Encountering Culture Shock in India

Goat & cow looking out over a wall at passersby in India

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A lot of people say India is the worst culture shock. And I believe that. Because for the first 3 weeks I lived there, I hated every second.

Travel blogging makes you think a lot about how you started travelling, and the travel experiences that changed you. I always travelled, really. We moved for the first time when I was 18 months old from Louisiana to Colorado. As a kid, my mother took me to national parks all over the United States. I had one of those little national parks passports where each park gave you a stamp… I don’t even know if they do those anymore? Anyway, that was my first passport, and like every single one to follow it, I filled it up dutifully.

My father lived in Florida, and I flew out to see him most summers. My mother’s siblings all lived in different states, and we saw them frequently – particularly the one in New York.

At nine, I left the country for the first time. My mother and I took a road trip from Colorado to Nelson, British Columbia. We stayed at an ashram for a month, and I started 4th grade with a shaved head.

So I have travelled, really, my whole life. However, as I said, travel blogging gets you thinking about your first time. Naturally, I don’t remember travelling as a baby. I do remember some of the trips in between, although many have become a bit lumped together in my memory. What I remember in excruciating detail, though, is the first time I left North America. At 11 years old, my mother decided to move to India for six months.

Copy of new & old passport from the side stuck together due to lack of space
I find it easy to fill these up…

Nothing in my life prepared me for what was happening, and my mother felt ill-prepared, as well. Culture shock can hit at any moment and it’s tough. But after a lifetime of travel, I can honestly say that culture shock in India is something else entirely.

By the time we left, I fell in love with India. It took time, but one day I woke up, looked around, and realised that where we were living in Dharamsala was incredibly beautiful. And coming from the Colorado Rockies, it even felt familiar to be surrounded by mountains at a similar altitude. From trekking Triund to meeting the Dalai Lama to reading Tintin comics all day long, I realised maybe it wasn’t so bad here.

So India became home – the food, stray animals, even the smells which upset my SPD were now oddly comforting – and when we returned to the United States six months later, I was devastated and heartbroken. It turns out that reverse culture shock is almost worst!

India ignited in me a passion for travel. But that passion took time to grow. At least for me it did.

The more I think about travelling, and travel blogging, I realise bloggers feel an immense pressure to be ‘on’ all the time. Not just for those of us writing about it – but for everyday people going on holiday. People feel like their holidays and trips were failures if they didn’t have the perfect time, or see all the biggest sites.

But that’s not true. I consider living in India to be one of the best experiences of my life, and I don’t regret it for a second. I guess It’s easy to say that with an extra 5.5 months to adjust (and I recognise that isn’t possible for the average 9-5er), but because of that experience, I can still appreciate the disastrous trips I have nowadays. Hell, Jeremy and I’s first holiday went anything but smoothly, and not only are we still together, but we’re travelling together fulltime!

Anyway, if you ever think about throwing in the travel towel, or feel you are alone since social media makes it all look so magical… I’m here to tell you, take a deep breath, it’s fine.

I think it’s also important to remember that just because I didn’t have a good experience, doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of awesome things to do in Delhi.

Tiny Dagney arguing with mother outside Natural History Museum, in front of a large dinosaur
I’ve been travelling since I was even tinier than this!

Now, without further delay, below reveals the nightmarish experience I first had upon arriving in India. It is kind of long, it might seem negative, Jeremy thinks it’s a bit graphic, and it’s super embarrassing for me. I hope you enjoy. And remember: I love India.

Encountering Culture Shock in India

I arrive in India covered in blood and shame, drool trickling from the corner of my mouth as I battle jet lag and delirium. Wrapped around my waist is a blue and purple checkered airplane blanket, compliments of Singapore Airlines. The blanket – my newfound security blanket – is hiding the blood. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, my period started. The jet lag I am suffering from prevented me from being able to move from my seat during the flight and my penance seeps through my favourite pair of pants.

As we land and everyone fights to depart the aircraft first, the Indian man sitting next to my mother, motions for us to file out of the isle in front of him. She politely declines. By now, I am sitting in a pool of blood, and I want to cry. I can tell the stewardess feels sorry for me – the humiliation so paralysing, my mother explains the situation while I choke back tears. We are the last passengers to leave and I do not speak until we are about to exit, and I quietly thank the stewardess, my face buried in my chest.

A typical street in India lined with shops and people with mountains in the background
Welcome to India! Hope you didn’t expect this to be easy!

This is my first time outside of North America, and I do not want to make it official by crossing the threshold of Indian customs. We are here because my mother wants to find herself and I chose not to go live with my father; following her to India seemed like the only logical option to my eleven year old brain. But in that moment, I can’t think of anything that I have ever regretted more.

