I was no stranger to India prior to studying abroad. Since I was a toddler, I travelled to India at least five times to visit my extended family in Kerala, a state in South India. After all these times if you had asked me to briefly describe my experience in India prior to studying abroad, I would say “mosquitos, humidity, nonstop sweating, hectic roads, and constant noise and smells.”
My view of visiting India was not necessarily positive since my three-week trips would fly by quickly, and all I was left was with cultural shock. I never really had to chance to unpack my experience and appreciate it. Living in India for a few weeks was a tough experience for me, but growing up I was well-connected to my roots. From a young age, I became fluent in Malayalam, attended cultural events and festivities, watched Bollywood and Mollywood films, and learned both Indian classical dance and Carnatic music. My parents made sure that I understood and learned about my Indian heritage while I was growing up in America. However, I knew that I personally couldn’t claim to completely know my roots until I became comfortable with living in India. Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to do just that, and as a result, I learned to positively embrace my culture by living in India for an extended period of time rather than just three weeks.
I studied abroad at Manipal University, a college in the state of Karnataka. Living in Manipal was a different experience for me, since it is nothing like Kerala. In Kerala I am constantly surrounded by Malayalis, but because Manipal is a college town, there are students and faculty from all over India and all over the world so I was surrounded by people who spoke multiple languages and came from different backgrounds and cultures. The town was truly a melting pot of cultures, which I absolutely loved since I got to learn so much about India and different countries by interacting with others and staying in one place. But since it is in South India, there were enough cultural similarities for me to understand. India has rich cultural, lingual, and religious identities, and I learned to appreciate the complexity of differences while abroad. For example, I would equate traveling between states in India to travelling between countries in Europe; you will encounter a different culture and language in each state in India you go to. In Karnataka, they speak the language Kannada, but there are multiple dialects spoken here such as Tulu and Konkani. This is just one example of how I learned to comprehend the complexity of how diverse India is.
All my previous experiences with cultural shock taught me that it was key to have an open mind and a “go with the flow” attitude. This was quite beneficial because all the things that used to contribute to my cultural shock stopped bothering me, and I learned to love the craziness, confusion, and extremes that everyday Indian life has to offer. Life never goes as planned in India, and when I traveled to visit my family, I hated when all our plans would change suddenly due to a delay, traffic, or some random incidence. Many times, when traveling abroad, our itinerary would never go as planned, and I learned to take these situations with humor and make the best out of it. Most of my memorable trips were the ones that were completely spontaneous.
I cannot say that everything I experienced and learned about in India came from positive experiences. One example of this learning is that India made me more aware about issues of skin complexion. As a child, I would see only fair-skinned actresses in movies and Indian TV commercials about skin lightening products, but going to India and experiencing this phenomenon first hand was life-changing. It made me realize how important it is for society to empower women of all skin colors especially those with darker skin hues. In my program, there were both white students and students of color, and there were times when local Indians would come up to all of us and start talking to the white students and ask them to take selfies. These people would ignore the American students of color since we were not white. I was at first glad that I did not stand out and receive too much attention in public places. However, as it happened more and more, I quickly realized that many people in India give more attention and admiration for people with lighter skin. There is a high degree of skin tone variation within India, but almost always people with darker skin tones are not regarded in the same level as those with lighter ones. Those with darker skin are ostracized and discriminated whereas those with lighter skin are considered superior and special. This obsession for lighter skin is not just a big problem in Indian society, but all over the world including the US. Personally, I was bothered by this phenomenon, but I realized in order for this color bias to change in India and worldwide, it will take time and lots of awareness. The IFSA/Alliance staff told us that we would come face to face with larger cultural problems that we might feel the need to correct, but in situations like this we cannot change how Indian society thinks. I have allowed this negative event to shape my views in a positive way, and I hope I can bring awareness about this to others who hold these unjust opinions in the future.
“Learn from my childhood regret and recognize this now: There is nothing more beautiful than embracing your culture.” I read this quote from Deepica Mutyala, a South Indian woman like me, and I thought this summarized exactly how I felt about my experience. I regret only being able to fully understand the beauty of my motherland now rather than many years ago. Studying abroad in the motherland allowed embrace my culture in a new light, and now when I say that I am Indian American, I truly mean it. I realized all the factors that contributed to my cultural shock prior to studying abroad were preventing me from having a fulfilling experience. Once I completely let go of my previous restraints, I was able to fully immerse myself and have an enriching and enlightening experience.
Amy Abraham is a student at Siena College and studied abroad with IFSA at Manipal University Global and Public Health program in Manipal, India in 2017.