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Worldly Wise

Exotic South Asia Is a Land of Contradictions

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

1477297787_15011Probably no other part of the world is more exotic than South Asia. India is a culture unto itself, but the region also includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Each of these countries has its own unique culture, so stunning geography primarily pulls them together. Incredible wealth and incredible poverty exist side by side in the region.

This cluster of countries changes depending upon who defines it. The United Nations, for example, includes Iran in its data for statistical purposes. The University of Cambridge, along with other groups, also includes Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. This confusing definition of what comprises South Asia has made it difficult for researchers to identify the defining features of the region. For this reason, we will stay focused on the narrow definition of the eight nations listed in the opening paragraph.

India is a part of the world packed with people; 25% of the world’s population lives here, but it produces only about 3% of global economic output. Bangladesh, with close to 170 million people, is one of the poorest nations in the world. Because of its unfortunate geographical location, constant flooding, and severe storms—it shows little hope of emerging out of poverty.

Some of the world’s most populous cities (outside of China) are located in South Asia, including three Indian cities: Delhi, with 25 million inhabitants; Mumbai, at 18 million; and Kolkata, highly overcrowded with 15 million. Karachi, Pakistan, has an estimated 22 million inhabitants, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, weighs in with 16 million, the most densely populated of any city in the region. India dominates the strong economic numbers of the region and looks to continue on a growth curve if it can solve its environmental issues, particularly those dealing with a lack of water. In a bow to India’s dominance in the region, South Asia is interchangeably referred to as the Indian Subcontinent.

Traceable histories go back more than 5,000 years in India. Evidence of human life goes back as far as 75,000 years. While India has retained its strong Hindu culture, the British East India Company of the British Empire has had perhaps the most significant impact on modern India and Pakistan, which was part of India during British rule. Today, India is primarily Hindu, while Afghanistan and Pakistan are Islamic.

Numerous languages are spoken in the region. Hindi is the most common, with almost half a billion speakers. Of course, Indians are also widely educated in English; they rank second on the list of the number of people using English as their first language. Bangladesh uses English as its de facto official language. Pakistan uses English as its second-most-spoken language; it is the official language and is used in all government functions. It is safe to say, you can get around with English in South Asia, though you will have to adjust to some challenging accents.

Because of the great diversity, both culturally and religiously, this region has shied away from setting up government rules that force people to behave a particular way. There are always exceptions, of course. Parts of India are still remarkably conservative, but in most of the metropolitan areas of these countries foreigners are accepted without demands that they behave a certain way.

While all of these cultures are comfortable with strong leaders, they also value individualism. Some of this may be caused by the strong influence of the West. There is also an awareness that, while they have massive human power in terms of numbers, they have a long way to go to catch up economically with the rest of the world. Because of their long histories, they are in many ways trapped by the strength of their cultures. When talking with my younger Indian friends, for example, they all say they will follow their parents’ demands for arranged marriages, but they intend to allow their children to make their own choices. All the while, they acknowledge that their parents said the same thing when they were young. These patterns die slowly.

If you visit South Asia, or meet people from this region, spend some time reading about their country’s history. Be prepared to ask questions. They will know their history and will be honored if you can ask intelligent questions. I have personally found the Indians to be a remarkably spiritual group of people, and almost every business conversation I have had ultimately ends up being about universal principles—not religious beliefs, but ethical or spiritual principles.

With regard to food, many people from this region are vegetarians, particularly if they are Hindu. Most Muslims avoid pork and alcohol. Follow their lead and you will be just fine. Observe body language and delight in the differences. Indians from South India use a head bob from side to side to indicate agreement or excitement. It looks like disagreement to Western eyes. The first time I saw this, I was delivering a speech to an Indian audience and, while aware of the head movement and what it meant, it still registered as disagreement to me. It took some doing on my part to not oversell my point because I thought my message was not getting through.

Because of their willingness to form deep relationships, people from this part of the world are a delight to work with. They truly become friends who will stay with you for a lifetime. A colleague of mine just spent six weeks in Pakistan working with a United Nations agency and returned to the United States completely in love with the people she worked with, every stereotype she held shattered. Once you learn to trust each other, you can count on them. Their strong people orientation means you can develop business relationships that will grow as the economies of the region develop.