The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Mohsin Hamid
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In what way does this novel show us that the way in which people view the world is shaped by their cultural heritage? 

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One excellent example of a person's worldview being shaped by their cultural heritage is the way Changez Khan reacts to Chuck and Mike in Greece.

When Changez arrives in Greece, he falls in love with Erica. However, two men there are impediments to his pursuit of her. Chuck and Mike take up a lot of her time and distract her from spending more time with Changez as Erica recovers from her fiance's death. Changez dislikes them for this and focuses on their shortcomings, which are mainly created through his own cultural heritage.

For example, he thinks they're disrespectful to older people. In his culture, it's important and required to respect your elders. In America, it's less a part of the cultural heritage. Families aren't as close in a cultural sense. People don't usually spend as much time around their grandparents as they do in cultures where the family lives near—or with—each other. It's easy for Changez to see this as a flaw in the men when at least part of their behavior is a result of their cultural heritage. At the same time, the lens through which Changez views their behavior is created by his own background.

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Even before the attacks on September 11, Changez had grown uncomfortable with the amount of privilege he enjoyed in his job at Underwood Sampson. He says, at one point, that he could go out at night and buy drinks for his coworkers on his company credit card, spending more in that one night than his father makes in a week at home in Pakistan. And, it would simply be chalked up to new-hire retention or colleague bonding; no one would bat an eye at this kind of spending. While his peers do not seem phased or surprised by this privilege, Changez's cultural heritage has certainly shaped his sense of what is typical spending and what is unnecessary spending. He was likewise surprised by the spending of his peers on his trip to Greece, as well as the way these peers treated Greeks who were two and three times their age. His sense of respect and his manners, and his culture's belief that one ought to respect one's elders, impacts his view of his peers in school and at his job.

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I think that the way in which the novel shows how individuals are shaped by their cultural heritage can be seen through Changez.  At the outset of the novel, Changez is an individual who is able to transcend culture.  He comes to America, does what he can to shed his own cultural identity and immerse himself in the culture that will be responsible for him accomplishing his own vision of the American Dream.  Culture is avoided and is something that he shows himself skilled at being able to transcend.  Even when people say things or insinuate items that are culturally offensive, he seeks to put them off to the side and not let them interfere with his pursuit that is largely devoid of cultural reality.

The attacks of September 11 demonstrate so compelling and so horrifically powerful that Changez is no longer able to avoid defining himself in cultural terms.  Changez might suggest that  it is in times of extreme crisis where cultural refuge is taken in the hopes of providing some structure in a setting that is devoid of it.  In his mind, America reverted to a culture of nostalgia in targeting nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Changez felt that America's "nostalgia" is what enabled it to view the world being shaped through its own cultural notion of identity.  Changez experiences this in reverting to his own cultural identity as he perceives America reverting to its own.  In this, Hamid makes clear that the war on terror has constructed binary cultural oppositions that enable individuals to retreat to it as opposed to embracing the more difficult path of trying to understand "the other."  In the response of both sides that follow the attacks of September 11, there is a clear embrace of how cultural identity enables individuals to perceive the world and their place in it.

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