In-depth Q&A with a volunteer in India

After spending 340 days volunteering in India last year, Lydia D. learned a lot about the culture. Here she shares some of the ups and downs of Indian life, and what we can learn from their culture.


Latitude: Why were you in India?

Lydia D.: I worked with several different NGOs while I was there. I got to work with an English school for children in the red light district and girls who were rescued out of the red light district.

L: So tell me in your own words: how would you describe India in one paragraph?

LD: India is like a stew of cultures. There’s a lot of influences that make up their culture. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s a predominantly Hindu country. It’s a very beautiful and very colorful culture, from the attire to the environment, everything is colorful. The air smells like spices…and sometimes feces, to be honest. There are so many people, it can get a little claustrophobic.

L: What is a day in the life like in India?

LD: That depends on if you’re in the city or in a village. In the city, there’s jobs for everything — there’s even people sweeping the street. There are so many wallas (a worker), there’s rickshaw walla, trash walla, etc. They work hard when they’re working, but they love to take an afternoon break to drink chai.

In the village, it’s a slower pace of life. There are lots of farms. I’m not sure what all they do…one lady I stayed with in a village was a beautician. She had a job, but when I stayed with her, she decided not to work for those three days. So it’s very easy-going I guess.

L: What makes India unlike anywhere else? What makes you walk in and say, I know I’m in India?


LD: You’ll hear shouting in the distance, people are bartering over everything. You’ll smell the spices in the air. You’ll see people drinking chai as they take a chai break. You’ll see outfits that are crazy patterns and colors that don’t go together at all and they’re awesome. You’ll see crazy traffic. You’ll see starving people on the side of the road in little huts and slums, built right next to huge buildings and businesses.

L: What did you notice about Indian people?

LD: They’re colorful. If you have the pleasure of getting to know an Indian, they will welcome you into their family. They’ll be like, “oh it’s so nice to meet you, come to my home now!” You’ll get invited to their home, invited for chai. If you go to their home, they’ll be fixing a meal for you, serving you whatever they can, offering you water.

If I was stranded on an island, I’d want to be stranded with an Indian.

IMG_0110 copyThey’re aggressive and can be a little bossy. They have a go-getter attitude.

They will solve any problem. In fact, if I was stranded on an island, I’d want to be stranded with an Indian. They can rig anything and make it work, I learned a lot from them.

Aunties – any elderly woman – are my favorite people on earth. They’re the best. They are the sassiest women. If a guy ever gets on the woman’s train, they will yell at him until he gets off.

L: Wait, it’s segregated?

LD: Yeah. Women can ride on the men’s cars, but they have the women’s cars for protection for the women.  India is making a lot of progress in trying to get women’s rights. Younger women still won’t speak up as much, but the aunties can.

L: So what are some of the problems India is facing?

IMG_0082 copyLD: Well, Mumbai is the rape capital of the world. They’re acknowledging it’s a problem though and starting to work on it. We were told to never stay in a place if we were the only woman there. In Delhi, you can’t be out after dark as a woman.

They’re trying to stop the infanticide of girls. It’s a very male-dominant country. Now they have rules that you can’t have a sonogram to find out the gender.

There’s also a lot of poverty, but it’s part of the culture there. They have a mindset that each person is in the position they’re supposed to be in. They view it as, we need the homeless and poverty-stricken just as we need those who are rich and thriving. They all serve a purpose.

L: That’s really interesting. In America we tend to view poverty as something that needs to be fixed. How can it be a good thing?

LD: I should have said this earlier, but everything is based on their religion. There’s idols in the cars, temples on the streets, people walking along the street selling offerings…it’s all about the religion. That’s why they view poverty as good — we need these people because we can give money to them and do acts of kindness for them. They fulfill the need for charity. And those in poverty can go to the temples and get food, so they can be part of the religious cycle too.

Everything is based on their religion.

L: I recently read that sanitation is a big problem too, partly because of cultural attitudes towards it.

LD: The lowest thing you can do is become unclean by cleaning something dirty. To be any sort of cleaning person is really low. The trash wallas are the lowest, they are treated like trash. The class system has been outlawed in India, but it’s so alive, it’s insane.

Literally, the women would sometimes bring trash bags onto the train and whenever they go over the water, they would throw the trash out the train. It’s definitely something that needs to change, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen.

L: What are some of the good things we can learn from their culture?

LD: Learning to accept a slower pace in life. They don’t have the excessive busy attitude we have here. I’ve noticed just since coming home I already feel more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed. We almost look down on people here if you’re not doing something; we could learn to accept not being busy.

I also love their hospitality. If you go eat with them, you’re family. I had a few friends there and never felt like “the white girl.” We went to water parks, I tried all of their favorite foods, we had so much fun. I enjoyed how community-oriented they are. If someone has a flat tire on the side of the road, people are going to help.

One time a woman on a train said her kid was thirsty and everyone got out water bottles and said “here.” They “waterfall” all of their drinks so they can share it with others. It’s been weird since coming home that people don’t share everything! If I hear someone’s thirsty, it’s weird for me to realize, I probably shouldn’t just hand them my water bottle here.

IMG_0060L: For those of us who haven’t been to India, do you have any tips to help us understand Indian culture within America?

LD: This is what I want to say in general to people who are around others from a different culture: it’s really easy to not like something when you don’t understand it. So if you’re around an Indian family and you don’t understand them, it’s easy to just think they’re bad. But you need to have an outlook that one thing isn’t better or worse, it’s just different. Otherwise you’re gonna go crazy, especially if you travel.

It’s really easy to not like something when you don’t understand it.

After being in India so long and having people be closed off to me, I understand what that feels like. And how awesome it would feel when someone would walk up and treat me just like a normal human being, or even ask me questions about my culture and be excited to get to know me.

I recommend doing that here too. Either just act like they’re normal people, because they are, or ask questions like, where are you from, will you tell me about it? I think a lot of people, especially the longer they’re going to be in America or away from home, the more open they are to talking about what their home is like.

L: Anything else you’d like to add?

LD: India is a beautiful and fascinating place that everyone should visit sometime in their lifetime.

L: Thanks so much for your insights and thoughts Lydia! India is definitely on my bucket list, but I’m glad to have an insider’s view for now.

*The observations on India are Lydia’s personal thoughts and experiences and are not a blanket statement meant to reflect the entire country.*