Cultural differences

Adjusting to India

7:13 PM

My friend and fellow blogger Kristy compiled a list of all the things she had to adjust to since moving to India a little over a year ago which you can read here.

I’ve been to India for 8.5 years, so for me lots of the things she lists are things of the past, plus I lived in bigger cities all the time, which does make a huge difference when you are an expat. In the beginning I tried hard to conform to a certain standard that I perceived as typically Indian, especially in my dress code which I learned over the year doesn’t even exist, because there is no such thing as a Indian standard of anything. So today you are more likely to find me roaming around in capris and t-shirt or short kurta, if it’s not shorts that I am wearing, Mumbai being a bit less conservative in this department.
So in 8.5 years here are the stuff I adjusted to if not completely got used to:

 

- Being stared at for no other reason than being a foreigner, the first year it was tough, embarrassing and I was trying all I could to minimise these occurrences dressing the part, not fully realising that no matter the outfit I would be stared at, I’m pretty sure people still do stare, but I don’t pay as much attention to it these days.

- Living quarters in India, they are much different than in Switzerland, not necessarily in size but the bathroom and the kitchen are the two rooms in a house in India that have a very distinct appearance and level of impracticability I never knew possible in Geneva, Kitchens while much bigger than the ones I got used to home, generally lack planning and have an inconsiderable amount of lost space. Bathrooms are generally wet rooms with not much planning put into them, a thing that fortunately is being corrected in newer buildings for both rooms.

- Cooking continental food requires ingenuity and a knack for substituting ingredients. I got used to that, in the first few years I could not afford anything fancy and imported, now I could occasionally but I refuse to give in to that system as much as possible, the imported products I buy are just the basic sauces and condiments I need to pull out a certain dish, everything else is Indian. The good thing is that over the years local brands have come with much more choice of herbs and produces so that I can cook them far more easily.

 

- I got used to feel a bit more limited in my movements due to several factors such as climate and impractical public transports, I don’t necessary like it, in fact I miss the flexibility I had back home there, but 8+ years later it is less of an issue, plus I make a point that we have to live in an area that offers me a range of service within reach without breaking the bank. The worst place was Navi Mumbai, there was a big mall, but I resented the lack of pleasant walk path and green spaces. The climate in Mumbai is still something I am getting adjusted to, and I actually hate the humidity we have right now that limit my outings further.

 

- Hygiene standards, not that I was fussy to begin with, I travelled a lot as a kid, went camping in places like Morocco in the 80’s, so icky public toilets, weird smells and piles of garbage, while still being gross, are not scaring me too much, I also have parents who believed in not over disinfecting everything and letting us get down and dirty in many places, result of which I have a fairly strong immune system which might have helped me get used to living in India, I think the sickest I have been was a 24 hour bout of Gastro during which I spilled my guts. ALl the other sick moments I had were common colds and flu like diseases, I would have caught the same back home. The other thing that has strongly helped in the health department is that living in our own place with no interference from in-laws meant I had better control over the cleanliness of my direct environment.

- Language, it might come as a surprise to a lot of you guys, but English is NOT my native language, I moved to India being already fluent in it but not sensitized to local idioms and accents, in the beginning in Bangalore there were days I had trouble understanding others and had trouble getting understood as well. I am still not fluent in Hindi, I understand a fair bit of it, and speak enough to get myself understood in Mumbai were people tend to prefer this language over English in comparison to Bangalore where English is spoken fairly enough even by the “dhud-walla” (milk man).

- Shopping, in the beginning I had the impression that a lot of things didn’t even exist in India simply because I had no idea where to start looking, or even the knowledge of how it was called locally. It had me frustrated big time on occasion, but years of experience later, I can certify that if you know where to look you will find almost anything around here, it just takes a lot of time to figure it out, and I mean years not months when I say lots of time. I also learned that small shops aren’t necessarily cheaper than big stores like Lifestyle, even if smaller stores have fixed prices, and the fact I know the prices of things to bargain in shops that don’t do fixed price, just to say that there is no point turning your back at big retail chains, but do like back home and compare prices if what you are after is a bargain.

- I got used to idiots trying to fleece me for the sole fact of looking like a foreigner, it’s still irritating, but I know the prices, and I still have the power to say no and walk away, in many occasions I don’t have to fight, autowallas in Bangalore did try to hike up their fare all the time, but they do it with the locals too, and the choice of agreeing to go at the quoted fare or wait for an honest driver is still mine, sure it takes more time but it’s part of IST

- I got adjusted to the infamous IST mentioned above, it stands fro Indian Standard Time, but in slang it stands for Indian Stretchable Time. Simply put, time has a far different value here than it has back home, Swiss are punctual, ON TIME is the motto. In India there is no such thing “Meeting starting at 6” generally mean something like  6.30 or 7, I’ve been to several interviews where I came on time only to wait for an hour or more in the waiting area. It is still rude and even some Indians will tell you how pissed they were having to wait forever in an office to meet someone, but it still is done. Over the years I sadly desified in this department and a Birthday party starting at 6 had me leave home by 6.15 to reach by 6.30 and still find it pretty much empty. There are still instances that irritate me with DH not getting ready on time, or saying we will go somewhere but leave only late afternoon when it could have been cleared in the morning…such as grocery shopping, but it doesn’t make me go hyper and fume like it used to several years ago.

 

- I got used to the fact that western wear mostly come in Asian sizes, and that while I would fit in a size M back home or at the most a size L, here I am rarely finding anything below a size XL. There are brand I avoid, others I can safely go for, but then that was also true back home where many labels design their line around the body shape of an anorexic 13 years old and claim it as a standard for a woman’s body.

