The Difficulty of Difference

This blog was written by our summer intern, Rebecca Bice.

In the fall of 2011, I spent four months living in Pune, India. Whenever I talk about my experience, the first question I hear about my study abroad destination is, “Why India?” and I never have come up with a good answer. The truth is, I was just fascinated by it. Growing up, I was always attracted to Indian music, movies and literature. I loved Indian food and wished I could wear Indian clothing. As a college student I went so far as to become a member of our Punjabi bhangra dance team. When I found a study abroad program located in Pune, India, I knew that if I didn’t go, I would never forgive myself.

Kerala, India

Kerala, India

So, after convincing my parents (perhaps unsuccessfully) that I would be perfectly safe and happy in India, I signed up for the program. And like any eager young traveler, I delved into unofficial research: reading novels, watching films and talking to others who had been there. I knew to expect beautiful landscapes and a marvelously diverse culture. I also knew to expect poor waste management, language difficulties, overcrowding and overall discomfort. I thought I was prepared, and I felt an overwhelming excitement. I was finally going to be a part of it all. India was going to be my home.

Daulatabad Fort, Arangabad, India

Daulatabad Fort, Arangabad, India

When people ask about my experience in India, I always hesitate. The truth is, living in India was hard. And as much as I would love to exclaim that my heart and soul live in India—that I embraced every moment and found true enlightenment in the hills of Maharashtra—it’s just not true.

It wasn’t the daily cold “bucket showers” or the frequent illness. It wasn’t the constant smell of burning trash piles or even the poverty. I knew to expect those things. It was the disconnect—the details. It was businesses not accepting anything higher than a 100 rupee bill, ever. It was that one indistinguishable head movement that could mean yes, no, maybe, of course or thank you for your business. There was always something I didn’t know, and every single day presented opportunities to get it all wrong. Two months in, a street vendor roughly refused my ripped rupee bill thinking I was trying to pass it off on him. (Ripped rupees are unusable, and I had forgotten to check.) I started crying right there, in the middle of the broken sidewalk. Before my journey, I couldn’t wait to “know” India. I couldn’t wait to understand it and connect with it. I couldn’t wait to live a real, average day there, but I never got to this point of functionality. And when I went home after four long months, I felt I knew nothing about India at all.

View from a rickshaw. Pune, India

View from a rickshaw. Pune, India

It’s hard to convey my disappointment. I honestly think that for those first six months after my return, my difficulty in India was the biggest heartbreak I have ever experienced. I had been so informed, enthusiastic and tough; how could the place of my dreams have defeated me so badly?

Eventually, I tried to find a bright side. India was hard simply because India was different—different in so many miniscule ways that only my subconscious could pick up on them all. The fact that a ripped rupee bill could bring me to tears meant that I was living my every day in an environment completely foreign to me. It meant that I challenged myself. And more importantly, it meant that there are still places out there to challenge us—no matter how much we think we already understand them.

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India

As a geography major with an emphasis on globalization, I was used to searching for similarities and relationships between places. And I believed that study to be a prevalent and important one. But India contributed another perspective. Places may be becoming more similar, but they are also, still, so incredibly different. I could spend years in India and still not understand it. And that’s not disappointing, that’s exciting! That’s encouraging! So now here I am, two weeks past wearing my cap and gown and given an opportunity to intern at an organization that spends its every minute working to promote and preserve the uniqueness of place.

National Geographic celebrates difference, disconnect and discomfort: states I have known and, slowly, come to appreciate. Initially, I looked at my experience in India as proof that I could never be akin to a National Geographic Explorer. But now I understand that India has given me a more astute understanding of place and exploration. I hope to never again feel ashamed of myself for having difficulty acclimating or struggling to find familiarity. Because all places shouldn’t be familiar, and they shouldn’t be easy. The important thing is that we venture there regardless. That we realize how much we don’t know and appreciate that we probably will never know it all. Recognizing disconnection with a foreign place is just as important as finding connections: this is how you grow, and this is how you explore. And I personally believe that if you fly halfway around the world and feel that you fit in, you might be missing something.

Ganpati Festival. Pune, India

Ganpati Festival. Pune, India

Now, despite all my previous comments, you must understand that I do, desperately, want to go back to India. And while I will probably know how to get around and what food to eat, I hope I still experience difficulty. Because difficulty means awareness of place. Discomfort and difference are what an explorer strives for; because if you only find familiarity, what have you discovered?

By Rebecca Bice, National Geographic Education Intern

7 responses to “The Difficulty of Difference

  1. India truly is a much different place than America. For example here, we have one official language, English. In India, there are 14 official languages, not to mention a national language. That alone would be a difficulty, but one that is good.

    For more on India, visit averagegeo.com

    • Not to be that guy, but America has no office language. English is presumed to be the official language of the United States but there actually isn’t one.

  2. Yes I am from India but have also lived for a few years in USA. There are many cultural differences too. But overall you will find Indians very helpful but non-formal. Being non-formal is the part of the culture, which may not be considered good to an American. I found this article extremely balanced and well written and giving due consideration to the difference in the two societies.

  3. Very well written, Becca! I so understand what you mean after my own travel and living in different places! The gift of exploring is that you also come to know yourself better!

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