Culture Shock – Moving back to India

(Also read "A returning Indian entrepreneur reflects", an excellent article on moving back to India and The Big Move back, which talks about the practical aspects of moving back)

By Isheeta Sanghi

Delhi is one of the most fascinating places in the world,weather wise. It’s deathly hot in the summer, and its winters are frighteningly cold. On one such winter morning in Delhi, on my way to college in an auto I experienced something I had never experienced before. I was at a stop sign, and a young girl with dirty brown hair, and big curious brown eyes walked up to me. It was not that I hadn’t seen girls like her before, or that it was the first time someone had come up to me in an auto and asked me for money, but this time it was different. It’s almost as though the numbness of my fingers reached my heart, and I was able to feel just how numb it had become.

For years now, I have been coming to India for vacation and staying with extended relatives. They all seem to have one common mantra from Delhi to Bangalore “don’t look at their faces.” 'Their', in this case, referring to the beggars on the street. I never questioned this because I wanted to avoid the awkward situation of staring at a complete stranger, and them staring back. But this morning was different; I looked into this young girl’s eyes, and looked past her smile. I saw her parents on the sidewalk, or at least what they call a sidewalk in Delhi, and saw them covered in torn blankets, and rotting clothes. I saw their health and spirit deteriorating, and me not being able to do anything about it. When I saw this, it was like all of a sudden my problems had no place in the world. I didn’t have the right to complain about the cold because I am fortunate enough to run the heater the whole night, and afford blankets that make me sweat so much that I have to pull it off at times. What seem like little, or insignificant things are actually the most important in life. And if one wants to discover that, India is the place to come to. The disparity between the rich and the poor is just horrific, and it’s probably the only place on earth where the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor can live on the same street, side by side.

I graduated in 2005 from Westview High School in San Diego. Though I didn’t live my whole life in San Diego, I spent some of my best years there. People always said that high school years would be some of the most fun years of life, and my high school years truly did not disappoint. From trying my hand at cheer-leading, to being extremely active in Student Government and high school politics, I tried to do anything and everything I had time for. High school was my home away from home. I loved those early mornings when I’d go to Starbucks and pick up a grande vanilla late, and sometimes that delicious 20-grams-of-fat brownie, and head over to school to start decorating and preparing for the pep rally.

After my graduation ceremony my parents decided to move to India. Actually the thought of moving to India was just devastating. Here we were in this beautiful suburban town, a ten minute drive away from the beach; there was nothing to complain about. But like many Americans, my father was out of a job, partly in fact due to the outsourcing phenomena that really kicked off after September 11, 2001. It was a conundrum. Witnessing my own father struggle to breathe, watching his demeanor slowly fade away, or move to India a place where he could live a very comfortable life and more importantly, enjoy it. He chose to move to India, and I came to terms with it. I knew that the bathrooms had become better, and that you could buy peanut butter in the local grocery shops, so I had very little to complain about.

Initially, as in the case of any move, it was overwhelming. To see the people staring, trying to figure out where you’ve come from, and what your life story is. To have maids in the house that you’d greet nicely in the morning, but still sneak away from for a minute just to make sure all the cupboards are locked and that all the valuables are kept away. I don’t know, it was all very confusing, but what it came down to was dealing with people. People are so vastly different, that it’s simply amazing. People in India are different too, and in order to make life easier all around, it’s best to just accept it, and adjust yourself to be able to deal with it- because you can’t change them. My mom still has road rage, a very unhealthy degree of road rage, even after two years of driving. I tell her that the only person she is harming is herself, because her blood boils. The cycle ‘wala’ could care less; it’s just part of his everyday life- they are daredevils.

The ‘chalta hai’ attitude in India is one commonality from the North to the South. It is only after realizing this that I truly came to peace with living in India. One of my mom’s friends once said that “to survive in India you need two things: patience and a good sense of humor.” It really is a lot of fun to India when you can make fun and just laugh at it all. The next time you go to Janpath, or Cosway, or Commercial Street and the smiley shop owner “uncle ji” does the Indian bobble head thing while saying “250 Rupees only Madam- only 5 dollars!” Just laugh a little, and say “Ok no thank you uncle!” with the same bobble, it’s the most rewarding experience you can have. Better yet, when people on the street stare at you stare right back at them and make funny faces just like you used to when you were a kid. Seeing their expressions afterwards is priceless.