My mother and I wait in the unending customs line, surrounded on all sides by obtrusive sounds and smells. A group of dreadlocked backpackers’s with dirty bags and well worn clothing, sweat stains creeping out from beneath their arms talk loudly in front of us. Beside us a ten person multi-generational Indian family reeking of Patchouli and curry are also waiting. As my hypersensitivity kicks in, my head pounds and it feels like the whole arena of impatient travellers are screaming at me.

There is no way I am going to live here for six months.

When we finally emerge with stamped passports and our bags, we are swallowed into an unrelenting sea of people, hundreds of floating, groping arms and shouting men, pulling us towards them, grabbing our bags, yelling directions, requests, questions, wanting money, offering assistance, personal drivers, taxis, buses, rickshaws. I am claustrophobic in large groups of people and I can feel the world collapsing in on itself, my breathing becomes laboured, my vision blurs, I am shaking. My mother ploughs through the swarm, searching for our driver, dragging me through after her. Finally we find a man from our hotel standing with a small white sign that reads, ‘Mr. Alice McKinney.’ In the Eastern world, my mother often has a hard time establishing herself as an independent woman. It is not uncommon for us to arrive places and be asked where her husband is, or when he will join us.

Hungry Cow eyeing up a woman's poppadum in India, the authority of cows is a big culture shock in India

Our driver maneuvers through the trash-infested streets of New Delhi, swerving around livestock, beggars, street merchants. When a cow saunters in front of the taxi, he slams on the breaks and I launch unexpectedly forward, only to be wrenched backward by my seatbelt. The cow slowly turns its head toward the vehicle, and I have never hated my mother more than in that instant, as the bovine locks eyes with me and stares me down. I am horrified, cows are not supposed to stop traffic and dispense threatening glares. But I will soon learn that in India, these creatures are second to none – and they know it. Months later, in Rishikesh, a cow flings my mother several feet into the air; she has thoughtlessly walked too close to a mother cow and her child.

Indian cow standing on top of a stone bench looking like they own the place
‘I said MY bench!’

At the hotel we are forced to jump into our beds to avoid disturbing the army of cockroaches littering the floor. Including layovers, we travelled for nearly forty hours and I just want to sleep. But between the screeching pipes, scuttling cockroaches (a few of which, I am quite certain are sharing my bed), constant honking just outside our window, I am as wide awake as jet lag allows.

My thoughts continually return to that pool of blood. The amount seems indescribable, comparable only to a sensationalised Hollywood shootout. If someone were to describe the scene to me, I would think they were exaggerating. I am still bleeding heavily, and I am beginning to worry that something might actually be wrong – I have had periods before, but not like this – and this fear roots itself in my stomach and will not vacate. This growing panic plants a seed of terror that will stay with me; no matter how many times I fly, I may always be afraid of flying whilst on my period, convinced in some twisted way in the back recesses of my mind, that the higher the altitude, the more likely I am to haemorrhage uncontrollably.

Airplane getting ready to take off
Behind every plane is a Dagney imagining she’s bleeding to death inside it…

In her corner of the room, my mother removes her earrings and mutters, “I called the police for this.”

I laugh out loud at the memory. Before our flights out of LAX, we stayed with my aunt for a few days in the Los Angeles suburb of Riverside. One afternoon while my aunt and uncle were at work, my mother tried to call a recommended New Delhi hotel – this hotel – to confirm our reservations. But she forgot to dial the 00 needed for international calls. After dialing the country code (91) and the first digit of the hotel’s phone number (1), she realised her mistake and hung up to take a shower before trying again.

Fifteen minutes later, I found myself face to face with three uniformed officers, one directly in front and two at his sides. Panic and pure confusion shot through me.

“Young lady, my name is Howard, everything alright?” The officer looked at me sternly. I will never understand why people find cops comforting, I felt certain I would vomit or piss my pants. But I did neither.

“Yeah.” I said as bravely as I could.

“We got a call about a problem at this address. Are your parents home?”

“My mom is in the shower,” I informed him. I still called her ‘mom’ then. Post-India she became ‘mother’ and ‘Dearest,’ though always separately.

“And your daddy?” I hated that word, even then. In this situation it sounded condescending and made me a bit more brazen towards him.

“I don’t have one.”

“I’d like to speak to your mommy then, please. It’s very important.”

I stood at the doorway for a few more seconds, deciding if I should incur the wrath of my mother upon informing her she must exit the shower and deal with the situation, or remain standing there and deal with it myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Howard’s gun, and opted for the first option. I shut the door on the cops, not altogether politely, and went to retrieve my mother.

