10 Things I’ve Learned from 10 Years Living in India

As I approach 10 years of living in India, I’ve been reflecting on my journey and what it’s entailed. Starting off in Kolkata and ending in Mumbai, it’s been a roller coaster of extraordinary experiences, discovery and self-discovery, frustration, transformation, and ultimately success. Here are some of the important things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Living in India is Very Different to Traveling in India

Ah, magical, vibrant, spiritual India. A country so full of smiling faces and possibilities. Many visitors are beguiled by India, and understandably so. However, traveling around in a chauffeur-driven car or air-conditioned train, and staying in comfortable accommodations can be deceptive. It insulates from the extent of India’s social issues and challenges of day to day life. What also isn’t readily apparent is that India is a complex and difficult to understand country, with confusing contradictions. Living in India results in these challenges and contradictions revealing themselves, and rose-coloured glasses shattering. It requires a redefinition of your relationship with India, flaws and all.

2. Accept What You Can’t Change

As I began to understand more about how India functioned (or didn’t function), I became increasingly judgmental and critical — as many expats seem to do. I frequently compared India, and all its problems, to my homeland. I got irritated by the lack of solutions, particularly as India has so much potential. Many times, I wondered if living in India was turning me into a bad person. There’s a saying, “Accept what you can’t change”, and to my detriment I was failing to do that.

3. India’s Issues are Not My Problem

Gradually, I noticed that I cared less and less about India’s issues. Was I at last truly accepting India and appreciating people’s determination to survive, and thrive, despite the adversities? Or was it apathy and too much of a chalta hai attitude setting in? Or was it simply that I’d become tired of people telling me that I had no right to say anything negative about India because I’m not Indian. Westerners often feel the need to “fix” India, when in actual fact, India doesn’t want them to!

4. I Can Never Be Indian

I was one of those foreigners who came to India and went out of my way to become Indian. I longed to fit in and gain acceptance. I can cook Indian food, I can eat with my hands, I can drape a sari, I’ve studied Hindi, I touch the feet of elders, I know how to behave in traditional as well as progressive homes, my spiritual beliefs are aligned with Hinduism, and I’ve no doubt seen more of India than most Indians. Yet, the reality is I look different, and I’ve realised I will forever be viewed as an outsider no matter how at home I feel in India.

5. There are Benefits to Being White in India

If I’m going to be treated as a foreigner, then I might as well use it to my advantage at times, right? India has a strong system of hierarchy and auqaat. Indians are extremely status conscious, and for better or worse, white people are perceived to be rich and powerful. This unwittingly catapults us to the top. If something is bothering me, I know people will listen when I complain. I know they will be less likely to brush me off, or give me the run around like they would a fellow Indian of perceived lesser position in the hierarchy. Doors open for me and people rush to be of service to me.

6. It’s Not Only White People Who Are Racist

Yet, the reality is that I’m still part of a minority in India. And, racism exists where ever there are minorities. This includes India. Most Indians will refuse to admit they’re racist though. They think being brown somehow exempts them from it. However, I’ve encountered numerous instances of racism in India — particularly towards people of African descent, people from northeast India (who have Asian appearance), and people from south India (who have darker skin). Prejudice also exists against minority religions (especially Muslims), and non-vegetarians at times. White people don’t escape unscathed either. Most Indians will fawn over a white person but refuse to let their children marry one, as it’s viewed as going outside their caste, destroying their culture, and opening them up to accusations of marrying into the race of a colonial oppressor.

7. Don’t Always Smile and Be Friendly

Racism also extends to me as a white woman in India. I’m erroneously perceived to be “easy” and of loose moral character, thanks to pornography and the fleshy frolicking in Hollywood movies. This translates to a lot of derogatory attention from Indian men. A normally smiley and friendly person, I’ve had to become stern and even aggressive at times to protect myself. To be too nice can be interpreted as a sign of vulnerability or willingness in India. My husband even told me to stop greeting our building watchmen every time I passed them. Otherwise, they may mistake me as being “sexually open” and interested. Some wise words from an Indian woman: Only relax and be yourself around the same class of people as you, otherwise keep your guard up.

8. There’s Commonsense and There’s Indian Commonsense

“You don’t have any Indian commonsense,” my husband used to rue. After much irritation, I came to understand that my western way of thinking would not work in India. I took everything literally. If someone told me that they were coming at 9 a.m. on Saturday, I expected them to and was prepared. Then, I was furious when my time ended up being wasted. I didn’t comprehend why Indians covered so many items in plastic (even the remote control for the TV!). Then I discovered how dust invaded everything. I couldn’t fathom why corruption flourished. Then I found out it’s the outcome that matters in India, not the action. Having to pay a bribe is viewed as bad but if it produces the desired result, it’s good. Kindly adjust a little. I’m indebted to Pavan K. Kumar, author of Being Indian, for helping me unravel the intricacies of Indian behavior with his book.

9. Beauty Can Be Found in Unlikely Places

Let’s be honest, India isn’t always aesthetically or aromatically pleasing. Initially, the dirt and decay, and my lack of material possessions troubled me. But as I looked beyond these superficial things, I found unexpected beauty in everyday things. A tiny temple on the roadside, the rich smell of incense that weaves its way through the air at dusk, a bright bloom, a bird at my window, spontaneity in the streets. I attended a photography workshop and began to see India through new eyes. So many shapes, colors, patterns, forms, contrasts and moments to capture. It was pure delight.

10. It Will Be Alright in the End. If It’s Not Alright, It’s Not the End

Hindus believe strongly in kismet ka karvat lena, the turn of fate. Anything is possible, and there’s always hope and faith that circumstances will change for the better. My first year in Mumbai was particularly tough, as I struggled to be more relaxed and also set boundaries with intrusive people. If any parts of your personality are flawed or require development, it’s certain that life in India will bring them swiftly to the surface. For me, it was my control freak nature and lack of assertiveness that caused problems. I wanted to leave many times. But I didn’t because I’d finally found my passion in life.

I’ve washed clothes by hand in a bucket for two years, lived in an apartment building with infrequent water supply, and survived malaria, dengue fever, bedbugs and a monkey bite. I’ve dined with the Maharana of Udaipur, driven an auto rickshaw across India, gone on a yak safari in Spiti, and traveled solo on local buses through Tamil Nadu. My adventures have taught me to fear less and trust more. I’ve come to believe there’s a solution, a creative jugaad, for everything in India. And when I’m having a horrible day and hating India, something unexpected and opposite will happen to make me smile.