In that same way you can feel a prickly scratchiness at the back of your throat before a raging fever sets in, I can feel the prickly ugliness of a little bit of culture shock beginning to cast a shadow on this stage of our time here.
I’m feeling two different kinds of culture shock really, towards both India and, as a friend here calls it, the “cruise ship” lifestyle of living on an embassy compound.
I hate to really complain about these things because–for every leering, innuendo-spewing pervert in Delhi, I know at least four or five wonderful men who’ve helped me with my stroller, held open a door, or simply said “Hello” in the most respectful and kindly way. For that one horrific incident we had in Lodhi Garden a few weeks ago where a woman, shouting and snarling, tried to grab Will out of my arms over and over until her husband intervened and Will was shaking in terror, we’ve had dozens and dozens of kind people since then nod understandingly as Will bursts into tears whenever anyone so much as tries to stroke his cheek.
And for as much as it sometimes feels like a social gauntlet to exchange greetings with at least 25 gardeners, sweepers, guard, nannies and neighbors every time we step out our front door, it’s also an incredibly nurturing environment for Will to toddle around in, knowing that everyone he meets will smile and wave every single time they see him–even if it’s the 16th time that day. I miss “real India” living here with so few markets, stores and restaurants within walking distance, but it is so very nice to come home to great neighbors, quiet green lawns and a home where the generator faithfully kicks in 5 seconds after every power failure.
I can’t deny though that this week I’ve begun to think about where we might go next instead of simply relishing our short two years here.
My instinct, when the culture shock is just starting to kick in is to retreat, to hibernate, to stay at home where its comfortable and easy and where I can very nearly pretend I’m not in India at all.
I’m learning though that this is often, paradoxically, the absolute worst thing I can do to cope. As isolated and “Americanized” as our lives are here, the more that I cling to all things familiar, the more jarring the foreignness becomes.
And after awhile a certain amount of inertia can take hold. The longer a person stays at home and avoids going out into the city, the more insurmountable the challenges seem and the harder it gets to simply pack a bag, hail a taxi and just go somewhere.
So, with these things in mind, I asked our driver if he’d mind a few hours of early morning overtime pay, woke Will up before the crack of dawn, hustled him into his car seat, blew off warnings of unseasonal morning showers and away we went to Qutub Minar. I’d been wanting to visit for months and today seemed as good a day as any to do it.
The things that can be annoying about our India experience were still present–the touts, the baby-cheek-pinchers, the men talking about me as they huddled just over my shoulder and refused to budge. But these things that can be so maddening when they take place on a quick shopping trip, or during what should be a routine trip to the park, are always overshadowed by the magnitude of the experience when we’re out visiting someplace new.
I had hoped to catch Delhi’s beautiful sunrise over the ruins and get home before rush hour traffic took over the city. With lingering rain clouds hovering over the site, we at least did well on our second goal. By 9am we were back in New Delhi and I realized we had time for another culture-shock-busting secret: when in doubt, indulge in what you love about where you live.
If it’s the sites, go sight-seeing. If its the shopping, go shop. If it’s the food, go eat. If its that one place on the edge of town that is half-way pretty if you squint your eyes and pretend not to notice the sewer smell, go there.
As for me, I like food. I particularly like South-Indian dosas–a treat that’s hard to find here in Delhi, especially if you want it done right.
I can’t say that I know where to find the absolute best dosa in Delhi yet but I’ll tell you this, the coffee shop at the Taj Ambassador by Khan Market is an excellent cure for culture shock. I could buy 20 dosas in Chennai for the $10 I pay for a cup of chai and a dosa and 30% in taxes at the Taj, but the wafer-thin dosa and the spicy sambar and the kitschy old-world atmosphere of that sunny little cafe make the indulgence worth it And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a plane ticket home.
We’re back home on the “cruise ship” now, but I don’t feel quite so prickly as I did before we got out this morning. I’m sure I’ll have my moments again very soon, but for now, owing mostly to an especially good dosa, the worst of the culture shock has been momentarily averted.
How do you deal with creeping culture shock?
Pssst. I did a guest-post for one of my favorite expat bloggers, Wanderlustress, over at World Moms Blog this week. Click over to check it out. Also, want to read a really, really long post on making sourdough bread at home? I’ll post my recipe and tips later this weekend.