Let’s Go Fly a Kite

Being in India, it’s hard to remember that we are in the winter months; the average temperature here is 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius)! Even so, people all across India have been celebrating the passing of the winter solstice. Each state (or even each individual family) celebrates the end of winter differently so I can only speak to the way things are done in Hyderabad. Here, people generally observe the Hindu festival Sankranti by flying kites and eating sweet treats. There are some other more religious components as well but, as an outsider, I couldn’t catch the nuance and symbolism of the holiday. Still, I was able to fly some kites and have some amazing Laddu.

My friend and I got to the parade grounds in the afternoon when most people still had their kites in the air. It had been forever since I had seen a single kite in the air, let alone a couple dozen. Even without wind, people had kites flying two to three stories in the air. They made it look so graceful, so effortless, so serene. And then we tried.

It would be an understatement to say that we were terrible. We Americans had no kite flying experience whatsoever and it showed. At one point I was more wound up in kite string than the spindle. After about fifteen minutes of straight up struggle, a nice couple took pity on us and taught us the basics. Pro-tip: when there is no wind, you need to create your own gusts by constantly tugging at the kite—simply throwing it upwards does absolutely nothing…

                 

Anyway, after our kite tutorial, we started to have a good chat with our new mentors. After weeks of mostly being around other American exchange students, it felt good to be talking to people who were actually from the country.  We talked about cultural differences in dance, food, education, you name it. One thing led to another and, soon, our friends decided to escort us through the nearby sweets festival. There they acted as translators between us and the vendors, often scoring us some free samples in the process. At one point, they even helped us break away from a crowd of people wanting to take our picture (yes, that is a thing and I will write a whole blog post about it later). It was incredibly kind and generous.

My new pals!

We ended our time at the festival by watching paper lanterns being lifted into the night. Wherever one was launched, a large crowd would circle around just to watch the glowing fire be set into the sky. According to our new friends, these flaming paper orbs are an extreme fire hazard (that’s something they certainly don’t mention in Disney’s Tangled). But in that moment, I didn’t care. It was just so incredibly beautiful.

After the festival we all went to get dinner together and continued to spend the night swapping stories about each other’s cultures. From the fun activities, to the good food, to the great people, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend an evening abroad.  Sankranti 2018 was a night I will never, ever forget.

My biggest take-away from all of this is that I could have just spent the day failing at kite flying. I am not an extremely social person and I usually cling to the golden rule of “stranger danger”. But I didn’t do that at the festival. Instead, I met new people, asked questions, and learned SO much more than I ever could on my own.  This reminds me that it is not enough to ”just be yourself” when abroad; you have to be willing to grow.

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.