It has been exactly one week since I have returned back home to Tampa, Florida. I hope these blog posts have reached wherever you are in the world and have spoken some kind of depth to you. If you had absolutely no care in the world about traditional medicine, but read my posts just because you wanted to see what in the heck I was up to, that’s okay too! It means the world that you have kept up with my shenanigans, whatever your reason may be! As a way to wrap up my Summer 2022 adventure, I thought I would list out my main takeaways from my 6 weeks in India and from adjusting back to reality the past week. Enjoy!
1. In India, FAMILY IS EVERYTHING
I kind of anticipated this to be the case since I am familiar with the typical collectivist culture in Eastern countries (i.e., the Philippines); however, I really got to see this on a whole other level when I stayed in a homestay in Nainital. I talked about this in depth on my homestay blog (go check it out!!), but it is an Indian custom to live with the husband’s parents or live in a house neighboring them. You rarely hear about foster families or a child being without some kind of family present in his or her life. As I am well aware of coming from a Filipino family, blood in Asian cultures runs large and deep. Azim Ji joked with me that there is a good chance that a random Joe (or Ishaan in India terms) you meet on the street will be related to you in some sense. The family dynamic in India is something that you just need to witness firsthand to understand. Family is an unbreakable bond and something that is so prominent in the India culture.
2. Even if you’re not blood-related, you are family
This also goes along with the collectivist nature of Indian culture. Everyone is just so naturally kind and hospitable towards one another. I also got to see this firsthand during my time in Nainital since this kind of community is most common in rural villages understandably. I was absolutely baffled to hear that everyone in the village of Satoli that we lived in knew each other, and there were a lot of homestays there. They didn’t all just know each other, they treated each other like family. All of the kids were friends with each other and were like brothers and sisters to one another. Sure, I had neighborhood friends when I was growing up too, but never on this level. Even in more urban cities we went to, the interactions amongst the native people at markets and shops were just so different than what I am used to in the States. They all just looked so happy to be around one another and they didn’t even have to be best friends. On trains, parents would just let their toddlers run up and down the aisles because they trusted everyone on board. The mutual trust in India amongst the indigenous people that are seemingly strangers is something that is so foreign to me as an American. India is a country of 1.38 billion people, yet somehow everyone is still family.
3. There is racism in India, but amongst their own people?
This kind of absolutely counteracts what I said before, but sadly it is true. My last statement in my last point should actually be corrected to North and South India in separate entities. Sadly, it is a common phenomenon in North India to see racism expressed toward South Indians whether it is due to the darker color of their skin or their tainted belief that South Indians are worse off financially. It has gotten better in some sense, but, just like in places all around the world, racism will never completely go away unfortunately. This racism has even made it on the big screen in many Bollywood (Indian Hollywood) films by casting South Indians as illiterate creatures of some sort. The irony lies in the fact that the literacy rates in South India are significantly higher than in North India.
4. The language barrier is real and not only an issue between foreigners and natives
One of the biggest challenges I had as a foreigner in India was communication. I first encountered the language barrier issue when I stayed in a homestay with hosts that didn’t speak great English. I soon found that I had to adapt how I spoke through the speed at which I spoke and the way I enunciated my words. I was quick to learn that I had to always be aware of my surroundings and who I am talking to and that I can’t simply assume that everyone speaks English. Yes, there were times where I would try to talk to a tuk tuk driver and it would just be a means to an end, but other times I was able to get creative in my methods of communication. This clearly made conducting interviews for my papers a challenge within its own, but was also one that I learned so much from. Another thing that surprised me is that India is home to over 121 languages, which means not everyone speaks the same language! Granted, most people speak Hindi, but also there are still so many dialects of Hindi and mother tongues that alter these 121 languages, making there actually 270 different tongues that are spoken in India. As you can imagine, communicating with one another isn’t just a difficulty between foreigners and Indians. It’s an issue that snakes its way into all aspects of the daily living especially education, and is one that needs more attention than it gets.
