Learning about Tamil women in Chennai, India: a journey of discovery of self and other

Year: 2013

Author: Goward, Penelope

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In an increasingly globalising world, it is now more than ever important for people to learn to live, and work with other people who do not necessarily share the same cultural or historical backgrounds. This study on one level is an account of my efforts to get to know and understand ‘the other'. At the same time the study shows that this process of encountering is transformative for the individual and it involves a complex process of getting to know oneself.The study is based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, where I entered the Tamil community. The Tamils come from an ancient lineage, dating back thousands of years. The English language is a recent arrival to their culture, and like all introductions of new or additional languages or cultural practices into a society there are mixed consequences. To illustrate, the English language carries with it globalizing forces and ideologies that present western practices and values as the norm through television, internet technologies, marketing of products and films. It also means that western globalized companies looking for a cheap labour force will establish industries in countries where people can speak English; in this case, in Tamil Nadu, India. Thus, because many Tamil women have learned English and have university degrees, they are now seen as employable and an increasingly valuable ‘commodity' in colonising ventures. This has brought about changes to their role in society. This paper will briefly discuss the changing role of women and the impact on the Tamil society from the findings of my data collection; however the focus is on the journey of self-discovery.My study is ethnographic and uses a narrative-reflexive research approach. Narrative was used because epistemologically the Tamil community places a premium on family relationships with oral storytelling central to its culture. Fundamental to my journey of discovery was the requirement to involve myself in conversation with my participants and to hear their stories. I was fortunate enough to be able to live with a Tamil family, which meant that because I was part of an extended family I could easily meet and speak with a range of people in their homes. These conversations became a central part of my data, such that researcher and participants were able to develop shared understandings and knowledge together. The paper has important implications for the Tamil peoples and other ancient communities whose lives are being impacted by globalisation, and for we westerners seeking to understand the ‘other'.