Why I’ve Chosen To Embrace Indian Culture

Why I've Chosen To Embrace Indian Culture

Trying to cross the road in any Indian city is a challenge. Imagine this: you’re sweating, squinting against the unforgiving sun, dust and exhaust fumes fill your nose, and the cacophony of traffic fills your ears. And while all of your senses are being assaulted, you struggle to negotiate a safe passage. Who knew this could be so hard? When did crossing the street become a subtle art?

If you’re naive, you might think there will be a natural break in the column of cars coming at you, giving you an opportunity to scamper across. Halfway at least! But if you’ve been in India long enough, you know that the mass of cars, autorickshaws, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional cow don’t seem to follow the accepted laws of nature, let alone the laws of traffic. No break comes. Yet the laws of evolutionary biology have (hopefully) trained you to foresee the danger of simply darting out there and hoping for the best.

After five months in India, I have realized that Indian traffic acts very nicely as a metaphor for the challenges someone from a Western country faces in acclimating to India and its culture. Refusing to make small concessions to Indian culture, or at least refusing to try to understand them, is akin to striding out confidently, but misguidedly, into the traffic on Mahatma Gandhi Road (a given street name in any Indian town or city).

I’ve had to work hard to find the balance between wanting to be accepted for my own culture and outlook and assimilating smoothly in my surroundings.

However, this is not to say you should stand meekly by, waiting for a break in the traffic that will never come. As a headstrong and often stubborn American woman, one of the most important lessons I learned is to bend, so that I don’t break. I’ve had to work hard to find the balance between wanting to be accepted for my own culture and outlook and assimilating smoothly in my surroundings. I have witnessed plenty of people stuck in the former mentality, strutting around, uncompromising in their Western values and expectations, and unforgiving of their environment.

I remember eating dinner at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant down a small side street, the kind with the best Indian food. I had been craving my favorite Indian dish, aloo gobi. But when the waiter informed me it wasn’t available, he recommended I try aloo masala, a very similar dish, which I tried and enjoyed. Just as I was congratulating myself on rolling with the punches, a German couple came in. The woman requested that the waiter dissect the menu, ingredient for ingredient, then left in a huff when he couldn’t really understand, therefore couldn’t guarantee, her need for a fresh cilantro garnish.

Why I’ve Chosen To Embrace Indian Culture

The staff at the restaurant took it in their stride, but I found myself a little bit embarrassed by my fellow Westerners. Adaptability is an essential skill in so many aspects of life, but especially in travel. A seasoned veteran of the road, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘you probably won’t have a very authentic experience in India if you walk around demanding fresh cilantro leaves.’

Impossible culinary standards are a relatively harmless example of disconnectedness with a culture that’s not your own. But being loud and proud of certain other Western norms can be dangerous. Women travelers in India can absolutely have a good experience, but they have to be more conscious of how their actions are interpreted by Indians.

FYI: booty shorts and backless tanks tops may make you feel pretty, but you are sending the wrong massage to Indians about yourself. Moreover, you are sending the wrong message about me as well.

I see the way some Western women in India dress and I think, incredulously, ‘didn’t they get the memo?’ FYI: booty shorts and backless tanks tops may make you feel pretty, but you are sending the wrong massage to Indians about yourself. Moreover, you are sending the wrong message about me as well, even though I have adopted a comfortable and appropriate style of dress, comprised of genie pants and old t-shirts from my high school volleyball teams. Unfortunately, respect is something that Westerners, and Western women in particular, are still required to earn in India. So earn it.

If you don’t, you will find India a dangerous crossing, or you will be stranded on the far side of the road, kept at a distance from the best parts of India culture. Give an inch and you will go a mile. Small adjustments to the way you act, eat, and dress will be rewarded a hundredfold by what you can gain by Indian culture.

Why I’ve Chosen To Embrace Indian Culture

My love for food has been transferred to Indian cooking and dining. Feeling pretty in a new sundress has been supplanted by the feeling I get in a sari. My passion for human relationships and communication is less satisfied by WiF than by everyone I meet on the road who is interested in where I come from and where I’m going.

After some time in India, you learn that crossing a street requires the refined melding of your body to the rhythms of the traffic. Flesh and metal. It’s a dance. You cautiously take the first steps, and before you know it you are intertwining and twirling with the cars and bikes around you. You see them. And they see you. You’re able to see each other’s next moves. Sometimes slow. Sometimes fast. And the honking and revving become music, and you come to enjoy the metallic caress that means finally, on some level, you understand India. And that you belong.

 

Why I’ve Chosen To Embrace Indian Culture

About Evan Bartlett

Evan BartlettEvan Bartlett is a 20-something who has been on the road for quite some time. Although in the past she has interspersed this time with various internships and projects, now she is going all in for a life of travel!

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