After my action-packed last update, you’re probably expecting an even more climactic finale to my cultural and linguistic experiences in Indore. Instead, reflecting one week after my return to America, I’d prefer to refer to my last two weeks as a “cool-down” of sorts from the hectic middle portion of my stay. While we did not see or tour as much, the end of my time in Indore was a much more emotional time and fostered quite a bit of internal reflection. After all, seven weeks, before and even during the early stages of the trip, seemed to me an almost infinite duration, and, for most of the session, I was not counting the days or keeping track of time because I was reaping so much enjoyment. Thus, when it hit me, a few days before return, that there were only a few days remaining, it was a quite shocking development and I did not know how to feel.
In essence, I was confronted with a unique dilemma I’m sure every long-term exchange student has faced at some point: how can one look forward to returning “home,” while at the same time leaving behind his new “home,” the community that has welcomed him for weeks with open arms? What even is “home?” I was indeed quite confused, for surely was I eager to see my real parents and friends again, to eat meat and American food again, to rest. Around the middle of week 5, Indian landscapes, culture and food, while still amazing, had somewhat lost their novelty and “wow-factor,” even having become somewhat normal to me. Yet, in the back of my mind I knew that that same roti, daal, and sabzi meal which was slowly becoming more and more uneventful would be craved immediately after return. Same goes for my wonderful host family. While I dearly missed my American family, I knew that it would not be fair to my new Indian family to mope about and ignore their affection, because I recognized that I only had a few days left, after which I would yearn for them just as much.
It was surely a confusing situation, yet there was definitely one silver lining I found inside this cloud of mental chaos. For the first time in my life, I had really found myself a “home” outside of America. If you think about it, “home” is really a place fully engrained into your mental map—so engrained that it loses it magical allure evident to outsiders. You will never see me, for example, walking around New York City in awe at all of its remarkable happenings and monuments because I’m so used to it, having lived there for seventeen years. Similarly, I bet you’ve heard me chirp about Exeter and its daily grind quite often, no matter how much I love it and regard the place as my second home.
To apply this concept to my stay in India, I am compelled to describe a session of our pre-departure orientation at LIU ages ago back in June. When the AFS cultural immersion specialists described how our long-term stays would pan out, they used a very useful “iceberg” metaphor. Upon initial arrival in India, they said, you’ll be wowed by “the tip of the iceberg”—an exotic cuisine, colorful clothing styles, different architecture, etc. This was not our goal, however; every tourist visiting India experiences these elements. Our intent was deep cultural immersion, which would require us to see “the rest of the iceberg, lying under the surface.” In order to deeply integrate into Indian culture, one must accept all of the superficial “tip” factors as normal—just as America can’t really be defined by baseball, hamburgers, and blue jeans, India can’t really be characterized as merely the land of naan bread, the Taj Mahal, and saris. Once these factors have been engrained in the student’s mind, only then can he start to make more profound observations about the attitudes, customs, driving motivations, and sentiments of the people he is studying. Such a corpus of information is vital to understanding any culture, yet extremely difficult to learn. Most travelers to America, for example, do not really familiarize themselves with the patterns of American behavior as they are too busy focusing on taking in the physical—the sights, smells, and tastes of an American city’s streets. At this point in my trip, I had finally begun to at least recognize and exhibit awareness of India’s complex cultural mechanisms and ascend from the status of just a mere tourist. Speaking the local language definitely sped up this process, as it allowed me to actually interact with, rather than observe, the Indian community. Thus, only after the “tip of the iceberg” factors had become firmly rooted in my mind, I really felt at “home” in Indore, as then I had stumbled upon and started to learn deeper cultural institutions and communication tactics. In essence, one can only say he has found a new “home” when he can appreciate its internal meaning as well as its external appeal.
The ultimate reason, however, that much of this cultural “DNA,” if you will, remains under the surface is that, unlike the Taj Mahal and Bollywood movies, they cannot accurately be described through words. Any tourist to India will likely return with a plethora of photographs and a myriad of memories of the monuments but will have trouble describing the general attitude of the people and the place. One way people deal with this difficulty is by creating broad, general stereotypes, which are still quite superficial and not very accurate. For example, some Americans, visiting India, might say that “Indians worry about school too much,” or that “Indians have bad table manners because they eat with their hands.” There are many problems with these type of statements, but I will now concentrate on the main two. First, any statement phrased “Indians ____” will always be incorrect—India is a country of over a billion people and more linguistic, religious, and ethnic diversity than even America, and thus its inhabitants cannot be lumped into one group. Second, these statements often apply the values and customs of the creator’s culture to another, quite different society that ought to be judged by its own tenets. To the average American who lives in a system that does not fully stress the importance of a strenuous education, Indian teenagers may very well indeed appear to spend too many hours studying and not playing sports or merely socializing. This does not take into account, however, that, for Indians, education is not only highly important to the success of their rapidly developing country but also, in fact, sacred. Similarly, it is unfair to state that Indians do not eat with table manners because that is applying Western etiquette to Indian dining. In fact, in Indian culture, as explained to me on my first day with the Nyati household, it is customary to pick up food with the hands because that signifies a stronger and more direct connection between the food and its consumer, with no utensil-middle-man involved.
