My friends and family keep asking me what I think of city life in Bangalore compared to life back home. This seems like a very basic question, yet I have an incredibly difficult time answering it due to one simple fact: the way I experience Bangalore is incredibly different from the way I experience Philadelphia or Chicago.
In many ways, much of it boils down to how I navigate my environment. I would not feel like I belong to Chicago as much as I do today had it not been for the countless hours I’ve spent sitting, standing, swaying, and squeezing into the CTA’s buses and trains. One thing that sometimes keeps me from feeling like a “true” Philly resident is the limited portion of the city that I routinely navigate on foot. Essentially, walking and taking public transportation are two great ways to get to know a city or neighborhood, neither of which have been a large part of my time in Bangalore.
It all starts with my morning routine—as we finish up breakfast, my three co-interns and I all desperately try to secure an Uber that will take us the entire 7 km (a little over 4 miles) from our apartment in Ejipura to our office in Bellandur. The reason we’re trying so hard? No one wants to drive 7 km in Bangalore morning rush hour traffic.
Future Shahi interns, if you’re reading this: make sure you stay within walking distance of the office!
While there have been days when we (by some miracle) completed the trip in 20 minutes, our typical commute takes between 40 – 60 minutes. However, the next time anyone in the states complains about traffic, I’m going to tell them about the time it took us two whole hours to drive to work… according to Google Maps, we can walk there in an hour and twenty! Even waiting for our ride to get to our pickup location can take nearly half an hour—something that I could never imagine happening in Philly.
The congested roads have definitely affected where we travel to in our leisure time. If there’s a cool place that we want to go to but it’s far away, we’ll most likely pass and head somewhere closer. Of course, since our commute to work is unavoidable, we’ve all figured out our own uses for the time spent idling in traffic jams. Generally, it comes down to sleeping, catching up on work, or reading; personally, I’ve finally had some time to read some books for pleasure!
However, more significantly than deciding where to eat dinner or finding ways to deal with downtime, Ubering everywhere has detached us from the regular pulse of the city. Looking out from within our closed automobile, we roll past a collage of storefronts, barbershops, chaat stands, vegetable carts, shoe stalls, and juice bars. Despite the slow-moving traffic and our relative proximity, the fact that we’ve isolated ourselves inside a car severely limits the extent to which we can interact with and experience the ongoing street life.
Though I realize that in India’s cultural and historical context, my whiteness will always label me as a foreigner, it feels slightly awkward to shuttle from one place to another in a cab that, while very inexpensive for me, may come close to the daily take-home pay of a tailor at the factory where I’ve been conducting my research. And while feeling discomfort regarding this situation is better than feeling nothing, I’m totally unsure of how to confront my obvious privilege.
Even though lunch at my workplace canteen is wholly subsidized for this summer, I can still eat out at any nearby restaurant on any given day without blinking an eye at the $2 it would cost me. For dinner, I have the option of choosing to stop in at a quaint roadside dhaba near our apartment or heading out to a trendy new gastropub in a hip colony of Bangalore (notice that cooking at home isn’t even considered here!). I can almost entirely make this decision based on my current mood or craving, because I came to India with the spending power of the American dollar.
It’s true that the stipend I received from GIP goes much farther here than it would in a city like London or Tokyo. However, does that give me the right to live a relatively lavish lifestyle of Ubering to dine at a new restaurant nearly every single night? I feel like I’ve still been able to meet many incredible people from a very wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, but my social life in Bangalore has certainly been dictated by my willingness to spend more per week than a college undergrad interning domestically.
And while I’m incredibly thankful to be in this situation and have all of these different opportunities, I can’t help but wonder: do I really deserve this? Am I enjoying my time here too much? Does the work that I’m doing justify my behavior in the slightest? What do other people—my friends, coworkers, shopkeepers, etc.—think of me and my lifestyle here? When I come home… will I keep asking myself these same questions?