Hi there! My name is Ally Carlos and I am a third-year Psychology major on the pre-med track at the University of Florida with a minor in Health Disparities! This summer I got the amazing opportunity to study traditional medicine and healthcare practices in North India for six weeks! Because of the spotty wifi connection I had during my time there, I wasn’t able to post my blogs during my time there, unfortunately. However, the good news is that I was able document all my thoughts and feelings so I could post them all when I got back to the States! I also put together a travel blog for me and my family and friends to look back on! Feel free to browse along on it if your heart desires! Here is the link:
I hope you enjoy reading about my incredible journey in India!
One of the most valuable parts of our 10-day period in Nainital was getting to stay in a family’s home and have the opportunity to completely become immersed into their tradition, culture, and customs. This was by far the experience I was most looking forward to on this trip since one of the main things I was hoping to get out of this program was the ability to become more culturally aware and inept through immersion into the Indian culture. However, when I found out that I was going to be staying in my homestay without the accompaniment of another student, I immediately became apprehensive for a number of reasons. Throughout my whole college experience so far I have always shared a room with someone, so I knew this would be a pretty big adjustment for me. I knew this experience would push me to be more independent than I was used to, and I didn’t think I was ready for that. As if I didn’t think the situation could get any worse (I’m just being dramatic, it wasn’t that bad), Bhavna Ji, basically our mom for the trip, threw another curveball at me that my homestay parents don’t have any children that are living with them anymore. I was very disappointed when she told me this because I was really looking forward to playing with kids and observing how their dynamics and behaviors are different than in the States. I also indeed bought five children gifts with the expectation that my homestay family was going to have kids, so it definitely broke my heart a little when I had to give them away to another student who had a family with several small children.
Once we arrived in Nainital, I was introduced to my homestay mother who led me a gigantic hill to her home. To my surprise, the place I was staying in was a fully renovated guest home that was attached to their main house! I had a bedroom, living space, kitchen, and bathroom all to myself! Also, who wouldn’t kill for this view to wake up to every morning?!
For dinner, they cooked me my favorite Indian dish: paneer with rice, dahl, and chapati! It was absolutely delicious, but it was made as if it was to serve four people. If I know anything about eastern food culture it’s that you eat every single scrap of food off your plate, or you risk the chance of being seen as disrespectful. I didn’t want to take that risk, so I did in fact eat every last bit of it even though I was stuffed about halfway through. It didn’t help that my homestay parents were intently watching me as I ate. There also was a bit of an uncomfortable silence since they didn’t speak great English. This made it difficult to have a free flowing conversation. Since this was a new environment and culture for me and I was alone, there were so many questions that ran through my head about how to act and what to do. Like, will they judge me for not finishing my food? Why aren’t they eating with me? What can I talk to them about and how can I talk to them in a way that they will understand me? I was forced to figure this all out by myself, which kind of terrified me. To my relief, Bhavna Ji was able to answer most of my pondering questions and clear up my confusion about a few of their customs and behaviors. She told me that I don’t have to finish my food if I can’t. Just respectfully tell them that it is delicious and don’t want to waste food but you are full, and then they should start giving you smaller portions. She also told me that most Indian families eat much later than when I am used to, which explains why they didn’t eat with me. I was also reminded that the first couple days are bound to be a little uncomfortable on both sides. They are getting used to hosting someone from both a different generation and culture than themselves, and I am getting used to living with a family that holds different beliefs, values, and ways of living than I am familiar with. I knew I just had to have patience with it and push myself to learn and interact in a way that I will be able to become more aware of their culture, while also teaching them about my own background. I began to go on morning walks with my homestay mother early in the morning. Even though at times we would just walk in silence, I learned to become comfortable with it and that sometimes just being intentional with being present speaks louder than words. I also started to insert myself into the kitchen. I was told that if you don’t physically ask to get put to work, they will just treat you as a guest. I came in with the motive to be more than “just a guest”. I wanted full immersion into their family dynamic and I knew that helping out in the kitchen would be the easiest and best way to do so. Granted, I pretty much just made chapati (which is basically Indian flatbread) or paratha (folded chapati that is sometimes stuffed with potatoes), but the joy that emanated from my homestay parents made it mean so much more. You would have thought I was a toddler who took my very first steps with all of the photos and videos they took of me!
As my stay progressed, I could tell that they saw me more as family opposed to just another guest. They were calling me their third daughter by the end of the week! Yes, the language barrier was always there, but I learned how to adapt and communicate in a way with them in which they would understand me by enunciating my words, talking in an accent, and shortening and and slowing down my sentences. It was definitely a challenge for me when they just simply wouldn’t understand some words that I was saying and I had to get creative and explain what I was trying to say in a way that they would be able to grasp, but it was good for me and I became so much more cognizant about how to communicate in other ways apart from just regular conversation through words.
Apart from observations I made from my homestay family, I noticed just the overall hospitality of the whole community of Satoli and how cohesive they all were. In the village, everyone knew each other; everyone was family, and they treat one another just as such. They also all are so welcoming and accepting towards their guests that I never once felt judged, put down, or unsafe. Just purely from my own personal homestay experience and getting to meet other students’ homestay families, I got to gain so much insight into how much community and the bringing together of family and friends means to them. For instance, I remember I was sitting outside one night and I just sat still and heard so many different noises in the vicinity. I heard a baby crying on my right side, a dog barking on my left, and people laughing and chatting straight ahead. Just the fact that all of these elements were able to intermingle just provided me the realization that this is a community and this community is family. It’s just a concept that is so foreign in the U.S. since everything is individualized, so getting an insider look into a culture that values collectivism and the union of people was very heartwarming to get to live within for 10 days.
I am sure you were expecting for me to say this by the end of this blog, but, yes, I am more than certainly overjoyed that I was the lone soul who was placed in a homestay by myself. It forced me to go out of my comfort zone and truly dive into the culture by myself. Although I was upset that I didn’t have any “siblings” to hangout with and play cards with, and yes sometimes I would wonder if I would have gained more from being in a different homestay, I know that I was placed in that home with Basant Ji and Janki Ji for a reason, and that reason was to gain full immersion into a foreign culture to me yet also to push me to be a more independent version of myself that I didn’t think I could mold myself into at the moment.
I guess I would say that my main overall takeaway from this is that if you are ever in a foreign country with a different culture, there is no better way to become more conscious and knowledgable of that culture than by staying in the home of natives who call that country home. Just by observation of their daily lives and picking up their lifestyle and adopting it as your own during your stay will open your eyes to a whole new perspective on how the world is seen and how life is approached day to day. Not only will you be learning something new, but your hosts will too just by welcoming in a foreigner to their home. Homestays are the epitome of the beautiful conjunction of separate cultural backgrounds, and the coming together of people of different ages and parts of the world. A truly incredible concept and one everyone should be able to experience at least once in their life.