Traveling is humbling, inspiring, and exciting. Whether you take a fourteen-hour flight to an exotic destination or simply road trip to another state, traveling is something that everyone should experience. One of the many benefits that come with traveling is learning how other societies and cultures differ from the one you are used to. Broadening your view on the world makes the planet seem a lot smaller when you realize that every person has their own chapter in history and every place has a story.
In December of 2017, I traveled to India. Although I booked a flight and a hotel room, the culture shock I experienced while abroad came entirely complimentary.
Culture shock, by definition, is “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture.” As soon as I stepped off the plane, a wave of panic unexplainably fell over me. My breathing became narrow and sharp and my vision blurry. I began stumbling over my words in rapid succession, trying so desperately to communicate to my mom that I was about to faint. I had no idea why.
I could feel my heart beating aggressively in every part of my being as my mind raced to understand what was happening to me. Was I having a heart attack? Is this what a seizure is like? Am I going to be okay? These irrational and terrifying thoughts were the ones that ran through my mind as I sat there, face flushing and pulse pounding. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but there was nothing wrong with my body. My mind, however, had just suffered an anxiety attack.
This anxiety would, unfortunately, continue until around half-way through the trip. Upon arrival at our hotel, the trunk of our car had to be searched. After exiting the car, we were divided by gender and had to walk through a metal detector, then get frisked head to toe. This was a reoccurring practice that took place almost everywhere we went.
Our arrival time at the hotel was roughly around 4:00 a.m. However, jet lag paired with anxiety is a wonderful thing, and I can’t say I slept that night.
The next day, we drove to the city of Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. This was our first full day out and about. It was a three hour drive in the middle of nowhere. In India, drivers don’t exactly follow the rules of the road. The best phrase I could use to describe what it’s like to drive in India would be “controlled chaos.” Every half second, someone blares a horn or swerves across five unmarked lanes all at once.
There’s an ungodly amount of cars on the road, so you can bet the traffic is incomparable. Sitting in a car as the driver swerves through endless rickshaws, motorcyclists loaded up with four people, and stray animals is quite the stomach churner. However, to my disbelief, I didn’t witness any accidents (nor did anyone hit one of the million cows frantically clomping into the streets).
I am a blonde girl with green eyes and white skin. Why is this information important? Because not only did I stick out like a sore thumb, but everybody—and I mean everybody—stared at me. Picture yourself at Disneyland on a crowded day walking down Main Street, except every person that you pass intensely stares at you. Some people even ask to take your photo or reach out to touch you. That’s more or less what it was like.
One thing I noticed throughout my time in India was that there weren’t many women out and about in the streets. When I arrived at Agra, I stepped out of the car and a crowd of about twenty men began surrounding me and speaking to me, which made me very nervous. I couldn't understand it at the time, but the staring comes from a place of pure curiosity and interest, as blonde women are not very common to see in India.
Once we were in line for security at the Taj Mahal, the woman who was frisking me said, “you’re so white!” I had absolutely no idea how to respond, so I nervously replied, “I live in Oregon and we don’t get a lot of sun.” I’m unsure what happened with our language barrier, but this response made the woman seem very skeptical of me and she asked me to “repeat my statement,” then placed me into advanced security.
I will be honest and say that I was uncomfortable while in India. I truly experienced culture shock first-hand. Getting sick from everything I ate, stared at everywhere I went, and patted down upon entry into my hotel certainly were experiences out of my comfort zone. But that’s good. I shouldn't expect everything to be perfect and up to my Western standards of society when I travel.
India is a fascinating smorgasbord of sights, sounds, and smells. I believe that traveling throughout India for a week helped me appreciate the fact that every place lives differently. Not in a bad way, but simply different than what I’m used to. Culture shock is scary and confusing; but acknowledging that you feel uncomfortable is simply the first step to overcoming your fears and in turn, discovering everything this beautiful world has to offer.