People at my college always ask me “why did you come back.” Before, I had no answer. I used to think to myself “Man, why did I come back?” Everyone here is trying to get out, so why did I come back- it was almost like instead of progressing I was in the process of regression. After thinking long and hard about this, and really contemplating my reasoning for coming back, the answer I give them is “why not?” The economy and opportunity here is just unparalleled compared to anywhere else in the world. India is a vibrant place, just as vibrant and colorful as the beautiful saris worn by the beautiful women here. India has so much to offer because while it’s modernizing in many ways, the culture is being carried along it. The ‘new money’ kids are shopping at Chanel, and Versace, at the same time they’re also shopping at Manish Malhotra and wearing those beautiful clothes to celebrate festivals like Diwali and Karva Chauth.

The rich culture and history that has woven together the popular ‘tourist’ India, is now becoming more common amongst local Indians. They are embracing all the things that they have otherwise taken for granted. Initially I was hesitant about my move to India, but a year and a half into the experience, I love it. Sure I miss my bagel and cream cheese, but living life in India has made me open up eyes to the world beyond the world that I’ve lived in, in America. These years of my life will be cherished probably more than my high school years just because I’ve really been able to gain an understanding of life, and the vivacious people that live in it.

Isheeta Sanghi was born and raised in the United States, but moved to India a few years ago. She is currently attending a private university in Delhi.

62 thoughts on “Culture Shock – Moving back to India

  1. Geeta Padmanabhan

    Beautifully brought out, Isheeta. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it! Now that you have found out how to root yourself in the swiftly-blowing cultural winds, may be you should step out and see how young people like you can engage with the society around. I’m sure you have a lot of suggestins to make, projects to involve in.
    Whatever it is, would certainly like to see more of your work here!

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  2. Malathi Mohan

    I love the way you showed all of us how vulnerable you were to the change, yet how positively you have accepted it in your youthful, philosophy.You are definitely a path finder. God bless

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  3. dr alok gupta

    dear isheeta,
    welcome home..anytime…ur dad had the strenght to pack his bags & move 2 us..good…& 2 pack up finally & move back home…needed the supreme effort..which i m sure his family gave him. there is no place other than india 2 b born, grow, learn, earn & retire with grace & peace..if ur children r with u here…:O)
    alok
    jaipur

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  4. Betty in San Diego

    Wow Isheetah. I love your article. You are a very strong and open minded young lady. I am so glad to have read this..

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  5. Arem

    Very well written and expressed article. A must for any Indian living abroad to read. It let’s you know about dealing with the ‘extremes’ – which is what India is. In truth India is beautiful if you can see it in its ‘totality’

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  6. Pepi

    Hey! My name is Prarthana Ramdas, and I got your url through a friend… Basically, I’m 19 years old and in the same situation as you! I lived in Holland for 16 years, and then moved to Chennai 2 years back… that was out of choice because my sister and I wanted to experience life in India.

    I was so determined to love it, because it was a method of establishing my identity… The first year and a half was incredible… I made a group of amazing friends who stuck by me through everything, I got a car, a licence, and an independence previously unknown to me and meeting my family every weekend was absolute bliss… Then I struck a bit of a rocky patch in my studies and since then it’s all been very touch and go… It took me so long to admit that there might actually be things about India that I disliked, that when I finally did it all came pouring out…

    Your article brought all of this out, but also reminded me that India is India – the key to acceptance is, like your mom says, having a sense of humour… your article really has a sense of the joie de vivre that I had last year, which I seem to have lost along the way… I hope I’ll get it back now!

    Thanks for reminding me of things that I forgot 🙂

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  7. Usha

    Hello Isheeta, Great job in writing this. You have made the older generation, first generation and second generation so proud of being indians all over in the world. I am good friend of Archana and your url was forwared by her to all of us in the Netherlands.

    I shall certainly ask my children to read your article and i am sure it will make them think and react on it. This article has truly brought out the true colours of India and the world of extremes very well illustrated.

