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Chennai and Globalization

"The Psychology of Globalization" by Jeffrey Arnett is quick to highlight the growing role youth have in the development of cross-cultural communication and world development. In Bangalore, we attended a lecture on the nature of technology and communications on the role of positive psychology. While the lecture itself was hard to understand, the conversations I witnessed afterward were especially poignant and relevant to this movement toward youth-oriented understanding of global culture. One of the young male students was heavily debating with the esteemed speaker - something that, at least to my impression, would not normally happen unless the student had really passionate feelings about the subject. Their topic of conversation fixated around the evolving nature of language and how globalized technology was shifting how people literally communicate - that English and other languages were morphing in and out of one another and commingling in a new formatting that resides solely in the world of online communication. The lecturer argued that such changes were detrimental for the progression of society, but the student was quick to counter the argument with examples from how previous language evolvement actually expanded global communications and thus societal development. The student's arguments regarding the value of an inter-global language is a valuable example of this youth-oriented push toward progression.

Tradition meets progress in Bangalore.

Still, while the lecturer’s points were a bit dated, his fears reflect a larger dichotomy that I was able to witness between adult and youth thinkers throughout my time in India. The divide between social modes of thinking along age lines was most readily noticeable in Chennai. The whole city is under development - driving down the streets produced a much larger range of construction projects and “coming soon!” posters. The students at MCC are quick to embrace their cell phones and Facebook and can discuss topics like smoking and drinking and adolescent sexuality. What Arnett classifies as “the spread of emerging adulthood” (780) will push these students to use their expanding time to explore the world: “Where a period of emerging adulthood is present,” Arnett says, “young people have a longer period for identity explorations in love and work before they commit themselves to long-term choices.” As economic conditions continue to grow in Chennai and as these students find themselves more engrossed in a lengthier period of late adolescence, they will have more time to explore conflicting expectations, which will continue to cyclically shift Chennai in a new direction.

And yet - the whole city reeks of tradition. Women still readily wrap their hair in jasmine, and sarees ( not kurtas and leggings) are the norm for all age groups. Shopping malls and side streets stress the barter system more than their counterparts in other parts of the country and individual-to-individual interaction feels more collectivist than individual. Perhaps part of this permeating feeling had to do with the sites we visited in Chennai, but I think that even our more neutral visits (such as our visit to Marina Beach) highlighted the backlash of tradition in a more open way than in any of the cities we encountered on our journey.

Women in full traditional dress at Chennai's Marina Beach

As this youth population continues to grow, as more and more of them are exposed to education and global media (as Arnett predicts they will be), and as they become the governing body of the city, the youth generation of India will rise to change to Chennai, more and more quickly than they already are. The city as a whole is just behind its larger contemporaries in terms of this urbanization, but it will not be long before the whole community feels radically different, and I imagine a slow city shift to becoming more and more of a hub for professionals (and thus a more Westernized market) as educational centers in the city continue to grow.

Where I see this progression especially feeling the most dynamic is in the role the caste system seems to play in the day-to-day life of the people of Chennai. Chennai still feels quite segregated. There is a wealthier upper class in the city, but it is pushed into a different corner than the majority of the population (an impression that was never replicated in either of the other major cities I visited, which seem more genuinely integrated). The lower caste is visibly present on the streets sweeping rubbish and collecting excrement. Though the students at Madras Christian College seemed less concerned with caste (many of themselves and their peers came from a variety of backgrounds, an effect of a minority quota system the school employed), the emphasis put on the subject by Dr. Miriam and Dr. Prince in their respective lectures highlighted the prevalence of the problem as far as their own experiences in Chennai had taught them.

A woman prepares lunch on Chennai's streets.

Near the end of my site visit in Chennai, I had a fascinating discussion with one of the professors about how he deals with being a Christian in a community like India where Hinduism is obviously prevalent. Our talk led us to discuss how, in his opinion, Hindu thinking of the past few hundred years is actually responsible for the increased racial tensions that have arisen across the globe, and that Vedic reasoning was ultimately responsible for the holocaust and US slavery - perhaps a far-fetched idea, but, nevertheless an interesting example of how even in India the caste system is slowly being shunned and criticized by Indians who question the validity of the system in the original Hindu tradition. I told him about my St. Olaf professor Professor Rambachan's new project about crafting a Hindu theology that is based in the Vedas but actually defies the caste, and he was interested to hear more about it. The conversation encouraged me to believe that even he, a member of an older generation who had obviously grown up in a heavy caste system was ready for a change and was excited by the prospects modern thinkers throughout the world - even so far away as Minnesota - could bring to the subject area.

As educational memorandums and quota systems continue to push students from a variety of classes and castes together, and as global communications and intersecting languages continue to push students from all walks of life together, the youth movement that Arnett so heavily relies on in his psychological analysis of globalization will push places like Chennai to embrace a changing infrastructure and ideology.

The students of the MCC Social Work program in Chennai pose with us in the "spider man" pose, another wonderful example of how globlization affects the lives of India's youth.

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