Why I Didn’t Experience Culture Shock in India

Culture Shock: the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

This is what I thought I would experience when I arrived in India for a summer internship as a Cultural Vistas Fellow. What I found instead was a culture that, shockingly, seemed familiar. Let me explain: I had never traveled to India before, but I had traveled to Mexico. To my surprise, I realized there’s a great likeness in Mexican, Mexican American, and Indian cultures. Three different cultures that are on opposite sides of the world have more in common than one would think. Here are the ways I felt at home in a “new” country.

Cultural Vistas Fellowship India Group Pic
Brenda poses with the four-member Cultural Vistas Fellowship cohort in India.

Diversity

India is one of the most diverse countries I have ever seen, which reminded me of the United States. When I arrived, many people thought I was Indian. For example, I would get into an Uber and the driver would immediately start speaking Hindi to me. I had to say “I’m sorry I don’t understand.” They would sometimes then turn around, look at me surprised, and say, “you don’t speak Hindi?” My response would be “no I’m sorry”, which would then lead to “Where are you from?”

Cultural Vistas Fellowship Akshaya Patra
Brenda and her coworkers at Akshaya Patra, an Indian NGO focused on combating child hunger, where she interned as a Cultural Vistas Fellow during the summer of 2016.

When I would respond, “I’m from the United States,” people would often ask, “no, where do you originate from?” I didn’t take offense to this because, even though it’s considered rude, it is a common question you are asked if you are a non-white American. But in India, I understood their curiosity. I figured that the image that comes to mind when you think of an American is a white, blonde, blue-eyed person. Being asked why I dyed my golden hair only confirmed this stereotype. I realized while many fail to recognize how diverse India is, India also failed to realize how diverse the United States is.

I had many encounters like this, not just with Uber drivers, but with people I interacted with daily. So I started to ask “what part of India did you think I was from?” Most of the responses would be “North East”. I was also asked if I was related to some of my coworkers from my internship and I would say no, but now we are so close I call some of them cousins.

Relationships

One of the main reasons, apart from the familiar culture, that I didn’t get homesick during my two-month stay in India was the people that made it feel like home. I worked in the communications department at a nonprofit called Akshaya Patra. Akshaya Patra is currently the world’s largest NGO to implement a mid-day meal program in government-run/aided schools across India.

My co-workers were some of the most welcoming people I have ever encountered. We were all curious to learn about each others’ cultures and would discuss everything from current world issues to life plans. Most notably, we’d talk about cultural differences and similarities.

Summer Internship India Cultural Vistas Fellowship
Brenda bonding with her fellow intern.

This is how I learned that our worlds were more similar than different like I had initially believed. I realized, “it is kind of like we are from the same family but were raised differently– kind of like cousins.” From then on I started calling them cousins. I no longer considered them strangers or just co-workers, I saw them more as family— my long-lost cousins I had found on the other side of the world.

The Vick’s Belief

I remember when I would get sick when I was younger, my grandmother and mother would drench Vicks VapoRub on my back and chest. As I grew older I realized that my family was not the only one who had this idea of “VapoRub cures it all”– it’s a popular belief amongst Latino families in general. So when I was on Instagram in India and a VapoRub ad popped up, I immediately started laughing. I thought, “how is it that Instagram knows I love Vicks? I am even getting Indian ads about it.”

Vick's VapoRub Culture Shock
Brenda discovers via FaceTime that her coworker keeps a bottle of Vicks next to her bed.

I told one of my co-workers this story and she was in disbelief. She mentioned how her mother would do the same to her and her sister when she was younger— her family also believed that “VapoRub cures it all!” We were both quite surprised to find out that we share this same belief, yet neither of us knows where it came from.

Cuisine

The similarities I found in the cuisine of both cultures really shocked me. That is, other than the countries’ distinct types of spiciness. Mexican food and Indian food are known for being spicy, but they affect you differently. Mexican food tastes spicy as soon as it touches your tongue, whereas Indian spices creep up on you. You will eat Indian food and think, “this isn’t bad, I am fine,” but then after a couple bites your nose starts running and you start sweating.

Banana leaves used as plates during special occasions in India
Banana leaves used as plates during special occasions in India. 📷 : George Augustine

But there are a lot of dishes in the two cultures that have similarities. For example, Chapatti, which is made from Atta (whole wheat flour), has a similar texture to a tortilla but different taste.

Curry and Mole are both dense sauces and have a similar texture and are also typically served with similar sides (chicken and rice).

Banana Leaf Tamales
Tamales wrapped in banana leaves are made on special occasions in Mexico. 📷: David Amsler

During special occasions in India, such as weddings and naming ceremonies, banana leaves are used as plates. Tamales, which are made with banana leaves, are also made on special occasions in Mexican culture. They are a lot more time-consuming to make than corn husk tamales since they are wrapped like presents. When you unwrap them the leaves, they can also be used as a plate.

There are two types of Chicharrones in Mexico: pork rinds and flour. Fryums are made from rice powder but they taste exactly the same as the flour chicharrones.

Elotero translates to “corn man” in English. You can find them on the streets of Mexico as well as some cities in the United States. And I found some in India too! Here they are called butta (Hindi for corn). In Mexico, the corn is boiled or grilled. Then you add mayonnaise, queso fresco, and chile powder on it for that extra kick. In India, the corn is grilled on coal stones and you put lime and, of course, chile powder!

Closing Thoughts:

Cultural Vistas Fellows Explore India
Brenda and Cultural Vistas Fellow Isabel explore India together.

Growing up in a Mexican household, I didn’t feel like I was far away from home in India. Of course, not everything was similar. But what was left me in awe— two cultures on opposite sides of the world have a lot more in common than people expect them to. We live in a world made up of borders and hate. To get a better understanding of where people come from, I would encourage others to travel and experience someone else’s culture (like I did!). You’ll see that we aren’t that different from one another. We are all human and we share a lot more in common than just living on earth. It just goes to show that we really are basically cousins!

Brenda was part of the 12-member Cultural Vistas Fellowship class. The Cultural Vistas Fellowship, which was cited among GoAbroad’s most innovative new internship programs, is funded directly by Cultural Vistas as part of its commitment to afford a more diverse cross-section of Americans opportunities for formative international experiences. 

Brenda Vasquez

Brenda is a third-year psychology major at California State University, Long Beach and a 2016 alum of the Cultural Vistas Fellowship. Originally from Berkeley, California, she enjoys baking, painting, and exploring the outdoors.

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Brenda Vasquez

Brenda is a third-year psychology major at California State University, Long Beach and a 2016 alum of the Cultural Vistas Fellowship. Originally from Berkeley, California, she enjoys baking, painting, and exploring the outdoors.

View all posts by Brenda Vasquez

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