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  8. Pepi

    hey!
    i dont’ know if you get india today ‘woman’ but in this month’s issue there is an article about women who moved back to india, for various reasons. thought you might be interested.
    peps

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  9. Kulbhushan Sharma

    Dear Isheeta
    Beautiful Article just touching the corners of heart. We people just think of it and forget the next moment. Have you some suggestions as to what should be done so that poorer of the poor should also come atleast with par as that of an ordinary man. Anyway love to read this article and will be waiting for some others too. Regards
    Kulbhushan

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  10. Seema Aggarwal

    Really loved your article, i am going back to India this year after living in England for 12 years. I am feeling very scared and very excited. Got two children 12 and 6 any ideas how to get them prepared for the move.

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  11. Lakshmi

    Adjusting in India is good for you and your parents. We are in the same boat as you . We moved back to Hyderabad from Silicon Valley, California after living there for ten years. When we were in US , we loved India and the thought of moving back made us emotional. But , now we regret our decision. My kids are 19 and 15 years age.Its not peanut butter or the bath rooms we regret for , its the studies in India that bother them , and its the roads condition that put me depressed. I am so scared to drive here in HYD , actually so scared to go out , there are Manish Malhotra designer stores here in HYD , but you don’t find a parking , and you don’t come home with out a scratch or dent on your car. I can’t have a sense of humor , when my car is being damaged every time i go out. The infrastructure is still not on par with the population of India.My kids are in the best schools of HYD city. But they are not any way closer to the govt. schools in US.If you are sick you can’t cook , you need a dinner from out side , you need to drive 30 minutes. I am living in the new development of the city , we thought living in out skirts of city will help us escape the pollution. But we are paying price for that. No door deliveries, no relatives visit you since you are in out skirts , Railway station , Bus facilities are far away , so you can’t go other towns , since reaching those facilities will take two hours in this traffic.If you can live in heart of the city with all the pollution that should be ok. I have changed four drivers in two months even paying Rs.7000/- per month. I feel like I am stuck in cage. I used drive to San Jose to San Francisco for work. Life was so much easier there with a full time job and kids. Here life is difficult even if you have maid and driver, coz , they are not punctual. My kids feel sleepy in the schools during the lectures , be’coz they try to read the theory with out practicals. Studies have become boring for my kids . We decided to go back to US once my kids graduate here.I do not want to disturb them in the middle . My advise is to NRIs , do not move to India, unless you have a strong reason like family responsibilities or getting laid off and there is no way to find another job.

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  12. Mrs. Tassmer (nee' Brankowitz)

    Is this the same Isheeta who attended Hanby Middle School? I was your science teacher, and you wrote very well then, as well. This article was very articulate and inciteful. My friend, Reema, is going back to India to live with family for a year and I hope to visit her over there. I will have her read your article. Thank you!

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  13. Nihar

    Your narration is heart touching in many ways. Something great about your article, while I can’t express. A pride..A Learning..and finally A Great Insight..Bravo..:-)

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  14. Satya

    Good to know that Dilliwalas also have hearts and have time to think for destitutes. And I will NOT agree that North to South it is the same.

    My experience was not that romantic about Delhi. It was Year 2000 and I had to go from Rohini to ISBT. I had to pick up a bus near Rajiv Gandhi Cancer hospital. A person had met with an accident and he was in a pool of blood. He was crying hard. The culprit had already fled the scene. What was shocking – not a single soul came forward when I ran towards him and asked for help!!! I was sweating profusely and my shirt was colored with his blood by that time. And there I was, standing shell-shocked. Finally, I called a friend who was staying nearby and managed to send him to hospital.

    They say “Dilli” = “Dilwalon ki Dilli” (For people with hearts, Delhi is the place). You can say that one incident does not tell all about a city. But honestly, this incident shook me and my faith on Delhi. Perhaps, Delhi has changed over the years. I wish it would have.

    And contrast this with Chennai, a place where I stayed for 5 and 1/2 years. I can not speak Tamil well, just managed there. Initially, I felt like running away. But, the warmth, honesty, care and sincerity was just great. And over the years, though I have had my shares of issues with language, water, being a non-vegeterian etc, Chennai will remain very very close to heart. When I look back at Chennai, I can say it is one of cities in the world with a heart.

    Now in Bangalore. Do not know much about it, but one thing I can say definitely – It is slowly going the Delhi way (considering Year 2000). May God forbid! What good for is a city if it does not have a heart?

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  15. Shri

    Isheeta.. this is an amazing article.you have explained your feelings very well.Glad to see that someone feels the same as I do. I will be moving back to india sooner.Hope for good.

