Top five South Asian stereotypes about the U.S. (and why they’re wrong)

(Photo by Anthony Quintano via Flickr)

Americans are all rich, white and promiscuous. At least that’s what Adnan Ali Syed thought before he came here and found out for himself. 

It’s not easy for a person to live in two entirely different cultures. I can tell you from firsthand experience.

I lived most of my life in Pakistan but recently came to the U.S. (Everett, Wash to be exact) for 11 months to study journalism.

Learning to function in an individualistic culture, like the U.S., after having lived in a collectivistic one like Pakistan for decades, was difficult.

But I was surprised to find out that going back home to Pakistan required even greater patience and strength — not least because of all the confusion amongst my compatriots about the place I’d been living for the last year.

So I resolved to correct the five most common misconceptions about America by South Asians.

1. All Americans are white

South Asians synonymize Americans with angrez or goray, which means English or white. The mental picture of a U.S. citizen their brains draw is a white person. Before I came, I was no exception.

Imagine how irritating it was for me to elucidate to my friends and acquaintances that being American means diversity in culture, values, traditions and in skin tone, while their brains insisted exactly opposite.

A classroom at Everett Community College reflects the diversity to be found amongst Americans. (Photo by Adnan Ali Syed)A classroom at Everett Community College reflects the diversity to be found amongst Americans. (Photo by Adnan Ali Syed)

Upon my return, a number of my friends suspiciously inquired, putting on weird looks on their faces, whether black-eyed and black-haired folks in pictures with me were also Americans?

“Gosh yes!” I told them.

America is a country with multiculturalism touching its pinnacle and with diverse-skinned folks from all over the world have been pouring in as immigrants for decades.

2. Americans usually have more than one boyfriend or girlfriend

“How many girlfriends did you enjoy the company of in the U.S.?”

I got sick of this question within two weeks of coming back home to Pakistan. My friends tortured me to death hurling ceaseless inquires of the sort at me.

They could not believe that being in pictures with female peers did not mean they were my girlfriends.

At times, questions got especially stinging like the one: “Kitni bachian pata kar aya hahi tu?” or “How many girls did you sleep with in the U.S.?”

I mean it’s gross. Who talks like this?

My friends, I’m afraid. And they’re not absolutely at fault. This is how Hollywood movies — the only available information source for a big majority of folks in my country  — portray U.S. society and culture: ultramodern and lacking all religious, social, cultural and moral restrictions.

To be very honest with you folks, for quite some time after my arrival in the Pacific Northwest, seeing girls and boys who were not married or engaged hanging out together was kind of a thorn running in my foot. It challenged deeply-rooted cultural and social norms of my homeland.

Later, I came to understand that people in the U.S. seek to measure their compatibility for love, tolerance and compassion by living as boyfriend and girlfriend before they tie the knot on documents.

But in most cases I was amazed by their level of loyalty to each other during that first phase; they are like husband and wife in their behavior, even if they’re not documented as such.

The author (far left) pictured with American female friends who are not his girlfriend. (Photo courtesy Adnan Ali Syed)The author (far left) pictured with American female friends who are not his girlfriend. (Photo courtesy Adnan Ali Syed)

3. There are no poor people in America

I never thought ‘beggar’ could be an offensive term until I came to the U.S.

Speaking frankly, in South Asia there are many people who are without shelter, without food, without proper cloths to cover bodies, and without means of income who resort to begging. They have no respect in our culture whatsoever.

To my astonishment, I found beggars in the U.S. too.

The difference is that there they do enjoy some sort of reverence, and are referred to as ‘homeless people’ rather than beggars, as the latter term has an offensive nature in itself.

The network of food banks operating in the U.S. deserves a moment of applause.  Happily, I noticed that a food banks makes sure the nutritional needs of those less fortunate are met in a respectful fashion.

Owing to ineptness of the governments in South Asia, no practical rehabilitation or settlement plan exists for homeless folks, and thus those disadvantaged tend to live on begging for money, food, and clothes from affluent sections of community.

4. You won’t find Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi Foods in the U.S.

“Don’t eat everything in the U.S.” “Wo log haram cheezain khatay hain,”  my friends advised, back when the U.S.A. was a mere distant dram for me. “Americans eat unlawful foods all the time.”

I went to the U.S. subconsciously worried how I was going stay fed in a completely foreign cultural setting. South Asians have religious dietary restrictions that vary from region to region. Most Indians, for instance, cannot eat beef owing to religious obligations. Identically, Muslims cannot eat pork or ham for similar causes.

However, I was happy to discover that America is all about food diversity. The U.S. is known for chicken and cheeseburgers, french fries, pizza, mac and cheese, hot dogs, donuts, steaks, and many more options.

South Asians may not be so acquainted with all those foods. But no need to worry. On one hand, the U.S. offers diverse culture, values, traditions, norms, and customs, while on the other hand, it is also known for food diversity.

One can sate their appetite at all kinds of restaurants including Mexican, Italian, American, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Japanese and so on.

Chicken Biryani is one of the most popular foods in the South Asian subcontinent. (Photo by Adnan Ali Syed)Chicken Biryani is one of the most popular foods in the South Asian subcontinent. (Photo by Adnan Ali Syed)

And apart from cooked food, markets catering to Asian, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Pakistani, Mexican and Spanish cuisines offer raw-cooking ingredients for recipes from their respective regions.

5. South Asians go to the U.S. and never come back

Okay, this one is sometimes true, but not always.

Agar tum bhot shareef insan ho to USA say wapas ajao gay, ” argued one of my office colleagues before my visit, “You will come back from USA since you are a gentleman,”

I can count on hundreds examples of people I know in person (including myself) who went back to India and Pakistan from the U.S. in last two years.

There are examples, nonetheless, whereby a few from Pakistan and India chose to abort their flights going home. Those having genuine reasons to prolong their stay in the land of opportunities are not to be judged either. I mean, who does not want a healthy, stable, fearless, tension-free, lucrative, and of course a secure future for their family?

This is what the U.S. offers to all and sundry who step in.

These aforementioned stereotypes, and countless others that combine to form a big tide of culture shock and reverse culture shock for folks visiting U.S. from South Asian countries.

9 Comments

  1. This is the story which reveled the reality about the American and specially for those who thick always negatively when the word America come in their speaking terms..

  2. Adnan, you make me so proud of you. So much of the world take joy in misunderstanding and bashing Americans. What they rarely understand is that to be an American is to have access or direct roots to all other cultures of the world right here in one place. Sure there are bad people or a least questionable behaviors, as there are in every group of people. But Americans cannot be grouped together in one assumption or stereotype. Thank you for speaking the truth. Americans represent the world, we are a gathering of all peoples of every color, culture, social status, and good and evil. Thank you again for your kindness. Not everyone is willing to speak against popular oppinion that Americans are not all rich, promiscuous, selfish and undisciplined. We are generous, caring, diverse, and have many of the same problems as everyone else. Matthew 7:1-5 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then
    you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

  3. Excellent write up :)
    I totally agree with you, our friends or colleague, who haven’t visited especially western society and they reject or have distorted perception. I hope it will clear many of our friends.

  4. I appreciate your efforts and really enjoyed reading your work. But I don’t agree with girl/boyfriend stereotype because what South Asian people think about Americans in this respect is not totally wrong. People from cultures other than Americans have cultural and moral restrictions therefore they avoid making illicit relations with girls but people born in America (Muslims and non-Muslims all) make illegitimate relations with each other.

  5. It was great article, the style language easily. I enjoy to read your article and I like your chicken biryani photo.

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