Goodbye India - Reflections of cultural differences and how I fit in

Well, here I am: my last day in India. Before coming to India, a lot of people told me I would either hate it or love it. I fall on the ‘love it’ side but I’m very ready to go home as well. Maybe that’s because the date was set and you’re always ready when it comes, maybe it’s because I want to be home for Christmas, or maybe because I’m ready to take a break from India.

When all the locals ask me how I like their country I’ve always told them I love it. And while that is an honest answer, something about saying that doesn’t feel 100% true. I love my new friends, the children and their laughter, teaching people about communication, and the chapattis. But most of all I love experiencing something different, which is different from loving those differences.

The Banyan Tree, a fascinating and beautiful tree and one of my favourite sights.
The Banyan Tree, a fascinating and beautiful tree and one of my favourite sights.

To me it seems there are five types of cultural differences:

1  Differences that are simply delightful and arguably better than my culture, like Indian hospitality, a diverse food tradition, the habit of squatting (turns out it’s very healthy for you), and while we’re on that: using water instead of toilet paper.

2 Differences that are different in a neutral way, such as eating with your hands, the use of spices, women’s sarees, and all the moustaches, although one can argue the moustaches would fall under the ‘better’ or ‘worse’ category.

3 Some differences that are weird but I’m willing to rationalise as cultural differences that are neither better nor worse. Examples include the burping, or the respect and authority culture. I can’t help but judge people for their habits, labelling it ‘stupid’ or ‘uncivilised’ while my rational and ethno-centric aware brain tells me that it’s only my own biased perspective.

4 The differences that go against my logical thought or break my ethical principles. This includes the unhealthy amounts of sugar and oil, the subordinate role of women, arranged marriage and dowries, and the common practice of spanking children.

5 And lastly the differences that are different that everyone agrees on are worse: The ubiquitous pollution and trash, the heartbreaking poverty, and the infuriating corruption.

I believe that part of being in a different culture is not being in the position to correct people. Swallowing your own ego and letting go of what you know to be right is what makes cross-cultural experiences difficult and meaningful. This is not always about the big ethical issues, but about simple things like tea with milk and sugar, leaving on the engine while waiting (plenty people at home do that, too), or waiting to be served rather than help in the kitchen. It’s also about learning the patience to smile and politely say no to all the people trying to sell you something.

I wanted to see India’s differences because I wanted to see a non-Western culture. But it is also the accumulation of so many differences that make you tired and ready for home, and that happens no matter which country you visit. Knowing I would be in India for only three months, I threw myself headfirst into as many differences as I could find. So now it’s over and I’m ready to go back home and rest in the comfort of familiarity.

In other words, I wouldn’t want to trade my time in India for anything in the world, but I’m also looking forward to go home. To eat my müsli for breakfast, wear sweaters, ride my bike, take hot showers with a lot of water, sleep in a soft bed. To not having to deal with the ‘uneducated, uncivilised stupid people’, but only with stupid people. To have no dust and mosquitos, less stupid bureaucracy, senseless paperwork, premium foreigner prices, and not constantly being sold to useless crap. To walk around without feeling like an attraction, although my ego will probably miss some of that attention and ability to turn heads.

As I wrote in the first month, India has confirmed that I’m okay with uncertainty and a little chaos. I don’t always need to know what we’re going to do, and when plans change I will readily adapt. My tongue handles spicy food, my nose is mostly okay with the bad smells, my ears don’t mind loud streets, my eyes can process the hectic traffic and crowds of people, and my inner hygiene and cleanliness freak is permanently asleep (much to the dislike of my mom).

I’m flexible and I’m not a (complete) workaholic, but I’m certainly an addict of efficiency. I have a distaste for practical errants, I hate wasting time, and I’m always looking to be ‘productive’ in both work and leisure. And that’s the side of me that has a rough time here. India has challenged my efficiency nerd in countless ways, because running errants takes forever in Bangalore traffic, because bureaucracy and protocols like safety checks at the airport are painfully slow, and because I want/have to conform to the local way of working. And most of the time I was able to let it go and accept it for what it is. But has India cured my efficiency addiction? I’m afraid not. At least now I know a different side of the story.

India has also confronted me with being white. After three months the staring becomes more natural, but you never get fully used to it. Being confronted with my whiteness is about so much more than skin colour. It’s about paying higher taxi prices and feeling a little embarrassed and speechless when people tell you that the Netherlands is such a beautiful country. It’s about skipping lines with a foreigner ticket and being from a rich country, with a strong currency and a powerful passport. And it’s about white privilege, all the time. An example of this is the beach: I was swimming in the waves, and when others wanted to join me, they were whistled back by the lifeguard. Of course it’s sensible not to let people who can’t swim go too far out. But it feels weird when I’m allowed to do whatever I want, because I’m from a country where it’s normal to learn how to swim. It’s a small thing, but it’s one of the many markers of my luck of growing up in Europe, and I don’t always know how to deal with that. Because it’s not fair.

When I was about 14 years old, my naive and safe bubble burst and I realised what a messed up place the world can be. For a long time I felt guilty about all my blessings. But over time this created my conviction that privileged people have the responsibility to improve the lives of others. In this way, India has maybe not created a new belief, but it certainly strengthened it.

And speaking of guilt, I would like to say sorry to so many people. I’m sorry about refusing to give any money to the people signalling they want food because I was suspicious. I’m sorry about not responding to the many friendly messages I received. I’m sorry about my grumpy reactions when someone asked for a selfie.

Ignoring the many beggars is not something I’m proud of. It’s just that I’ve seen how begging can be part of street business and how it often doesn’t improve lives. But sometimes my conscience just couldn’t take it anymore. One time a crippled and half-blinded man politely asked me for just 20 rupees, and without any reaction I walked by. But I just couldn’t live with myself and I went back and gave him some money.

In this post I wanted to share some of the thoughts and difficulties. But overall, my experience in India has been surprisingly seamless and natural. Everything just kind of happened. I don’t know whether international experiences have made me flexible to anything or whether the real mental processing will happen when I experience a culture shock going back to the Netherlands tonight. I suspect it’s a little bit of both. I only skyped with my parents twice, which is unusual because I need to process experiences by talking about them. Probably my processing outlet has been you, dear reader. And at this moment I want to thank you for sticking with it all the way to the end, and being a valuable part of this journey.

Thank you India, for showing me a different world and enriching my life with so many people and experiences. I will miss your colours, your food, your people’s humble and genuine interest in a complete stranger, and your Banyan trees. I will miss my new friends (special shoutout to Nathaniel) and the moments when a simple smile is returned with the 20 glowing faces of laughing children. Thank you India, you are a fascinating country and I will definitely come back some day. So yes, this is the end of this trip, but the memories and lessons will remain for a lifetime.

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