Monday, March 14, 2016

Halfway there

{views from Golconda Fort at dusk}
Two weekends ago, I was in Kolkata feeling frustrated with my time here and even a little homesick. My cousin Darshana — who's been living in India for the past four years after ten in the U.S. — pointed out that she feels this way sometimes too, and that this is a feeling that comes and goes for her. I’ve (only?) been here for just under three months but I’ve noticed the same pattern in my experience here. And a similar thing happened when I was in Spain. In between the weeks, in between the days, you go through shifts where something strikes you the wrong way. Maybe you missed yet another bus, maybe the heat got to you more than you'd care to admit, maybe you had one more person make you feel unsafe or alone or unwelcome. And you started to miss home, started to wish that you had the comfort of being in a place of security and assuredness without having to leave the place you were in.

I'm starting to understand that this is just what it's like to be an in-betweener, to be a person who is forever moving back and forth — physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. — between two or more places.

But that feeling passes. And about a week after returning from Kolkata, I’m at a place where I’m nearly overwhelmed with how glad I am to have come to India. I’m big on appreciating the small stuff, so a few nights ago I made a list of things that I was grateful for. Academically, professionally, and personally, things have been going well for me right now. My life’s not perfect, not even close, but I’ve been making so much progress and I took the time to acknowledge that to myself.

And as I sat there making my list of things that had made my week amazing, I realized how happy I was to be here. I love one of the classes I’m taking, and am gaining at least something from the rest. My relationship with myself and all the bits and pieces of my identity has improved so much here, and I’ve been able to talk (and write) about things I was hardly able to think about a year ago. And I’ve met so many great people here.

And I realized today that I’m halfway in. I got to India twelve weeks ago, the exact amount of time I was in Madrid. Leaving Madrid was horrible for me. I wasn’t ready to go and I kept feeling like I had more to experience, more to learn before heading back to the States and to GW. Twelve weeks into my time in India, I’m so grateful to have about just as many more left.

Around this time in Spain, I published this post on how traveling abroad is at once isolating and unifying. On one hand, you separate yourself from your friends and loved ones back home; beyond the geographical distance between you and them, there is a separation of experiences. Your friends don’t know the street you’ve come to call home, the cafĂ© you go for an afternoon bite, the people you now spend all your time with, and so on.

But at the same time — and this is one of my favorite things about traveling — you are reminded that you’re part of a bigger world. Not simply because you go to a new country and realize that when it comes down to it, we’re all the same. But instead because when you travel, you become part of new communities and you find ways to connect with absolute strangers. The lady sitting next to you in a packed shared auto. The children who wave to you on your walk home. The man sitting next to you waiting for the Metro. lt is in these moments that your life begins to feel like a movie, not because of how picturesque the cathedrals and temples and architecture and scenery around you is, but because of the way strangers become acquaintances with whom you share an experience no one else knows anything about, if only for a moment. And if you’re lucky, some of those acquaintances become friends.

It’s weird to see how much of my experience in India parallels my time in Spain. Beyond the fact that the two are very different countries, the parallels are shocking to me because I’ve been here before. I’m no stranger, no foreigner. In many ways, India has always been home whereas Spain only became home. There’s such a degree of familiarity to me here, and yet I found myself experiencing a sort of culture shock in the early weeks of my time here. And now, around the same time that I did in Spain, I find myself feeling isolated from a lot of what I consider home in America. Certain aspects of my life there disinterest me. They seem trivial to me, while others don't matter at all. And the idea of heading back terrifies me. I have so much left to experience here. It's not that I have cities to check off my bucket list or more souvenirs to shop for. It's simply that I'm not ready. I’m so happy to be here, right now, to be experiencing all that I am and to have learned all that I have and to have met the amazing people that make up my community here. I'm reminded often that coming to India is one of the best decisions I've made for myself. I don’t want to go back, at least not anytime soon, and I’m so glad I don’t have to.

So here's to being twelve weeks in, and here's to twelve more.

~ V

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Culture shock and Kolkata

{riverboats on the Hooghly}
This past weekend, I went to Kolkata (or Calcutta) and truth be told, it wasn't great. In fact, the weekend had my friends and me reeling and discussing culture shock in relation to our trip and the rest of our time in India.

