A Mild Case of Culture Shock

As of yesterday, we have officially finished the orientation stage of our internship at Samaj Pragati Sahayog.  We’ve spent the past nine days learning about the many initiatives SPS works on here in the Dewas District.  Most days have been a combination of orientation sessions in the lecture hall, Q&A with point people from each program and field visits to see current progress.  We’ve learned about SPS self-help groups, Community Media, agriculture, crop aggregation, Kumbaya (garment production), watershed maintenance, adult literacy, livestock and Right to Food programs.  I enjoyed the extended orientation because I learned so much about the issues tribal communities face in rural Madhya Pradesh and possible ways to improve the quality of life here.


The dairy program’s only female secretary showing us how to test the quality of the morning’s milk

This past week and a half has not only been a time to get familiar with the organization; I have also been getting accustomed to local culture.  In addition to stark contrasts between life in tribal communities of the Bagli area and life in Philadelphia, I’ve noticed some of the differences between this region and the Delhi area where I spent my first few days in India.  To me, the most notable difference between driving through the rural United States and rural India is that in rural India, people do everything out in the open.  Doors to houses are open; shops have open windows and doors; people travel by wagon or foot along the same road that vehicles use.  During the car trips we’ve taken since our arrival, I’ve seen people in the midst of all daily activities: eating, sewing, cooking, playing, sleeping, defecating, urinating, pumping and carrying water, herding their livestock, plowing, sowing seeds, harvesting, getting their hair cut, and hanging out in shops.  Because people are outside and there aren’t many cars going by (mostly motor bikes, wagons, or trucks), they look inside at me.  It’s a strange sensation to be stared at by people who pass by my window!  I haven’t figured out whether I should smile or just stare back.  Children return my smile and wave, but no one else flinches.

Because of all these people looking at me, I haven’t been able to take pictures of all that I see.  Normally when I travel, I snapshot everything so that I can reminisce on it later.  But here, where there are few cameras and fewer westerners, I feel like taking photos has a different meaning.  I do not want to seem like I’m commercializing or exploiting someone’s poverty.  We’re required send some photos to CASI, so to circumvent awkward situations, I have stuck to taking pictures on field visits to SPS projects, where it’s clear I’m an intern learning about the program, so the pictures are for documentation.

Another stark difference here is that all women wear saris.  Yet the young professionals who work at SPS wear kurtas, pants and scarves.  Girls from the villages also wear dresses and pants or western clothing.  It’s surprising to me that women who do so much manual labor wear saris, while I saw many women in Delhi wear pants. Apparently, saris are very comfortable, and can be cool in summer but warm in winter, depending on the cloth, but to me it seems impractical to wear a long dress while working on a farm.  The best explanation I can think of for the ubiquity of saris in the countryside is that they are beautiful.  It’s also worth considering that not everyone has toilets, so wearing a sari might allow more privacy while relieving oneself in an open field.  According to people I’ve asked at SPS, these differences in dress depend heavily on education level and socioeconomic status.

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A farmer showing us his nearly ripe mung bean (green gram or moong) crop


Something that struck me about India in general is that although many people are fluent in English, Indian English is not the same as the British or American English.  There are terms here that don’t exist in the English I’m used to.  For example, the first time I heard the first time I hears “take a decision” instead of make a decision, I thought the speaker had made a mistake, but after hearing other people use the same phrase and seeing it in writing, I realized that it’s correct here.  There are other terms that seem unusual, like flip-flops being called “slippers,” a farmer deciding to “take a second crop” (instead of plant or take on), and men not wanting their wives “stepping out” (leaving the house to work).  While learning about the SPS agriculture program, terms like pulses, red gram, black gram, and green gram have been constantly in the air.  When I asked what those crops were I got many different answers.  Finally yesterday when we got better WiFi access, I was able to clarify that red gram is pigeon pea, black gram is black lentil, green gram is mung bean, and pulses refer to all dried grain legumes: chickpeas, lentils, dried peas, and dried beans.  Whether we knew the names or not, we’ve tried all of these things in the dining hall, along with many more foods that we have yet to identify.  If I manage to figure out what I ate for breakfast today, I’ll send an update!

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Unidentifiable but delicious breakfast food.   Rumor has it that the cakes are made of semolina.


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About Bevan Pearson

I'm an Earth Science major concentrating in Environmental science in the College Class of 2018. This summer 2016, I'll be a CASI intern with Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Bagli, Madhya Pradesh.