Photo: Rachel Rueckert

21 American Habits I Lost in India

India United States Student Work
by Sofia Neilsen Sep 14, 2015

Featured Photo: Rachel Rueckert

1. Expecting things immediately.

I come from a microwave culture with expressions like “time is money.” In India, I learned to wait. If someone said it would be thirty minutes for a table, I assumed it would be a few hours. If someone said they would meet me at three, I showed up with a book to read. Patience, I was shocked to discover, is a learnable virtue.

2. Panicking when there’s no toilet paper.

Millions of people in the world live without toilet paper and rely on their hands, buckets of water, and soap. It took me a few attempts, but the new routine may be even cleaner than the way we do it in the West.

3. Complaining about how complicated American weddings are.

A year’s worth of planning for an American day-long wedding ceremony doesn’t come close to the complex processes and rituals Indian couples and families go through. Most ceremonies last for days and include several celebrations leading up to the actual wedding. There are families who save for decades to throw the best wedding party.

4. Being afraid to wear florescent colors.

My favorite color is yellow, which isn’t often flattering in US fashion. But in India I can wear a bright banana yellow salware kameeze with a matching sparkly dupatta and fit right in with the vivid saffron, indigo, purple, and lime-green saris women wear every day.

5. Being offended by invasive questions.

People never got tired of asking “How much money do you make?”, “Why don’t you have children?”, “How much do you weigh?” I also became perfectly comfortable discussing bowel movements with friends.

6. Thinking the “third floor” is literally on the third floor of a building.

It took me a few awkward visits to local stores to realize that what I assumed was the first floor is called the “ground floor.” The “first floor” is actually on the next level up.

7. Being used to bad customer service.

Customer service is good — almost too good in India. I felt uncomfortable having a napkin spread out on my lap for me or having my glass refilled every time I took a swig of water. I think the security guard at my apartment stood up to greet me every single time I passed by.

8. Making lump assumptions about India rather than recognizing the differences that separate each state and region.

India is the largest democracy in the world with hundreds of languages separating different cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. Even something as stereotypical as Bollywood doesn’t apply to a large chunk of India where Hindi is not primarily spoken. Each state could be a different country.

9. Eating with utensils.

Few things were more satisfying than squishing dal and rice between my fingers. Eating with my hand instead of a fork made it easier to mix satisfying flavors without tasting any intrusive hints of metal.

10. Waiting for cars to stop before I cross the street.

If I’d waited for vehicles to give me the right-of-way I would never have crossed the road in this lifetime. My world changed when an Indian friend taught me to use what she called “the hand of God.” If I stuck out my hand with my palm facing traffic and walked with confidence into the street, the cars magically stopped.

11. Gawking at a family of five squished on a motorbike.

In India you’ll see families balanced on a scooter as frequently as you’ll see cows wandering the roads. Eventually I stopped staring and believed what I was seeing.

12. Thinking worship had to be done in silence.

Temples are often filled with songs, chanted pujas, bells, and chatter. There is a place for quiet meditation, but don’t plan on sleeping well if there’s a religious festival going on at the local Hindu temple.

13. Cringing at the smell of sewage and garbage heaps.

All countries have challenges and India is faced with the massive task of dealing with public waste for over a billion people. I couldn’t escape the smells and walked through a few sewage rivers in the road, but I tried not to forget the good scents too. Few aromas compare to jasmine flowers, incense, and tandoori ovens.

14. Thinking I had any idea what Indian food tasted like.

The majority of the world’s spices originate from India. I used to think chicken tikka masala, naan, and mango lassi found in American restaurants were good representations of tasty Indian food. The cuisine varies drastically depending on the state, but no matter the dish it will explode your expectations and tastebuds. The world would be a lot better if I could find decent dosa, pickled mango, chicken biryani, curd, or any Andhra food served up on a banana leaf in the US.

15. Putting up with fake fruit juice.

Boxed orange juices packed with artificial sugars lost all appeal once I tasted fresh-squeezed guava and mango juice in the mornings. No matter the season, there is always real juice on hand.

16. Insisting on personal space.

If I could move sideways, backwards, or forwards on a bus, then the vehicle was not at capacity. People cram together when they eat or stand in lines. I got used to moving shoulder-to-shoulder when I visited the city.

17. Expecting set prices.

Haggling is a part of everyday shopping, even when some places claim to have set prices. Often I got deals for less than half the sticker price.

18. Doing lots of planning and traveling to visit something old or historical.

In India, if you go in any direction long enough you’ll see an artifact or building that’s at least 500 years old. India is steeped in history and has preserved much of its ancient culture. You’ll never see it all here.

19. Being suspicious when someone stares at me.

Foreigners stand out in India, and staring is not considered rude. Most looks, from both men and women, come from a place of friendly curiosity.

20. Pretending I understood the word spicy.

I thought I had a high spice tolerance before visiting India, but it’s all relative. I found there is only really spicy, kill-me-now-spicy, and I’ll-be-on-the-toilet-for-weeks spicy.

21. Believing my worldview was best.

India stretched my mind and burst my understanding of how I thought the world worked. As I watched women bathe in the Ganges River, Tibetan monks chant prayers, rickshaw drivers swerve through traffic, and arranged marriages blossom into positive relationships, I ditched the notion that my cultural paradigm had all the right answers.

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