The exposure I had to India before coming here was kind of pathetic. UNICEF ads, lunch buffets at my favorite Indian restaurant, and Eat, Pray, Love did not prepare me for what India really is. Those are the removed extremes, the things you experience or see from a safe distance but never really live. TV ads call for pity, Indian buffets let you sample popularized dishes that have more salt than they are supposed to, and enchanting spiritual journeys look like fun when Hollywood forgets to include the messy bits of everyday life of living in a new and overwhelming culture. Stepping into India, a small part of me that I tried so hard to suppress expected to be enveloped in color, have my ears ringing with Bollywood classics, and have my soul transcend as I finally figure out the meaning of life. But now that I am here, I am beginning to be acquainted with the “real” India.
The funny thing about India is that there is absolutely no way to describe it because every square inch of it is uniquely its own with varied people and culture to match. Contrary to my expectations, I haven’t attended a yoga class and no one has offered me Chicken Tikka Masala once. What I have encountered instead has been a myriad of wonderful friendships that have bloomed out of initially awkward interactions. One of my biggest fears regarding India was living with a host family. In the past, I had only ever hosted one exchange student for about 3 months. While the experience was amazing, I didn’t know if I had the same amount of courage that my exchange student Sarah had when she decided to leave Germany for 9 months to live in the US. Secondly, I knew that I literally signed myself up for countless awkward interactions. How was I going to sleep in a stranger’s home for 7 months? How would these people become my second family in the way that alumni had referenced their host families? For whatever reason, this was the one of the scariest facets of the program.
I will never forget my first night with Nita and Simantini. While approaching my host family’s society, the same feeling I felt while boarding my plane from Chicago to San Francisco washed over me. “Here goes nothing,” I thought (I think immersion programs fall under the category of extreme and long winded adrenaline rush activities). Anand, the India Risk Manager, helped me find the flat, set one of my bags down and watched as my host mother welcomed me to her home with pooja and red dye between my eyebrows that I still don’t know the proper name for. He smiled and said, “you’ll do wonderfully,” left and then it was just two strangers and I. The language barrier, exhaustion from traveling, and my host sister’s never ending string of questions nearly made me break. I don’t know why, but it was so hard for me to adjust. This was by far not the hardest event of my life by any means, but adjustment can be hard and lonely. “How am I going to be able to live here for 7 months? Is everyone feeling this way? Can I make it through the year?” all of these questions raced through my mind as I fought back tears. This was not the experience I imagined, but rather the experience I so badly needed. I soon had no choice but to bond with these two amazing women that I now call family and I am so grateful I didn’t give up that night. I could have dropped out then and there but had I done that I would not have developed nearly as much as I have these past couple of months. What I found was though India hasn’t offered me exactly what I was exposed to or was expecting, it has offered me so much more. It is has offered me discomfort, love, awkward experiences, but more than anything growth. I am not the same person I was when I arrived at PDT and I will forever be grateful for this change.