Namaste! (Hello, in Hindi) More importantly, Happy Thanksgiving! My husband Dean and I are living in Dehradun, India. this semester for his teaching position through the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange program.
Indians have so many national holidays (Hinduism does have 300-million-odd gods), including Gandhi’s birthday, Teachers Day, Childrens Day and national independence day, that it is rare to have a full week of school here. We have enjoyed each holiday with an adventurous day trip or by joining in the religious ceremonies and traditional festivities (including scrumptious holiday meals).
But now, in the cold dry air of late November, it is our turn to celebrate! It is the great American holiday of Thanksgiving, (and we don’t get the day off work, go figure). But our spirits are lifted with mere thoughts of family, friends, turkey, stuffing, gravy and sweet potato casserole.
No Indian can quite understand the comfortable, warming traditions of Thanksgiving, just as I could never have guessed the noise and brightness of the Hindu festival, Diwali. Living so far from my home country this year during Thanksgiving, I have a heightened awareness of the aspects of America for which I am truly grateful.
Thanks to the Fulbright program and our own determination to make good use of our five-month life-warp into Indian living, my husband and I are fully immersed in the culture. In fact, we’ve adopted the “Just say yes” motto to ensure we do not shy away from any encounters India has to offer.
We have since learned that the Indian culture, inside and out, could not be more opposite from the typical American culture. Some differences are surface level and entertaining. For example, cars drive on the left side of the road (or whichever side has fewer potholes and no idle cows in it). Now that it’s cold, I am shocked to discover that women wear socks with open-toed shoes, and even have special socks made to fit into sandals with toe straps. A favorite breakfast food in North India is pakora – fried vegetables with a side of ketchup for dipping (think Varsity onion rings). To cover up gray hairs, older men and women dye their hair red with henna. These are just a few of the quirky lifestyle differences we’ve encountered here.
Other qualities of the culture stream from deep in the hearts of the people. For example, the philosophy of “the guest is God,” originally passed down through spoken Sanskrit, when put into practice, has opened doors to me and my husband here and provided us with new friends, warm welcomes, and many warm cups of tea (chai). But there is another universal proverb that has largely guided our experience in India — “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Merely living away from home has clarified in my mind the vibrant, special qualities I love about my country and smaller community of Atlanta.
I am newly thankful for the eco-activists of America, the nation-wide littering fines, emission laws and water purification systems. Behind the often unattainable “green” building requirements and popular trend of abusing the use of the recycle symbol, there is a core value instilled across the country of keeping our land, water and air clean.
In India, dirt is matted with trash, so that chip bags and scraps of plastic actually compose the ground we walk on. Dogs, cows and pigs graze on various dripping, malodorous heaps of trash on the street sides. I am thankful for the weekly garbage-collection in Buckhead, and the strong-willed neighbors who pick up others’ trash from the roads on their afternoon walks. I am thankful for Piedmont Park.
The air after the monsoon in Dehradun is a dust bowl of dirt, smog and smoke (the smoke comes from organized piles of burning trash along the roads — the popular method of making the trash disappear). The city is in a valley at the foothills of the Himalayas. During the rainy season I could stand on the topmost balcony of the school and see two layers of mountain peaks gallantly towering in the distance. Now the sky is white and the smog so thick that I can’t see any hills at all. I am thankful for Atlanta’s (yes Atlanta’s) blue skies and clean air, which allow me to see Stone Mountain from 20 miles away on I-85, and the architectural beauty of our skyline all the way from the airport. Who knew Atlanta was such a clean place?
I am thankful for the widespread and well-functioning water purification systems in the United States. Water there is so clean I can drink it straight out of the tap! Just try brushing your teeth and cleaning your toothbrush with bottled water for four months and you will appreciate clean city water, too.
I am even thankful for Georgia state traffic laws. In India, the only commonly enforced traffic law is for vehicles to yield to grazing cattle, which share the road along with vegetable carts, bicycles and pedestrians. Cars swerve around each other at any given point and speed, regardless of the lane or flow of traffic. Horn honking is the common means of avoiding crashes while getting from point A to point B. The foreign pedestrian is left to walk in a constant state of fear. A tour guide once told us you need three things to drive in India: good horn, good brakes, and good luck. I am thankful for sidewalks, and the organized flow of traffic in Atlanta, congested though it might be.
The students at our school, Welham Girls’ School, have lessons about preventing “noise pollution” and at first I thought it was a joke. Now I know better. The house we live in is in a triple threat zone sandwiched between a busy street, a public day school and a construction site.
Drilling, cement rolling, hammering, honking, shouting children, basketball dribbling, metal chairs screeching against pavement, not to mention far-off stray dogs barking and 5 a.m. Muslim prayers, all leave us helpless to the pandemonium of our surroundings. I’m thankful for the peace of coffee shops in America, and the popular inclination toward “peace and quiet.” I will never again complain about the steady whir of traffic outside our condo on North Peachtree Road.
Every culture has its customs that are bound to be assailing to the foreign visitor. This year I am thankful for perspective. I’m thankful for eyes to see the beautiful parts of my own culture that might not have otherwise appreciated. Thanksgiving is a day for being thankful, but I am thankful for a season of new adventures that has allowed me to learn what I am truly thankful for.