Welcome to India!

By Michelle Jeong

Originally published at gilmanprogram.wordpress.com on August 31, 2016.

The whole group of SITA (South India Term Abroad) students attempting the Vrksasana (tree pose).

Greetings! My name is Michelle Jeong and I am currently a junior at Bowdoin College studying abroad in Madurai, India. Prior to coming to India, everyone wanted to know why I chose India as my study abroad location. Before I could even answer the first question, I was asked another question: “Why not go to Europe where you can travel and relax?” I wanted to study in India because I knew it was going to be a different experience: culturally, linguistically, and physically. To me, study abroad was a chance to live a different life in a different country. I am aware that I will face challenges but that made me want to go to India even more. I want to know what I am capable of.

Menakshi Temple

This past summer I interned for 7 weeks with a non-profit organization located in Ghana. I would be lying if I said it was perfect. It wasn’t, but that’s what I loved about it. When the power went out for 12 hours at a time I can’t say I was the happiest person in the world, but it made me re-evaluate my lifestyle. I needed to toughen up and accept that resources such as electricity and central air conditioning were not available to most of the world’s population. Being raised in the United States made me a weakling.

Grand entrance to Menakshi Temple

Experiencing differences and difficulties in Ghana somewhat prepared me for India. I knew I was going to be the foreigner that was constantly stared at. I knew that brushing my teeth and consuming tap water was HIGHLY discouraged. I knew that I would be restricted in both dress and behavior. The one thing I wasn’t prepared for? The need to relearn everything. As soon as I stepped off the bus in Madurai, I was greeted by traffic: scooters, buses, motorcycles, cars, cyclists, trucks, and even pedestrians. I felt overwhelmed. There was so much traffic I didn’t know where to go. I essentially needed to relearn how to walk in a city. Being from Washington D.C. I thought I would have no trouble navigating a city, however I was dead wrong. Madurai is bustling with people. The roads are not only narrow but most of them have big intersections without any traffic lights or stop signs. Traffic laws do not really exist in Madurai, but drivers somehow understand each other and communicate with honks. Traffic is confusing and overwhelming as it is, but driving on opposite side of the road complicates things to a greater extent. It’s mind-boggling to me that while I hesitate to cross the road, locals will shimmy past me walking right into the middle of the road not hesitating for one second. While it is frustrating having to learn a new language (Tamil), eat food with only my right hand, and to use a hose instead of toilet paper, it’s exactly what I wanted from a study abroad experience.

Cramming six people into an auto-rickshaw built for three (small) people.

At this point you may be asking yourself, “Why is this girl trying to be so positive?” Over time I have learned that being positive is the best way to adjust to a new environment. Why complain about it if it’s only going to make it worse? Yes, sometimes I don’t understand what my host grandfather is trying to say to me and yes, sometimes I’ll be squashed into a small auto-rickshaw with 6 other people. BUT that’s the fun! All these scenarios are entertaining and they make for great memories! Trying to look on the brighter side of things has helped me absorb the culture shocks that India has greeted me with. I’m already 2 weeks into my program but I look forward to the crazy auto-rickshaw moments, the insane road navigation, fresh coconut water, and delectable south Indian desserts.


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