After a few months back home, I have had time to process my experiences in India and have a few stories that reflect some insights. After being home for only one day, my wife and I were invited to stay at the beach with one of her friends and the friend’s mother. We had not been at the hotel for more than an hour before the mother started letting us know everything that was wrong with the room. The A/C did not work well enough, house keeping did not come around often enough and did not clean sufficiently while there, breakfast was too expensive, the elevators were too slow, etc. In the hotel room, I was thinking back to what one of the doctor’s in India had told me just a week or so before. He mentioned that Indians are happy with very little. Given a small handful of food and their family around them, an Indian person would be completely satisfied. This is in stark contrast to my experience in the hotel. Another family in the hotel that we had met in the elevator looked really unhappy. It was unusual that they seemed unhappy, since they were heading down with their entire luggage. One would assume that they were going home, and a vacation usually helps people relax, so their agitated energy seemed misplaced. It turns out, though, that they were only heading down to request a room change since they had found a cockroach in their room. They had just arrived that day, and this was the SECOND time they were changing rooms. Our friend’s mom had plenty of dissatisfaction to share with this other family. You don’t go to the beach for the hotel; you go for the beach! Every time I had an interaction like this, the people expressing their disappointment seemed more and more ungrateful and unhappy. Granted, they had not just travelled in a place where you see people living in shacks made of coconut leaves and where you’re lucky if your hotel has a showerhead. Still, this was all in contrast to the appreciation and optimism I saw in people who had much less.
Another thing I have come to see is how seriously we all take everything. In my Food Purchasing class, we learned about standards in the US in which food is to be kept at least six inches off the ground when in storage to prevent pests and moisture from spoiling the food. In India, the storerooms I saw at BHC had food thrown on shelves and on the ground open to the outdoors with no refrigeration. I definitely saw pests in there. There should be appreciation for the sanitation standards that we have, but the degree of anal-retentiveness of our food safety standards reflects how much Americans often try to totally control things.
Not everything I have to say puts Americans in bad light, but there is one more negative thing I would like to mention. Students and workers in India have high respect for their professors and superiors. Blind obedience can get people into a lot of trouble (people have used Stanley Milgram’s work to say this was largely the cause of the Holocaust), but there is something to be said of respecting others. Professors at BHC could tell students to do something that did not help them academically, like taking Jess and me on a market and temple tour, and they would do it. One of my professors, who I am friends with, told me a story of a student in her Basic Food Science lab who started tossing eggs back and forth with another student in the middle of lab! They ended up dropping several eggs to make a splattered mess. I have seen coworkers at a landscaping company I work for waste time to do things like hammer the owner’s name in nails on telephone poles across the property or do a mediocre job since they were only there part-time. I cannot think of this happening in Trichy. Of course people in that city are not 100% obedient and respectful all of the time, they are all human, after all; but, people respected each other and tried their very best. I did not see anyone working at anything but 110%. This was partly out of necessity: with over a billion people, you have to distinguish yourself to get a good job. Still, I saw people doing either physically or mentally grueling work in 100-degree heat without complaining. I came to appreciate that respect and diligence.
