Having grown up in a home that always smelled of coconut oil and curry leaves, I thought I’d be prepared for my nine-month stint in India. I thought I knew both India and America and what made them different.
For instance, it never occurred to me to think that stick deodorant was ‘American’. For me, they were just ‘normal’. It was only when I found myself in India, staring down an aisle of spray deodorants, that I realised I’d blithely copied and pasted my idea of normalcy onto an entirely different cultural context. My cultural contexts.
I spoke with other incomers about their experience of copying and pasting their notion of ‘normal’ onto the Indian context. Here’s what they shared.
“One of the first things that shocked me when I moved to Bangalore was that often men (and sometimes women) hold hands and can be very touchy with each other. I remember thinking ‘Wow, Bangalore is a really progressive city where gay couples are super safe walking around hand in hand.’ Eventually, someone told me it was just a way of showing friendship here and I was like ‘Ooooh! Duh!’.”– Céleste, Graduate Student, France
“In our office, lunch time is sacred. Nobody talks about work. Nobody cuts it short. This is starkly different from my lunch time experiences in Chicago, where co-workers talk about work at lunch or sadly, eat while working in their cubicles. But the people at my office here always share their food. At first, I was shocked by how willing people were to share even when I forgot my lunch! Lunchtime here provided me with the opportunity to get to know my coworkers outside of a strict professional space. I hope to carry this same mentality when I get back to the States!”– Be, Researcher, America
“India was a very unusual experience for me. My expectations of it from what I’d heard in the media and from other people’s stories did not match what I saw in reality. India opens up new horizons. Its culture, clothing, colours, mood are very specific and it was not easy to digest. The food also has a very peculiar flavor and I needed time to get used to it. I liked the harmony I felt between the people and their country: it’s in the air and can be noticed with every breath.” – Anush, Advocacy Specialist, Armenia
“In the United States, we’re so used to everyone being outwardly friendly. Strangers will smile at each other and ask ‘How are you?’ As someone once told me, we’re friendly, but not necessarily your friend. The way strangers here interact with you can come off as rude within the American context. I’ve learned that friendliness and friendship are much more intertwined here. Friendships here take more time to develop, but once do you get to know someone better, the rapport you build is very strong.” – Shayak, Student, America
“What surprised me the most about India is the exquisite freedom flowing like a rivulet beneath the ancient and sometimes oppressive social rules here. Everything is possible in India. Is there a giant traffic jam preventing you from being on time? The rickshaw driver will take you on the sidewalk and go faster than a fly. Turn around and you will see a Porsche racing two boys on a cart in the middle of Bangalore.”– Gaëlle, Graduate Student, France