She was confused, and very briefly angry, as I marched her to the door in a towel and wet hair on the one rainy afternoon Riverside had seen that season. She opened the door, while trying her best to hide behind it at the same time. I stood directly behind her.

“Ma’am, is everything alright? We received a 911 hang up call from this location.”

“Yes, everything is fine. I didn’t make any 911 calls.” She looked at me. I shook my head.

“Ma’am I need you to come outside, so that we can see you are alright and not being held against your will.”

“I’m in a towel,” my mother said.

“Ma’am, please.”

Eventually it was sorted out, as my mother realised what she did, and the officers left, though not before my mother let it slip that it was not our house and another confusing exchange ensued as she desperately tried to assure them her sister lived there. As they left, they still seemed unsure if lurking behind the door might be a serial killer or rapist. After they left we both collapsed in laughter.

Monkey on top of a bridge in India unfolding food in tinfoil
No funny business happening here, officer!

My aunt reacted in horror. “What will the neighbours think?” She cried. We could not understand why she did not find the whole thing side-splittingly hilarious.

I fall asleep laughing to myself about the memory of my mother’s mistake and hoping that when I wake up, I will no longer be here.

***

When I awake the next morning, I am still here. My sheets are stained with blood, and I’m too fatigued to move. My mother cajoles me out of bed, promising breakfast. Descending the stairs, the hotel manager gestures for us to come over. As we approach, he retrieves a large, worn, rectangular book from behind the desk.

“Madam, I must show you this.” The hotel manager sets the book on the table and opens to the first page.

It is a scrapbook. Inside are magazine and newspaper clippings of various murders, beatings, rapes, thefts and other horrible mishaps that happened in Delhi over the past few months. The stories almost exclusively pertain to westerners – mostly tourists.

“Delhi very dangerous city, Madam.”

He flips through more pages. Photos of disheveled, robbed tourists, murder victims and bludgeoned rape survivors jump out at us. My mother stumbles back in shock.

“It is better you go with Ramesh today.” The hotel manager motions towards the man who picked us up from the airport last night. Ramesh is tall and meagre, his gaunt face houses brown eyes and a sad smile. He looks perpetually ill.

Ramesh drives us through the worst parts of Delhi – the poorest, dirtiest slums. We don’t know this until months later, though, when we return to Delhi for a flight to Kathmandu, and are shocked to see expensive-looking homes enclosed in attractive neighbourhoods. He takes us to a restaurant swarming with flies. With every passing moment, I want further and further away from this country. I can tell that my mother is having doubts about what she has gotten us into: we are here for six months, and it is always going to be economy class. Indian style.

After a few quick stops around the slums, Ramesh takes us to his ‘uncle’s’ carpet shop. In India, everyone is someone’s cousin, uncle, brother, nephew, though this is rarely true. Often it is merely someone who pays them for bringing patronage and gives them a cut of the profit. And carpet shopping is a task not for the weak of heart.

Yellow & blue Indian building in slums with clothes hanging outside, Indian slums were a bit of culture shock
Now this seems fine, but at the time… Also, this is actually not that bad.

This is our first Indian Carpet Expedition – although we have not requested it – and we are going in una, too polite to refuse. Ramesh’s ‘uncle,’ Pradeep, stands in direct contrast to Ramesh; a large jocular man, the type who slaps strangers on the back in friendly welcome and sings the sincerest of praises over everything – from the most menial to the most extravagant. Pradeep’s big, round face sports a mouth that never stops moving, forever rambling, stopping only to sip on tea or toss in handfuls of nuts, one at a time. His cheerfulness makes me dizzy.

The honourary uncle escorts us into the showroom, asking what kind of carpets we want to see.

“This is our first time at a carpet shop,” My mother informs him, “We have no idea what we’re looking for. We just got to India, so we’re just looking today.”

“No problem, Madam, we have everything here. You look, and if you see something you like, maybe you buy. Let’s start over here.”

Carpet Shopping in India is very different

He holds up a blue and gold carpet with a flower pattern. My mother makes a face. He holds up a leopard print. Another face.

“Do you have anything more… Indian?” My mother offers.

“Yes, yes, Madam, we have.” He disappears and returns with four assistants, three are carrying a small mountain of carpets – each – and one a tea set.

“Please have some tea.” He pours us both a cup before we can object and then begins the hours long escapade of rolling out carpet after carpet after carpet. We are trapped in a never ending rotation of colour. Each pile is a rainbow of colour, each carpet a variation on a theme; for every design, there are 5-10 different colour patterns, and for each colour combination, there are 5-10 different designs. There seems to be a never-ending supply of carpets, nor does Pradeep’s enthusiasm ever appear to wane. It is exhausting to watch them roll out each carpet, to explain the thread work, the origin, the design, artist. And then, dejected, roll out another one. Carpet shopping in India is an overwhelming experience, one that runs you down from the comfort of your chair.

