Overcoming first impressions in India

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Overcoming First Impressions in Bangalore, India

From the moment I stepped off the plane and walked into the Bangalore airport, I knew my life would be different. Life in a Third World Asian country would obviously present a new array of cultural expectations and lifestyles.

As a pampered American, was I up for the challenge?

Would my first impressions of Bangalore affect my ability to adapt?

After two days of international travel, I was groggy but at the same time keenly aware of the demographics. There were a disproportionate number of men standing in the customs line. Only a small number of the people were women and children.

This scenario became a recurring theme. Almost everywhere that I went during my Indian adventure, I encountered more males than females. My curiosity led to numerous conversations with Indians. A condensed version of some of these dialogues is found in my memoir, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life.

The sheer number of people was also noteworthy. It was the middle of the night and the airport was packed. The massive number of people that occupied confined places frequently overwhelmed me. Despite the crowds, we were able to locate our prearranged driver easily. Each had a placard with a name on it.

The drive to our accommodations was an introduction to a society that opted not to follow standard driving rules. Our driver honked his horn whenever he approached an intersection and disregarded the color of the stoplight. Red, yellow or green meant go.

In broken English, he candidly remarked that it was safer to go through the light than to stop. If he stopped there would be a good chance we would get hit.  There were few posted speed signs. I wasn’t sure that it mattered.

Before arriving, I was under the impression that India was an English speaking country. To a certain extent this is true. Most Indians who received a public education had minimal English skills whereas those who were educated in the private sector had an excellent command of British English.  Thus, communicating on a day-to-day basis became a test of my patience. I wasn’t always sure that my words and my gestures were fully understood. I certainly did not understand everything said to me.

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The air was smoky. Small fires dotted the roadway. It reminded me of the 1960s when the fall leaves were openly burned in one’s yard. It was 2010 and people were burning garbage without any reservations. Once again, rules that I had grown accustomed to in the US were not a part of Indian culture.

My husband and I were assigned a two bedroom flat.  The wall outlets had to be turned on with a separate switch. It took some getting used to because my Colorado home had continuous power. Occasionally, I took a frigid shower since I tended to forget to flip the switch on the small hot water tank. It had to be turned on 15 minutes before bathing.  Unlike the US, where power outages are a rare event, losses of power occurred on a daily basis. It was not uncommon to be without any electricity for several hours each day.

An apparatus filtered the apartment’s kitchen water. If I didn’t turn the electrical outlet on, it would not work. If I forgot to turn it off, the filter would start to chime. I didn’t trust the quality of the filtration system. Most of the time, I boiled the filtered water.

The kitchen in the apartment was barebones. It had a small refrigerator, a Bunsen burner that doubled as a cooktop, a microwave, and a pot that heated water. American luxuries such as a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, and a cooktop and oven were nowhere in sight.

With an empty refrigerator and pantry, I went looking for a local food store. Walking on the sidewalk was more challenging than usual. I had to keep a look out for large gaping holes filled with debris. Garbage and manure were other obstacles along with cows, emaciated dogs, and goats. My attention was constantly diverted by horns blaring constantly. A couple of men openly urinated against public buildings.

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The food options within walking distance were limited to vendors who sold from small carts and mini stores that had a limited selection of items. While I was looking at the selection of fruits and vegetables, I wondered if I had to cook all of the produce.

The streets were congested with all types of vehicles that did not stay in their lanes. Some of the auto rickshaws swerved off of the street and onto the adjacent sidewalk. I was fearful on the first day and for many weeks thereafter. To cross a major street required finesse and a bit of luck. Stoplights were few and far between. I usually waited until there were a minimal number of cars before I attempted to cross the street.  Safety was my main concern.

Our eldest son’s apartment was considerably more spacious and cleaner. Yet both apartments were inundated with an assortment of crawling and flying bugs. None of the deterrents were effective. We suffered from miscellaneous bug bites wherever we lived. I couldn’t help but fear that I might come in contact with a disease spread by bugs.

Initially, the things that were foreign and strange curtailed my adventuresome spirit. I was overwhelmed and overly fearful of everything that was new and different. A tidal wave of insecurity engulfed me as I tried to adjust to my new surroundings. I wasn’t visiting on a short vacation. I was planning to stay long term.

Could I overcome the culture shock that was brought on by these first impressions?

Culture shock is a state of mind that has the potential to put a kibosh on a new journey. If I had any chance of reducing the anxieties caused by culture shock, I needed to come to terms with my new surroundings and accept that my life would be different. If I allowed my first impressions to taint my viewpoint, I would never have been able to interview for teaching jobs.

Living in a foreign country is not the same as visiting a new place. I agree with Gilbert K Chesteron who stated that “the traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” The focus for the two experiences is different. Tourists have an itinerary that includes a set agenda whereas travelers who are intent on learning more about the inner workings of a place will be more open to deeper exploration.

Expats need to be more accepting of the host country’s cultural differences than their visitor counterparts. As an expat, I could not dwell on the inherent differences between India and the US. I had to find ways to address my concerns, embrace my adventure, and learn from the experience.

Three years later, I can chuckle about my first impressions of Bangalore, India. I realized in 2010, as well as now, that one has to accept cultural differences in order to be able to survive in a distant land. While this may sound like a simple and obvious proposition, it can be an overtaxing situation for many.  Letting go of troubling first impressions and simultaneously being open to new experiences is the key to having a successful expat experience in India and elsewhere.

About the author

Sandra Bornstein, an international educator and writer, has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses at the University of Colorado and Front Range Community College. Sandra holds two master’s degrees- one in Education from the University of Colorado and another in Jewish Studies from Spertus College.

In 2010, her husband’s international job created a unique opportunity to live abroad. In India, she fulfilled three passions – a desire to travel, a zeal for writing, and a love of teaching.  Sandra’s Indian adventure became the backdrop for her book, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life: A Memoir. Sandra hopes you will follow her blog. You can contact Sandra at info@sandrabornstein.com. She would love to hear from you.

Sandra Bornstein
This post was written by
Sandra Bornstein, an international educator and writer, has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses at the University of Colorado and Front Range Community College. Sandra holds two master’s degrees- one in Education from the University of Colorado and another in Jewish Studies from Spertus College.