Jennie Maydew is a junior Art major and is spending one semester in Hyderabad, India.
[Originally posted October 2, 2013]
From the minute I arrived in India, there were comparisons I began to make between Indian and American culture. These observations determined the way I felt about this new place, my reactions to them fluctuating between intrigue to amusement to shock. After time, some of these occurrences have become commonplace in my day-to-day and often I don’t react to them, let alone notice them. I understand that making generalizations about a culture is risky; though I’ve been in India for nearly three months, I still have a perspective confined by my Western background. I’d like to share some simple observations that I have about Indian society and culture, knowing they may be out of context but hoping that they will give you insight into my thoughts about this remarkably fascinating culture.
1. Advertisements exist on walls, houses, rocks, and really any kind of flat, upright surface
Advertisements in Telugu, English, and occasionally Hindi line the road of our neighborhoods. These ads often promote dairy products, homes for rent, schools, and shops. They even exist on the walls of people’s homes. Advertisers have also taken advantage of Hyderabad’s giant rock formations to display messaging. These advertisements are usually hand painted, which makes for some really cool graffiti-like ads.
2. The limit to the number of people that can fit on a motorcycle doesn’t exist
This one still takes me by surprise. The most people I’ve seen on a motorcycle is six. It’s not uncommon for the whole family to pile on a two-wheeler and brave the chaotic Hyderabad streets. Women wearing saris sit side-saddle, kids usually sit or stand up front, and infants are held in laps. Side note: I usually don’t take photos of people for the sake of capturing their image (I now know very well how intrusive and uncomfortable that can be). I try to be cautious about this issue and can only hope this family wasn’t threatened by my taking of this photo.
3. The concept of a line or ‘queue’ hardly ever makes it past theory
Just because there are signs and metal railings doesn’t mean people are going to stand in a line. I noticed this fact for the first time on my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Mumbai, where almost all of the passengers were Indian. When it was boarding time, everyone got up and formed a gigantic mob around the counter. I learned quickly that if I didn’t assert myself and physically push against someone, I’d be the last to board the plane. This is a photo of the ticket counter at a popular tourist destination we visited this weekend. All of these people were trying to get boat tickets to the island in the middle of the lake. Needless to say, we didn’t get to go on the boat (though my friend Romi made a really good attempt!)
4. Littering is usually acceptable, and sometimes even encouraged
Trash lines the sides of streets, floats in and along bodies of water, and migrates in heaps to open plots of land. Dumpsters exist but usually only have trash piled around them. People casually toss used paper and plastic cups, wrappers, receipts, cans, and bottles on the ground. The trash that finds its way to the sides of the streets is often burned out in the open—even though this trash is mostly plastic—and the awful smell permeates entire stretches of road. There are people who are genuinely concerned about India’s trash system and it’s a generalization to say that all Indians litter. There is even a group on campus called the Dirty Cleaners that organizes trash cleanups to make UoH campus a less polluted space.
5. Indian kitchens don’t have ovens
I’ve yet to see an oven in an Indian home. Most kitchens have a gas stove that sits on top of the counter. Apparently, ovens are expensive to purchase and the electricity to run them is costly. Plus, most Indian cuisine is made on the stove in pans and pressure cookers or is deep fried.
6. “Buy 2 get 3 free” does not mean you get five things
I came across this display in the supermarket and asked my host mom if we’d really get five bags of rice since it literally says ‘get 3 free.’ She was very amused, explaining between giggles that it’s really just buy two get one. Though comical, this misunderstanding illustrates the issue of navigating language barriers and translation in general, which is sometimes also trivial and funny, but other times can be difficult and frustrating.
Update: “Buy 2 get 3 free” does actually mean you get five. That’s a lot of rice!
7. Even the most basic things receive decoration
Indians decorate doors, auto rickshaws, work trucks, animals, themselves, and even the ground. When a new ATM opened in our neighborhood it was adorned with garlands of marigolds. This decoration makes India so vibrant and the most mundane things beautiful.
Through these observations I’ve learned to both question my surroundings and accept truths I cannot change. I’ve come to take frustrating situations lightly and to analyze the bigger picture of moments that may seem insignificant. I continue to form questions from my experiences at the same time that I become closer to understanding my own values, relationship to my community, global perspective, and position as a human in this world.