I am studying as a student in the New York State Independent College Consortium for Study in India (they need to figure out a shorter name for sure). This is the first year Vassar has joined the program, but the program itself has been running for many years.
Here is the story of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed California girl and Women’s Studies major spending the semester in India. I am with a small group of people—all girls, just by chance. They are all lovely, and such an adventure does wonders in bonding people together. The academic side of things includes a course in Hindi, two courses examining this year’s theme of supply chains from contemporary and historical perspectives, and our own personal field work project. For my project, I am studying the gender dynamics of yoga in India today: why do women practice yoga, and how does this reflect their attitudes to their bodies and the female mind-body relationship? I am excited to go to yoga class as part of my studying!
As a Women’s Studies major and feminist, it is an eye-opening experience coming here and not being a feminist the way I usually am back home—using the way I present my body and dress as a statement against beauty norms and oppressive patriarchal standards. Here, we are all required by the program to wear traditional Indian clothing, which means arms and legs covered with a scarf used to cover our chests and put on over our heads when we are getting unwanted attention. The idea is that we are being respectful of the culture, and it will make it easier for us to navigate the streets as western women. While this makes a lot of sense for other practical reasons (not as much skin exposed to mosquitos and sunburns) I do feel conflicted about the way I am conforming.
Anyway—some snapshots of my day-to-day life:
First off, I’ve learned that it takes your body a little while to adjust to a 12.5 hour time difference. I landed in New Delhi on Sunday night after 20 hours on a plane and long layover, but at least I met up with the 12 other girls on the trip for the long flight.
We have been in New Delhi this week, which I could best describe as overstimulating. Walking along the busy city streets, there are probably at least 10 men to every woman out in public. It is a new experience to know everyone is looking at me as a woman. As I walk down the street, I am assaulted by new smells, some pleasant and some unpleasant, as well as the constant sound of honking (I can hear it outside of my window right now). The street dogs roam in and out of traffic and crowds; they all look so friendly, but I know are hardened to the world by a rough existence. The hardest part of navigating New Delhi are the poor children. One little boy, all bones, tried to sell me balloons the first night I was here. I can still see a dirty little girl dancing in the subway station. We are not supposed to acknowledge the kids, as giving one money only means you will be followed by more and more. It is a structural, societal issue that I cannot solve myself by feeding the structure money, as hard as it may be.
There have definitely been a few learning moments so far, such as learning to navigate the streets. For the first couple of days our instructor provided us with water that was safe to drink, but now we have to buy our own water. It is an easy task as there is a vendor right across the road from our hotel, but it still made me appreciate in a very small way that drinkable water is a necessity that isn’t always readily available. I also appreciate electricity much more, as I faced one of my greatest fears when we were in the elevator and the power went out. It was only for a few seconds, but my heart wouldn’t stop pounding.
I would like to end on a happier note, though. There are many easy, fabulous things too—like clothes shopping. The patterns and colors that the women wear are wonderful. Even the little girls have color-coordinated outfits, some clearly picked for their sparkle. Just like at college, we pay to get our laundry done, and the kurtas and pants come back pressed and smelling clean.
That is my impression of Delhi life so far! Next we are off to a mountain town that is supposed to be incredibly beautiful. I am excited to get away from the hustle and bustle of the streets here. After that we are off to our homestays in Jaipur, which is where I will be writing my next entry. Who knows what will have happened by then!