It has been three weeks since my return to France. My bangles acquired on the Delhi streets have fallen and the Henna peacocks on my hands have faded away: it was unfortunate but inevitable. I had enough time to get back into “French mode”, which, for me, includes reverting to slightly different norms of behavior, somewhat catching up with three months of politics and national news, eating French food and undergoing all the ceremony associated with it, getting accustomed to the rhythm of family life, and speaking grammatically correct French (although French is my first language, I often stumble with finding all my words after a long time going without it, and have a tendency to use “Frenglish” in the first couple of days… I wonder how some Indians manage 4-5 languages fluently).
Sort of random observation: (skip this paragraph if you are speed reading)
Something I noticed while back in France is how few Indian people actually live or do tourism in Paris compared to American cities such as New York or Philadelphia. In fact, during my three-weeks stay here, I have only seen one Indian person in the street. This is certainly not the most insightful observation and is certainly something I could have anticipated were I to pay closer attention to international relations, but it is one of those things that I only started noticing after having gone to India and Penn. I think people’s attitude in India and France also reflects the fact that these two countries are not as “close” and prone to exchange of people as India and the US. Where I was used to a very enthusiastic reaction from people at Penn whenever I told them I was from France, people in India did not seem to find it as cool (and so I started telling people there I was from the US instead!). Fun anecdote, my Indian roommate recently went to France, visited an elementary school there and got to ask a group of kids to guess where she was from. She got all answers imaginable: Morocco, China, …even Russia ?! But not India.
Enough digression. As of today, here are three things that I have realized I missed about my internship in Bangalore
I miss being a foreigner in India. As simple as this may seem, I loved learning many new things every day: being able to ask questions to understand certain landscapes, traditions and behaviors observed. For example, I really enjoyed learning more about the caste system because I felt that it was essential to understand the inner dynamics, social expectations and rules behind social interactions in the Indian society. However, during the half hour of my discussion with Chitra (my boss) about caste, I feel that she was able to lay down essential foundations but only to scrape the surface of the topic. For a deeper understanding, I think that I would need to spend a lot of time in the country and interact with many people from many different regions. This calls for another trip to India and gives me an excuse to come back. I also loved being able to try out new Indian foods every day. I am a rather adventurous eater and had great fun trying out a variety of different vegetables, bread and meats, each cooked in different sauces, seasoned with an array of different spices. (At Shahi lunch, we would always have multiple preparations to choose from to complement our rice and bread, which was perfect for somebody who loves sampling!). I was always amazed at the amount of work the cooks put in to prepare all the food and curries. We were told that, at Shahi, cooking starts at 6am for a lunch at 1pm. However, despite how tedious cooking Indian foods appeared to be to our foreign eyes, it was funny to hear some of our coworker mention how difficult American cuisine seemed to them. I guess it is a question of habit.
Another nice thing about being a foreigner was that people were generally open to explaining things to us and were tolerant of our culturally induced blunders. An obvious example would be the morning I went to the temple at Shahi for the first time, and I was on my own. I took my shoes off, entered the temple and then realized I had no idea what to do. Thanks to the help of the priest and of another Shahi employee, I was able to (successfully?) complete the ritual. I like to compare my experience in India to that of being a freshman at Penn. You are new to the place and the culture of the place, and people do not have clear expectations of you. You are free to try new things, try out new facets of your personality without people judging you too hard or comparing you with your past self. Your mistakes and clumsiness are usually no more than a good joke for upperclassman to enjoy and you will likely be excused for them.
Another thing I miss about India is looking around in the street and being amazed about how, despite the shambles I see, everything seems to work out and everybody get his work done. The streets in India are great fun to watch when they are busy, that is, most of the time. I liked to look at all the people running past another, past cows, interacting with one another, trying to sell things, just chilling on the sidewalk… etc. The cars also were scary; it felt like being in a racing car video game except with way too many cars on the racing track. And somehow, in this apparent chaos, there was order: people got their work done and also deployed a hint of craziness and bending of rules to achieve their means. A coworker once said to me that if one did not battle to bypass the other cars, it would be impossible for one to get anywhere. Another thing that struck me was how open people seemed to be to discussing and helping out strangers. While we were in Mysore, our Indian guide/friend Lakshmi would constantly open the car window and very casually hail passersby for directions.
Finally, I miss being with Amy, Chan and Kendra, my Penn co-interns, who were my “buddies” for those two months, and from whom I have learned a lot. They were a constant support and comforting presence, and were great fun to hang out with. Our different majors, backgrounds and personalities, but shared general curiosity and willingness to do good have enabled us to have enriching and thought-provoking discussions. After work, it was very interesting to hear one other’s different perspective on the experiences we had shared during the day, how certain details I had not particularly paid attention to were important to them (and vice versa). I loved learning from Amy’s attention to detail, holistic thinking, and from the talent she had for always considering an issue in all its different facets, from Chan’s great sensitivity and involvement and from Kendra’s passion and sharp critical thinking skills. Thank you for being such great co-interns!
Other random observation: French and South Indian cooking are completely different… except when it comes to dosas and “galettes” (savory version of a crepe). Not only do they look but they also taste similar. However, the galette I had was not filled with masala potatoes but with tomatoes, egg, cheese and ham!