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Overall, I would say the cultural experience was the best part of my trip. I love learning about people and different cultures, especially trying to discover WHY another culture is the way it is. History is really an important key to this, since if you can trace the history of a culture, you can often see how certain patterns of behaviour emerged as an adaptation to daily life. I have read quite a few novels (many with lots of historical context) about India and became fascinated by it, which is part of what inspired me to go on this trip.
I found the people in India to be very dignified, respectful, and eerily calm! Despite (or due to?) the incredible chaos, desperation, and physical danger of daily life, there is a sense of spirituality that permeates everything. People in India seem to have mastered remaining detached from the external environment while remaining intimately connected with the collective population. And even I (control freak and cultural outsider) was able to embrace this fateful outlook and literally flow through traffic, crowds, animals, and whatnot… At least some of the time! What an interesting feeling that was.
I am trying to hang on to that feeling here, with some success, but I have to make a conscious effort. I tend to rush everywhere and I’m almost obsessed with sprinting down the long hall to the subway when I can hear or see a train coming and I know I can just make it if I run as fast as I can… So, lately, before I leave my house I remind myself that “I am calm and collected” and that there is no need to rush. When I’m commuting to work in the morning, I try to float above all the people and when I’m taking an escalator, I try to consciously “stand right” not “walk left”. I’m doing OK…
The best explanation I heard for the culture in India was that in India (and much of Asia), religion and culture are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Religion is a guide for how to live life and sets a pattern of cultural norms and values that reflect the “proper” way to live. While not everyone in India is Hindu, Hinduism strongly impacts the culture because it reaches into all areas of life. And while there is formal worship for sure, it is not so “obligatory” or chore-like as it seems in North America. Being a good Hindu does not seem to hinge so heavily on whether one faithfully goes through the religious motions, but has more to do with how everyday life is lived and whether one follows the core values of Hinduism. To me, this is really what religion SHOULD be – a guide for living one’s best life and achieving peace and balance. One night during the first week, the OB/GYN we preceptored with brought us along with her to a friend’s house to attend their weekly worship and celebration for their guru. As an aside, nearly every Indian I met had a guru, a spiritual leader whom they look to for guidance and inspiration. This celebration was lovely – music, singing, reading, and finally meditation on one particular lesson for that week. Afterwards, there was a small potluck, then back to work! I was so touched that these strangers would welcome 6 bumbling med students into their home to take part in such a personal ceremony.
I noticed that in India there seemed to be no boundaries. No boundaries between people and animals or people and machines. Behaviour seemed to depend on the whim of the person acting – people did not concern themselves with attempting to control the behaviour of other people. If you want to drive faster, you could pass the vehicle in front of you, honk your horn, drive on the wrong side of the road (temporarily!), or even leave the road entirely! Cows and dogs lived where they chose, alongside people, who also lived where they could make a home. Men, women, and children bathed in the river on a whim. Many roads had no dividing lines, and the city I was in had only one stoplight that I ever saw. However, I still felt that my personal space and my body were respected. Nobody grabbed me, blocked my path, or stuck their hands in my pockets. Even in crowds, I was never badly jostled and I never felt like I would be robbed or groped.
When I travel, I try to cultivate a truly open mind and to absorb (as much as possible) the culture I am in, rather than assuming that I know what will be construed as polite or rude... This is incredibly hard to do and demands that one be extra observant, especially when immersed in culture so different from North America. Finally, here are a couple of stories of how what I considered polite was actually perhaps inappropriate in India:
During the first week with my host family, I made sure to say “thank you” following every meal because I wanted to show them how much I appreciated having 3 hot meals each day cooked from scratch! From the start, I was kind of confused by their reaction, which seemed to be a mixture of annoyance and discomfort. However, the last thing I wanted to do was imply that they were making me uncomfortable, so I just ignored it. Later in the week, after many “thank yous” had been made, they finally asked us to STOP thanking them! They explained that because they were welcoming us into their home like family, it was unnecessary (and even inappropriate) for us to thank them constantly because with family you do not need to exchange such pleasantries. They told us that it was making them uncomfortable and asked us to save our thanks for the end of the week…
It took me many more weeks to pick up on the fact that Indians are not so concerned with saying an official “hello” or “good bye” as I am. The best examples of this occurred when I would talk on my cell phone with the program coordinators. If I called them, they would answer with “hello”, but it was a lot quieter and mumbled than I’m used to and it would confuse me! The reverse would happen when I would answer with a distinct and loud “hello” – it seemed to really creep them out… The funniest thing to me was “good bye”. I can’t even count the number of times that the coordinators would simply hang up without warning when the conversation was done, leaving me confused. And when I would say “good bye” first, they would always answer with a very strange “uh, good bye” as if I had said something really strange…
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