Between stereotypes and realities

Arriving at a new place always brings uncertainty with it. Going from Venezuela to Edinburgh to do my master’s degree was definitely a big cultural shock. But then, not happy with this change from South to North, from not so developed to more developed, going from amazing tropical weather to cold winters and summers, I decided to travel South again. This time, to India. And whenever this happens, stereotypes are begging to arise. Going from South to North makes you believe that you can buy whatever you need there, but when you go the other way around, you quite freak out, even if you come from a country in the Global South like me.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t alone in this not-so-positive opinion about India. When I told my friends and family that I was going to Bhubaneswar, the capital of one of the poorest states in the country, different opinions arose. All of them started with a celebration: “That’s awesome!”; “What an adventure!”; “Congratulations!” Yet, most of them were also followed by a “but”. “But be ready, your heart will shrink with all the poverty you’ll see”; “but don’t be walking around alone, you’ll get raped”; “but don’t be eating in the streets or drinking water”; “but why did you choose such a dangerous country, especially for women.” Suddenly my mind was full of buts and, I’ve got to admit, after receiving so many warnings and concerns I got a little bit more worried than I already was.

Hidden Indian streets.

Then, what started as a small suitcase, turned into 23Kg of luggage, full of just-in-case things, from movies and books to keep myself entertained, to water purifier tablets, loads of medicines and even toilet paper! I know, being cautious never hurts. But my caution was based on a prejudice which, also, was based on a quite biased reality, the one that we hear about back home (in Venezuela). So that’s one of the big problems of stereotypes. It is not that they are not true, but they are just one version of the truth; that part of people’s and countries’ realities that has been decided to be told. Suddenly the big date arrived, and with all the “buts” in mind and my 23 kg I got into the plane. After half a day travelling, and a couple of guilty pleasure movies watched on the plane (all Disney), I arrived in Bhubaneswar’s airport. A very hot place, with a spectrum of colours mixed with a curry smell, where all eyes were on me (foreigners get all the attention) and there were mostly men around. Of course, one of the “buts” came to my mind right away.

So there I was, trying to play it cool, ignoring all the looks and trying to find the person of the NGO I was going to work with. But punctuality is not a thing in India, and after 20 minutes of “playing cool” Alok arrived. Then there I was, having my first glance of a city of contrasts, where poverty and underdevelopment mix with luxury shops and cars almost in every corner. After a month, I got more than just a glance of Bhubaneswar and at the end, most of the “buts” were replaced. Yes, there was poverty, but also opportunities and people wanting to make those opportunities available for everyone. Yes, men can sometimes be very pushy even just to take a picture with you, but more than that nothing will happen and, if it does, people around will help. Yes, it can be more complicated for women to move around, but it is not impossible and Indian women are already breaking paradigms. Yes, your stomach will get delicate, but you didn’t travel to India if you didn’t try their delicious food variety and something didn’t suit that well. Then no, those preconceptions are not the main characteristics of India.

Transporting Gods’ sculptures in the Rath Yatra festival in Bhubaneswar.

The India I got to know is a country of very friendly people that will go out of their way to help you and make you feel at home. A country full of hard working people, that wake up at 5 am and sometimes stay in their shops until 9 or 10 pm because it is more pleasant for the client to go shopping at night (believe me, it’s a wise decision). Also, it’s a country full of passionate people, who want to make their city, state and country a way better place. People who have out of the box ideas to improve rural communities and that quit stable jobs just to work for their passion. I also found a country –at least a state– where leisure time and sharing with the people around you is very important, so you end up playing cricket during work hours and eating altogether during lunch. I found a country where, as in Venezuela, everything can be fixed with a smile. A place of volatile people that can scream at each other but the next day everything is ok. Also, a country of tolerance, with many religious beliefs that interact with each other and are respected by everyone.

Sugar cane juice enterprise powered with solar panels in Bhubaneswar.

At the end, I found that my mental sluggishness of generalising our opinions about people and countries in a very simple way made me be prejudiced, which can affect the attitude we take when start working in a different culture. Being aware of the risks of the places that we travel to is necessary, but acknowledging the differences and rescuing the positive aspects of them is as or even more important. Understanding this last point allows us to succeed in working with other cultures and learning from them. In this sense, I developed patience and respect for the former work dynamics, which also made me have to put in practice communicational and negotiation skills in order to be able to carry out my dissertation. I also learned to work with a translator to help communicate with the locals, which is complicated, and understood the importance of religion in the daily dynamics. Finally, I stopped having the necessity to find that India that I was expecting to find, and enjoyed the fast growing country full of ideas, willingness and contrasts.

If you want to find out more about working cross culturally then why not read “Top 10 tips for cross cultural working” written by Lucy Gibson, Team Leader in Kumasi, Ghana.