No Meat, No Problem

I have been a vegetarian for most of my life. I’m not sure why—no one is—but it always seemed to suit me. In the last decade or so, as the diet has become more popular at home, being a vegetarian has become incredibly easy. Still, there are so many unnecessary stereotypes about vegetarians in the States (I’m sure some folk are even annoyed that I am even talking about this in the first place).  At best, I’ve been called weird, optimistic, and naïve.  At worst, I’ve been called ridiculous, stupid, and over-emotional. Why? Because Americans mostly view vegetarianism and veganism as fad diets and, so, there isn’t a whole lot of respect for plant-based eating. In India, however, things are completely different.

Because of India’s cultural roots in Hinduism, Jainism, and other religions with dietary restrictions, vegetarianism is a completely normal diet in the country. In fact, if you don’t mention otherwise, most people will assume you don’t eat meat. I knew this coming in and, of course, it played a huge role in my decision to come to India. Still, until I got here, I didn’t realize just how normal it was to be meat-free. Imagine, a Chili’s American Bar and Grill with two menu pages of vegetarian entrees. I almost didn’t believe it when I saw it.

This is a complete shift from what I am used to back home. Though it isn’t hard to be meat-free in the States anymore, I always feel like I need to double-check if I can eat something. Meat gets snuck into everything (I am looking RIGHT at you Bacon Bits) and restaurants rarely serve more than one vegetarian option. I understand why America is this way; there are so many factors that have lead to the meat-and-potatoes life. But India doesn’t have that history. In so many ways, it is clear that their culture was never built around eating meat.

For instance, instead of noting whether a food is vegetarian, most Indian menus will note if a food is NOT vegetarian. It’s a subtle difference, but it specifically marks vegetarianism as the rule—not the exception. Also, there is a lot less meat served in general. My dining hall only serves one meat dish per meal, if even. For the first time in my life I don’t feel the need to be on the defensive about my diet. In this way, I am actually more comfortable in India than I am in America. I never expected that.

Again, I know a whole post about vegetarianism is not for everyone. It just isn’t the “American way”. But there hasn’t been anything more striking to me about my host culture that how easy it has been for me to eat. There is something about sharing a meal that brings people together and being able to participate in meals fully has been such an affirming thing for me. I can already tell the reverse culture shock is going to be rough. Until then though, I’ll be enjoying some of the best food I’ve ever had.

Fresh samosas at tea time.
Chaat–a popular Indian street food
A typical lunch at Tagore International House dining hall.

My First Assignment: Getting to Class

 

Before I left for Hyderabad, India I did everything I could to brace myself for a good deal of culture shock. I was prepared for the food to be different, I was prepared to wear more conservative clothing, and I was even prepared for the wild traffic. What I was NOT prepared for, however, was the way Indian culture views time and scheduling.

 

I could spot the difference between America’s pre-planned culture and India’s more relaxed vibe as soon as I began to register for classes. Unlike American schools such as Hope, Indian students do not necessarily know their schedules before they arrive on-campus. In fact, they might not know what classes will be offered, when the classes will occur, or where the classes will meet until a week or so into the start of the semester. Rather than have a distinctive schedule in this time, students just audit classes when they can and form a schedule out of habit rather than written confirmation.

 

As someone who writes “make a new to-do list” in all of her to-do lists, this system has been somewhat difficult for me. I keep finding myself asking for hard deadlines and due-dates even though I know they don’t exist—it’s like a compulsion and I am not the only one who is obsessed with time. All the Americans in the CIEE program are stressed out and no amount of being told “that’s just the way things work here” seems to ease our nerves.

 

What DOES make things easier is knowing the Indian values that created this sense of time. When my classmates and I expressed our frustrations with scheduling, our program director reminded us that India is not a documented culture like the United States. Basically, India values face-to-face conversations far more than they value anything written down. In their system, relationships are the basis of communication and I really admire that.

 

What this has taught me is that I need to be willing to embrace my discomfort. Sure, I may cringe at the idea of a loose schedule now, but I am excited to see what it teaches me about myself. Until then however, I will just have to go with the flow.