When I told people in the states I was going to India for the summer, I got a host of responses. Some smiled with excitement, telling me how much I would enjoy such a “whole new world.” Others cringed at the thought of traveling to a distant and unknown place shaped by stereotypes and negative media coverage. A majority responded with subtle hesitation, cautioning me about the risks of traveling to such a “dangerous” place, especially as a female.
It’s understandable. India is a mysterious place, especially to those who have never traveled its paths. It is filled with insecurity, peril, and immense poverty. It is polluted with chemicals, disease, and corruption. Yet beyond the issues that fuel global news channels and foreign aid pamphlets lies a country with exquisite beauty — a country filled with diverse landscapes, exotic flavors and peaceful people. A country rich in culture, molded by a mixed history and a strong social life. A country whose splendor is often overshadowed by the challenges of development.
Being in India has not been easy. It is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I have had to re-learn many of life’s most basic tasks — how to travel from point A to point B without getting hit by a moving vehicle, how to nourish myself without getting food poisoning, and how to wash my body with simply a bucket and faucet. However, through unpaved roads (that resemble more of an Indiana Jones roller coaster ride than a system of transportation), spices that burn my nostrils, and the lack of toilet-paper in bathrooms, I have learned a few things.
First, it is particularly easy to dislike something if you don’t understand it. To be honest, I was not so keen about traveling to India; I found every excuse not to go. My mind was riddled with horrifying stories of gang rape, destitution, and corruption. I assumed all women were unhappy and that India’s tradition of arranging marriages was a violation of human rights. I thought the country’s origins stemmed from one history and one race. I considered all Indians to be rigid and studious.
While there is some truth in the stories I heard, many of my preconceived notions were false. To begin with, not all women in arranged marriages are unhappy. In fact, many are completely satisfied with their lives, believing the practice to be a very efficient and productive way of marriage. My host sister happily stated that she had no inkling of nervousness for her arranged marriage because “it’s a normal part of life”. She even exuded skepticism when I told her we had no such thing in America. In addition, not everyone in India is Hindu — the country is filled with an abundance of cultures and religions including Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. During ancient periods, conquerors, missionaries and businessmen came to India from various parts of the world – Britain, Turkey, and Rome – creating a unique blend of beliefs, values, and traditions. Lastly, not all Indians are strict and rigorously academic. While Indians do work hard for their money, a majority are quite laid back, living a slower-paced life on “Indian time”. This typically entails more lenient schedules, except for the routine afternoon chai, of course. Nonetheless, the more I learned about India and its people, the more I uncovered and appreciated its beauty.
Second, different does not mean better or worse. In India, many things are different from American life — women cover up 95 percent of their bodies, drivers constantly honk for prolonged periods of time, and privacy is a foreign word. When a place is different from what you are used to, it’s easy to perceive it as being worse. It’s easy to think what you know is what is right and what is good. But in fact, a lot of great things come from the unknown. In India, I have found that spicy food can be delectable, that a city with no street lights and stop signs can operate with minimal accidents, and that great joy can be found in community, even amidst the most impoverished villages. While every society and culture has its own practices, traditions and beliefs, there is no one way of living that is ultimately superior.
Third, there is beauty in the unknown; finding it requires an open heart and open mind. Since being in India, I have had to forgo preconceived notions and expectations. Living in a society where the government thrives on bureaucracy and bribery, where timeliness and order are low priorities, and where the only rule is no rules, I have learned (or better yet, have been forced to learn) that adjusting to a new and vastly different place is a process that demands acceptance and patience. Through interacting with new people and adopting new norms, I have had to put my frustration on the back burner; I have learned to speak less and listen more. While seeing beyond the negativity has been challenging, it has enabled me to look for the good — the transformative work of NGOs like IPHD, the refreshing “Indian hospitality,” and the deep-rooted culture that bears strong family ties.
India is a country of chaos and tranquility, history and modernity. It is majestic and vibrant, yet scary and wildly unpredictable. Undoubtedly, India has taught me more about life and humanity than most other experiences in my life. It has forced me out of my comfort zone and into a new realm of adventure where compromise and compassion are key. If someone asked me to depict my entire experience in India, I could not do the country justice. In this entry, I have attempted to provide a peak into my experience, but truth be told, India is a place that simply cannot be captured by a few words, phrases or minutes. It is a place unique to itself that must be seen with your own eyes and experienced with your own nose, ears, and mouth.