I’m Not Immune to Culture Shock

Considering that I’ve travelled a fair deal, I figured that culture shock was a thing of the past. Now that over a week has passed in northern India, I realize that’s not the case.

On my recent trip to Central America, the culture shock was minimal. This is not the situation here, now.

India is considered a part of the Asian continent; however, it’s the only land on earth that can be considered a subcontinent. I suggest that we regard it as a continent as its unique cultural heritage deserves this distinction.

Never have I been to a land that has thrown so many surprises at me. I’ve already told you about three Delhi scams, a bizarre bazaar, the Delhi streets, and a raucous rickshaw ride.

People push and shove. If I go into a place and there’s a ton of people, forget it. I’m not gonna engage in physical battle for the leverage to order something.

I rode the modern subway during afternoon rush hour. Like in many megacities, the area covered is extensive.  Even though the train is speedy, journeys can be long.

People were trying to force their way into an overcrowded subway car. Like what I’d heard about Tokyo, there are uniformed men at every door trying to assist, to restore some sort of order, and to give a push to get people in so the doors can close.

When I finally got into the third train that came, people were pushing me hard from behind. There was a mother and two little ones right in front of me. One kid stood as high as my waist, the other, even lower. I did my best to not stampede them.  I tried to shield them. I asked the mother if they were OK. She ignored me. A well dressed business man interjected in clear English:

Yes. They’re fine.”

Indian People Often Ask if They Can Take Your Photo

Inside the mammoth and mobbed New Delhi Railway station, I was standing at a little booth trying to get a man’s attention for a cup of chai. People ruthlessly cut in front of me over and over. I thought in hindsight: Because I ddn’t get a body edge on them, it’s my fault that I didn’t get my cup of chai. I see this in hindsight but didn’t notice it at the time. I was completely shocked as this is the complete opposite of what I’m used to. I gave up. Looking forward, I’ll probably give up again. I’m not working up a sweat for a cup of chai, as tasty as it may be.

I’m now in Rishikesh. It’s five or six hours north of Delhi. Here taxis, jeeps and motorbikes drive down narrow streets filled with people, cows and stray dogs, beeping their horns incessantly. Drivers often hold their horns pressed down. Many Indian people  don’t seem worried by these vehicles practically brushing up against them. They don’t even seem to notice the beeping as it must be second nature to their ear drums.

There aren’t many foreign tourists  here this time of year, but every single one of them that I’ve seen in the street, including myself, is shocked by the ceaseless honking. I wonder: What is the rate of tinnitus in India?

I asked a local if people ever get hit by these vehicles flying by. He said:

Yes. Today the ice cream guy lost his leg.”

Then he laughed.

I saw a woman squatting, defecating on the side of the road. I made sure to look away.

There is no concept of personal space. My guess is that even a Latino would notice this. I used to think that there was no personal space factor in Latin American culture. But now I realize that there is.

There are pleasant surprises too

While on a rather grueling two hour bus ride from Haridwar, where I got the train to, I met a family of five. A girl was on the mother’s lap. A boy was on the father’s lap, and another boy was standing. They were talking together and laughing. They were very interested in me. Their English was good. Their smiles were radiant and contagious. I thought: I’ve never seen a happier bunch.

Upon taking a whimsical drift into the sweltering foothills of Luxman Juhla, on the other side of the river from Rishikesh, I came across a Hindu temple. A man showed me inside and motioned that I make a donation. I placed a coin in the basket. He showed me how to pray and put a red dot on my forehead.

He then mentioned that I could take the stairs up. There were seven flights or so. I was so tired from the hot walk up that I didn’t count the flights of stairs.

I arrived on top to find a beautiful view of the Ganges. Three young dudes were up at the top sitting, admiring the view and observing their religion.

They made space for me to sit and insisted that I join them. We tried to communicate. There was a huge language barrier. They still taught me how to pray and showed me around town after that.

We stopped for tea, put our feet in the cold Ganges and watched a group of European looking Hari Krishnas chanting the peaceful Hari Krishna tune.

I’d like to think that I’m humbled by all of these cultural surprises. I’ve been here for a week and a half and know that there are many unforseen perplexities to come.

I can’t remember where I heard this quote that I must try to live by:

It’s not strange. It’s only different.”

Now, when I see people fighting for space to order a chai, or cars and jeeps beeping while flying past cows and pedestrians, or if people are pushing up against me from behind,  all I can do is laugh,  endure and hope that these experiences are helping me to think further outside of the box.


7 responses to this post.

  1. AL: Great point! Weird is just a state of mind. I once glanced at a guidebook about travelling the United States and it mentioned something about how wild, crazy and full of surprises it is for the foreigner. Anything different is stimulating.
    Perhaps my culture shock was brought on by starting my trip in a megacity. Granted I was in NYC a few weeks ago. But that megacity I’m used to. An Indian megacity I’m not. Plus, I was jet lagged while my physiological make up isn’t used to the humid 100 degree plus temps.
    India is beyond fascinating. I’m just starting to settle in. The biggest gripe I have right now is the lack of internet infrastructure. Part of the problem is that the power goes out very often.


  2. Posted by Al on June 22, 2011 at 16:51

    From what you describe, it appears that the Indian culture is almost as weird as that of Massachusetts. Seriously, I think this is one amazing experience you are having, and us, your public are living vicariously through you. What strikes me in particular is how shocked you are, considering that you’ve traveled extensively through south-east Asia, which I think must be pretty exotic in its own right, at least from a westerner’s perspective. I know that the drifting experience has its own rewards, but so far could you say that you actually like India? I know that there are good and bad things, like everywhere else, but overall, is the balance positive or negative?


  3. Great post and great comments. I hope you continue to post on such a frequent basis as I’m seriously enjoying living vicariously through you.
    Michael C


  4. It’s not strange. It’s only different. That fits perfectly. My mother use to always say: It takes all kinds. The people of India are their own kind. Sometimes we think that where we live is congested but it doesn’t even compare.


    • India’s the seventh largest country area wise while the U.S. is tied for third with China. But India has roughly four times the population of the U.S. They will surpass China as the most populated soon. Four times the U.S. will become five times, six times.
      As for the people of India being their own kind. There are so many different types of people here. There are also different religions, Gods and languages. It’s complex. I’m trying to learn. I’ll need time. 🙂


  5. JANAK: Well said. Even with the slightest effort at speaking Hindi, the warmth increases immensely. The street food is also warm. Fun stuff!


  6. Posted by Janak on June 21, 2011 at 02:05

    To live daily life in India one must never stand on the edge. Jump in and swim. The waters may not contain clorine. But they’re always warm.


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