Culture: the word most associated with the study abroad experience (culture shock, culturally appropriate, etc.). The concept has been beaten to death so much that I didn’t think I could possibly learn more about it, especially as an anthropology major. My first confrontation with culture shock in the immigration line at the Delhi international airport suggests otherwise. I forgot to sign the bottom of my entry slip that I already filled out on the plane. I asked the officer at the desk for a pen, and before handing it to me, he said “It’s not my job to provide you with a pen. You should carry your own.” In the moment, I felt he was scolding me in a way that made me feel incompetent. The thing is I had a pen somewhere at the bottom of my backpack, but he had one right on his desk so it all seemed unnecessary. I decided to just forget that bad introduction to India. Interestingly enough, a couple of days later I remembered our interaction and laughed and here’s why: During orientation, an American woman who’s been living in India for 15 years spoke to my group about the “c” word (culture). She talked about a spectrum of being ethnocentric to ethno-inclusive. Although ethnocentrism is often simply perceived as a declaration that your own beliefs, values, and culture is superior to another’s, I now understand that it is much more than that. It is easy to say that I am not ethnocentric, but when I was upset at the bad customer service in the airport, I was being ethnocentric. I was judging India with American norms of customer service as the gold standard, although it’s not; it’s all relative. Instead, I can note differences I encounter and take them for what they are, nothing more.
Needless to say, it has been an overwhelming first week. I’ve been to so many places, met all new people, spent too much time in the inescapable heat, plus jetlag from being 10.5 hours ahead of my home time zone. I’m learning that more than anything, I’m feeling mental exhaustion. Living in a city of 27 million people, where the culture is different from my own, my mind is constantly stimulated by my new environment. Just walking around requires mental energy. When I’m at home in my comfort zone, I don’t have to pay attention to my surroundings consciously, but here, my mind is always alert.