Studying Abroad and Soaking in the Culture

A common theme when studying abroad is the overwhelming feeling that the experience is more than just about the classroom: it is an opportunity to discover another culture, explore another part of the world and indulge in the customs of another country for a short period of time. Through one of GPPI’s exchange program I have been studying in India at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIMA) since August 2008. When I was flying half way around the globe to Ahmedabad, a group of sixteen IIMA students made their way to GPPI.

The schedule at IIMA is broken up into five 2-month terms, so my first two months the IIMA students were at GPPI and the past two months we took classes together. The culture shock is definitely gone, but there are still moments every day that I stop and wonder if what I’m seeing is actually happening. For example, elephants and camels walking down some of the busiest streets in Ahmedabad never ceases to amaze me. While learning and exploring Indian culture, I started to wonder more about what experiencing American culture for the first time would be like. Through a series of conversations with the IIMA students who studied at GPPI, I hoped to gain insight into comparing our cultural experiences.

Once you get passed the friendly bantering about whose school is better the real beauty of exchange programs comes through. They loved studying in the US, just as I love studying here.

They were able to go to the White House, tour the Capitol and embrace the Smithsonian Museums. I have seen the Taj Mahal, ridden on a camel and fell in love with Gandhi’s Ashram.

They used to ride the Metro for fun. Before I left DC every time I went to a Metro station I found myself impatiently thinking “stand on the right, walk on the left!” While I still get excited to ride in rickshaws (one of the main forms of transportation in India; three wheel machines, powered by an engine a little bigger than a lawnmower, with enough room to comfortably fit three people and the driver). They complain about the pollution and dusty rides. We share the sentiment that DC is a great walking city and that the traffic in India is unlike most other places in the world, but the chaos here is order.

IIMA students talked excitedly about having dinner at a professor’s house and making new connections with the GPPI students. I have enjoyed the same pleasure of having dinner at a professor’s house and cherish dearly the new friends I have made. In many ways it was about the connections and relationships that we have been able to build that truly gave us insight into each other’s culture.

They missed the food the most. I miss being able to go into Dunkin Donuts, or any coffee shop for that matter, and getting coffee to go. I know that may sound ridiculous, but besides family and friends it is what I miss the most about the US. I will miss the food here as well when I’m back in DC.

One aspect of Indian cultural that I have come to value is that people always make time to sit and have a cup of chai. After every single class there is a tea break. Everyone has a cup of tea and hangs out for a bit to catch up. Every time you go to a meeting or walk into someone’s home or place of business there is an obligatory cup of tea. If I go to the bank I know to plan to have a cup of tea before any business can be done. Slowing down to stop for chai was something that I had found myself working on. When people would stop to chat or ask to meet for a cup of tea, I had to mentally tell myself that whatever I was doing at the time could wait. One of my goals was to build relationships and making time for people and tea was one of the best ways to accomplish this goal. Although it is still difficult at times to stop my fast-paced mentality, chai breaks are a highlight of every day.

The IIMA students who studied in the US have absolutely nothing but positive memories and experiences. The only question that I was asked was why Americans say, “how are you?” and then walk away. None of the Indian students understood how, ‘hi, howareyou’, had become a greeting. If people were not really interested in how someone is doing, why do they ask in the first place? Honestly, I didn’t have a good answer. That is just the way the saying developed, especially in a fast-paced city like Washington, DC. I realize that I do it and don’t think I’ve ever thought twice about it.

I spent a lot of time listening, discussing and laughing over the great stories the IIMA students had about spending time at GPPI. They took away a lot of the same feelings that I feel I am taking away from my studies here: the joy of experiencing another way of life, discovering how small the world really is and how people everywhere are different, yet so similar. Having fresh eyes on my culture brought to my attention aspects that I normally overlook simply because I am so accustomed to them.

As my last week at IIMA begins I’ve come to realize that maybe not having coffee to go is a blessing in disguise. Allowing me to get to know how people truly are and giving me a more in-depth look into Indian cultural.

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