What to Expect: Avoiding Culture Shock in India

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What to Expect: Avoiding Culture Shock in India

You have dreamed of going to India for years, you have seen all of the movies, you have read the books, you feel like you KNOW what it will be like. Nope. Forget all that you think you know and read below for what to really expect upon arrival in India.

Leaving the Airport

If you arrive anytime other than the winter, stepping out of the airport you will be hit by a wall of heat and humidity and masses of people. It is quite disorienting the first time you arrive in India to see so many people everywhere, feel such heat and humidity and all of it in the middle of the night when most international flights arrive. If someone is picking you up at the airport, have a plan of where they are to meet you, so you aren’t stuck standing in place scanning the thousands of people looking for one familiar face. If you are getting a taxi, go to the prepaid taxi stand before you leave the airport and have clear instructions on where to meet your taxi. This will help you avoid some of the struggles of a newbie.

Personal Space

In a country with so many people, personal space is at a premium. Do not be surprised when standing in a line with plenty of space around you, and the person behind has their entire body pressed against yours. They aren’t trying to cop a feel or steal your wallet, they just do not have the same sense of personal space that many in the West are used to. And, honestly if you leave even a tiny crack between yourself, someone else will come along and try to squeeze in. You will probably learn to do this too before you leave India.

The Queue

An orderly queue is generally disregarded. Being a foreigner, people will blatantly cut you off in line and push past you as if you aren’t even there. Overpopulation plays a big role in this behavior. Try to keep your cool while holding your place in line. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, stick out elbows or shuffle around to keep people from cutting in line. Many people understand English and even if they don’t, they will understand what you mean when you tell them “excuse me”. But don’t expect to hear that much in return when you are bumped and pushed aside!

Food

Food in IndiaDon’t come to India with the expectation that you will get your rice and curry, it doesn’t really exist here. Many of the names are the same, the ingredients are similar but the tastes are much different. The spices are more prominent, the chili’s hotter and selection is much greater. You won’t see ‘curry’ on the menus. This is a generic English term to describe what Indians would call a gravy dish. Every region of India has it’s own type of food, which depending on where you live, you may have never heard of or tried. You will have vegetarian options at every restaurant with paneer a staple ingredient. The main choices of meat are chicken or mutton (which is actually goat). Gravy dishes go with rice or bread, but in India usually not both. Dry dishes are eaten with bread only.

Poverty

This confronts foreign visitors the minute they walk into the country. Poverty is everywhere and always in your face. It is difficult to see the contrast between rich and poor. You will see mansions with shanty towns built just below. You will see Hummers and Mercedes drive down streets lined with slums. It isn’t something that you really ever get used to as a foreigner.

Head Wobble

This is the most confusing aspect of communication between Indians and foreigners. It means yes, I hear you and I don’t know. How you know which one the speaker means is up for debate and mostly just takes lots and lots of practice to understand.  If you aren’t sure what was meant, you can try to rephrase your question where it is clear what the speaker means. Otherwise, just go with your best guess!

Crossing the Roads

How to avoid Culture Shock in IndiaDo you remember the game frogger? If not, then you need to brush up on it before attempting to cross a road in India. Cars do not stop for pedestrians, if they did, they would never get anywhere. Instead pedestrians have learned to cross in between cars as they race down the road. This means standing on invisible non existent lines between cars and shuffling slowly or quickly from one space to another until you get across the road. As you are learning to do this, go with grandmothers or mothers with children.

Staring & Pointing

All foreigners visiting India, particularly those with blond hair and/or fair skin will receive a lot of attention in public. People will openly stare at you, point you out to friends and take photos of you. Don’t be offended, people are just curious. It can get tiring, but do your best to keep your cool. Pretend you are famous, smile and wave to your admirers.

Touts & Harassment

Avoid eye contact with touts and learn to say no confidently. Along with receiving lots of attention, you will be approached constantly from touts, drivers, guides, beggars and people selling things on the streets. Almost no one will take your first or second no as a firm answer.  Firmly and politely say “Nahi. Challo” (pronounced: na-he. cello) which means no, go away (basically).

How to avoid culture shock in IndiaSpitting

Spitting in public and clearing the deepest sinus recesses of the head — with sound effects — are common throughout India– even on public transportation and on the streets. You are lucky if you don’t wake up in the morning to a chorus of spitting and guttural cleansing sounds.

Public Urination and Defecation

You will see more people pee and poop than at any other time in your life. You will see it on the roads in big metropolitan cities, you will see it off the train tracks as you glide by, you will see it anywhere and everywhere. Public restrooms are few and far between and/or cost money that puts them out of reach for much of the population.

