For the past six months, it has seemed like such a faraway concept. India was just something that I could talk about in the abstract and not as my day-to-day reality.
As I have learned more about Pune and begun my classes on Indian culture and society, I have begun to absorb the many cultural differences between the United States and India. Although I had some understanding of Indian culture, as I walked to my new favorite juice stand near school, I had a bizarre moment where I had to remind myself that I am actually currently, right now, in September of 2016, during my first semester of Junior year, living in India. For the past six months, it has seemed like such a faraway concept. India was just something that I could talk about in the abstract and not as my day-to-day reality. This was such a unique experience for me. As I have learned about life in India and begun to understand some of the many cultural differences that exist, I have had to pinch myself to make sure that I am in fact here. To share this change with you, I figured that I would discuss some of the most common cultural differences that have caused this odd sense of surprise and reality.
1) Waste: Whether in the form of a bucket shower, a completely clean dinner plate or a fan that is quickly turned off when not in use, India’s focus on resource waste is apparent all around. Living with a host family has made me especially aware of this fact. Although I was also raised to be extremely conscientious about resource use growing up (thanks mom!) I feel like I have become hyperaware of the amount of water I consume, whether or not my electronics actually need to be plugged in and my resource use in general. Even as I was leaving my neighborhood in the US on my way to the airport, almost all of my neighbors were running their sprinkler systems despite a severe drought that we were experiencing. From my observations, the Indian mindset appears much more focused on needs instead of less necessary desires. (like having green grass)
2) Staring: I have never been stared at so much in my life. This is definitely a privilege as I know a lot of people in the US are constantly stared at if they don’t look like American society’s narrow definition of “normal” however, moving to a place outside of that privilege is definitely new for me! Staring is so much more acceptable here than in the US and as a 6 foot tall white person, I definitely attract a lot of attention as I walk around Pune!
3) The importance of hands and feet: I have found that hands hold an extremely special place in Indian culture. (no pun intended) Although the US values cleanliness, the right hand in India carries an incredible amount of importance. One of the first things we learned upon arrival was to always accept gifts, money, food or really any item with the right hand. I do not want the hands as “sacred” however, because we use our hands to eat, greet and show respect constantly, I have become exceptionally conscious about my right hand’s cleanliness since arriving in Pune. On the other hand, (haha) the feet are perceived as less respectful and dirty. Specifically, it is rude to touch someone or point at things with your feet. If you accidently do, it is important to apologize especially if the person is someone that you do not know. This may not make sense in a western context, but in India, we constantly remove our shoes at temples, homes and other public places. In addition, I have to wash my feet constantly. Part of this is simply done out of practicality in an effort to keep homes and indoor spaces free of the pollution and dirt found outside but part of this custom is also simply done out of respect.
4) General Helpfulness of Strangers: Lastly, I am constantly amazed at how social and kind so many Indians are despite the language barrier. For example, when trekking up a local hill, a large group of middle school aged girls kept staring at us. As I said, this is very normal however, they were laughing and pointing so we said ‘hello’ and they quickly began showing us around the temple that was on top of the hill. They were quick to bring us to their favorite viewpoints and were genuinely kind. Now you may be saying, “Well those are just kids Dan! What about the general population?” Well curious reader, I will provide another example. Whenever we go to restaurants or shop on the streets, the employees are extremely kind despite my limited Hindi and their limited English. They are patient and helpful to say the least. From my experience in the US, people tend to get annoyed rather quickly if someone is not proficient in English or has an accent that is difficult to understand.
In all, living in India continues to be such a new experience. There are obviously so many more cultural differences than the few I mentioned above. However, these are definitely some of the most dramatic that I have noticed. The time I have spent in India thus far has already begun to open my mind to a new way of life and the many benefits that come with cross cultural experiences.