Carpet shopping was a huge culture shock in India

We leave three hours later, disoriented and carpetless.

***

We are thrilled to be leaving Delhi, both convinced in our own ways that Dharamsala will provide the comfort I am longing for, and the answers my mother seeks. I am hoping sooner rather than later for my mother, because I would like her to find herself and then find us a way back home.

Dog lounging on steps outside a building in India
When will I be as relaxed as this dog?

Ramesh drives us to McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala the following morning. It is a long trip, approximately thirteen hours by car, and I fade in and out of sleep. Mostly I sleep because staying awake is terrifying. Ramesh drives the way most Indians drive – unhinged and unnerving. We fly across the countryside, hitting potholes a quarter the size of the car at breakneck speed and swerving violently out of the way of pedestrians, various animals, oncoming traffic, and then directly back into it. My knuckles are white as I grasp desperately at anything solid to steady myself.

Perhaps worse than the driving, is the incessant sound of honking. Nearly every truck – and many other vehicles, as well – sport signs imploring, “Blow your horn,” “Use your horn,” or simply, “Please honk.” And honk their horns they do. It is impossible to carry out a single thought, or exchange a sentence, without hearing the blaring sound of at least one, normally several, horns. I bury my head and ears miserably in my arms, praying for just a moment’s calm.

A fruit & vegetable vendor in India
A brave man selling fruit & veg on the street as we drive past

Every time I stir, I am greeted by rain and gloomy terrain, and still that unceasing whir of commotion. I keep hoping that eventually I will wake up and suddenly want to be here – to see a beautiful, inviting landscape that renews my spirit. It never comes. When we arrive in McLeod Ganj, it is late, and this hotel is worse than the one in Delhi. Absolutely nothing works, and there are even more cockroaches. I am not the emotional type, but I am battling to hold it together. My mother suggests we go to bed and find a better place in the morning.

The next morning, my mother is already gone when I wake up. I wait impatiently for her, huddled in mourning, listening to the rain howling outside. She pours through the door, breathless and soaked from head to toe.

Monsoon season in India was quite the culture shock!

“I’ve found another place. Let’s go.”

I jump out of bed, pull off my pajamas and throw on some clean clothes. We both shove our toiletries into our bags, small puddles following my mother around the room. She unearths two clear ponchos from a side pocket of her bag. She throws one onto my bed and tells me to put it on.

“No way.” I throw it back at her.

“Dagney, do you see me?” My mother admonishes me and thrusts her arm out, poncho in hand. “I said put it on.”

“No. I am not wearing that thing. Do you have any idea how hot that thing is?”

“Do you have any idea how wet it is?”

“I don’t care.”

Rain falling on a step during Monsoon season in India
Gotta love Monsoon season!

Outside the rain is crashing down from what feels like every direction. It is so thick, I am struggling to move forward. I am still not happy about being forced into the poncho. Not only am I certain I will suffocate in here before we get to the new hotel, but due to the lack of breathability and my penchant for sweating profusely, I am almost as wet as I would be without it. And I look ridiculous.

“I told you you would want to have it.” My mother simultaneously congratulates herself, and chides me. Two minutes later, she is ripping hers off, unable to keep up the charade. I smirk to myself, but refuse to remove mine, determined to withstand the discomfort longer, just to prove a point. But I feel vindicated; I was right. I warned her not to pack these things, expressed concern at their impracticality and inevitable mugginess. The emphatic advice of my somewhat neurotic uncle had swayed her, though, insistent we would use them all through the monsoon season. Of course at eleven, the adults rarely listened to my sound advice.

We arrive at Hotel Tibet, both collapsing through the doors, submerged in water and irritable. We check in, unload our bags, permanently dispose of the ponchos and I refuse to leave the false security of the hotel again for the next two weeks.

When I do finally submerge, I am able to begin to see India in a different light. Eventually, the honking becomes a part of everyday life, and an inside joke. The smells are less obtrusive, the carpet sellers less obnoxious, the ‘slums’ less scary and uninviting. Over the next six months, I will experience bacteria poisoning, thieving monkeys and bed bugs. But nevertheless, when I return to America, I feel like my heart is breaking, because India has burrowed itself into my heart, and I’ll never travel the same way again.

Have you experienced culture shock in India or elsewhere? What’s your first big travel story? Is there a country you grew to love over time? Tell us about it in the comments!

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