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  16. Nayana

    I felt your article very touching. I am in US currently (Bay area.).with lots of Indians around and many r thinking to move back but r uncertain. I came here last year with two kids. Chidlren were born in India with lots of great support system of people around and after coming here I really miss that affection,love of realitves and even servants who are still like my extended family. You rightly said variety of life that u get exposed to in India is definelty missing in US. It’s my personal opinion but people in US are in their own world of job,money,baby sitting and weekend enjoyment. They r not exposed to difficult,tough,dirty side of life much. India is extremely capable of taking hidden qualities in you to the surface like compassion, humor,patience,dealing with tough life, different personalities, adjustments etc. I am going back to India after a year and I want my children to face and realize what the world exist beyound burger,coke,car,shopping malls. In future I expect them to become proud Indians serving society in India and not as proud Indians in US makeing their own life comfortable and occassionaly missing home land and waiting parents with wet eyes.

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  17. Wyly Wade

    Wow… as I am working on figuring out the move to India. I have gone through everyone of these emotions. Why would I want to do this? What am I thinking? Are you crazy? You can’t even drink the water. All of these are questions that either I have asked myself or I have been asked. And your article sums it up very well.

    For me it is not moving back, since I have never lived in India, hell I don’t even have any Indian history other than my fiance is from there and lives there.

    Thank you for you writing

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  18. Dharani

    Loved raeding thruyour good article! You took me home for a few mins. Just book marked the page to read the other articles of yours.

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  19. Jennifer

    HI. Great blog. I am an American who has lived in India and have experienced some of the same thoughts and feelings you expressed so nicely! How long have you been there? I think it’s been at least over a year since this article was written in March 2008. Did you experience culture shock- negatively, like missing America or the lifestyle… how have you integrated your cultures?

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  20. Pingback: Neo is moving back to the US | neoIndian - Confessions of a newly returned Indian

  21. Nimesh

    I myself moved back to India this year and while reading ur article it felt like i was reading my own diary….glad tht i came across this page while searching for something (stupid)….

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  22. Sujata

    Thanks for the honest and heart felt account of your move to India Isheeta. I live in the UK with my two teen age girls. I often get the advice from family to move back to India after having lived here for 20 odd years. To be honest, there has never been a time when I haven’t thought of my life back in India and how different it is to my life here now.
    However, most people returners to India have said things similar to you. It is great to go for a holiday but ‘real’ life in India is no picnic.
    Thanks for the true picture of your move.

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  23. Pingback: On the Move: How have you absorbed culture shock? | pakedu.net, Pakistan Education Network

  24. Mark

    Wow, that was truly amazing. I was born and raised in Canada. My parents are going back to India after my younger brother ( age 11) and myself (age 15) get settled in life. They are asking me to move with them and settle in India after both of us finish University. I went to India twice. I didn’t consider it the first time since I was young
    (age 11) . The second time, I liked it a whole lot (age 15) culture, family, food, nice people, even the massive crowd on the streets! I don’t know what I should do. Should I go or not? Will I regret the decision? I love India, but should I make a permanent move? I really need people’s opinions. Please help.

    E-mail me
    markhassen93@yahoo.com

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  25. Srini

    Awesome post. Congratuations to you that you’ve been able to make the shift. To me, moving to the US only 6 years ago seems like a lifetime ago. Moving back seems like a tremendous challenge even though I spent more than two thirds of my live in India. Honestly, hats off to you. You are making me and my thoughts look really bad here :). Reading your account certainly gives me a little bit more courage to take the plunge..

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  26. Kanhiaya

    Hi,
    Really nice article I spent five years in UK after that took a decision to going back India only for my kids education..Because I think India ‘s education is best in the world.This article helped lot to me to take decision.

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  27. Prashant

    Hi,

    I really loved your article, but it didnt really discuss how you managed out here. I have been back for about 1 year and little bit now from Boston. And i spent my high school and college years abroad, so the best year youre talking about (i agree) were outside. What advice would you give someone trying to adjust here, people have their own clicks, so friends in delhi is always harder, adjusting to life out here in terms of the infrastructure is crazy. How did manage to start enjoying it out here? Any advice would help.

    Thanks,

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  28. shashi

    great article my friend!

