South Asian Cultures - Food, Family, and Healthcare Systems

-Dr. Sudha Raj, Associate Professor, Nutrition Science and Dietetics

A group of seven undergraduate and graduate students along with Dr. Sudha Raj made their maiden cultural immersion trip to India from June 1 through June 12, 2016. The cultural immersion trip focused on a 6-day visit to the capital city of New Delhi with a day of sightseeing to the Taj Mahal in Agra followed by a 6-day visit to Western India, specifically the cities of Ahmedabad, Baroda and Anand. The purpose of offering this course was to help students understand the regional and religious diversity of families in a multilingual, multi-faith Indian society given the wider global, socio-cultural, political and economic forces influencing Indian society. Increasing cultural diversity and globalization have created the need for increased cultural competence and sensitivity in the education of healthcare professionals including dietitians. Becoming culturally competent entails recognizing and respecting differences in worldviews, dietary practices, ideas about healthcare and different methods of healthcare delivery to name a few. While a lot of cultural information can be gleaned from text-books and other media, nuances of culture are best understood by experiencing them. To that end this cultural immersion trip was included as one approach to facilitate students’ cultural competency skill development.

The course format included an online learning segment from May 16 through May 30 followed by the 12 day cultural immersion trip to India. Online didactic content consisted of lectures, readings, documentary films and assignments on topics related to cultural competency skill building, a general overview of South Asian culture and family systems, as well as specific issues related to dietary practices, vegetarianism, traditional and modern healthcare systems in practice in South Asia and pre-departure briefings.

During the trip we visited academic institutions that offer university degrees in Foods and Nutrition, where the SU students interacted with faculty and graduate students, listened to their research presentations and shared their cultural perspectives. Visits to Hindu, Sikh and Islamic religious centers, community food kitchens, an interactive tea demonstration and tasting, senior citizen’s home, a cultural artistic center for classical Indian dance, food bazaars, spice markets and heritage walk in Old Delhi, and homes where we shared meals with the hosts were part of the itinerary. We also visited NGOs that provide opportunities and resources to the poor and vulnerable to help them become contributing members of the societies in which they live. The efforts of organizations such as SEWA (www.sewa.org/), a trade union for em-powering poor women, Goonj (www.goonj.org) which helps collect used items, and repairs and recycles them to be distributed where they will do the most good and Hope Foundation (www.hopefoundation.ie/about-hope/) that focuses on empowering the underprivileged and weaker sections of society by providing vocational training. We also visited the Navdanya organic cafe and learned about the Navdanya movement (www.navdanya.org/about-us) that aims to protect India’s biodiversity based food heritage. Dr Raj with students at the Taj Mahal

We visited Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad, the Lakshmi Vilas Palace and M.S. University in Baroda, a AMUL in Anand (Anand Milk Cooperative Limited, Asia’s largest dairy co-operative), milk collection centers, rural homes, and the Tribhuvandas Foundation (TF). Students were able to see the AMUL model in action; the model focuses on good remuneration to dairy farmers while providing high quality dairy products to consumers at affordable prices without middlemen’s profit. Instead, the savings are directed towards technological advancements and eco-friendly developmental projects in a culturally, ecologically, economically and socially sustainable manner along with generating gainful employment for the most vulnerable sections of India’s rural masses, especially rural women and the landless.

As the instructor for the course, I enjoyed this experiential learning opportunity with my enthusiastic and eager-to-learn students. I believe it was a life changing experience for my students that educated them on Indian culture as well as the importance of considering their clients’ unique cultural, social, and religious backgrounds that guide their dietary choices. 

In addition, the experience fostered understand-ing, open communication and personal reflections through a small group experience. We look for-ward to another South Asian cultural immersion trip in the summer of 2017 to be offered under the able guidance of Professor Kamala Ramadoss.