If culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing a foreign environment, then Liv and I were both culturally shocked at various times during our first visit to India. Experts on cross cultural experiences have pointed out that these experiences can sometimes lead to “feelings of distress, helplessness, and hostility towards the new environment.” Reflecting on our time in India, I would concur with this notion.
So, just what experiences in India have formed the basis of this culture shock? Before sharing a few of these, I want to be clear that our observations are our own. They’re informed by our backgrounds, culture, and individual experiences. We’ve lived most of our lives in Canada and we fully concede the fact that other people, perhaps even other Canadians, might come away with an entirely different cross cultural experience while visiting India. For example, while I personally find that being a pedestrian in India is about as much fun as sunbathing in Saskatoon in January, someone else might find it truly enthralling to walk around to the sounds of endless honking while trying to avoid being hit by scooters, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and busses. You get the idea. So, with that being said, here are some of the culturally shocking foreign experiences that stand out the most for us when we think back on our time in India:
Whether it be walking down a city street, riding the bus or metro, or touring one of India’s many tourist attractions, it seems that you will never walk alone in India. Indian cities are incredibly crowded and it can be challenging to find respite from the mass of people. I suppose this should not come as a complete shock given that there are over 1.2 billion people living in India. But, it’s so incredibly foreign to us to be surrounded by so many people so often. While it can sometimes be fun to be vomited out of an overcrowded metro car or be surrounded by thousands of people at a bustling market on a random weeknight, it can also be somewhat disorienting. This is why finding a quiet spot near the top of Chamundi Hill in Mysore or a quiet corner of the Lodi Gardens in Delhi has felt like the most incredible discovery in this country with so many people.
Indian cities are filthy. There is no other way to say it. The filth is shocking and it’s sad. Litter is everywhere, it seems. The pungent smell of urine is all too often encountered. (I suppose it makes sense given the number of people we see relieving themselves in plain sight). All too often while in India I’ve been reminded of that scene from Mad Men when Don Draper and his family enjoy a nice picnic in the suburbs of NYC. Once they’re done, Don simply whisks the blanket out from under the paper plates and garbage left on top, sending everything flying all over the grass in the park. Folding up the blanket, Don and family head for their car, smiles on their faces, unconcerned by the trash they’ve left behind. The message is clear: the early 1960’s in America were different times. Incredibly, it’s as though this scene plays out, in some form or other, on a daily basis in Indian cities. It’s very common to witness someone tossing their litter onto the road, out the window of the train, into an alley next to a shop, etc. It’s common and it’s very difficult to understand for these two foreigners who grew up with anti-litter campaigns and the idea that garbage goes in the garbage can.
Not unlike most big and populated cities, the typical Indian city is noisy. This is not that surprising. What is surprising and difficult for us to understand is the extent to which people don’t seem to be concerned by the noise they emit and how that might impact others around them. For example, whether it be on trains, buses, or in a movie theatre, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk or yell loudly, listen to music or a movie with speakers (not headphones), and use speakerphone while talking on a mobile phone. Perhaps even more surprising is that everyone around them seems to be entirely fine with the whole thing. Of course, this might explain why people feel that it is acceptable to behave in this way in the first place. Without a doubt, this has been one of the most difficult practices to accept and to which we have had to acclimatize.
India is a male dominated society and this is something that I found to be surprising and somewhat unsettling at times. For example, in the course of introductions, it’s strange to have a man offer to shake my hand but not do the same for my wife. Let me be clear that we have met many seemingly kind men and those who have offered to shake Liv’s hand as well as mine have been the exception. What’s more, we have also met many people who ask questions about Liv and what she does for work or where she’s from. Strangely, they direct these questions to me despite the fact that Liv is often standing right next to me. Naturally, this is something that is quite different from what I’m used to. However, I found it to be all the more surprising because, for whatever reason, it wasn’t something I was expecting about Indian culture.
In our experience, it’s normal to find yourself at a ticket window and to have a few other people trying to shove bills through the ticket window while you’re trying to do whatever it is that you need to do. Clearly, the idea of lining up and adhering to that line differs from our understanding of the practice. Once again, what is most surprising is not so much the fact that people want to jump the queue and head to the front of line (this can and does happen in Canada). No, what is most surprising is that people seem to tolerate this systemic queue jumping. When people do adhere to the queue, you can forget about that North American personal space! In other words, there is not likely to be any space between yourself and the person behind you.
There you have it. Call it culture shock or whatever you like, these are are some of the things that have left us feeling mystified, frustrated, sad, overwhelmed etc. while touring around India. It has been quite interesting to read more about the process of adapting to a culture and the various stages that people go through during this process. When I informed Liv that we were going through a process that is fairly well defined and normal, she replied: “Thank God! I thought we were just terrible people!”