After a month in India, I can attest to the bewilderment of culture shock. It wasn’t an actual surprise at my surroundings or an inability to cope with the situation, but an overwhelming feeling of standing out. I have never felt more obvious in my life. The first week, a professor asked us when we felt “most white.” Without hesitation, I thought of trying to cross the street. Nothing compares to the streets of India.
First, Indians drive on the left side. After five weeks, I still habitually looked the wrong way before crossing the street (although, honestly, it makes no difference as this seems to be more of a guideline than an actual law.) There is a single painted line that divides the directions of traffic. Each side may fit two cars, or five motorcycles. If there is little opposing traffic, the lane will spill into the next, fitting one car, three motorcycles and a scooter. Vehicles push past each other, swerving, braking and constantly honking. Most of the cars have back-up songs, announcing that they are in reverse. Many of these are electrical ditties of Christmas songs. Think of a ringtone version of Silent Night. The Titanic theme is also pretty popular.
I walk to class each morning, crossing a busy street on the way. I stand on the edge of the road, preparing myself to play Frogger with my life. I take a deep inhale — only to stop mid-breath to avoid the stench from the man s****ing 20 yards away. I live near one of the “public toilets.” This consists of a small, wooded area at the corner of two busy streets. The dirt here accepts public waste from all walks of life: rickshaw drivers, fruit vendors, and the homeless all come together to poop communally behind the bushes. Tightening my scarf around my nose, I step into the road and scuttle to the median.
The opposite side reveals a steady stream of cars, so I begin making my way down the dead center of the road. I perceive this to be one of the safest walking paths, far from the taunts of schoolboys and the woman judging my exposed elbows. I am hidden by the flow of traffic.
Feeling the rush of cars in each direction, I balance on a line between the forwardness and backwardness that is India. The modernity of cars and motorcycles outpace the man pulling his cart of yet unripe bananas. A couple on a scooter nearly run over my toes.
I cross the last lane, pausing for a car to speed in front, a couple of motorcycles to zoom behind me. My feet touch the broken sidewalk, and I turn to stare at the bedlam I successfully navigated. A young boy on a camel saunters by. I gawk at the organized chaos that is India, amazed to realize that — for a short time — I am a part of this.