Navigating My First Experience with “Culture Shock” #LaIndiaInIndia

I have been in India for a month already, and while I am still navigating the culture and country, I am coming home with so many stories and memories. I am also coming home understanding my own limitations and personal biases. Some may find these stories to be negative experiences, but every experience and interaction is valuable to my growth as an individual. Before coming here, everyone had something to tell me about India, but no one had been to India. Interesting fact: India is a huge country with over 1.3 billion people (the second most populous country in the world) and 22 official languages. It is separated into states and each state is completely different than the other. So no, not all Indian people do the same thing or speak the same language. 

First of all, I have never experienced culture shock before. I have traveled primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean. These are cultures that I was introduced to as a young age. I was familiar with the food, the people, for Spanish-speaking countries, I spoke the language. I never felt overwhelmed or surprised, and I was usually helping those that did have these feelings. Additionally, being a woman of color, I was able to blend in and be perceived as a local. I thought it would be the same in India. My family always embraced aspects of Indian culture. I owned my first saree at 9 years old, I always wore Indian jewelry, I do my own henna, I wear a bindi, and gulab jamun was always my go-to for class pot lucks. I mean my younger sister has a Hindi name from an Indian film! However, my time in India has introduced a new set of challenges and learning experiences. 

Though I am mistaken to be a local due to my skin color and features, my hair does not make the cut. I am sure that if I wore traditional clothing and covered head, I would get a lot less stares filled with confusion and curiosity. At home, my hair is complimented, but the feeling isn’t the same here. There have been times when older women stare, giggle, then stare again. I don’t understand what is being said and I assume I am being laughed at. I try to remember that this may not be the case at all, but it is still difficult to ignore when you obviously stand out. Despite this, I make sure to hold my head high and remain confident, even when the humidity has me looking like a poodle. Slicking my hair back into a bun doesn’t do much to suppress the attention because I haven’t found evidence of Indians slicking their edges. In my opinion, not laying my edges is a crime, foreign country or not. We all have our different trends and styles, which I love to see when I travel.

Above all, being intensely stared at does take some getting used to, and I don’t know if I will ever be accustomed to it. I know it is curiosity, but back home in Philly such stares could get you into some trouble! Now I just stare back with the straightest face possible, and people usually look away due to uncomfortable eye contact (I am becoming a pro at that). Even more is being cut in line as if I am invisible. The feeling of being overlooked and disregarded is not a pleasant one. I have been the next person in line only to find myself magically behind 5 people. No “excuse me”, no waiting patiently, no allowing someone to go before you. I’ve also been yelled at, in my face, by two tuk-tuk drivers on two different occasions due to language barriers and miscommunication. Interestingly enough, my toughest task was using a squat toilet in a closet-sized space with a romper on (don’t ask me how I did it), or finding out that on the sleeper bus (which was a 1.5 hours late) is 2 people per bed… (yep, you and a stranger). Taking my shoes off before entering certain spaces and stores is new (but I like it), and crossing any street is terrifying (I’ve escaped death multiple times). I’ve also gotten used to walking around cows on the street (as they are sacred in Hindu culture). I know many of you back home would say “oh no, I couldn’t do that. I would do this I would do that.” Let me just say no… no, you wouldn’t. When being introduced to another culture, or simply in a foreign country, you don’t know what you would do or how you would react. I have experienced being overwhelmed, confused, annoyed, upset, and with it has come a deep appreciation and love for others who may encounter the same feelings being foreigners in the USA.

Barefeet in Temples, Mosques, and even some stores and shops!

Additionally, the infamous “Indian head nod” has proven to be a tough one. I read about it before coming to India, but it still did not click, and you may not understand until you witness it multiple times. My first encounter with this head nod was in my taxi from the airport to my Airbnb. The meter said 750 rupees. I assumed this was about $10 (which it was), but when I handed the $10 USD to the driver, he looked at it with confusion, and he rocked his head side to side. I kept adding money until I ended up paying $25 USD or waiting until he just said “okay”. I learned that the head nod is usually done in agreement not saying “no” or “eh, not really” (like I thought) and he was confused by the American currency. So I ended up paying about 1750 rupees instead of 750. SMH. I also had an issue understanding the head nod during a conversation with my Airbnb host. It resulted in me trying to say the same thing in different ways because I thought she wasn’t understanding me. In fact, she was just acknowledging that she was listening (just like we do back home). Yeaaa… I am still not used to it…

All in all, when I want to cower away from the stares, culture mistakes, or even aggressive pushing into the metro, I remember the positives and personal growth that can come out of it. If I reacted to everything, I would be on the next flight home (or possibly in jail). I have learned to be assertive, hold my ground and speak up when I need to. This is not to say that I must be like this in India because of the culture, this is to say that India has forced me to build such strength that I can take home. Many talk about the discrimination that women face here and the silence of women, but being aware of this and having such encounters, has made me feel more powerful. It is a struggle and can be exhausting. I vent, I get upset, I become annoyed but everything is new and this trip wasn’t free sooooo…Positive vibes always. 

Remember culture shock can come in many different forms, but how you handle it is key. Embrace it and learn through the struggles. Adapting to a new place is always challenging. 

 “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” (S/o to Jayla, The Self-Esteem Queen) Trust me you’ll learn so much. 

धन्यवाद (dhanyavaad)  India