Trying to fit in, it's the little things that matter
I’m a “When in Rome” type of person, and by that I mean that I try to fit in when visiting a foreign country.
All too aware of the stigma attached to Americans abroad, I try my best to be culturally sensitive and respect the locals. Sometimes I can tell this is appreciated. Other times it ends in hilarity.
By my pale skin alone, it’s clear that I am foreign. Still, I dress in traditional Indian clothing, stand up when professors enter the room and eat exclusively with my right hand, sitting on my left to avoid making a giant faux pas.
But India is a place of tradition and rituals like no other, and since I came here knowing next to nothing about them, the learning curve has been steep. The smallest things bring me back to freshman year when I didn’t know how to use the laundry machines and got lost going to Tenleytown.
Even things like crossing the road are different. Traffic not only comes from the opposite direction, but crosswalks and sidewalks are nonexistent. If they do appear they are not respected by the motorcycles, cars, auto rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians and animals that all use the streets of Manipal. Within my first week I learned from experience that perhaps the only time a rickshaw will stop to let you cross is when you slip and fall in its path. Maybe I was just lucky.
A pinnacle of this learning process came during a Krishna Janmashtami celebration a couple weeks ago. Krishna Janmashtami is the birth of the Hindu deity Krishna. A few of us decided to go to the service at the local temple, wanting to experience the holiday. The service was completely in Sanskrit, but we sat cross-legged in the crowd, attempting to follow along. When people stood, I stood. When gongs and bells sounded, I tried not to jump. When people lined up to receive a blessing, I followed, not knowing what the blessing was, but dutifully taking the holy water and thanking Krishna as I put it on my head.
Finally, the ceremony ended, and it was time for the free food promised to us from the beginning. Like most college students, free food is one thing that I know. I am good at receiving free food. But instead of Georgetown cupcakes, these baked goods were easily 95 percent sugar, had a texture resembling chalk and were liberally piled on my plate. The main dish was not pizza, but a heavy rice dish with coconut. I soon realized that there was no way I could finish this small mountain of food.
And this was a problem. As part of the ceremony, you have to finish since the food was blessed by Krishna. The temple was soon empty with only our group of Americans and half-full plates remaining. As the priests started cleaning up, our desperation grew. Looking around for a trashcan or stray dog, I slipped a few of the baked goods into my bag to make my plate look emptier and motioned for others to do the same. We discreetly stacked our plates with the empty ones on top, concealing the mounds of leftover curry. With my bag full of baked goods, I guiltily left the temple, feeling more American than usual.
Forgive me, Krishna, I thought. I’m but a mere foreigner.
Alison Pease is a senior in the School of International Service and is studying abroad in Manipal, India. She will be writing a monthly column about her abroad experience.