You awake to the aroma of spices while putting on your school uniform, but it’s a new place. You say “????????!” to greet your host mother and sister, but it’s a new language. The culture slowly immerses you with the natives, but it’s a new lifestyle. Now, you’ll experience the memories of living in India through the eyes of a NSLI-Y exchange student, me.
The AFS cultural iceberg metaphor resonates with me—I observe the ice above the water first. The first step on Indian soil smacked me in the face. Diverse sounds and waves of color encircled me. The automobiles weaved between each other, passing cows and camels lying in the bizarre traffic. Streetside poverty persists amidst industrialized cities. My host family exposed me to the spicy delicacies, traditional clothing including sarees, and the Bollywood world.
Indore became my new home, and I dove beneath the water’s surface to explore the cultural nuances.
Twenty-one members in my joint family guided me. Simple memories—we discussed daily to philosophical topics while eating together. This opportunity challenged me to understand and communicate in Hindi. Sometimes we ate at Sarafa, a year-round food festival. Jewelry market by day and food paradise by night, we savored the pani puri, grilled corn, and momos under the monsoon rain. I observed a new religion while chanting Jain prayers before sleeping.
My untraditional experience in Shishukunj International School consisted of five-hour Hindi classes each day. We began mornings with prayers of different religions. Learning bharatanatyam, tabla drums, or yoga filled our cultural hour. We highly respected our teachers, as students referred to them as “teaching Gods”. My classmates and I connected thoughts together using the magic word “kyonki” (because) and read Hindi newspapers by our last day.
But, I kept swimming toward the bottom of the iceberg.
History explains how cultural identities came into existence. As I transported myself back in time inside the neighboring city of Maheshwar, the Narmada River greeted me. Various religious groups quietly arrived to touch the holy water and attain spiritual purity. Time stood still at the Royal Palace of Maheshwar—I rediscovered royal lifestyle in the museum. The weavers created intricate clothing using old-fashioned handlooms before me. I left by whispering inside of a bull statue’s ear in the central temple of the Ahilya Fort, which my sister says signifies good luck. I’ll never forget the lush greenery and quiet atmosphere of Mandu—the ruined city with ancient “mahalon” (palaces)—or joining a religious ceremony dancing their way to the Ujjain Temple.
Agra, the beautiful home of the Taj Mahal, became our last stop. I stood at the gateway shocked to see an unbelievable painting in front of me. A long stroll alongside Charbagh gardens carried me until I touched the cold marble. I wore foot covers to protect the 400-year-old marble I stepped on. I stood in awe at the towering Mughal architectural work combined with Persian calligraphy. I paid my respects to the architect Shah Jahan and wife Mumtaz Mahal inside the central dome. Little boats floated on the reflective Yamuna River behind the Taj. A collection of street vendors approached me excitedly with memories to take home after exiting this breathtaking atmosphere.
In the end, it’s the personal interactions and achievements which I remember most. Waking up at four a.m. to get infamous LIG Maggi noodles with my brother. Learning the art of bartering. Bonding with my limited Hindi and charades. I leave understanding how India stands united through diverse languages, religions, nature, and families.
It’s time to break your cultural iceberg. ??????????!
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