Living Overseas: Reflections about India

I have always wanted to live overseas. One of my earliest memories involves sitting in a church pew realizing that there was a world outside of my own small town in Oklahoma, USA. As I grew up, that dream changed and grew and stretched as I did the same. My desire to travel and live abroad stemmed from my desire to share my experience with Christ in places that had limited access to the Gospel. I spent most of my teenage summers traveling to ever-exciting lands for growing amounts of time. I started with a week long trip, then extended to two weeks, found myself abroad for an entire summer and finally discovered the opportunity to live overseas for two years. I prayed and sought direction and wisdom about this grand adventure, and before I knew it, I signed up to live in South Asia for two years. 

I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. If it had been possible to have negative amounts of information, that would have been my story. I bravely decided to educate myself in the culture, history and religion of South Asia, so I did what any wise traveller does- I binge-watched Bollywood movies on Netflix. 

I soon found myself captivated by the bright colors, choreographed dances and smooth styles of Shah Rukh Khan. Surely this is a great picture of life in India, I thought to myself. This must be what happens on a daily basis, right?! 

This beautiful image of South Asia was soon up in smoke as I landed on the ground and found myself surrounded by twenty million people who spoke another language, wore different clothes, had varying backgrounds, religions, customs and beliefs. It was loud, it was crowded, it was sometimes smelly, and it was all in my face all the time. 

I arrived in New Delhi in 2011 for a two-year commitment to live in India. I was met by fellow Americans who trained new arrivals in cultural awareness and language skills. They took me to my hotel, tucked me in and in the morning, began to brief me on what life might look like in India. They helped me understand general gender roles, modesty, language learning skills and unwritten societal rules to abide by. Within about 18 hours of landing in India, I soon found myself initiated into true Indian tourism with a severe bout of Delhi Belly. My whole team was completely out for 2 days as we learned to ask for filtered water. (Mark that as lesson-learned-the-hard-way #1…) While I feel like I learned a great deal about South Asian culture in that time in Delhi, I soon realized that India differs greatly in culture, religion, dialect, food, customs, and even the way women tie their saris. The way of life in Kolkata had its own unique flavor that I soon learned to adjust to, and now to me, Kolkata’s rhythm is how I remember India.

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View from the terrace

My life in Kolkata felt amazingly normal after a few months. I soon began to love the different styles of clothing that was actually cooler in the hot months than my preferred taste of clothes. The food that I questioned upon my arrival soon began to be what I craved, especially when I was sick. I also fell in love with the Bengali language and people. I realized that the Bengali people were a people with rich and deep history and their language symbolized that very sentiment. I soon found that learning the language well would be the ticket into deep and meaningful relationships. Not only did it communicate that I was willing to be a part of the culture and life, it enabled me to speak to people in their “heart language”. I had incredible conversations with people that I could never have had in English.  Learning the local language is the single best thing I could have done to enhance my time in India.

I also learned how to cook a few things while overseas. I am a textbook recipe follower. Anytime I dare venture off the list of ingredients and length of cooking, I typically end up with disasters. Learning to cook in India meant learning to throw out the cookbooks. My friends would teach me to make chai, which was and is my favorite drink. Here is a typical conversation we would have:

Me: “How many scoops of tea leaves do I put in?”

Friend: “However many look right. If you like it weak, put less. Want it stronger? Put more.”

Me: “How long do I let it simmer?”

Friend: “Until the color is just right” (This now makes sense to me)

Me: “How do you know how much sugar to put in for every cup?”

Friend: “However much tastes right.”

I can think of about five dishes that I learned to cook that followed that exact conversation style. I tried in vain a few times to write down the recipe, but because there was never measuring or timers set, it was pointless. I had to learn to let go of way I was used to cooking and just let the cooking happen naturally. I made some bad dishes (quite a few times…) but eventually, I stopped caring if I had a recipe. I finally learned what “looked” right.

One thing I was advised to do upon landing in a foreign context was to have the attitude of a lifelong learner. This was a crucial step in my ease out of culture shock and into loving life overseas. Once I stopped questioning why things were different and why I couldn’t get people to cooperate with me, and started viewing each day as an opportunity to learn more about the language, the history, the people and the culture I was in, my experience changed dramatically. I found myself being able to laugh at the things that previously ruined my days. I began to just try speaking the language, even if it meant making mistakes in front of others.

While living overseas, I did things that I never could have dreamed I would do. I spent time in the slums. I travelled to holy cities and learned about major world religions and what drives them. I rode on motorbikes, elephants, and camels. I learned from brilliant minds what it looks like to follow Christ. Living overseas changed me, hopefully forever. I learned to see outside of myself and my views and take on the perspectives of others. I simply learned how to learn. I saw things that challenged me, and it was good to do so. It grew me as a person, matured me into an adult, stretched my faith and changed the way I approach life in general. While doing so, I made incredible friendships, celebrated old and new holidays and got to travel the world fresh out of college. I think when heading overseas, or to a new context in general, the most important thing is to walk into your adventure with the heart of a learner. Be open to new things. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Apologize profusely when you do. Be adventurous. Take risks. Go and learn.

Kolkata traffic

*In all actuality, I did read some extremely helpful books to prepare for my time overseas, the most helpful of which is called “Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah A. Lanier. This book describes different cultures as “hot” or “cold” in reference to their relationship styles. This helped me understand that my context in America or the West in general, is a cold culture. This means that America is focused on task-oriented relationships and schedules. Things run on a tight time budget and time is money. Making plans with friends often requires planning weeks in ahead to make sure it is a good time for all parties involved. To be late to a scheduled event is considered rude. When looking at a hot culture, of which India is, the culture is more focused on relationships. Time is flexible and schedules are fluid. It is completely normal and OK to drop in unannounced to a neighbor’s house for tea and if you are running late, it is acceptable. Understanding that I was familiar with a task-oriented society and heading into a relationship-oriented one helped prepare me for different areas of culture shock, including the fluidity of time, the importance of conversation and the need to relax on schedules.

**To give advice on obtaining a visa is like describing how to hold water in your hands. It just won’t hold for very long. Visa requirements, laws and recommendations are changed extremely regularly and the best advice I can give to those looking to travel abroad is to stay in touch with your embassy in that country. They can help you navigate through sticky issues concerning traveling, entry limits and even adding pages to a full passport. Another tip to keep in mind is the exit requirement many countries have on their visas. This simply means that your visa is limited on how many consecutive days you can reside in country. Some countries ask that you exit for as many as three months, where others simply ask that you check out, and then you can come back a day later. India has recently updated their tourist visa process, calling it “Visa On Arrival”. This is a great opportunity for those looking to explore India, but the name is a bit misleading. You still must apply for an “On Arrival” visa a few days prior to your expected arrival date. This has caused some headaches for those hoping to land and walk in without a hassle, so again, it is best to keep in touch with the embassies to learn the most current updates and their recommendations on travel.

Guest Author: Julie Brittain

Photo credit: Julie Brittain

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