- Don’t Forget to Pack Your Jumper — India was a British colony up until 1947 and England’s influence can still be felt. In cities like Bombay and Calcutta, you can see stately old white and grey buildings, sip England-style tea (black tea with milk and sugar), and hear the echoing cheers of cricket-obsessed fans cheering on their favorite teams. Be sure to spell words like “organization” with an “s” instead of a “z” as British English is pervasive. One of the most interesting things about living here is seeing elements of the rather buttoned up England embedded in such a colorful, chaotic place.
- You Can Still Call it Bombay — A few years back, many cities in India changed their names from those used during British rule to Indian versions. Trying to be respectful, at first I exclusively used the new names. Over time I’ve noticed, however, that many Indians still use the old, British versions. This seems to vary by city and by social class. In Mumbai, a more modern city, people are more likely to use the city’s old name, Bombay, than people in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) are to use their city’s old name. Also, the higher up Indians are on the socioeconomic ladder, the more likely they are use the old, British names as well. This may be in part because people higher up on the ladder tend to be more westernized.
- It May Make You More of an Environmentalist — The environment had never been very high on my list of issues I care about. Coming to India changed that. While many of the country’s practices are inspiring in how environmentally friendly they are (packing purchases in recycled newspaper, serving tea in biodegradable cups made of clay rather than plastic), others will make you sick to your stomach with their destructiveness. Imagine standing on a beach looking out over what could be beautiful expanse of ocean and instead seeing black toxic waste stretching out at least a mile into the blue. Or asking a local shopkeeper where to dispose of your trash only to be pointed to a mountain of rotting refuse in the street. In addition to teaching me new creative ways to foster a clean environment, India has also shown me what happens when you don’t have laws and cultural practices like proper trash disposal in place.
- There is an On/Off Switch for Everything — Power outlets, hot water, air conditioning, you name it. If you don’t remember to flick the wall switch off when you’re done using something, be prepared for a firm reprimand from your Indian host. While leaving some things on just wastes energy, leaving others, like the water heater in the shower, on, can be downright dangerous. I don’t know the full mechanics of why we have to turn everything on and off in India—older infrastructure that doesn’t automatically stop the energy flow? Simply saving money? But I do know how hard it has been one of the hardest things to train myself to do differently here.
- Rickshaws are Like Getaway Cars — Imagine wanting to go somewhere. You step into the street, stretch out your arm, and almost instantaneously a little vehicle halts in front of you. You tell the driver where you want to go, he gestures for you to hop in, and off you go! This entire process can take less than 15 seconds. Did I mention that rickshaws are relatively cheap (compared to, say taxis in the U.S.)? A 30-minute ride can cost you a dollar.
- Fans Are a Thing — Even houses that can afford it don’t have their A/C running all the time. Ceiling fans are pervasive, even at the hottest times of year. I have a love/hate relationship with fans. Sometimes, I love their breezy, meditative quality. The whirring sound fans make as they spin fosters relaxation and creative thinking. Other times, the only thing fans seem to foster is annoyance. Trying to work while chasing papers and constantly pushing hair back that has thwapped and stuck to your sweaty face can be difficult.
- The Honking Will Get To You — Imagine: you are riding in a rickshaw and suddenly your hands fly to your ears in alarm to protect your precious cilia (those tiny fragile inner ear hairs that enable you to hear). What has happened: An explosion? An air raid? No, a car has pulled up next to you and is letting you know he is there. In India, there typically aren’t lanes and vehicles navigate around each other through constant horn communication. The problem is, to be heard above the noise, people keep purchasing louder and shriller horns. In an enclosed car, the assault on your ears is hardly noticeable, but in an open-air rickshaw, it can be downright anger- and hearing loss- inducing.
- Water Extremes — Draught and extreme flooding: In India, both of these are realities. In Bombay we have six months without a drop of rain followed by six months of monsoons. Other cities have their own unique precipitation patterns. Buying clean drinking water, navigating frequent water shut offs at home and work, wearing waterproof shoes, and paying extra for transport through floods; while not all weather-related, are things to prepare yourself for.
- “It May Take Some Time” — “10 minutes only.” “Two hours only.” Whenever you are given a time estimate, double it and prepare yourself for the reality that it may not ever get done. This can be the case due to bureaucracy, a general cultural lateness, and who knows why else. A friend told me when I was moving here to only plan to be able to accomplish one thing a day and that rule has held up.
- Lies & Brutal Honesty — Someone announcing that you are too fat or deliberately giving you wrong directions surely isn’t someone who cares about you, right? Wrong. In India, people more frequently exercise both ends of the honesty spectrum for a variety of reasons, but rarely to hurt you. For example, someone may give you directions when they do not know the way to save face and/or because giving you wrong directions somehow seems more helpful than giving you no directions at all. A person who warns you that you may be getting too old to marry is likely doing so because goading those you care about to live good lives is considered a responsibility of communities and loved ones.
Others who have lived in India—what do you have to add?