Therefore, I regret to announce that I will not even attempt to transcribe the deep, “under the surface” knowledge I learned about India because the only way it can be written in words involves broad generalizations and biased reference frames. If one of the whole, overarching purposes of my long-term immersions was to stumble across such realizations, how can I expect to conveniently convey them in a mere bullet list of borderline-stereotypical statements? Also, as much as I learned, I was only in India for seven weeks, and, while I definitely started to peer under the surface, there is no way one can master one of the world’s most ancient and complicated traditions in such a short interval. However, if you’re interested in learning such knowledge, I encourage you to apply to NSLI-Y or another cultural exchange—there’s a reason these programs exist and it’s to foster such learning and break down such inaccurate blanket statements!
Now that I’ve exhausted such a profound rant, I’ll regress to the “tip of the iceberg” activities that I experienced at the end of my trip. After all, how can one not describe his trip to the Taj Mahal, no matter how much more to India there actually is?
One of the highlights of week 6 was our field trip to Ujjain, about an hour north of Indore. There stands one of the 12 most sacred Hindu temples in all of India, site of a massive pilgrimage every few years. After a drive filled with a mix of Bollywood music and Miley Cyrus, we arrived in Ujjain only to have to walk through a mob of worshippers to get to the actual temple. Once we passed the gates, the queue experience reminded me a lot of a roller-coaster line at Universal Studios or a similar park, with signs every 20 meters or so indicating the amount of time left until arrival at the inner shrine. Soon enough, with the temple door in sight, we were herded into a pack of chanting pilgrims undulating in every which direction and adorned with the sacred paint smears on the forehead and wrist-bracelets. Then, it was time to ring the bell and enter the shrine—or so we thought. It turns out that that long-awaited door just led to a staircase. We descended, and immediately noticed the two-to-three inch layer of milky water dotted with flowers and banana leaves sitting on the floor downstairs. Combined with the metal, picture-adorned walls, this created quite the lead-up to the holy experience of the shrine. When I finally ducked and walked through the gates into the inner temple, the pace of my surroundings suddenly kicked. Frantic worshippers pushed even more sporadically in every which direction and whisked us around the room like robots at a conveyer belt. I encircled the Shivling, the stone-manifestation of Shiva in the center of the room, twice in a whirlpool of worshippers before being able to touch it, as per custom—exiting the room was even more of a challenge! It was truly the most holy, spiritual experience I had ever had in my life and was a highlight of my trip for sure.
School was also quite eventful, as teachers sought to pack as much Hindi knowledge as we could fit before leaving for America. Specific preparation was taken for the OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview) required upon return, and there was much emphasis on extemporaneous speaking in front of the class and interview-style conversations. After taking my OPI yesterday and considering it somewhat of a successful result, I can attest that they succeeded in their goal. Now, the only Hindi test that remains is my two-hour reading and listening online exam, which I plan to take this weekend. Much time at Shishukunj was also spent preparing for our participation in the Independence Day dance festivities—although the girls in my group spent more time with a rigorous choreography of traditional Dance, Graham and I still took hours to perfect our flag-waving routine. Participating in the ceremony, which also served, at least to me, as a final celebration and grand finale to the Americans’ time in Indore, truly cemented the idea touched upon earlier that India had become my second “home.”
AFS-India, however, decided to save India’s top tourist destination for last—our final day in India was of course the most action-packed. A week prior, we had received an email from Vyom, one of the AFS-India coordinators, that, instead of spending time in Delhi, we would be having our end-of-stay orientation in Agra, a city four hours southeast of Delhi. After much logistical information, he, almost-casually, added that we would also be seeing India’s crown jewel, the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to his beloved wife and based on the Rani Rupmati Mahal we had seen in Mandu a few weeks ago. We were thrilled and, in fact, I already overheard some of my friends planning the various photo opportunities they would take there. So, last Wednesday, we awoke at 6 AM, and, after a feast at our hotel’s Western breakfast buffet, headed out for the monument. On first approach, the “Taj,” as we had started referring to it, seemed smaller than expected, but once we cleared the security checkpoints and proceeded through the massive Mughal-style gates, the sight appeared, even on a cloudy day, shining. It did not matter that scaffolding and green tarp cloaked two of its corner-towers—the “Taj” was definitely one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. How symmetrical it stood, amid a lead-up of perfectly maintained greenery and reflecting pools! How clean its marble, how smooth its dome! We were given an hour to roam around, go inside, and take pictures with a professional photographer, an hour which passed extremely quickly given the long search for the perfect photograph.
