Unexpected Ways

Christopher SternUniversity of California, Berkeley

Something no one thinks to tell an American traveling to India is to climb one more flight of stairs. You see, in India, unlike in the United States, ground floors are without exception set quite apart from first floors. So then, in order to reach the ostensible second floor, one must climb not one but two flights of stairs; three for the third, and so on. This has a logic to it, albeit one not so intuitive to an American perhaps. A cascade of similar surprises constantly washes over me here. Through force of habit approaching the wrong car door or looking in the wrong direction for oncoming traffic, even though I know they drive on the left side of the road here; light switches turning down for on; doors swinging inward rather than outward of buildings, which is actually against code in the U.S. And while each of these variances is minor in isolation, their accumulation throughout the day does lead to mental fatigue, supposedly what’s called culture shock. Really it’s not so much a shock as a low persistent tingling. However, what has taken me most by surprise has been not the differences, but that which is the same. I don’t mean human camaraderie or anything like that. I mean English. While I have traveled abroad many times before, my first trip to India has presented quite a few unique challenges. Language has been a challenge in a particularly unexpected way. In all of my previous travels I have never visited a country where I didn’t speak the predominant language, usually either Spanish or Portuguese where I’ve gone. However, India is also the first country I’ve visited where English is the official language. So, before arriving I wasn’t sure if this experience would entail the greatest language barrier I had yet to face, or the smallest. It has so far turned out to be a little bit of both. I’ve been disappointed in being unable to speak directly and profoundly with people in the rural communities where we are working with Tata Water Mission to install small water purification plants, but I have also be delighted by the alternative means we improvise in order to communicate with one another. I have been intrigued by the interplay of Hindi, Telugu, and occasionally Marathi around me, but have had to resign myself to an inability to glean any information. Most surprising has been the process of relearning the language with which I thought myself most familiar. Minor differences in phrasing and word choice can lead to much more misunderstanding than I could have anticipated, and while over several weeks of constant exposure I am beginning to adjust to the Indian style of speaking, I still must choose what I say very carefully to avoid a stream of Americanisms that my Indian conversation partners will usually understand, but not get the meaning I originally intended. The greatest lesson from my Indian experience so far, has been to learn to live with miscommunications, laugh and take them lightly, and then continue in a mutual effort to better understand each other, even when it seems a lost cause.