Take the leap.

What culture shock? How to stop worrying about where you are and start loving being lost

Mayur Vihar II, Delhi

The local market comes alive in the evening time.

We are in India. I guess I’ve said that many times already. Every time I talk to anyone, online, or offline, even to each other. I say it: “We are in India, yaar.”

I know, you know.

But, yeah. We’re in INDIA. It’s kind a big deal (and kind of fun to say).

And, frankly, a big shock, to all of us.

Why should it be a shock? As someone who have prided himself to be good at adapting to new environments, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’m shaken by this new place. Have I not done this many times —Japan to the US, the US to Ireland, Ireland back to the US, East Coast to the West Coast and back again—before? Didn’t Dipika commend me for keeping a cool head at the Bologna train station when they didn’t “get” her English and she looked to me for help? Slow and steady, we made progress. We connected. We got through. Isn’t that about the only thing I can claim that I am naturally good at? Seeking to understand first, before seeking to be understood? Don’t I get a free pass by now?

The Confusion

I mean, it’s not like I don’t know the place, right? Am I not married to an Indian Person, for Pete’s sake? But then, from where I sit, she seems to be having a bigger shock. She keeps saying that it’s changed, that all about it that had enchanted her previously is missing. “India has cleaned up, but it looks like Japan or the US,” she says.

Yes, it has. Last time I was in Delhi, it was 1996. I remember vaguely that the traffic flowed in one direction during the morning rush hour, the other in the evening. There was so much dust and smog, and everything and everyone was khaki-colored.

Sure, all that’s changed now, and things are more multi-colored, modern, and yes, somewhat cleaner. But the noise! The crowd (after cowering in our host’s house for a full two weeks, we rode the shiny new Metro. The congestion inside the train was *almost* like Tokyo rush hour, but somehow more offensive to me)! The trash! And the dogs (okay, the cows and elephants are much rarer sights these days now)… it’s all still so much more than I had anticipated. “At a different level from the other Asian cities,” I said to a friend.

But what I am dealing with—and Dipika is, too, I suspect—isn’t so much the objective reality of what Delhi is, but the gap created by the idea of it that we had in our heads and what we are perceiving now.

Her India was romantic and interesting, and a home away from home, and she expected some of that this time around, too. I had expected Delhi to be more like other Asian cities, developed and progressed further into the modern commercial metropolis. Like Singapore in the 90s and Tokyo in the 70s, with bindi and Bollywood songs. What we are seeing now is simultaneously colored by these expectations, and completely different from them*.

And why is it hard to see these gaps? Control. We want to believe that our observations stay true, so we can anticipate what’s coming. That makes us feel safe. When our expectation of what should be don’t meet what is (to our eyes), we don’t like it. We get confused, and scared.

The Remedy (and the Cure)

The immediate relief to this shock comes simply enough, though—familiarity, or more colloquially, “taste of home.”

We found a coffee shop, of course. Sat and ate a giant piece of carrot cake. We washed it down with a Cappuccino.

And breathed a sigh of relief.

Much better.

It felt good, because we knew what it was going to be like, as soon as we walked in to this Costa franchise in Connaught Place. And it didn’t disappoint: from what was on the menu (even if it did feature a “chicken tikka sandwich” and “pure-veg burger”), the service people repeating your order three times back to you in English, to the presentation, and how they tasted.

The expectations met, we felt more in control. Ready to tackle the next challenge.

Of course, the more you look around, try new things, form more ideas about what things should be, the more you will find the gaps between your ideas and what you see. What’s really the point of all this is this, ultimately:

More culture shocks you go through, the easier it is for you to let go of your control, and accept your experience of “what is” as it truly is: your experience.

What are your experiences? Have you had a culture shock going to different places/meeting new people/getting into new relationships? What lessons can you share with us?

* All of these are subjective—fictional, even—of course. Which is why the same place could be a wonderful holiday destination to one person and a complete sxxthole to another.


  1. Derek Hanger says:

    “…we rode the shiny new Metro. The congestion inside the train was *almost* like Tokyo rush hour, but somehow more offensive to me)!”

    This was so dead on and literally made me “LOL”.


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