India is a beautiful country with great people, incredible cuisine, and fascinating sights. I can say all of that in hindsight. When I visited for work in 2010, it was a very difficult experience. Even now when I look back at that trip after having traveled to more than 40 countries and territories, it is still the most painful experience I have ever had in a foreign country. It took me a long time to figure out why that was such a difficult trip. Prior to that trip, I had only visited eight other countries: Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Philippines, Thailand, China, and Japan. I spent a few years living in a US border town by Mexico when I was very young so Mexico to this day does not seem foreign. Canada was not foreign either because I spent many summers visiting my grandmother and uncle there. The Bahamas and Jamaica were both laid back islands that I visited for vacation and never struck me as foreign. My first trip to the Philippines in 2007 was pretty easy because I have loads of extended family there. China, Japan and Thailand were very easy to get used to for me because I could identify myself as Asian and found parallels to everything from my childhood. Additionally, I had friends guiding me through all of those countries so I was never out of my safe zone with them close by.
So why was India so difficult when all of the previous countries that I had visited were so easy to get used to? I have realized over the years since then that I had two major deficiencies:
- I had unrealistic expectations about what I thought India would be like
- I was uneducated about the language, as well as the cultural and social aspects of the Indian people
When I first arrived in India, my first major frustration was with how painstakingly slow simple processes would take. An immigration processing line of 20 people took over 90 hot, sweaty, minutes of waiting. To put that pace into perspective, it’s about five times slower than processing at the airport I hate most…LAX in Los Angeles. On the evening of my second night, I noticed that one my incredibly delicious lentils was moving…it turned out to be a disgusting bug. Another bug reared its ugly head the next day in the form of stomach cramps and diarrhea…literally the second after I was able to get my first look at the Taj Mahal. That sickness continued for several days and never really went away for the remainder of my 2 week trip. Then I couldn’t get over how I could never get a straight answer from my Indian counterparts whenever I asked a question. I could list many other trite issues that I had but that’s beside the point.
I didn’t know it but I was experiencing what most people refer to as culture shock. Social scientists have mapped four distinct stages of culture shock but that’s irrelevant unless you’re like my nerdy wife who is pursuing a PhD in sociocultural linguistics. Quite simply, culture shock is the disorientation you experience when you arrive in a foreign environment. It’s a common phenomenon, even for experienced travelers. Fortunately, I have learned how to mitigate and anticipate culture shock much better since that trip to India.
Form Legitimate Expectations
I admitted earlier that my expectations for what I thought India should be were unrealistic. I was arrogant in thinking that after traveling to eight other countries, I was some cosmopolitan, international man of mystery that could just fit in anywhere. WRONG! Part of my misguided expectations were formed in part by thinking that I would immediately understand and fit in with the culture because I had a good Indian friend and because I associated India as an Asian country. I figured, “I’m Asian so I’ll totally understand them the way I understand China, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.” Although all of those East Asian countries are different from each other, there are enough similarities in all of them that make it easier to know what is going on if you are a part of one of them (much the way Canada and Australia tend to be easier on Americans even though there are many differences). East Asian cultures however, are vastly different from the Central Asian nation of India. I literally found no parallels to any of the places I had ever been and struggled to even find parallels between the people I was meeting and my Indian friend (who I had met in Japan and was educated in the UK). I was totally lost and didn’t have close friends guiding me in the midst of my confusion. If that wasn’t enough, my stomach illness caused by my quivering lentils made me despise Indian food. My attitude got worse with every mounting frustration.
The effect of culture shock would have been dramatically decreased if I had just been humble by admitting that I didn’t know a darn thing about what to expect and postured myself with a willingness to learn. Although I knew lots of people who had traveled to India and gotten sick, I didn’t accept that it would happen to me. At least then it wouldn’t have been such a shock and caused so much disappointment.
I could also have greatly decreased the effects of culture shock had I studied some basic Hindi and the etiquette of social interactions, as well as read a few books or articles about Indian culture and politics. Watching Slumdog Millionaire didn’t do anything to prepare me other than give me a visual presentation of parts of India. Knowing a few simple phrases and some social etiquette would have instantly given me some credibility in my interactions. It would have also decreased my frustration with people because I would have understood the meaning behind ambiguous answers and head nods, as well as the fact that time runs differently for Indians than it does for me. Additionally, if I knew more about culture and politics, or even some other things like Bollywood or the game of cricket, I would have actually had something to engage with people on. Sadly, I didn’t have much to offer so I had to wait around like a leech hoping that a friendly Indian could engage with me on a non-work related subject that I could understand.
Although these two simple tips won’t make you feel like a native in a foreign country within days, they will at least prepare you for the challenges that you will inevitably face. They won’t cure culture shock, but they will help you beat it when it hits. Whether you are a seasoned traveler or have never traveled outside your home country, you have a lot to learn whenever you travel somewhere new. Don’t show up unprepared unless you have a close friend guiding you. Even if you have a friend leading you around, you still have to have a teachable spirit when it comes to eating, interacting with others, and understanding the new world around you. That world will be an exciting, memorable place that will give you with priceless life experiences if you humbly enter it prepared.