After leaving the site, we underwent a long bus ride to Delhi, during which I talked to the AFS-India staff and some of my American friends about their jobs and the cultural immersion experience in general. Soon, after a quick break at the AFS national office, we received the privilege of conferences with two US embassy officers, JT and Matt, at the American Center in Delhi. Although we were all tired, somewhat sick, and jarred by the prospect of spending nearly 30 hours traveling in the same clothes, the conversation was enlightening, offering us the chance to reflect further on our experiences, give feedback to improve the program for future participants, and to hear about careers in the Foreign Service. One definite consequence of the NSLI-Y experience is a heightened awareness of the role of diplomacy, both formal and informal, in the world’s functioning, and I’m definitely more interested in studying international relations and affairs sometime in the future.
One fifteen-hour and uneventful plane-ride later and I find myself in America again, where this trip began eight long weeks ago. Immediately after arriving at my original “home,” I realized how much I had actually taken in throughout my time in India. America seems completely different to me now—its streets quite sterile, its roads quite peaceful, its food honestly quite bland. I joked with my mother that I had more trouble adjusting back to the food in America than I did in India, as my stomach has not handled the large portions of meat and fried food particularly well upon return from a vegetarian diet. The only homesickness I really experienced on the trip was when I actually returned to my old home, only to miss my new one.
Now, however, the only way for me to really cope with this withdrawal and “homesickness” is to provide due thanks to everyone who contributed to such a wonderful experience.
First, the American side. Thank you to all you taxpayers for (unknowingly) funding such an amazing program as NSLI-Y. Government-sponsored exchanges, in my mind, are extremely important because they ensure that any willing and qualified American can study abroad and contribute to such a crucial cultural diplomacy process. Thank you to AFS USA for being such great implementers and support, all the way from when I struggled with the complex visa expedition process back in May (upon learning that my Turkish program had been canceled) to when I couldn’t figure out how to redeem my miles on the flight home. It was truly an honor to be part of such a historic and successful exchange organization and I look forward to being an active member of the alumni network. And a large thank you to all of my 16 new American friends I made through NSLI-Y, especially my Shishukunj classmates. As much as I loved integrating into Indian culture and making cross-cultural relationships, it was quite the relief to relax in the comfort of other American students, and we had too many fun times together to count!
After such a stay, I truly feel such an empathic gratitude to my new community in Indore—now, I finally understand what is meant when people refer to “Indian hospitality” and I am so honored to have been welcomed to and shown around your culture so eagerly. Shukriya to every last bus driver, vegetable vendor, and ticket officer who put up with my (once-)meager efforts to speak Hindi and with my constant stares and amazement. Dhanyavad to all of my new Indian friends made in and outside of school—you really created a lot of fun times for me and I’m so thankful that you included all of us Americans in your birthday parties, movie outings, Model UNs, and basically everything. I’m simply amazed that I have now over 200 Indian teenage friends on Facebook to keep in touch and practice Hindi with. Bahut dhanyavad to all of my wonderful teachers, who contributed the most to my rapid acquisition of basic Hindi—you were so helpful, patient, and kind. Now I understand why Indian students always perform so successfully in the United States! Lastly, bahut bahut dhanyavad to the Nyati household for not only offering me a place to stay but also making every last effort to fully integrate me into the life of their family. From day one I was shown the warmest hospitality and it was clear that they were trying their best to show me their city, introduce me to friends, and make sure I was having an enriching, fun experience. I’ll really miss Dadaji’s stern orders, Maaji’s amazing food, Chachaji’s playfulness, Chachiji’s advice, Pitaji’s enthusiasm, Mataji’s care, Ishaan’s companionship, Kunsh’s energy, Akshita’s creativity, and Suryansh’s loveable rowdiness. You were such an amazing group of people to spend 6 weeks with and I can’t wait to see you again, whether in America, India, or elsewhere.
This concludes my final blog post. One final note: for any of you interested in languages, cultures, foreign relations, or travel in general, I highly encourage you to apply to NSLI-Y. It’s really the most amazing summer option out there for experiencing another culture and learning another language in depth. I could rant forever about how much I loved the program, but all I will say now is that my time spent on it was truly the most enriching, interesting, and fun stretch of my life. For anyone interested in learning more about the Hindi program or the experience in general—join the FB groups “NSLI-Y Applicants 2012-2013” and “Ask NSLI-Y Alumni,” and friend me on FB. I’d be more than happy to answer your questions and blab on more about my time in Indore. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you all for reading my brutally long posts, and I hope I have inspired some of you to really consider studying abroad, learning another language, or even just trying something different. It’s been an honor to have been shared and read by so many people. For that, and everything in the last few months, I am eternally grateful.
P.S: I will be uploading a large stock of photos quite soon.