There are so many ways to conceptualize culture shock. People talk about culture shock affecting you the first time you visit a new place, and then you adjust. And sometimes people add in the fact that you experience reverse culture shock whenever you go home, whatever home is. But for me, culture shock comes in waves. There are days when I'm good and in awe of how amazing this place is, whether it be Hyderabad or Mumbai or Bangalore or India in general. And there are days when it's hard and I'm confused and frustrated and angry and afraid. Even through that, I'm grateful that I came here because sometimes the moments where it's hard teach you even more than the moments that remind you how lucky you are to be alive, to have the life you do, to be who you are where you are.

Lately, I've been in a slump. I've been getting frustrated with some of my classes and I've been missing out on things with my family back in the U.S. and I miss what D.C. is like when it first becomes spring. I don't wish I was back in the States, not even for a moment. My time here is so limited and I don't know when I'll be in India next, so feeling homesick feels like a waste of time. But I've been learning a lot here in ways that haven't been easy and so I've turned to looking at photos of my time in Spain and making to-do lists for my upcoming summer in Jersey.

And it was in the middle of this slump that I went to Kolkata with two friends, friends who were in similar places regarding their feelings and frustrations with where we are in our time here in India.

Before heading to Kolkata, I'd done my research. I'd thoroughly read Lonely Planet's guide on visiting the city and had talked to friends and family about what to do, where to eat, etc. And it was with that in mind that Corinne, Rachel, and I explored Kolkata. We visited popular places like the Victoria Memorial, Mother Teresa's Motherhouse, Tagore's House, and Dakshineswar and tried to eat our way through the city. 

But there were so many times during our visit that we felt uncomfortable and unsafe and it was so frustrating to constantly feel that this was because I'm a woman, because I'm a foreigner to whatever extent. It's hard to write about these things because I in no way want to contribute to the perception that this is what India is. But as an Indian-American friend pointed out to me recently, sometimes this is part of India, just as it can be a part of living in D.C. or any other city in any other part of the world.

Our trip wasn't entirely terrible. We had some pretty good food and desserts (sondesh, mishti doi, rasgulla, and even paan gelato) and parts of the city were quite beautiful. I especially enjoyed the architecture and stained glass in many of the homes. Above all, the company made the experience much better. Throughout the long weekend, Corrine, Rachel, and I were able to vent to each other about our frustrations but still remain optimistic and hopeful about what the next day had to bring. And we were all able to recognize that our feelings weren't necessarily a reflection of the city, but more so of our experiences within the city.

I'm just at a place where I'm weary and tired of feeling like my life is harder because I'm a woman or because I'm not truly Indian or not truly American and adding to this weariness is the fact that I just really miss good pizza. And then I start thinking about how I miss driving a car. How I miss feeling like I have more agency and freedom, how I miss worrying less about my safety. Maybe this is homesickness. Maybe even though there's no place else I'd rather be right now, I'm a little homesick.
{City of Pearls}

But that doesn't mean I'm not grateful for everything I've experienced here, everything I have left to experience. Because that's how you learn. The good days, the bad days, the days in between—that's why I'm here. That's why I studied abroad. That's why I travel. And I mean it: there's no place else I'd rather be right now than in India.

And plus, culture shock fades. Homesickness fades. And I know the reminder of how much I love this place, how much it feels like home, and how damn grateful I am to be here is just around the corner.

For now, I'm glad to be back in Hyderabad and upon returning to the city, I felt so relieved that it made Hyd feel that much more like home.

My next trip won't be for a couple of weeks and until then, I'm looking forward to spending more time with my aunt and uncle and checking a few things off my to-do list. Here are some more photos from our weekend in Kolkata: 

{Rachel at brunch}
{heading to the north of the city}
{French toast at Flury's}
{the stunning architecture of the city}
{the Darjeeling tea that taught me to love Darjeeling tea}
{Ambassador taxis}
{indoor market}
{peep the ray of sunshine}
{special cloth alert}
{world's smallest menu}
{my future home}
{Tagore House}
{beautiful door}
{flowers on the steps}
{windows + architecture}
{Tagore House}
{loved the greenery in parts of Kolkata}

~ V