If you’re planning a trip to India, you probably read some fascinating travel quotes about India. Some are inspiring, others seem exaggerated while others are quite difficult to accept and even more difficult to understand. Many travelers leave India with different experiences, different impressions, and different opinions about whether to come back or not. But what they all have in common is the culture shock in India they had to go through while visiting.
So, if this is your first trip to India and you’re feeling nervous, don’t worry; this post will help you deal with all different types of culture shock in India. Not that I’m bragging but I spent more than two years living in India and have experienced culture shock in many different ways and on many different levels, so I could tell you a thing or two about how to deal with it.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Main phases of culture shock
Before we get to the actual things that are the main reasons for culture shock in India, let me tell you a few words about the pattern of culture shock you’ll feel in India (if you stick around long enough, that is).
The Oh-Wow Phase
Most travelers start their journey in India by visiting famous sights, such as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, etc. This is what I like to call the “oh-wow part of India”. India is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations and has a lot of sights that are worth admiring. And this feeling remains until you explore India away from the main tourist attractions.
The Not-So-Oh-Wow (Frustration) Phase
This phase is riddled with frustration that comes out of the inability to comprehend the Indian way of doing things. If you stay in India for longer, you’ll inevitably notice the pollution problem, the garbage problem, the poverty-related issues, the slow and extremely inefficient and corrupt administration, and the way of doing things in general. Especially if you’re coming from the western world, this will be very difficult to adjust to and will become a major source of frustration when you need to get something done.
The Acceptance Phase
The thing with most people is that they get stuck in phase two and they leave India with a bitter taste in their mouth. Unable to even partially comprehend India with all its complexities, they leave the country with bad feelings and unwillingness to visit again and that’s misfortunate because contrary to the popular belief, India’s real beauty lies, not in the fascinating monuments or historical sites but in its people and culture, beyond the so-called acceptance phase.
The Fulfillment Phase
This final phase of culture shock in India happens when one accepts the local culture and the fact that it will not change no matter how frustrated one may or may not get. Obviously, this requires a compromise but it’s a rewarding experience with a significant learning curve that will enrich your Indian experience.
Or as the old saying goes, you can spend a lifetime traveling searching for the beautiful but you will never find it if you don’t carry the beauty within yourself. Only when you accept this you will be able to see and understand (at least partially) the culture and behavior of the locals through learning about their life, traditions, beliefs, and customs. And this is where the real beauty of India lies.
So, if you ever find yourself in a bad situation when visiting India, remember this pattern, and remind yourself that things will get better only if you keep your mind open.
With that being said, let’s get to the things that are the main reason for experiencing culture shock in India.
The first thing you notice when stepping outside of the airport is a wall of humidity, heat, a large mass of people, and cars everywhere. And it gets even worse when you get out of the airport facility. Horns honking is very common, cutting lanes- even more, and there are times when I feel that traffic lights have a purely decorative purpose.
In other words, the most important road rule in India is that there are no rules! Only here, you’ll find some of the craziest traffic jams, up to 5-6 people on one motorbike (with three being nothing uncommon), craziest train crowds, and much more! Even if you have a local guiding you, culture shock, in the beginning, is inevitable!
I mentioned that horn honking when driving is very common. Scratch that. Honking your horn is a national sport in India. People honk their horn just to let other people they’re passing by at a corner, they honk at people walking on the road to let them know there’s a car behind them. Heck, they sometimes honk for the sake of it. The first time I came to India, my taxi driver used the horn 124 times in 40 minutes! Add the fact that Indian people are generally very loud, add the signs made by stray animals, and if God forbid there’s a festival during your first visit, India will culture shock the s**t out of you.
When culture shock in India is the topic, one thing that often gets mentioned are stray animals. No, I’m not talking about cats and dogs. I’m talking about chicken, goats, cows, monkeys, and even camels! You’ll inevitably notice them going about their business nonchalantly in the middle of the road. Now, being an ignorant Westerner you might think how messy India is and wonder how can people live like this.
But what you don’t know is that we can all learn from the way Indian people treat animals. Cows are holy animals, chicken and goats are relatively safe because the majority of Indians are vegetarian and monkeys and other exotic strays are left to wander around peacefully because people acknowledge they have occupied their homes.