5. The worth ethic of the native people is INSANE!!
I really didn’t truly understand my privilege until I got to my homestay and saw my host mother’s friend carry up my 40 pound suitcase a quarter of a mile up a steep, rocky hill. Throughout my week in Nainital I saw and admired how relentlessly hard my homestay mom and her friend would work each day. My homestay mother constantly remarked how she would wake up, cook and clean, go to work, come home then cook and clean, go to sleep, then do it all over again the next day. I knew that in reality she isn’t the only women who lives this day to day lifestyle. By the end of my trip, I had so much respect for the women who put their blood, sweat, and tears into each day just to simply “get by”. Once we got to Dharamshala, I got to see the work ethic within the men as well. A couple of my friends and I got the opportunity to learn how to make jewelry. I thought it was going to take us one, two hours at most…nope…we were at the shop for seven hours. Granted, there were three of us, and we were working slower because he was teaching us step by step. But I even asked him how long it takes him to make one of our necklaces by himself who has years of experience, and he replied that it would still take him three hours. Considering the multitude of the handmade rings, necklaces, and pendants in his shop, I couldn’t even imagine the grand total of how long his whole jewelry shop took him. My six weeks in India definitely shifted my perspective on work. Like one of my professors told me “In America you live to work, but in India, we work to live”.
6. Shopping is an experience
By the end of my time in India, I really started to cherish and hold onto my experiences at the market and local shops. Since most shops in India outside of commercialized malls are locally run families and self-made storeowners, you get to make a friend every time you go shopping. There were some shops in Dharamshala and Rishikesh that I would be in for hours just chatting with the storeowners about their valuables that they were selling and the meaning behind them. All of them are so wise and just have so many stories to tell. Sometimes I would come out having bought nothing but had gained the gift of learning something I didn’t know instead, and I was just as content. Also, the funny thing is that the storeowners will remember you. There are just so many streets you can go down in Mcleod Ganj, so you are bound to run into the same dude who was trying to sell you a supposedly limited edition bong the day before, who will likely try the same thing on you again until you leave. Like I said…an experience indeed.
7. I am suddenly a celebrity everywhere I go?
So something that I didn’t read in my guide books is that people will stare…a lot…and also occasionally take pictures with you or of you without your permission. It’s all because India is the most uniform diverse country in the world, meaning, there are so many different cultures, religions, languages, and ethnicities present, yet also everyone kinda looks the same in some sort of way. Considering this, some locals have never seen a white person in their whole life; therefore, when they do see one out and about, they need to capture the moment to show their family and friends back home (kind of like what you or I would do if we saw Zac Efron walking on the street). I saw the first of this behavior when I was in Nainital. There was a family that was staying at my homestay with me for a couple days during my stay. They didn’t speak any English so I didn’t really interact with them much except for in passing. On their last night, the kids came in when I was eating my dinner and asked for a picture with me. The same thing happened with the cleaning lady of the next guests. Once we got to Rishikesh, we experienced the foreigner paparazzi on a whole new level. We would get bombarded by families for pictures, and often, even if we politely would say no, they would still proceed to take pictures of us. We soon realized that if you give them an inch they take a mile. Once we said yes to one picture with one family, they started to take different variations of photos with different family members and more people started to line up like we were a tourist attraction! I personally didn’t mind the pictures since I knew that the people asking for them were just going to show them to their families back home. I also knew it was going to be closest ever I would be to achieving Taylor Swift celebrity status, but I also didn’t get nearly as much attention as some of my other peers who had freckles and red hair (Maddie, if you’re reading in, I’m sorry that you were mistaken for a mystical creature by Bhavana and the natives). I was asked if I was Indian myself a few times, so obviously I wasn’t the hot commodity of the group, but I also was mistaken for being Hispanic and Russian?! So to each their own I guess!
8. Arranged marriage actually isn’t as bad is it seems
Ok hear me out…I spent all my life up until this trip thinking that every arranged marriage is doomed from the start and is just an outdated practice that strips every woman of her own right to choose who she loves. I will admit, this may still be the case for some people, but it turns out that 90% of arranged marriages are happy marriages. A much better turn out than the Land of Choosing Your Own Fate for Love huh?! After I learned about the logistics behind arranged marriages in India, I actually became more keen to the idea. Yes, the myth behind your grandmother or someone elderly and wise in your family chooses your wife/husband is pretty accurate, but when you think about it, who knows you better than your family?! Okay, this question may not be valid for every person in America, but in India, it is, because, like I mentioned before, Family is everything. The point of arranged marriages in India are not to confine a woman to a man for business purposes, like they are in some of the Wattpad books you may have read, they are to ensure that the woman is married off to a good man who is of good virtue and will treat her well. For most young women in India, their family knows them the best, so they know who will be the best husband for them, hence the 90% success rate! Trust me, I am not 100% on the arranged marriage train because there are definitely some issues with it such as extreme age gaps that would be seen as taboo in the U.S. and the prohibition against intercaste marriage (yup, the caste system is still a “thing”), but those are all topics of convo for another time and place. At the end of the day, not having to worry about finding myself a husband by the ripe age of 24 doesn’t sound too shabby to me.
