of the Bible, in the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, and many other religious texts. These values teach us about honesty, self-integrity, respect for elders, fear of God, and so on. No matter which part of the world you are from, we have been taught and have absorbed these values. These core values do not change over time whereas “soft” cultural values evolve and change over time.
So what are these “soft” cultural values that we carry and have become “frozen” or will become frozen in the future? The most common one that I can think of and the one I see myself and others around me struggle with is pre-marital relationships (or dating as we know it in the Western world).
Pre-marital relationships are still scrutinized by our Western Tamil society, even though it has become common and acceptable in the South Asian subcontinent. A woman of Tamil origin living in the Western world is constrained and afraid of the consequences of a failed relationship with a man. If it were become to known in our society that she had “dated” multiple men, would she be of the right status when it comes to marriage? A man of Tamil origin living in the Western world who wants to meet his (Tamil origin) wife through the dating process is torn by the constraints placed on the women.
Another “soft” cultural value would be the question of feminine values. What is the proper behaviour and lifestyle of a single or married woman in our society? In the Western world, educated and successful South Asian origin women struggle to mold themselves into a “cultural” female role as defined by our elders. For example, if a South Asian woman in the West drinks, lives alone, parties or actively dates she is considered to be abandoning her cultural values. This is sad but true. Yet some of these "cultural" feminine values are not as highly upheld in today’s South Asia.
Each one of us can come up with several other “soft” cultural values which are frozen or will become frozen in the future compared to the evolving South Asian society. The importance here is to recognize our core cultural values and preserve them from generation to generation.
On the other hand, we do have to recognize that some customs and values do evolve over time and some become unimportant. It is our responsibility to question these and evolve with them over time. If not, we will fall behind in cultural evolution and will be left holding on to antiquated values.