The things I appreciate most after coming home are safety, cleanliness, privacy and infrastructure. I can walk down a well-maintained side-walk that is flat without any cracks or holes without worrying about being confronted or hit by an animal or scooter/bus. I assume that due to emissions and littering laws, the roads and public spaces feel much cleaner and are easier to breathe in. Public spaces have things like trashcans, benches, and bathrooms always readily available. Hotels definitely will have clean drinking water, showerheads, and some kind of food on hand. While some of these things are luxuries, being able to walk in public without fear of being hit and killed or being able to be in a public space and have access to clean water are examples of how our laws and culture ensure a sense of safety that was not as common in India. Public safety laws requiring workers to wash their hands and serve food with utensils is another example of the sense of safety and cleanliness not required in India. In one of my previous posts, I discuss the food vendor who picked up a piece of foods with his hands, dropped it on the ground, and nearly put it back on the table. With the state of most public bathrooms I saw, there was probably no soap available, and he would not have to use it even if there was. As another example, some areas of the US have poor relations between the police and the public, and response times can be poor. However, if we have a fire or a safety concern, we can reasonably expect professionals to arrive in a short time to help. In India, the car accidents I saw were dealt with personally without a call to the police. Natives told me that police response times were frequently more than an hour, and in some cases help never came. Lastly, privacy is legally and publically expected here. Public buses on India became grossly overcrowded. Besides the people sleeping in the aisles and the cages of chickens loaded in any free space, people packed like sardines in every space. After all of the seats had three to five people in them, and after all of the aisle spaces were taken, people crowded and sat on the floor around the feet of the bus driver. In this example, the sense of personal space was much smaller. When men I got to know held my hand all of a sudden, it was not unusual. If I gave my phone to someone to show him or her a picture, they would start scrolling through everything on it if I didn’t stop them. When travelling in public, especially when entering or leaving a new city, police or military could come onto the bus to count people and search bags. Police set up roadblocks at city limits to slow traffic so that it was easier to control the flow and the persons entering the city. If police entered buses and started searching bags here, the people could probably sue based on, whether real or fabricated, discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, etc. While not true in all cases, public areas and roads are cleaner and safer, your personal space and privacy are larger, and all types of infrastructure, including roads, public spaces and buildings, residences, etc. are more well maintained.
I now have a greater appreciation for all of those things we take for granted. We have easy access to safe water, and Wi-Fi is everywhere. These things are becoming more and more precious as water becomes scarcer and education continues to evolve using the Internet, but those things were scarce in India. Having lived without many of the pervasive necessities that are constantly available to most of those living in the US, I value them more greatly. There are still villages where people are living in coconut leaf shacks without electricity. There are large schools and cities where most students and citizens do not have access to the Internet. It seems that, while the people I met lead a richer family life and were more rooted to their beliefs and those around them, we have more freedom and resources. Change is never easy, but connecting more closely to my family is a mere phone call or drive away, while Indians cannot just pick up the phone and have access to clean water.
Since this is my last blog post I intend to post for a while, I wanted to reach out to anyone who wants to study abroad and thinks that they cannot for any reason, be it concerns of scheduling, budgeting, inexperience, etc. If you want to study abroad, feel free to comment on my blog or to email me. I also wanted to thank everyone who helped me along the way. First of all, Dr. Jones, you were a tremendous help. You prepared us in every possible way, from looking at Indian culture to giving us safety tips and overall being a continuous fountain of good advice. Also, I wanted to thank all of the family and friends who supported my travels. I know many of you were at home reading my blog posts, which made it much more fun to write when you knew someone was going to be reading about your experience. Also, thank you family and friends for donating to my gofundme page or for sending me spending money for while I was there. Thank you Haley, for being supportive of my travels, just a short time after we got married. And lastly, I wanted to say thanks to all of the organizations that offered and awarded me scholarships for my trip. Without all of you, it would not have been possible. To the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, I wanted to thank you for not only the funds, but the straightforward application and continued help along the way, including requiring me to enroll in safety programs and to view various safety videos. Thank you ACCESS for the Study Abroad Scholarship and the Passport Scholarship and for all of you advisors supporting me throughout the application and follow on service project. Christine Dave, your efforts in preparing Indian Food for my project was greatly appreciated by me and everyone who tried it. Additionally, Adam, thank you for letting me speak with your class about studying abroad. Also, the Appalachian Honors College provided yet another scholarship that made my travels possible, so thank you, too. OIED also provided the T. Marvin Williamsen Scholarship in addition to all of the advising they provided before I left. Additionally, a few folks, especially Maria Anastasiou, helped me with my follow-on service project for Gilman, so I thank you for your time and effort. Lastly, I thank the Goodwin Meissner Family Foundation for your contribution to my travels. All of you made this possible for me, and it has changed my life. Thank you.