- Still on clothes, I got used to actually buying branded stuff, in Switzerland the only big brand I was buying was “H & M” everything else came from department stores house brands, and sales by correspondence catalogues, preferably during sales. Brand like Levi’s and Benetton were out of my budget and even then, really not something I would feel like spending money on. In India clearance bin stuff is not necessarily good quality enough, and house brands are or in sizes I have no chance of fitting in or will break apart after a few wash, so I go for the basics in quality brands instead, keeping the fun casual not to important clothes in no-brands stuff that fit. I also totally got used to wearing colours, bright ones at that, things that when I wore back home in 2008 during my 2 months visit had people turn their head at to stare at me…is this lady really wearing a hot pink top? Safe to say I adjusted to flashier fashion over the years. What hasn’t changed though is that I still pretty much prefer casual basics over frilly uncomfy high maintenance stuff, and will wear a t-shirt until it looses shape and possibly tear apart before considering buying new clothes.

- I got adjusted to the lack of quiet nature escapes, back home I would often go to the country side on my cycle or by foot, find a deserted spot to just rejuvenate myself. Here it’s not possible, I still go for walks whenever I can, but it’s not the same, escaping the crowd in a city in India is impossible, so I guess it is also safe to say I got adjusted to crowded places too.

- Got adjusted to staying home more, it goes pretty much with the lack of crowd escaping plans, since walking in a deserted country side area or public park isn’t possible in urban India, my apartment has become a bit more of a sanctuary than it was back home, as a result I tolerate even less clutter in it than I used to, because I need a personal space where I can breathe, I found out that mess, and clutter actually has me tensed inside the home, it wasn’t that much of an issue in my tiny 26 square meter studio apartment in Geneva, but I now need clear space, lots of natural light and no mess inside more than I ever had in my whole life before moving to India.

- I got adjusted to being a foreigner, and interestingly that is when I accepted that fact and stopped trying to blend in to ridiculous extent that I felt more of an insider and had people around me consider me for the same. I am Swiss, and while I don’t mind dressing Indian, I am not Indian and if I want to wear cropped pants and a form fitting T-shirt then be it, no one actually expect me to not wear such attire in the first place. Ditto with the food, I lkie Indian food, I know how to cook it, but I love my food from home and people around me actually are more interested in knowing what traditional Swiss cuisine is like rather than hear about my wonderful dal makhani or abilities to make samosas, not that they don’t find it impressive, but they find my cultural background more interesting. That also had me realise that not all Indians meet the Indian ideal or mix well and feel integrated out of their social circle and class, so it would be silly to expect a foreigner to blend in let’s say rural India or traditional middle class urban India.

This was of course a slow process, and the first few years I felt like screaming and crying, and frustration often had the best of me, adjusting to a new culture and finding you place in it is a long journey. I think I started feeling comfy about India in 2008 when DH was gone on medium term assignment abroad which left me home all by myself getting over the grief of a miscarriage on top of it. I was in a place where I wanted life on my own terms once again, with no one to dictate me what I should be doing or not. 2008 marked the 5th year in India…that’s how much it took me to really feel a sense of being home and belonging as I was to it.

7 comments

  1. Such a great post! There are a lot of adjustments for anyone to make when coming here and it's different for everyone. I like to see new perspectives on how each person dealt with their challenges. In the US our kitchens vary greatly. We have so many cultures infused there that you can find anything. So my mother had this gigantic open floor plan for her kitchen. It literally took up 1/4 of an entire floor and it is bigger than any room I've encountered here. In India, my kitchen is 4x6 with even less floor space! I think I find it difficult to get use to so few choices. Everything is just one way here. There's no infusion of cultures (outside of all the Indian ones which are not that different in ways that matter to me). I'm slowly learning how to deal with some things and getting over others but I'm still not as used to this place as you are. 

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  2. Akshaya Borkar6:44 AM

    wow great post, people like you are courageous to go through such change. Luckily you don't have to face other issues yet like caste system n reservations sytem and job frustations etc. 

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  3.  Well caste systema nd reservation are two discriminations, and I face discrimination, not these obviously, but being a foreigner is no picnic either trust me :)
    I hope one day India will put all these silly discriminations and prejudice behind once and for all and treat all its citizens and residents equally.

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  4. You wonld find a bit more diversity in a big Metro, I imagine Amritsar might be far less cosmopolitan than other places and yes that makes it probably harder to get used to it.
    I need to write a post about Switzerland today, because that might also have influenced me greatly in how I adapted, especially grocery shopping, we didn't have that many international brands growing up, only 2 massive supermarket chain n the country, the only fast food back then was Mc D and the other never really caught up even today, fruits and vegetables are pretty much a season thing and overall we had far less choice avialable in retail than in neighbouring France.

    As for getting used to India, as I said it takes LOADS of time

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  5.  I plan to do a similar post this summer while I'm home. Give a good perspective of my life. Even though America is a huge melting pot and we have so much available, there are many different cultures within it as well. I didn't grow up in the Hollywood culture, I grew up in a rural area. It is going to be great to post about home with a more cultured perspective. I look forward to your post on Switzerland!

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  6. I just posted my blog on Swiss retail and food culture :)

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  7. Akshaya Borkar7:35 AM

    wow great post, people like you are courageous to go through such change. Luckily you don't have to face other issues yet like caste system n reservations sytem and job frustations etc. 

    ReplyDelete

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