Sunday, June 29, 2008

Culture Shock and Chennai

For the first time in my life, I have experienced culture shock upon arriving in India.  It's honestly never happened before, and I'm not sure why it happened this time.  Maybe it's because I came back from an idyllic two month trip, rather than just Minnesota, but for whatever reason, I've been squeamish about eating street food, street smells (usually a blend of human excreta, pollution, and food), the insane traffic, and the complete lack of personal space. 

It didn't help that my family hasn't stopped making fun of me since I arrived; as you can see from the photo of me at Uluwatu, I have a pretty mighty tan, and in India, a tan is not a good thing.  As you might know, like a lot of Asian countries, Indians subscribe to an implicit color caste system, in which lighter is better.  In the matrimonial sections of the newspaper classifieds (yes, people advertise eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in the newspaper here), almost every prospective spouse is advertised as fair (most of them are lying).  Moreover, there is an entire industry of skin bleaching products, with creams such as "Fair and Lovely."

Thus, as I'm hardly fair skinned anymore after three weeks of surfing, every time a family member sees me for the first time, they squeal with laughter, exclaiming "He's turned black, he's turned black!"  The clinic staff shout a chorus of "Negro, Negro!" anytime I get near......Indians have never won points for being politically correct.

Thankfully, I wasn't in Hyderabad long.  As some of you might know, I'm starting a new job, and traveled to Chennai, in the Deep South, to receive my orientation two days after arriving back in India.  My new employers, the Poverty Action Lab/Center for Microfinance require me to complete a number of formalities with the Indian government in order to begin work, so here I am.  Although it's good to get away from my family, I have to confess that Chennai is absurdly boring.  Despite being India's 4th largest city, and hub of growth in manufacturing, IT, and biotechnology, it's also very conservative.  The city more or less shuts down after 10:30 (including bars and nightclubs, no joke).  The climate is pretty awful (daytime temperatures around 100 degrees), the auto drivers extortionate, and it's actually pretty tough for non-Tamil speakers to get around.  Hyderabad is somewhat unique for the South in that Urdu/Hindi is quite commonly spoken because of the large Muslim population.  In Chennai on the other hand, there are virtually no Hindi speakers, making it difficult for even Indians to get around the city (I think I'm starting to understand what a tourist in India might feel like). 

Chennai apart, very little has happened involving my job.  I've actually spent the last five days sitting around my hostel room waiting for my new bank account to open (because I need the bank account to apply for a PAN card, the Indian equivalent of a social security ID).  In the meantime, I've been reading up on the microfinance industry (expect a summary post in the coming days), and applying to medical school (expect another summary post).


Nisha said...

be very careful what you say about chennai...

IBTADA....the beginning said...

Kiba said...

No kidding your experiencing culture shock, I just got back after spending 8 weeks in the US and I'm still reeling from it (and i have lived here my entire life) - technically what I am going through qualifies as reverse culture shock.

I hope I get over the fear of the roads here as much as I am hoping to over come my severe jet lag.

Good to know you are back buddy. Give me a call when you drop in to Hyd.