Let’s get deeper. Let’s dive farther into what India is really all about – beyond the tip of the iceberg, beyond first impression, beyond stereotypes and beyond rumors.
1) People will stare – and it’s OK
After many years of colonization in India, people here will look at foreigners as a threat (especially white people). They will stare at you and try to guess your race, the country you might be from and what you wearing. Plus, it’s also culturally acceptable to stare at people. It’s just like how it’s culturally acceptable for Americans to smile at strangers. So it’s okay if you feel alienated with glares. Just strut it.
2) Cows are overrated
I don’t know why Americans are so fascinated with the fact that Hindus don’t eat beef. It’s crazy how much the “cow” thing is exaggerated. It’s really not that big of a deal here in India. Cows are cows. They are considered holy. They eat the trash (and sometimes grass if available). They don’t bother anyone.
3) Know A LITTLE of the language before coming - it will help you A LOT
Nomaskar. Kemon achen? Phalo Achi. Thik Ache. This very simple and elementary words will open doors you will never know exist. When you go to foreign country and speak their language it shows that you at least care enough about them to learn their language. As silly as sounds, when you say these tiny phrases it lights up smiles on people's faces. If Bengalis start talking back to you in Bangla and you don't understand, just say "Ami Bangal jaani na."
4) Americans are too cautious
Seatbelts are not used in India. Baby boosters do not exist. People tailgate until the two bumpers of the cars kiss. Red lights do not mean STOP all the time. All these things sound dangerous to Americans but it’s really not that dangerous. Americans are just too cautious about everything they do. It’s crazy how many bottles of hand sanitizers we’ve gone through this semester; for Indians this sense of hand-washing-madness is ridiculous. The germs level here is much higher than in the U.S. but it also gives Indians a higher immune system to fight these germs.
5) You will share space with strangers – Just accept this truth
Don’t be surprised when you find yourself inside an auto rickshaw with four other strangers that you’ve never met in your life, and will probably never meet again in your life. You will find yourself inside a city bus sari-to-sari, shirt-to-shirt, and kurta-to-kurta with women you’ve never met. You will sometimes have an adolescent child sitting on your lap in the auto rickshaw. You will stand breast-to-breast to other metro riders. Just accept the fact that no one really cares about ‘personal space’. After you’ve accepted this you will automatically allow yourself to relax.
6) Collectivism vs. Individualism
My roommate and I get into the city bus. The ticket guy sees that we’re together. It costs Rs. 4 to ride the city bus. My roommate hands him a Rs. 10 bill to pay for herself. He gives her Rs. 2 change. She’s confused. I’m confused. Then we realize he thought my roommate was paying for the both of us: total Rs. 8, which was why he’d given her the wrong change. Here in the Eastern Hemisphere everything is all about the community; it’s a collectivist culture. The idea of individualism is rare. It’s not just in the city bus – it’s in the auto rickshaws, the metro, the taxi, the water you drink, the food you eat, the cigarettes you smoke, etc. They share everything here since resources are so scarce.
7) Sometimes being “too rich” is annoying
$1.00 ~ Rs. 45; $100 = Rs. 4500; $1000 = Rs. 45,000. I’m rich here, basically. And it sucks. Sometimes being rich has its disadvantages. It sucks when you only have a Rs. 500 bill and no one will sell you anything because they don’t have the change for you. One day I was really thirsty and had forgotten my water bottle at home. I tried purchasing a Rs. 14 bottle of mineral water. Three different stores rejected my thirst because they didn’t have the proper change for me. People are pretty stingy about their Rs. 10 bills here. Having 10s seems more important than having 1000 bills. So collect as much change as you can.
8) 1 hour travel time in India vs. 1 hour travel time in the U.S.
I slept over at my friend Sanghmitra’s house one night. We had great cultural exchange conversations about India and the U.S.
Then she asked me: Why do you live on campus if it’s more expensive?
Me: Well because it’s too far for me to live at home and go to college.
Sangha: How far is it?
Me: It’s an hour drive.
Sangha: That’s it? It takes me one hour to get to St. Xavier’s college, too. I still live at home.
It never occurred to me that this was true. It did take me roughly an hour to get from my house in Tollygunj to St. Xavier’s College, just as it would take me roughly an hour to get from my house in St. Paul to the College of St. Benedict. But the distance traveled in miles/kilometers was different; it was like comparing apples to rocket ships; there was no comparison. I couldn’t make Sangha understand that though the time traveled is the same, the distance traveled is beyond comparison.
9) What’s rude to Americans is not rude to Indians
I’m just going to be blunt about this: People in India budge in line, they never run on time, they judge you on your skin color and your religious affiliation must be identified. This sounds rude, huh? Well, it’s actually not. The sense of having a queue has never been a part of the Indian culture (or any Asian culture). The sense of time is completely western, Indians (and other Asian cultures) follow the time of the Sun and Moon. People will ask you, “Are you Chinese?” instead of, “What do you identify as your ethnicity?” People will ask you, “What religion do you practice?” instead of, “Do you practice any religion.” This is all a part of the Indian culture. It may seem rude to Americans, but it’s not meant to be demeaning.
10) Know who Rabindranath Tagore is
If you’re especially coming to the Bengal region of India, PLEASE do some research about Rabindranath Tagore before coming or else it will be insulting to Bengalis that you know nothing about him. Many people compare Tagore with Gandhi. And trust me, according to Bengalis Gandhi isn’t all that great. Tagore’s better. Do your research on both leaders and make up your own mind about it. Seriously though, know who Tagore is before coming to Kolkata.