    For those people who fear going back to India…. It has over a billion people its not some alien land it is the mother of civilization…..
    learn to live with the people around you experience their pain and suffering be great-full to the God for what he has given you …. be happy !!
    Some part of the world is rich because some one else is paying the price for it..and Asia is paying the price while west is living the riches……. but Asia and its glory will bounce back like the raging bull and the royal Indian tiger…the symbols of inner strength and determination……
    India is place from strong people who will sweat it out in their life…every thing wont be served to you on a platter….

    byeee

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  29. Astha

    Its a wonderful article.  Your thoughts and writing compliment each other.  Hope we have more people like you.

    Well done!

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  30. Shanks Seetharam

    :cry:I am from Mumbai and eat my heart out everyday living in Canada. I am in my 50s and travel every year to desh. I cried reading yr story. Yes I am a man moved to tears in more than one way about India. Greta going!

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  31. robin

    born and brought up in canada but i have this burning desire to move to india. now think I have all the facilities here in the world, all the cleaniness, job opportunities, health care but i dont care for the material world anymore i want peace of mind, i want culture, i want to see my own people, i want to experience the story of india. ive lived in canada for 29 years and all i can say is that its been 29 years of hell. maybe some will say im running away from my problems but after visiting india twice(3months and then 6month) getting married in india even my wife is not so crazy about this canadian lifestyle. i want to go back and help people in india, build the economy, make my contribution there not in countries where white people seem like they are the ones who created this modern world. i am punjabi, and punjabi’s for example will do anything to come to canada, cheat, lie, steal, murder, dupe anything and its sad.they wont let their daughters out in punjab but will surely send them all alone to a foreign country sometimes even as nannies. whenever i go to india i experience the hospitality, the culture, scenery, music, food, history, religion, not saying india is the perfect country far from it but coming from someone who pretty much had everything their whole life and is willing to leave that and live a simple life in india definetly says something. GOD BLESS.

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  32. Ramesh

    After 20 years of truly wonderful life in US, I am looking forward to moving back to India. It is going to be different. But I know it’s going to be equally wonderful. Because – I want to believe – it is not dependent on the place. It is based on you. Isheeta, you are an example of someone who can find happiness everywhere. I hope to be one too.

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  33. Chandrika

    I agree with comments above in that your blog is written very well indeed.

    However, I should like to know what action you took with the little girl.

    I’d like to think that maybe you did something positive and practical to help her and her family. If not……..

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  34. C

    Just saw you walking around in the floor… staring at people.. still.. I could feel the feeling tat “they are harmless” 🙂 Finally (hope) you are used to it after 3 Years of this blog.. 🙂

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  35. christopher

    Your balanced and well thought out words,cleary shows your upbringing. You talk and feel great. Life is what you make of it. Keep it up !

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  36. Ashish

    Isheeta…it was a good read BUT you left one story incomplete in there….you looked in the eyes of that girl in the big brown dry dusty eyes and you went numb from fingers to deep in your heart but what happened next….did you like all other said “Chalta Hai” and moved on… 😕
    ….the biggest travesty of my country is that I didnt do anything about my country; I studied in India and moved to London….I am guilty I contributed nothing to my country…and I know I won’d do anything about it….you have a chance…bring some change swthrt…

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  37. dimpl

    hi i am from ahmedabad in india.i am living in uk since last 11 years with two kids 11 and6.both of them never been to india. becasuse of some problem we are thinking to go back india. but i m worried about the elder one who is 11 spent all long years here.about his study,friends,lifestyle etc…
    some one plase give me some advice

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  38. Sarika Sharma

    Hi Isheeta,

    I just chanced upon your article after trying to research young people who have moved back to India as I’m thinking of leaving England, even though my parents live here. This was a really good read and it touched upon things I could relate to, the things that endear me to the country as well as worry me. I’ve recently switched careers from journalism to teaching and am thinking of going to India to teach. I want to go back as I feel that there is something missing in England and it’s consumer lead ways, a major part of my identity seems to be in India, just not sure how to go back to something that innately seems to be a part of me and is yet foreign too. I’d really like to get in touch with you if possible.

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  39. Jorge

    I just got back from Pune India,  after a four months business trip, although I’m happy to see my family. Im secretly depressed inside… I miss my life, the person I was, the people I met and a special someone that stole my heart.  I discovered myself there and what I was capable of doing. I love India and all it’s amazing people I miss it terribly and plan to move there in the near future. 

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