The last leg of our journey brings us to India, a huge country full of diversity but as we learned despite its massive population, it is smaller in size than America.
Throughout my life, India has been a concept to me. My mom romanticized it by loving the people, food, and films. She talked about it in ways that the colors and auras of the country felt warm and gentle and the spices and flavors tasted exciting. But, the older I got and the more attention I paid to the media, India became this idea of poverty and violence and auras of sweltering heat that slaps you in the face.
During our year prior to this study abroad trip and during this trip, we have been talking about India in ways that prepared us for the worst: food poisoning, heat, honking, and being in male-dominated public spaces. One staff member, whose favorite country is India, even said that “India is an assault on your senses.” These ideas sounded overwhelming and suffocating at times and I was mentally preparing for our last two months in India for the past two years.
While I was preparing for the whole trip in general, it really felt like I was just preparing for India, packing my bag for the weather in India not even taking into consideration the frigid temperatures we would face in Beijing or acknowledging the humidity in Malaysia. While I have only been in India for a week, I will say that I spent more time on the toilet in Penang than in Delhi. I think that says a lot about how I allowed my ideas of India and its food poisoning to cloud the experiences I might have in other countries.
Eventually, as school work got hectic and the days slowly approached, I started to realize that India was slowly becoming a country rather than a concept. We were going to be touching down on physical land rather than some dreamy or daunting idea that floats in my imagination.
Arriving in India, I felt liberated and free. I was finally getting the answers to these huge question marks that took up time the past few months, maybe even years. The honking ended up being white noise that didn’t phase me and the heat wasn’t suffocating (yet). I no longer had to fear this unknown that is constructed by the media that I too contribute to perpetuating by blowing these stories up in my head and even in my friends’ heads.
It felt silly to be generalizing this whole country when India is just a country that has a tremendous amount of diversity within its cities, neighborhoods, and people…and to be fearing a country I hadn’t been to yet. While I think there are a lot of things that Indians and specifically Indian women and low-income families face, we don’t get to hear about the amazing things India has to offer. And, we forget that America is struggling with similar issues as well.
We had a guest speaker talk to us, Dr. Chandra, a professor from a local University. She was inspiring and strong and I couldn’t help but feel empowered by her words. She spoke about the struggles that students in higher education are facing when it comes to stereotyping, reservations in admissions (our version of affirmative action), and talked about the caste system hidden influences.
She said that on her campus, lower-income students, or students that would be considered from the lower caste, rarely feel comfortable speaking up or contributing to class discussions especially when it deals with caste or politics. She made a point that upper-class students have never had to think about class yet their voices dominate the room questioning why there are reserved seats for low-income students. Her stories and experiences sounded familiar and I couldn’t help but think about conversations that occur on our own campus and throughout America.
Our first week in India has been a journey beginning with street food for lunch, a lecture through the Lodhi Gardens, a history filled day at Qutb Minar, and a wet and colorful Holi celebration meeting new people and running from 7-year-old water balloon throwing professionals.
I am surprised by dozens of green space everywhere I’ve gone and the fast traffic that seems like you can’t cross but somehow you manage to run across, even as a group of 25! I am energized by the chaos in Old Delhi and invited and comforted by the small shops throughout Delhi that have millions of things I need, especially cute patterned pants. Delhi, and India seem as though it will be a page turner, unable to put the book down whether excited or uneasy about what the day has to offer.