I distinctively remember one of my first meals in India, in 2007 when I first visited this country. After me and my then boyfriend, now husband, were finished with the meal, the waiter brought to the table two things along with the bill – a tray of three small bowls containing something that looked like decorative crystals and sand to me, and a bigger bowl of what seemed to be water, with a couple of slices of lime in it.
My husband had excused himself from the table, and I was left staring at these items that had been placed in front of me. I had absolutely NO idea what I was supposed to do with them. I tried to glance around the restaurant to see if anyone else had reached this same point in their meals, but no luck. I turned back to stare at the bowls, and cursed my inability to perform a quick google search on “weird bowls of things in an Indian restaurant” to find out exactly what kind of a ritual I am supposed to perform with these things, but then my husband came back. He immediately dipped his hands in the water to wash them, and then proceeded to pour a bit of white “decorative sand” on the palm of his hand and tossed it in his mouth.
Turns out, the bowl of water is exactly what any sane person would expect it to be for, which is to wash your hands after you’ve most likely used them to eat your meal as most people do in India, and the “decorative sands” are usually sugar-coated fennel seeds, anis seeds, and other seeds, which are both mouth fresheners as well as digestive aids – not props for an elaborate Indian after-meal ceremony as I had imagined. Because the image of India I had in my head at that time was that of a country where everything is somehow connected to religion, tradition and ceremonies, I was entirely unable to consider the most obvious use for the items placed in front of me that night in the restaurant.
We all have expectations, stereotypes and assumptions about other countries and other cultures, that at times may be based in reality, but often are at least huge exaggerations if not blatantly wrong. For me, having these assumptions and expectations challenged and changed when traveling and living abroad is one of the most fun, and also most educating things about expat life. I am constantly finding out how wrong I have been about things, how much more I still have to learn, and how silly I can be at times with my assumptions about Indians, their customs and their culture – and I am happy to take as many embarrassing, funny, thought-provoking lesson out of this experience as I possibly can.
I came here expecting to experience a heavily religious and traditional country with a long history of a caste-system that perpetuates inequality, deeply entrenched patriarchy that oppresses and discriminates women and girls, unescapable poverty that is present everywhere, delicious food that will give you food poisoning, terrible traffic and pollution, beautiful landscapes and nature balanced out by horribly filthy cities, constant power outages, mostly no hot water, and constant communication problems because of me either not understanding the Indian accent, Indians not understanding my accent, or the Indians not speaking English at all.
Part of that is more or less true, but a lot of it isn’t, and even the part that is true isn’t the whole truth. India is traditional, religious, patriarchal, partly very poor – but on the other side of things, there is a whole new generation of young Indians revolting against the oppressive and unfair traditions that perpetuate a notion of certain casts as of lesser value than others, and against traditional patriarchal norms and customs that continue to oppress women and girls. There are masses of Indians who believe that it is possible to maintain a part of the old and respect certain traditions and certain religious beliefs without discriminating against other people and widening the gap between the rich and the poor. There is definitely poverty, but at the same time there is also hope and development, and though the progress is slow and unequal, it is happening – and a lot of that process has been initiated from within, not from the outside.
Understanding how little I know is simultaneously frustrating and exciting – never have I had to admit to being so incredibly wrong and so often, as I do when I am traveling or when I move to a new country. Not only are my beliefs and assumptions about the foreign country, culture and people often wiped entirely clean and proven wrong, but my understanding and perception of myself also gets challenged and changed. I learn new things not only about those around me, but about myself too, as I find myself in situations I have never been in before, talking to people from different backgrounds, learning ways of seeing the world I have never known existed before. It is a humbling experience every time, to realize how little I know now, and will ever know, about this world and the people in it, and it makes me realize how there never is only one truth about anything, or only one right way of doing things or thinking about certain problems or issues. Traveling teaches me humility. It has also taught me that being wrong about other countries, cultures and people can be the most educating and fun experience one can have.
This is why I think everyone should travel outside of their home country and comfort zone, at least once – and I almost want to say that if you are an American going to Canada, or a Finn going to Sweden, that doesn’t count. Everyone should at least once get on a plane and head off to somewhere where everything you know and are used to is turned on its head and done differently, where people look different and act different, speak a language you might not know, eat foods you’ve never seen before, dress in clothes you don’t recognize, and have names you have hard time pronouncing. These are the experiences that teach humility, that force us to learn other ways of communicating than those we are used to, that push us to consider world views outside of those we hold and make us see things from perspectives we would never have considered otherwise. In the past three years that I have been living abroad, first in America and now in India, I have been proven wrong and found myself in situations where I basically made a fool of myself because of my silly assumptions and expectations more times than I can count. Who knew being wrong could be so incredibly eye opening, and at the same time – so much fun.