No personal space and privacy
This is one of the main reasons for culture shock in India. For starters, let me put some numbers into perspective. India covers 0.6% of the world’s land area and has 17.5% of the world’s population living on it. If that’s not densely populated, I don’t know what is. And it’s only natural to expect that the local culture breed in such a country might not have the same understanding of personal space as you. So, get used to a lot of shoving, rubbing elbows, and a lot more physical contact in general.
In addition to this, prepare for a lot of staring. If your physical appearance doesn’t blend in with most locals, you will get stared at. A lot. Some people might even ask to click a photo with you. It will uncomfortable, at times even intimidating but it’s okay. Most of the time, people stare out of curiosity. The large majority of them don’t understand why someone that could afford such a distant trip would come to India.
In such a densely populated country, you can expect to see anything from extreme poverty to extreme luxury. That’s why we often hear that India is a country of contrasts. As India’s middle class keeps growing and the purchasing power of the population keeps rising, new, large, luxurious shopping malls keep coming out like mushrooms after rain but also with the massive population growth, the number of people who live with less than $5 per day is increasing. At the moment, that number is around 80%!
The contrasts are most visible in Mumbai where you can see a large slum bordering one of the most expensive neighborhoods where Bollywood stars live but other large cities like Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai aren’t “lagging”. If this isn’t a reason for culture shock in India, I don’t know what is. And in such environments, it’s natural to expect to find a lot of…
Beggars and touts
If (judging by your appearance) it’s obvious that you’re a foreigner, you’ll instantly become a walking target of beggars, touts, and scam artists. These people think that all foreigners who visit India are insanely rich people and they will try to get money from you in every possible way. Some people are just genuinely friendly but do prepare yourself that many of them will see you as a walking $100 bill.
The best way in situations where you’re approached by a beggar or a tout is to simply say ‘nai’ (no in Hindi). Interestingly, I couldn’t help but notice that this is a lot more effective than saying no (in English). It even seems like people take that as a sign of engaging.
Also, be aware that many of these beggars will be kids but you wouldn’t be doing them any favors by giving them money. A lot of kids are sent to the streets by their parents who see tourists as easy targets or even worse, by gang members who use them as money-making machines.
Trash and pollution
India has a waste disposal problem and no sugar-coating in the world can change that. You’ll inevitably notice piles of trash on the road pretty much everywhere. An even bigger problem is that the burning of this garbage (mostly by homeless people in the colder months) which is one of the main reasons for the smog that suffocates many Indian cities.
55 of the world’s 300 most polluted cities are in India. On top of that, for reasons that are not understandable for me, the Indian government imports tonnes of plastic waste from other countries every year. Having this in mind, be very cautious about the waste you leave behind and only buy items that are absolutely necessary.
Indian toilets & urination in public
To put it mildly, Indian hygiene practices are kind of different from what you might be used to. Spitting, public urination, and even defecation is a thing. Especially in rural areas, having a latrine at home is seen as dirty and unholy while doing your business outside is a convenient and natural solution. Before 2011, only 40% of Indian households had toilets at home.
This changed in 2014 when Modi’s government started a campaign of promoting building household toilets across India and this helped improve this problem significantly. However, doing your business outside is still quite common in India, so brace yourself.
In addition to this, Indian toilets are squat-style and in most of them, you won’t find any toilet paper. Some will be equipped with a bum gun while others will have only a bucket. Personally, India changed my mind about toilet paper and made me realize that bum guns are actually a lot more hygienic than toilet paper. With that being said, I’d suggest you avoid public toilets unless it’s an extreme emergency. The sight of an average Indian public toilet is disgusting, and that’s putting it mildly.
As Mark Twain said, “India has 2,000,000 gods and worships them all. In religion, all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire”. And contrary to the popular belief, India is actually one of the most diverse countries in the world. India is home to more than 2,000 different ethnic groups and 22 official languages with more than 19,000 different languages being spoken on its territory.
Hence, it’s no surprise that India is also home to a lot of different religions and people are used to practicing them openly. And since most foreigners know very little or nothing at all about most of these religions, this is one of the main causes of culture shock in India. Some of the most bizarre Indian festivals include burning people and letting their ashes float on a river in Varanasi, throwing cow poop at people, rolling in leftovers, etc. But just keep an open mind and do what Indians do; be respectful to people and the country’s religious diversity.
