Greetings from Pune, India. I’m spending the summer at a study abroad program in the country’s ninth largest city, located three hours inland from Mumbai. In the mornings, I attend a Contemporary India class where we cover Indian politics, economics, and culture, and then head across town to my internship at a community health clinic.
By Natalie Amztutz
Greetings from Pune, India. I’m spending the summer at a study abroad program in the country’s ninth largest city, located three hours inland from Mumbai. In the mornings, I attend a Contemporary India class where we cover Indian politics, economics, and culture, and then head across town to my internship at a community health clinic. I’m learning a lot from my schoolwork, but even more from my daily interactions and observations. To name a few…
Indians nod and shake their heads, but they also tip their heads from side to side. I’m still a bit confused as to what this means – I’ve seen it used to say yes, no, maybe, not really, kind of, and not right now, depending on the situation and facial expression. The best way I’ve heard it explained is: “It’s like saying ‘I recognize the emotion you’re feeling’.”
The food here is rich, diverse, and for the most part not too spicy. So far I’ve tried North Indian food (more wheat/breads, naan, and curry), South Indian food (my favorite, dosas and rice with lots of coconut and cashews), and Maharashtrian food (the district I’m in, a mixture of south and north, but milder and more vegetables). There’s also amazing Chinese, and tons of “pure veg” (meaning no eggs, no meat) vegetarian restaurants.
In India people eat with their hands or hand rather, only the right hand for the most part. Even rice and daal (lentil soup) is mixed first with one’s fingers and then eaten (my host mom even says it tastes better this way than if you mix it with a spoon). People have no reservations about putting their hands in your food. All the plates and cups are stainless steel, and there is a very specific way that they serve the food and place it on different edges of the plates.
Physical contact between the sexes is frowned upon, especially in public. Conversely, walking down the street you’ll see men holding hands with men, or with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and the same for women and their female friends. Notions of privacy are also different here – it’s completely normal for my host parents, Auntie and Uncle as I’m to call them, to walk right into my room without knocking, or to sit down on my bed while I’m studying and start a conversation.
There are a lot of small but significant differences in terms of buildings and appliances. Wall clocks here are never on time. Somehow they’re always either 10 minutes ahead or 10 minutes behind. Each light fixture and fan has it’s own switch, as does each power outlet, so every room has at least four switches, sometimes 10 or 20! It’s always difficult to find the one you’re looking for. The beds here are extremely hard, and the showers are part of the bathroom, not divided by a curtain or anything, just a drain in the corner. But none of these are too drastic of an adjustment, and certainly cities across the country will feel fairly comfortable to a Westerner.
When you say “Thank you,” people here respond, “Welcome!” When someone sneezes and you say “Bless you,” they’ll often say, “Sorry!” When you hiccup, they’ll tell you someone is missing you.
My favorite memory happened one afternoon a few weeks ago. Some friends from the program and I were walking around a local park, when a family came up to us and asked to take a group picture. This isn’t unusual when you are one of the few non-Indian people in the entire city, but the parents handed me their baby to hold for the photo!
The things that all the guidebooks warn you about are real – the poverty, everybody on the street staring at you, the insane driving, and the organized chaos and lateness. But I feel very comfortable here, and rarely unsafe. I have Indian clothes (not saris, these tend to be reserved for traditional married women or special events, but these tunic-type pieces called kurtis that you wear with jeans or leggings). I know how to use the rickshaws to get around, and I’m starting to get a sense of the layout of the city. It’s easy to bash everything that’s different from back home, but I think that even with as many problems as India has, there is so much we can learn here too.
The author, a Rye High School graduate, just started her senior year at Tulane University.