Lessons from India

One of the most common phrases that we hear so often here in Southern India, is “what to do?” This is the general sentiment given to any and all situations that end in confusion or distress. It basically means, “I don’t know how to fix this, so lets just smile and deal with it later when we might understand each other,” and it is actually a pretty effective form of conflict resolution.

Starting here, India is different in literally every way possible. It’s hard to have an opinion sometimes. We’re obviously overwhelmed daily by preferences in regards to the culture, things we love, things we hate and things we can’t believe. But it happens so frequently that it’s all sort of a blur of understanding or misunderstanding. This, coupled with our Eastern-engrained sense of what culture sensitivity should be (thanks to the incredible Anthropology department) makes it hard for us to say with any certainty that we don’t appreciate any aspect of our experience. To be fair, almost everything is enjoyable, so there’s not much to complain about, but sometimes the culture shock catches up with us and we are just left wondering what just happened.

One of the most challenging things that we’ve faced so far this semester is the Indian academic system. This is the area where most of us have transitioned from culture shock to culture exhaustion – and we’ve only been here a month. The differences lie mostly in things like scheduling, class requirements and what kind of respect is expected for professors. When a professor enters the classroom, the class has to rise to their feet until asked to sit by the professor. It is also somewhat unacceptable for a student to disagree with the professors, or to express a lack of understanding. Most students just nod along, and then catch up later if things aren’t clear, because they don’t want to make the professor feel that they didn’t explain the lecture thoroughly. But the hardest thing to get used to is the scheduling. Here, it is completely acceptable, and in fact expected, for a teacher to schedule extra, impromptu class hours sometimes only hours in advance. They also wouldn’t bat an eyelash at extending class an hour or two in order to cover all the material. Obviously, this has all been a lot for us to adjust to, as we’re used to Eastern’s (and the rest of the United States’s) way of structuring class hours in a predictable, fixed way, but it has also taught us a lot about who we are and what kind of culture we come from. Our system never seemed odd to me. Even though at home, if a professor spends too much time answering questions for their class, and they don’t get through their material, they are the ones expected to alter their exams or assign extra work to make sure the material is covered.

I think one of the most significant things that we’re all learning from living in India is the fact that nothing is certain, and our opinions of both this culture and our home culture change on a daily basis. It is all too easy to be overwhelmed with culture shock–coming into the hot climate and the busy road systems (not to mention the fact that everyone is constantly staring at the white stranger in town)–but when it comes down to it, cross cultural experience, and anthropology in general, is really about learning more about who we are in the world based on our experiences with other cultures. Personally, India has taught me more about what it means to be an American college student that I ever could have learned at home.


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