9. If you ever go to India, don’t expect there to be Japanese toilets…
Not like I was expecting you to have this preconceived notion in your head, but, not to be dramatic, the bathrooms in India were the biggest culture shock I had. Okay, maybe not the biggest, but definitely top five. It was one thing to have to remember to throw away my toilet paper after using it instead of disposing it in the toilet (let’s just say the plumbing systems in India aren’t up to par), but to not have toilet paper at all was its own thing! I felt like I found the holy grail when I would find a roll of toilet paper in a public bathroom! The main reason for this is because their alternative for toilet paper in India is a water spray hose, mainly used after going #2. Not having toilet paper at all prevents litter and overuse of paper products. Go India for being eco-friendly! Also, who knew there were Eastern toilets and Western toilets?! I thought toilets were just…toilets. Eastern toilets are basically just a toilet without the seat. Basically, a squatty potty without the potty. Basically just a hole in the ground. These were especially fun to go to on long train rides when I had to balance while removing my pants and squatting to pee then redressing. Is this getting too TMI? This is when I realized how much easier it is to be a man in India.
10. We are so incredibly privileged beyond belief and we don’t even realize it
I think the biggest culture shock that took the cake from the toilets (all jokes aside, it wasn’t even close) was waking up to my privilege during my six weeks in India. Why? I just laid out nine reasons for you above. I think when most Americans go to a developing country, they feel bad for the people there and how they live. The feel the need to help them and give them more things. Their hearts ache for them and the way they live. They say, “I can’t even imagine what they are going through. I am so glad I was born in America where I get fed by a silver spoon and live in a white picket fence neighborhood with good AC.” Although my heart did go out to the children begging on the street and the people who were sleeping under a bridge with no meat on their bones, I found myself envying the native people I met more often than pitying them. I saw how happy they were and how unbelievably content they were with their lives. More content than I have ever been and more content than I have ever seen any American be. More often than not, I feel like I see more fake happiness than genuine contentedness with the social media presence in America. In India, it always genuine and authentic and pure joy. The people there live their life so simply and with so little, but they are somehow living life to the fullest. Nobody is worrying about what car they are going to get, when they are going to get a raise at work, nor are they consumed with hatred for one another over politics. My last week in India, I tried to soak up every little moment because I dreaded going home. It was so nice to forget about worrying about what dress I was going to wear for sorority recruitment or how in the HECK I am going to get through another 17 credits this fall or how the U.S. is in shambles over a SCOTUS decision. I soon came to the realization that I definitely want to be traveling. I don’t want to just be traveling for fun then return to the States two weeks later. I want to be doing it as part of my career, whether that is doing Doctors Without Borders for a living or going on sporadic medical missions to developing countries. This may just be the post study abroad trip high speaking, but I know for a fact that I somehow felt more at home in another country studying what I love more than in the comfort of my own home in America. Maybe it is the adrenaline junkie in my speaking, but there is just a different renown beauty about doing that you’re passionate about while also exploring what the world has to offer in terms of the variety of cultures, people, languages, and foods. This has been something that I have been open to doing, but have never really had the chance to explore this interest of mine until this trip. I never really had the courage to jump out of my comfort zone until this trip. Let me tell you one thing (or the last thing out of the billion things I have rambled on about), it took me taking the biggest jump I have ever taken in my life to realize what I want to do and what I am truly passionate about. I have this whole new lens that I am able to look into and I can’t wait to potentially gain new lenses in the future. If you ever have the chance to study abroad or travel to a country that is outside of your domestic bucket list comfort zone, DO IT! Wherever you go, you will be opened to a whole new way of living and gain a renewed perspective of the world we live in! Who knows? Maybe it will teach you more about yourself than you ever imagined it would. It sure did for me.