“So you like Indian food?” is a question that I am incessantly asked with a tone of surprise. Having rehearsed it many times, I consistently reply, “Yes, I love it! I actually eat a lot of Indian food back in the U.S.” Coming to India, I thought I would be well acquainted with Indian culture, customs, and food given my exposure to it at home in California. After all, I had grown up eating Indian delicacies with my family from delicious Indian restaurants serving food from all over the Indian peninsula; I had several close Indian friends that had introduced me to the world of Bollywood and Indian festivals, and I had been studying about Indian politics and social issues extensively in many of my classes at UC Berkeley.
However, upon arriving in India, I quickly realized that I knew very little about India. Well sure, all of my knowledge accrued in the U.S. still held true, but that knowledge predisposed me to little of what my experience would actually be like in India. My first week in India, I was not surprised by the food, the kurtis, or the multiple languages spoken on the street from English to Telugu to Hindi. Rather, my eyes were peeled open at the sight of women riding side-saddle on the back of motorbikes, the acres of slums condensed together in a slurry of grey and brown splotches, the long stalks of sugar cane being milled into juice, and the hundreds of eyes that narrowed on my foreign presence everywhere I went from the office to the open city and even the guesthouse.
What India proved to me was that it was not like I had anticipated. But why would it be? I would hope that people around the world do not reduce American culture down to cheeseburgers and Hollywood movies—but it happens all the time. I caught myself doing that exact thing, but learned that India was so much more than the languages, food, and pop culture. The overseen details that accumulated to form my wave of culture shock were unique to the experience of actually being in India; something that books, the classroom, or friends could not have effectively relayed to me. Most importantly, I learned of the priceless value of first-hand experiences—working and living in India awarded me indispensable insight and allowed me to delve into my work in a way that sitting behind a desk in California would have never accomplished.