You may have eaten Indian food in your local Indian restaurant but note that this is the westernized version of Indian food. The real Indian food is much spicier and much more difficult to digest if you’re not used to it. That’s why a lot of travelers get the infamous Delhi belly when traveling to India for the first time. So, if it’s your first time, for starters, only go to restaurants with good ratings, avoid street food for the first few days until your body gets adjusted to the changes, and drink a lot of water.
Also, note that curry is not a name of a dish, and don’t expect to see it on menus. Curry is just a name that describes what Indians may refer to as gravy dish. But in reality, there are hundreds of different gravy dish and every region has its own distinguishing cuisine and delicacies.
Prices & bargaining
If you’re buying something from a place that doesn’t issue a receipt (keep in mind that more than half of India’s economy relies on the so-called informal economy), be ready to pay “the foreigner tax”. At least if you don’t bargain. A lot of street vendors will try to charge you 500 or more Indian rupees for a product that’s worth not more than 100. But bargaining can’t help you everywhere.
For example, if you’re planning to visit the Taj Mahal, you’d be slapped with a 1,050 rupees fee while locals pay only 45 rupees. But outside of the main tourist sites, most prices are negotiable in India.
If you’re bargaining and the price seems too high, as a rule of thumb offer 25-33% of the asked price, avoid buying souvenirs at touristy places as these will be even more expensive, and last but not least, if the product is packaged, check for the MRP on the packaging; all packaged products in India have a maximum retail price and it’s illegal for the vendor to charge anything more than that.
The differing landscapes
Speaking of culture shock in India, we just have to mention the differing landscapes. I know you might be expecting hot cities, desert landscapes, and tropical forests and that’s what you’d get most of the time. However, that’s not all. The eastern coast takes humidity on a whole other level and heavy rains turn even large cities like Chennai into “an Indian Venice” for parts of the year.
The far north touches the Indian Himalayas and offers some of the most beautiful snowy landscapes you’ve ever seen. You probably didn’t expect to see that in India, didn’t you? Last but not least, there’s the Northeast with its endless stretches of greenery and small, sparsely populated towns and tribal areas that look very different from the rest of the country.
PDA or Public Display of Affection is a big no-no in India. That’s why you won’t see many couples holding hands or showing affection in public. In some parts of India, you can even get a fine for it! And if this isn’t a reason for culture shock in India, seeing men holding hands in the middle of the street certainly will. In most countries, this would be associated with people from the LGBT community but in India, this is perfectly normal.
I never understand or found an answer to why so many men hold hands in India but there are some theories that hold water. For example, this can be attributed to the lower sense of personal space and the lack of contact of any sort with the opposite sex (because many Indian women don’t even shake hands with men).
Bureaucratic red tape
Indian bureaucracy is incredibly inefficient and corrupted. It’s also the main region for the Pan-Indian concept of jugaad (a humble innovation that tends to temporarily solve problems that no one else but the poor people would want to solve). It’s also the main antagonist of the second phase of experiencing culture shock in India (the frustration phase). Figuring out how and where to get things done is very difficult in India.
Conflict information about solving your bureaucratic issues isn’t uncommon which is why networking and building connections is such a big thing in Indian society. Having friends in different institutions can go a long way in these situations. In times like these, I have no other advice but to keep reminding yourself that patience is your best friend.
With this, our list of possible culture shocks in India is complete. Take some time to mentally prepare for your journey and don’t forget to keep an open mind and be patient no matter what happens. These are your two main “weapons” when visiting India. You might not like some of the things mentioned here but don’t let that put you off from visiting India because, with all its quirks and curiosities, India is an amazing country to visit and a place where you can reinvent yourself and expand your horizons. As cheese as that may sound, it’s 100% true.
Helpful Resources For Visiting India
Flying to India? Seriously consider Air France and their Discover the World at a low price program. I’ve been using it for years to get cheap flights to pretty much anywhere.
If you’re looking for some tours with local guides, GetYourGuide has a lot of amazing, budget-friendly tours.
For some great accommodation deals in India, this link can help you save up to 15% on all accommodation bookings in India.
If you’re thinking about getting an e-visa, seriously consider IVisa. I visited India more than 10 times and this is the best visa intermediary I came across.
Last but certainly not least, don’t forget about travel insurance. For the best travel insurance deals for traveling to India, check out World Nomads.
Did you ever visit India? Did you get a culture shock in India? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments!
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