I was absolutely terrified to come to India. I would stay awake until two in the morning reading travel blogs and local news articles and inwardly (and outwardly) freak out. I asked everyone I could for advice. I even wrote my senior term paper on the psychological foundation of culture shock because I was so scared to experience it first hand.
Here’s the kicker: Every fear I had before coming to India was completely inaccurate and not even applicable to my life here in Bangalore.
Looking back now, I was absolutely crippled with anxiety and didn’t even realize it at the time. I thought I was just excited and eager to begin the adventure of a lifetime, but somewhere on my flight to Bangalore, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a cocktail of sleep deprivation and complimentary wine spurred the creation of my very first journal entry. I filled three pages with thoughts of “What am I doing?” and “I am so not cut out for this”. Every negative thing that I had ever heard of this unknown country that I would soon call home was filling my head and only fueled my growing panic attack.
Before I came to India, I thought I was preparing for the thrill of a lifetime by doing all of that research. In reality, I was both creating and perpetuating my fears about visiting somewhere new. I sought advice from every source, not even considering the biases that colored these strangers opinions.
They told me that India is dangerous, that it’s not safe for women to visit. People told me that to avoid sexual harassment I needed to dress modestly in baggy clothes and to never wear makeup. I was told to not walk at night and to never walk alone anywhere at any time. I was told that every street vendor and auto-rickshaw driver would try to rip me off and that I should just accept the ‘foreigners tax.’
I was warned that I would almost definitely get food poisoning from eating a watermelon or a salad and that I would get dysentery from drinking water or juice with ice in it. I paid over $200 for anti-malaria medication and even more for routine vaccinations. I bought a $70 water bottle and SO MUCH bug spray. I spent all this money and all this time worrying for literally nothing.
That watermelon is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted and it’s all I drink anymore. The 90 degree days here wouldn’t even be bearable without ice. A night jog is actually really fun and there’s no better time to witness the innocent, secret meetings of young, illicit couples. I almost never see mosquitoes, but I have met a cockroach that was hiding in my curtain (cue the loud and girly screams). The sweetest pack of dogs roam outside my house looking for belly rubs during the day and at night will walk with me to wherever I’m going, even if it means crossing the busy streets.
Sure, I’ve met merchants and rickshaw drivers that initially tried to overcharge me, but they were always good sports about haggling down to the right price. I’ve also met people who don’t try to overcharge me and instead give me advice on places to visit while I’m in Southern India.
I may be stared at more than normal, but I’ve also never felt that my personal space was so well respected as it has been here. People ask before ever placing their hands on me for a picture or for an event like Holi, where touching is to be expected. And sure, by day most everyone dresses modestly in traditional Indian wear, but by night women break out the lipstick and stilettos and dance to the sounds of deep house until the early morning.
I’m still trying to figure out why the world that I know back home is so terrified of this beautiful country. Since I’ve been here I’ve met some of the kindest and most humble people. I’ve seen human strength in a capacity that I never thought possible and I’ve seen joy and community in places that seem like they should be devoid of both.
I’ve spent so much of my time worrying that I’ll never get back, and it makes me wonder how many people do the same? A week before I left the United States for the first time I actually swore that I was going to cancel my trip and never leave Idaho. Thankfully, I had already paid for the program deposit and the flight, so canceling wasn’t really an option.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that preparing yourself mentally and physically for a new place is SUCH a good thing. But I also think that it’s really easy to get stuck in your head when you’re planning too much. I can never get back the months that I spent worrying about coming to India instead of living my life, and I can’t get back the weeks I spent while living in India being too scared to go outside by myself.
I remember the first night we ever spent in Bangalore. We were exhausted from our five-day tour of Kerala and were still reeling from the time difference. Our shocked stomachs groaned at the thought of any more Indian food, and so we set out in search of some good ol’ fashioned pizza. As we walked to the restaurant a few blocks away, we had lined up like ducklings. Every few seconds we checked to make sure no one was missing and that we were still all together. We walked like this through a local neighborhood crowded with fire pits and people and cattle all coexisting.
At the time, I remember feeling like their stares were full of resentment and insidious intentions. Every doubt that I had felt back on the plane seemed to be reflected in their eyes as they watched this group of 10 foreign girls hold hands and walk single file down the road.
We looked absolutely ridiculous, and I have no doubt that I too would have stared if a group of wide-eyed, clearly terrified foreigners walked through my neighborhood at night as well. People will always be curious when an odd group of even more oddly behaving people pass through their home. Still operating on my fear of the world, I had accidentally projected all of my fears onto people that I didn’t even know. Our hopes, our dreams, and especially, our fears, color the way the world appears. Not to get too cliche here, but I really want to share the Buddhist view of reality with you. Gautama Buddha said
“We live in illusion and the appearance of things…”
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but this basically means that the reality we live in is a world created by a blend of our mental status and stimuli recorded by our sensory organs. We literally create the reality that we see. If we allow fear to permeate our thoughts, we will inevitably create a world to live in that looks sinister and terrifying, even in the most harmless of situations.
Nothing is ever as scary as we first believe. I initially chose to come to India to challenge myself mentally and physically. I remember thinking to myself that if I could survive in such a big ‘dangerous’ city, then I could survive anywhere. Every time I look back, my naive intentions and ideas make me laugh a little to myself.
The single greatest thing that India has taught me so far is that life is life, no matter what city or country you live in. People everywhere are just trying to go to work, love their family and have some fun when they can. The cultural context varies from country to country, neighborhood to neighborhood and family to family, but we’re all just out here trying to survive.
Sure, the world is a vast and diverse place, but things aren’t actually as drastically different as you first think it’s going to be. A tree will still be a tree, a family will still operate within some familial system, and people still have to meet their basic needs, no matter what half of the world you’re living on. I don’t know about you guys, but once you break it down like this, the world seems a lot less scary.
After I finally got out of my own way and really began to open up to what a wonderful place this is, I realized that I’m really only scared of one thing: Getting kicked by a startled cow during my evening run.
Briauna Derry attends the University of Idaho. She studied abroad in Bangalore, India in Spring 2018.