India: Cultural Misunderstandings, Meet Reality

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My story is that of many others I’ve met while traveling through India. I was fed so much negativity about coming here, especially as a woman on my own, that by the time I landed in Delhi I was terrified–paranoid, even.

The doctors and travel clinic nurses had led me to believe that every mosquito bite I suffered was a risk of getting malaria. Others convinced me that it was almost unavoidable getting sick from food/water at some point on my trip.

Pretty much everyone (some more dramatically than others) told me it wasn’t safe to travel to India solo. I was told I would be groped, possibly kidnapped and trafficked.

So you can imagine my sleep-deprived thoughts as I made my way through the New Delhi airport, taking in the gradual introduction of Indian culture. This is okay, I thought cautiously.

Then, I emerged from the front doors into the engulfing, hot morning air. Everyone was staring at me. I wore leggings and a T-shirt. I looked horrible. I’m frustrated, thinking “What the hell are they looking at?”

All the warnings and predictions came flooding into my brain in that very moment. The Uber I’d ordered was taking much longer than the app was telling me. After twenty minutes, I cancelled and ordered another. Same thing. I felt the stares intensify and my paranoia was growing by the second.

I walked over to the ‘scam-free’, more expensive taxi service also recommended by my hostel, gave him the address, and took off. Finally.

The ride to the hostel was the icing on the cake. I was thrown into traffic culture in India all at once–it was overwhelming. There were kids casually running across the lanes of this major road, the drivers all barely avoiding them, the constant honking, the mere centimeters by which people avoided crashing…

When I finally arrived, I was exhausted and felt like I’d made a mistake. This was too much. I should’ve just gone straight to northern India beyond Delhi, to my yoga school.

After I checked in though, everything changed. I met fellow travelers. I felt less alone, less like a minority. I realized the reason behind the stares, and the source from which my fear and paranoia about traveling in India had stemmed.

After being fed with so much negativity, whether true to an extent or not, every single observation I had upon landing in India nourished those fears. They grew from there. These warnings and over-exaggerations had been like seeds planted in my mind.

For someone who is a considerably open-minded and usually fearless traveler, it says a lot. Other people were able to paint a picture in my mind of what India would be like, whether they’d been here themselves or not.

And no matter how hard I tried to resist letting the picture resonate, as soon as I saw things happen that I didn’t understand, that picture projected through my own eyes. I saw the worst.

The truth is, the stares are inevitable. I look different. I am the minority. I even caught myself holding longer gazes toward other non-Indian people because it is so uncommon to see here. I finally understood, and was relieved…

Mostly because my belief that I can go anywhere in the world and find it beautiful/feel comfortable wasn’t diminished, after all.

There is, of course, some truth to the things people told me, but honestly not much. I learned by talking to other travelers and locals that malaria is not even present within the majority of India. I spent hundreds of dollars on medications for just that.

With regards to the people, just like anywhere else in the world, including my home city, there are sketchy parts of town. There are people with bad intentions. There are common sense ways to avoid being caught in situations where you’d have to even think about it. (There’s also intuition).

For the most part, India is by far the most peaceful and spiritual place I’ve ever been. This experience is only about halfway through, but I’ve learned so much. I think it’s an important story, and I think everyone would benefit from being the minority for even just a few days.

It’s a classic example of the way fear grows from a lack of understanding. Having the roles reversed for a week or a month probably doesn’t even compare, but maybe gives a tiny hint of insight on what it’s like to be the few among the many. So really, two lessons here…

And what’s crazy and even more humbling is that stares are the very least of what some minorities deal with around the world.

It’s one thing to kind of be able to blend in. When I lived in Spain, I didn’t look noticeably different. If I was able to hide my American accent, I didn’t draw any attention. But I learned there to be patient and kind with people who don’t speak great English. Why?

It’s incredibly difficult and frustrating to live somewhere that speaks a language that isn’t your native tongue. When you meet foreigners who struggle, give them a break. They’re already on their second (maybe third or fourth) language. They’re smart and brave for trying to make it in a foreign country.

Overall, travel more! Have an open heart and be kind. Learn about people who live in different parts of the world. And specifically, don’t let people scare you from traveling to India–it may just be the best experience of your life.

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