People are often baffled to hear that I enjoy being in India more than the USA. Why would I prefer to live in the chaos, poverty, uncleanliness, and corruption of India over the progressive, convenient, and ubiquitously air conditioned USA? There are many reasons for this, which I have never been able to fully articulate, but one of the main ones struck me as soon as I landed into London airport from Kolkata recently: Help. In the civilized and structured society of the developed world, a backpacking spirit, who flies by the seat of my pants like me, suddenly feels stifled to ask anyone for help. A question I would ask easily to anyone in India, such as “Bhaiyya(Brother), do you have an adapter plug for US plugs?” without a second thought - I don’t feel comfortable to ask anyone in this airport. Because here, I have the added stress of thinking about if that is a “weird” question to ask a random stranger, and how I might be perceived as a result.
While in India on my last visit, I realized the freedom with which I carry myself. I can look lost, I can look like a fool, I can look sad, I don’t have to seem confident with everyone – and it is acceptable. I am just a normal human being with problems like everyone else, and I don’t need to hide behind my plastic smile. There are people who are much more unfortunate than me just trying to survive there, and - unlike the US where sociodemographic classes are more insulated – the poverty-stricken are everywhere in my range of vision. Simple survival becomes the goal surrounding me – not comparing life to others of my same social class and constantly striving to make it look better than them. India understands the fundamental need for survival, and most importantly, never takes it for granted. India understands the crises of leading everyday life, which we are perhaps sheltered from in developed countries. And maybe for that reason, it knows the value of community and involvement in eachother’s lives. It knows how to cry out for help from neighbors, something most of us in America have forgotten. It knows the pains and humiliations one must sometimes undergo to survive – that pain is in the eyes of everyone. This striving for survival, and the failures faced along the way, are nothing to be ashamed of in India. We can simply live, and worrying what people think - an utterly pointless exercise - is the last thing on our minds.
In developed countries, I believe we have also “developed” a need to worry about useless things - perhaps for lack of a better option. Our lives are usually so smooth and convenient, that we are left with nothing substantial or life-threatening to really complain or worry about. With all this idle time on our hands and no real crises facing us, we magnify our existing shortcomings and problems and develop a new goal of making our situation even better somehow- usually by being seen as better in the eyes of others. Then, if we are unable to achieve that goal to the degree that we want, we experience feelings of depression and anxiety – forgetting to be happy for how privileged and blessed we are in the first place.
This is not to say that India is a perfect place to live for everyone, or that the USA is completely devoid of soul and without hope. We can live with the same eyes in the USA by stopping in our tracks once in a while to realize what we have– and by regularly exposing ourselves to people outside of our social class and ethnicity. By subjecting ourselves as much as possible to that which is different from us. For me, that has been the most eye-opening gift in my life - and India, my greatest teacher.