Very Friendly with Children

Indians love children, especially foreign light skinned children . They do not have the same sense of space that western parents have.  They will stretch their arms out ready for you to hand over your child or often try to take him right off you. They will touch and pinch their cheeks, they will give finger kisses to any exposed part of their skin and they will circle around your child to stare and ooh and ahh.  Don’t worry, they are not going to run off with your child. They just genuinely love children and feel happy seeing small foreign children in their country.

Stray Animals

How to Avoid Culture shock - Stray Animals in IndiaFor animal lovers this is a difficult sight to see in India. There are millions of stray animals everywhere you turn and often you can see their bones jutting out of their skin. In general stray dogs and cats are not treated well in India. People throw stones at them, yell at them, honk at them and trap them to move them to other areas. There are also the few who lovingly feed them, tend to their wounds and sterilize them, but there are more stray’s than they can manage. If you want to feed them snacks, feel free. Remember to not overfeed them as it can often make them sick when they eat too much at once.

Sounds

India is a loud country. You will be inundated with horns honking, music blaring, loud speakers blasting, firecrackers crackling in the night and people talking and yelling.  In the quiet of the morning you will hear the call to prayer, roosters calling, cow’s mooing, dogs barking and cats fighting. If you are a light sleeper, consider taking ear plugs.

Smells

India is known to assault all of your senses. When you first arrive you will smell a distinct smell that is India. It is inexpiable but it is the smell of India. The smells are everywhere. Urine, defecation, body odor and burning trash mingling with the wafting scents of sandalwood incense, spices and foods cooking on the roads.

Hand Holding

You will see more men holding hands than men/women couples. Public displays of affection is frowned upon in India. This is not about being gay as much as friendship and just physical closeness. In a country of 1.2 billion people and where men/women are not allowed to show affection, this is the accepted manner to show affection. Although times are changing in large cities, where you will see couples huddled together looking out over the ocean or chatting in the park.

Bureaucratic Red Tape

Getting anything done in India takes a lot longer than it would back at home. There are inefficient processes to deal with, conflicting information being given minute by minute, and many tea and lunch breaks to contend with. It can be a challenge to figure out how and where to get things done.  Anything is possible in India, it just takes time, patience and persistence.

India is in your face from the moment you arrive, it is difficult to not have culture shock. You are tested from the moment you step on the plane until the minute you leave. People used to say that travelling in SE Asia was “college” and India was “graduate school”. You will love it and hate it, often at the same time. But it will get under your skin and keep you coming back for more!

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24 Responses to “What to Expect: Avoiding Culture Shock in India”

  1. Josh Says:

    I’m going to India in a few months with my wife and 2 year old daughter. I will be filming a documentary of our journey. This blog has been very helpful and it makes me even more excited to go. We have traveled all over the world, but India has been for a long time on the top of our list.
    Josh recently posted…Indian Yoga Mandala 1.25'' Pinback Button or Magnet by bohemianapothecariumMy Profile

    Reply

    • kkowen Says:

      You will have an awesome time! Where will you be filming? If you are passing through Mumbai I can give even more kid specific advice for there. For your daughters age the biggest thing to watch for will be her drinking the bath water! My son always forgot and did that. His body was used to the water, but your daughter may not be!! Let me know if you have any questions. India with kids is one of my favorite topics!!

      Reply

  2. Chris Says:

    I am 58 n did my first solo travel last year to Vietnam. This year I am seriously thinking of signing up for a tour with intrepid travel in May. Yes I know it will be hot n humid then but so was Vietnam. At my age my only real concern is being able to go to the bathroom when I need to. Sounds odd but it’s true. Lol. Your article is very informative. Glad I found it.

    Reply

    • kkowen Says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for the message. First o have to say that intrepid tours are amazing! I did one to China in 2001 and it was really great. We had so many local experiences and having a guide to explain things really made a difference.

      India is amazing. You will find yourself with squat toilets if you are outside of the cities, but as far as going pee- you will find that very few places are off limits (sadly!) but when nature calls for more you just might be where there are only squats. I ended up loving them but you definitely need some good thigh muscles and balance!

      Would love to hear if you do take the plunge and head over!!

      Reply

  3. Rajat Says:

    Hello Karilyn

    Nice post… All from the heart.. The moment you start to think that you have understood it all, India pops up with a brand new surprise, isn’t it? You seriously need to attend an Indian marriage function to understand the ABC’s of chaos. But no matter how less the ‘land space’ we got for everyone, there is always a space in the heart, for friendships to fit in.

    No matter how chaotic it gets, you will always find a helping hand. Hope we meet some time when you travel to India next… Regards
    Rajat recently posted…Glimpses of Nagpur-Food and Craft FestivalMy Profile

    Reply

    • kkowen Says:

      Hi Rajat, Thanks for stopping by. We were so lucky to attend so many weddings during our time in India. Definitely a wonderful experience that I recommend to everyone! You are so right, there is always someone to give a helping hand in India. I miss it every single day. I hope I can get there again some day soon!

