A little over a week and a half ago we landed in Delhi to begin the 2018 ACE India program. After collecting our bags, a group of us were warmly greeted by both our lovely SIT program leaders and a heavy sheet of humidity that waited for us just beyond the New Delhi airport walls. As we stepped out those doors, I could feel my body slowly awaken from the blaring horns and acute new smells that floated through the air. By the time we reached the curb, my mind was fully alert as it tried to register the rush of people, cars, stray dogs, motorcycles mounted by entire families, and the single cow that all recklessly wove about through the streets. The city was fiercely alive even in the deepest hours of the night. All I remember thinking before falling into a day-long, jet-lag induced fog, was how unfamiliar those first few moments felt. Little did I know that what I would observe and experience over the next ten days would both validate and ultimately challenge my initial, shocked response to the new world I had just stepped into.
Coming from a Western culture that is constantly being reshaped by the season’s chicest trend, cutting-edge technology, and the newest food fad, I imagined it would be quite refreshing to immerse in a place that prides itself not only on advancement, but also on such deeply rooted tradition. During our first couple days in New Delhi, our program leaders graciously answered all of our questions and did their best to educate us on the norms and expectations of Delhi’s predominantly Hindu way of life. We began our orientation discussion over our first taste of delicious Indian food. While in the days since, our meals have become progressively spicier as our stomachs acclimated to a bit more heat, most spreads have predominantly consisted of rice, lentils, paneer, roti bread, and yogurt to cool the spices down.
As we stepped out those doors, I could feel my body slowly awaken from the blaring horns and acute new smells that floated through the air. By the time we reached the curb, my mind was fully alert as it tried to register the rush of people, cars, stray dogs, motorcycles mounted by entire families, and the single cow that all recklessly wove about through the streets. The city was fiercely alive even in the deepest hours of the night.
First, we talked fashion. While men have a bit more freedom when it comes to clothing style, women are expected to dress conservatively, in either longer tunic style ‘kurtas,’ with pants or leggings underneath, or for more formal occasions, they drape themselves with three-piece ‘saris,’ These garments are known for their vibrant colors and intricate beading. If a woman is married, it is common for her to demonstrate her commitment to her husband by garnishing her body with gifted jewelry, often times in the form of toe rings, as well as a red dot marked on her forehead with makeup. Next, we dove into a lengthy discussion of the Hindu caste system and how, still today, one’s familial social standing has the power to determine what job he or she may take as well as who they can marry.
With every new topic we discussed, from gender roles to attitudes on public health and sanitation, I started to truly feel the deviation between Western and traditional Eastern cultures. This distanced feeling was only widened by our first trip to one of New Delhi’s most popular markets: Lajpat Nagar. As we set out to complete a scavenger hunt written for us by our SIT staff, we wandered around the bustling streets seeking out help from shop workers and fellow shoppers. Without a local guide as a translator, our efforts to obtain directions or any other aid was mostly futile. It was at this point I started to think, that maybe no matter how traditionally we dressed or where in the city we were living, if we could not communicate, then perhaps it would be impossible to truly connect with the children we would be working with and understand the culture we would be immersed in for the coming weeks.
With this, I attempted to commit a few, very simple phrases to memory: ‘namaste,’ meaning hello or goodbye; ‘shukriya,’ meaning thank you; and ‘aapka naam Kya hai?,’ meaning ‘what is your name?’
Even still, with just the three phrases I knew and their limited English, there was still more than enough common ground for the kids and ACE coaches to share a laugh over our painfully off-beat melody in music class or a communal cheer over an impressive volleyball rally in gym.
The next couple days showed me how much more complicated and nuanced connection can be than simply a shared language. At the DAV school, we were able to interact with the children both in their physical education as well as in their music and dance classes. Though DAV is an English medium school, the majority of the younger classes still spoke Hindi. Even still, with just the three phrases I knew and their limited English, there was still more than enough common ground for the kids and ACE coaches to share a laugh over our painfully off-beat melody in music class or a communal cheer over an impressive volleyball rally in gym. However, the highlight of the entire week was undoubtedly when we joined in on their choreographed dance to “Despacito.” It was in this moment, as everyone in the room was breaking down to a song full of lyrics in neither of our native languages, when I realized that there are certain values that transcend across even the most challenging language barriers.
No matter the social structure, fashion, religion, race of a given culture, we all seek very similar things; whether that be stability, camaraderie, love, peace, prosperity, or in the case of us and the DAV kids, simply the desire to laugh and have a good time. During this past week, I am grateful to have witnessed the kind of olive branch that art, sport, and “Mr. Worldwide” himself can provide in connecting even the most apparently distant cultures.