A (not so) Brief Reflection on my Semester in India

India is a nation of many things- many religions, many languages, many cultures. The country boasts a sizable representation of nearly every world religion, and is recognized as the actual birthplace of four of them (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism). There are 22 official languages, which is a small number in comparison to the several hundred which are spoken throughout the country, not even mentioning the different dialects which themselves number in the hundreds, or possibly even thousands. Combine these different religious practices, different languages, different foods and traditions and clothing, and you’re left with an innumerable amount of differing cultures spread throughout India’s population of 1.4 billion people. If you stand in one place and travel two kilometers in any direction, you’ll experience a different culture.

Now… imagine you’ve been in India for a week. You’ve already gotten terribly sick from the food your body doesn’t yet know how to digest, you barely know any of the people sitting around you, and when your brand-new professor at your brand-new university walks in to the classroom where you’re all anxiously waiting, she starts her first lecture by explaining this to you. In five words or less? It’s a bit much.

When this exact scenario happened to me, and I didn’t yet know the prowess of Dr. Chakraborty or the distinctions I would soon find between the different cultures around me, I nearly fainted. True, that may well have been because I was violently sick for the preceding 24 hours and had been rendered entirely incapable of keeping a single drop of fluid in my body, (my way of explaining that in the least-repulsive way possible), but nevertheless, in that moment I was so overwhelmed that my body nearly shut down because of it.

I will admit that the introduction to this story has been a bit rocky, at best. Tales of food poisoning and fainting are probably not the route to take when attempting to convince others that my experience in India was invaluable and life-changing. In spite of this, I have made a very conscious decision to be entirely honest about my time in India, and I would be lying if I said everything was easy and wonderful from the beginning. It wasn’t. And, quite frankly, it wasn’t supposed to be.

The Beginning

During my first couple of weeks in India, I learned how to learn— about myself, others, and the world around me.

The first couple of weeks in India, and truly in any new country, constitute a time period I would argue to be one of the most important in a person’s growth. At least for me, this proved to be the case, as I was shown a world as different from my own as I could imagine.

Through the nerves and the sickness and the complete rewiring of my biological clock, I grew and I learned. I opened myself up more to strangers, and can confidently say that I have a new set of lifelong friends whom I deeply cherish because of it. I forced myself to become more comfortable with asking people for help, and through this learned a deep sense of humility that can perhaps only be understood by someone in an entirely foreign country. In the midst of a country steeped in history, I stood in awe of remarkable beauty, and slowly unraveled the complex stories that make India the country it is today. To put it quite simply, during my first couple of weeks in India, I learned how to learn— about myself, others, and the world around me.

Study abroad students pose for a photo during Holi Festival in Bengaluru, India during USAC study abroad program
Students pose for a photos during the famous Holi Festival

Moving Forward

I asked my Indian friends tough questions about their experiences and opinions regarding gender, religion, caste and more. Through their often brave and incredibly honest answers, I was able to see India through the eyes of someone it had shaped.

From that point forward, I was learning new things every day, and it became easier with each lesson. With new friends at my side and knowledge from my classes fresh in my brain, I felt more at ease in the overwhelmingness that India can be (for lack of a better word). Through this newfound ease I exercised more of a liberty in finding out about the world around me. I asked my Indian friends tough questions about their experiences and opinions regarding gender, religion, caste and more. Through their often brave and incredibly honest answers, I was able to see India through the eyes of someone it had shaped. They invited me into their lives and helped me to experience India in a way that a foreigner rarely could. These friendships were some of the most influential from my semester, and were pivotal in increasing my understanding of the world around me. From cultural customs, such as shoving your way to the front of a “queue,” to religious practices, like the process of a birthday “pooja” unique to certain sects of Hinduism, these amazing friends were excited to teach me things I would have otherwise never had the opportunity to learn.

Lessons Learned

Another important lesson I learned in India was the importance of taking time for introspection and self-care.

Beyond just learning about India itself, which could be an infinite journey considering everything it encapsulates, I learned many life skills during my time abroad. Although it wasn’t my first time traveling to a foreign country completely alone, each of these journeys is unique and presents an entirely new set of challenges and experiences. Because of how vastly different India is from anything I had ever known, I was often lost and confused, both literally and metaphorically. This led to problem solving in ways I had almost never practiced before— asking others for help, accepting my own mistakes with abundant patience, and even completely reevaluating my own preconceived notions and values. As it turns out, some things that I initially thought of as problems, such as the lack of “proper” sanitary practices, I only considered problems because of my cultural identity. Now, I’m more than happy to eat with my hands, walk around barefoot, and use “non-Western” restrooms. (Yeah, I said it.)

Study abroad students enjoy a group meal during study abroad in Bengaluru, India with USAC
USAC students enjoying a group meal together

Another important lesson I learned in India was the importance of taking time for introspection and self-care. India, and especially Bangalore, is a place of constant over-stimulation. There is always so much to do, to see, to smell, to taste, to hear. Although this is something I love about India (there is just so much life, and everything is colorful, and all the food is delicious!), it can also be exhausting. A crucial part of my happiness in India was recognizing when I needed a break from everything, and being willing to give that to myself. Some days I didn’t even leave my apartment, but I would soon feel refreshed and ready to immerse myself in Bangalore’s energy again.

Additionally, adapting to such a different lifestyle provided me the environment to ask myself important questions. “What do I value?” “What do I actually want to do for the rest of my life?” “Why do I have these certain goals or ideas?” It’s because of this that I say I learned so much in India about philosophy and politics and the country itself, but also about myself.

Connecting Study Abroad to My Major

I got to study Indian politics in the midst of its general election, the largest democratic election in the world. Learning about its history shed light on the current state of affairs of India’s international relations, and living there gave me a unique perspective through which I could analyze the nation’s relationship with my own, the United States of America.

Finally, as a triple major in philosophy, political science, and international affairs, I could not have picked a better destination to spend a semester. Studying in India gave me the unique opportunity to not just read about Eastern philosophy, but to, in many ways, experience and practice it firsthand. I got to study Indian politics in the midst of its general election, the largest democratic election in the world. Learning about its history shed light on the current state of affairs of India’s international relations, and living there gave me a unique perspective through which I could analyze the nation’s relationship with my own, the United States of America. And, as much as I love Morningside’s campus, these were things I simply couldn’t learn in the traditional classroom setting.

Study abroad students inside a classroom at Christ University during a study abroad with USAC in Bengaluru, India
Students in the classroom at Christ University

At the end of the day, spending a semester in Bangalore, India was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, both personally and academically, and I’m so grateful to Morningside for providing me with that opportunity. In one short semester, I made friends that I will keep for the rest of my life, experienced a number of different religions in ways I had never imagined, ate enough chana masala and garlic naan to fill the Taj Mahal, visited the Taj Mahal, swam in the Holy River Ganga, completed research on government healthcare in my state of Karnataka, performed a Bollywood dance in front of hundreds of people, and just lived a curious and happy life, among other things. Studying in India for a semester was not something I spent my life imagining I would do, but now that I’ve done it, I will spend the rest of my life being grateful that I did.

Kailyn Robert is a USAC Bengaluru alumna and attends Morningside College. You can read more about her time in India on her blog, I’m Not in Kansas (Or Iowa) Anymore.