      Reply

  4. Jenny Says:

    All true. Just got back and every movie and book I saw or read did not prepare me in the least for what i was about to experience. I did learn to cross the street just like a cow. Look straight ahead and keep moving forward. Everyone just went around me and it worked out great. Best piece of advice I got.

    Reply

  5. miriam Says:

    Hi! your article is very informative but you misunderstood one little detail: the “Head Wobble” as you told it means “yes” and “i agree” =D it never means “no”.

    most of the time te person who head wobbles would say “ha” in addition, which means yes or okay in Hindi.

    hope that helps 🙂

    Reply

  6. Kay Says:

    Hey there! Mutton is sheep not goat 🙂

    Reply

  7. pushpa Says:

    Amazing Post Thanks For This!!!!

    Reply

  8. multimatecollection Says:

    Thanks For Sharing This!!!

    Reply

  9. saloni jain Says:

    So, as you have mentioned that India has an ‘inexplicable’ smell and how there are people who will point you out just because you have fair skin, I suggest you actually come to India without your narrow perspective and prejudices. We may have a peculiar taste or even various forms of smells but I am sure if we wanted to we could write a list about your country’s shortcomings. But since we are people who don’t really have ‘space’ in our lives to trash another place while it ‘gets under our skin’ we won’t. Hope you grow up and get a broader perspective and if you cannot do that much because of your pea sized brain, I would request you to never come to our beautiful country again. Cheers.

    Reply

    • kkowen Says:

      Hi Saloni, sorry that you were offended by my post. I actually lived in Mumbai for almost 10 years. I had my son there, who fully believes he is indian! We love all things Indian!! But for a person who has never been to the country, there are things that are different for them. I do not believe that I was saying it in a negative sense, rather saying what people say! But it is very true, even when we would come back from India for a visit we smelt like turmeric and Indian spices even when we didn’t mean to!

      And as for pointing me out because I have fair skin. I’m sorry this offensive to you, but it is 100% true! I was groped and manhandled, I had my photo taken millions of times and I was stared at constantly due to my fair skin.

      Reply

    • kkowen Says:

      I just reread my post again and honestly I don’t see how you took such a negative view! When I spoke of the smell, I did not say it negatively. I said that there is a smell to the country.. it is true. India is full of amazing smells good and bad. And I actually went out of my way to say that people aren’t point to be mean, and that I suggest you enjoy it and make it fun.

      Sorry you are so focused on looking for people trashing your beautiful country. If you take time to read my posts on India you will see how much we love he country as it was our home for a decade!

      Reply

  10. mk Says:

    While I’m sure you had the best intentions writing this article, I, like the commenter above, have a problem with the degree to which you make generalizations about the Indian population. Phrases like “an orderly queue is hard for Indians to cope with” and “you are lucky if you don’t wake up in the morning to a chorus of spitting and guttural cleansing sounds” paint India and Indian people in a negative light, which I would argue is unjustified. In the “very friendly with children” section, the way you portray Indian people is just weird and kind of creepy. The article is written with an air of superiority. Again, not doubting your intentions, just saying that there are more respectful ways of expressing the ideas in this article.

    And as for your above comment defending yourself to Saloni, no one is doubting your love for the country, and no one is “looking for people trashing” it. Her take on the issue is valid, and the right thing to do would be to understand and appreciate her response, even if you don’t agree. Truthfully, I’d be surprised if many Indian people *weren’t* put off by this article – it doesn’t do the country or its people justice.

    Reply

    • kkowen Says:

      When you live in the country for a decade, you get an intimate look at the country from the perspective of a foreigner. This article is written from my perspective. You can agree or not, but this is how I see this country. The point of this is to expose readers to what really awaits them. You can read things as creepy or you can read it as it’s written.. that Indians love children. If you have never visited your country as a white person who is raised in a different country, then you don’t understand how we as foreigners see the country. There are good and bad in every country. India is known as a difficult country for many foreigners to travel in. The reasons are many. I feel sad that you get offended by these realities, but I can assure you there are many annoying things done in my country that visitors feel weirded out about. I don’t take offense. I recognize we all come from different perspectives.

      And I’m sorry but yes even in line in Abu Dhabi two days ago on the way to India an INDIAN man next to me said ‘get used to this. The closer you get to India, the less a line looks like a line’ these are realities that many people accept as reality.

      I don’t get how I wrote this with ‘an air of superiority’ and if you have constructive feedback on how you interpret that I would love to hear because I do not want to come across as that.

      Reply

      • mk Says:

        Again, not invalidating your experiences. I don’t doubt that what you wrote is your experience. I’m just saying that there are many generalizations in this article that portray Indian people *as a whole* negatively, when a majority of the population isn’t like that.

        Reply

        • kkowen Says:

          When you have a population as large as India you will never be able to encompass ALL people but in general this is how foreigners new to India see and experience things

          Reply

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