Orientation Week in India: a week full of rude awakenings and stark reminders of the differences between my home culture and the culture I currently live in. In the past 5 days, our group has gone through countless orientation sessions- from a meeting with a doctor, to a session with a mental health expert, and even an interesting video on how to use an eastern toilet[i]. Many of these talks have centered on gender; after all, 14 of the 18 students in my group are female. India has, what I[ii] would consider, extreme limitations and taboos placed on females. These restrictions range from dress (say goodbye to tank-tops or shorts), to literacy (81% and 53% male and female literacy rates respectively). But the greatest restriction seems to be in the comfort and safety of the females on our group. The topic is consistently on our minds and women must be constantly aware of their actions, the appearance of their actions, and as a result, the place they hold in society. This may not affect me in the same way, but it is an incredibly interesting aspect of my time here. It seems to create two conflicting feelings, a desire to immerse oneself in the culture of India, while at the same time fighting for the rights of future women. I’m sure this aspect of Indian culture will play out over my time here and I will note any interest incidents or relevant articles I find.
For me, the real orientation started last night. After attending a hilarious Bollywood movie[iii], my group was finally introduced to the families we will be staying with over the next two months[iv]. It was clear that everybody was extremely anxious, and for good reason- our families will be one of the primary portals we have through which to observe and experience India[v]. Although we will be taking rigorous classes and taking frequent trips outside of the city, our everyday routine will begin and end with our homestays.
For these two months I will be living with the Mehta’s. Mr. Chinmay Mehta is currently an artist and interior designer who specializes in traditional art and design. He was at one point a Senior Faculty member at the University of Rajasthan where he taught mostly fine art. He is an avid reader and art collector. Upstairs is an art studio where he trades time completing massive wood sculptures, metal shaping, and glass murals. His art appears in several cultural centers throughout the region and he still leads groups of American students on excursions around Jaipur. He met Mrs. Mehta when she was studying at the university and they now have two children. One is married and lives in the house. Her husband works in Delhi and commutes to Jaipur on the weekends. Their son is in 10th grade and is passionate about music- mostly rock and metal[vi]. There are some similarities to my family- the parents are older, there is an older sibling, and of course they have a love of art. There are also some similarities with the family I stayed with in Liberia- the personality of the mother, the house filled with religious objects and children’s stickers, and the goddamn mosquitos[vii]. Their house is filled with Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Korean, and even American art. There is even a shrine in my room. It definitely seems eo encourage frequent reading and meditation- my exact plan for the next eight weeks. The house is located in the historic neighborhood, Jiwahar Nigar, one of the nicest neighborhoods in Jaipur. Positioned right against the Aravalli (Hill) Range, it is comprised of thousands of shops, beautiful homes, and its fair share of public parks[viii]. The family has hosted around 17 SIT students before me; I am just the 2nd male. They seem very old-fashioned, very educated, very hospitable, and luckily enough for me, very willing to give me independence.
I took advantage of that independence today to go explore the city. I took an auto-rickshaw[ix], the main form of transportation, and headed to the Johari Bazar, a giant market right outside the gates of the old city. There I purchased a couple of traditional Indian short-kurtas decorated with the traditional Rajasthani block print[x]. From there I took a rickshaw to a shop on the famed M.I. Road. Although I was unable to find any shirts to my liking, I settled for a great lunch at the Niros Resturaunt, a favorite among tourists. All in all it was a successful day, but not just because I made it back alive. It was successful because it was filled with failures at every stop: I got ripped off by every cab driver, I almost got lost, I was harassed at one point, and throughout the day I was hot, sweaty, tired, and homesick. Today was the last step of orientation. No amount of learning inside the classroom can replace the experiences I have had in the last 24 hours- from meeting my family, to eating my first meal here, to haggling at the Bazar. Today was incredibly challenging in so many ways but that’s why it was so valuable. If I wanted to never get ripped off by a storeowner or cab driver during my time here then I would have had to stay at home. If I wanted to eat dinner without messing up the traditional method of eating a meal, I would have starved. Every time I feel down, homesick, or frustrated, I remember that the reason I chose to study in India was because I wanted to challenge myself; to push myself. And so far that seems to be 100% inevitable.
This week I will start classes, take a Hindi placement test[xi], and learn more about the city. I’m excited to find a routine and begin planning further excursions. Rumor has it that the weather will begin to cool off soon so I have that to look forward to as well. I hope everybody is doing well back at home and I’ll update everyone soon!
[i] The man looked like the Indian guy in Beer Fest (for reference)
[ii] “I” in this case means any reasonable person
[iii] The Chennai Express was the worst piece of cinema I have ever watched. Ever.
[iv] After these two months I will be working on my Independent Study Project (ISP) somewhere else, possibly Delhi.
[v] I think they were mostly just nervous because of the Eastern Toilet video
[vi] He asked if I knew of the band, “Creed”…. (to his credit he also listens to Metallica)
[vii] Maybe I can do my ISP on how to alleviate the world of mosquitos
[viii] As a former intern of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, this made me proud. I wonder what my (former) urban planner father would think…
[ix] See the photo gallery for an example…. India is not exactly the “Land of Horse Power”
[x] I doubt I will ever take the opportunity to rock the long kurta, however the short kurta has been advertised to me as a solution to the stifling weather
[xi] Because none of us have taken Hindi, this is clearly just a test of who didn’t have a TV/car/internet this summer