My brother went to a small college in an even smaller town. He would tell me how his college was in a bubble, completely separated from the rest of the world. Going to school in a city, I didn’t quite get this whole “bubble” concept. Maybe there would be an occasional weekend when I wouldn’t leave campus, but other than that I felt like I was in the center of everything while I was at AU.
Unlike AU, Manipal University is in a small town in Karnataka, a state in southern India. Manipal is your typical college town. Almost everyone in the town is associated with the university. From the bars, to the cheap Chinese restaurants, to the administrative buildings that dominate the town, the college town feel seems impervious to any national boundaries. One friend who goes to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign remarked that Manipal felt surprisingly similar to that. In its own little bubble, Manipal seems separated from everything else, defined by the university.
But once you leave the Manipal bubble, you are in rural southern India. A couple weeks after arriving, some of our Indian friends took us to their “secret” beach. Because it’s off the beaten track, most students have yet to discover this particular beach. On the way there, it quickly became apparent how different Manipal was from its surroundings. Modern apartment buildings turned into small shacks. Instead of university facilities, there were boats and fishing nets.
After enjoying a couple hours at the beach, we noticed about a dozen men standing at the top of the rocks watching us. One friend raised her hand to wave, but another of our Indian friends smacked her hand down, telling us that it was dangerous to call more attention to ourselves. Really? Dangerous? That sounded ridiculous to me, as I knew nothing beyond the confines of our little bubble.
But once we were in the nearest village, it became clear just how much attention we brought to ourselves just by being foreign. Entire families vacated their little houses, staring as we walked by. Men drove by on their motorcycles multiple times to look at us, some calling out hellos while others just stared. Even in my Indian clothing, I had never felt so out of place and exposed.
In Manipal our group of 16 Americans sticks out a little, but the town caters to its large population of international students. The local grocery store sells peanut butter. The restaurants know to not make the food too spicy. The large Indian-American population means that there are American accents everywhere. Sometimes it takes almost tripping over a cow while walking down a street or falling through one of the many holes in the sidewalks to remind me where I am in the world. Outside of Manipal, it seems like every other person’s stares are reminding me that I actually am in India.
Almost two months in, I think I now understand the college bubble concept. Manipal is its own little world. Sometimes it feels like culture shock all over again when I leave or return.
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.