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Thanksgiving in India

Buckhead Patch writer shares her experience

Namaste! (Hello, in Hindi) More importantly, Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

Divyam Agarwal February 11, 2012 at 01:07 PM
India in terms of food and delicacies has its own uniqueness. Being an Agrarian State, it produces crops and spices which are appreciated by foreign travellers, whether it was the famous Portuguese traveller Vasco Da Gama or any present traveller. India is a secular State, and it does not prohibit any person from practising its religion. Maybe you were unaware of the fact that the Morning Prayer is a must for the Muslim community as their day starts after that. Every state in India is not a metropolitan city, and Dehradun is one them. It is agreeable that the traffic is berserk in the city and vegetable carts and animals grazing on the road are noticeable, but every state is not the same. Your blog tells a lot about the country and your views are well accepted but as a citizen of that country it is my fundamental duty to clear any defamatory misconception about it. I hope you visit India in a few years and see some more progress and send a new message to your readers.
Raajdhruv February 14, 2012 at 04:27 AM
No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive......
HSelden February 15, 2012 at 09:46 PM
Nothing in this article was insulting. Nothing was defamatory. I have lived in India and thought it was a respectful and thought provoking article. For an American to miss things about his or her country and express it openly does not make them arrogant any more than it makes you arrogant to miss things about yours if you were abroad. Just because she is writing about a festival in her country does not mean that she is not enjoying the festivals that India has to offer. And she explicitly calls Indian food "scrumptious". What are you people so upset about? The fact that you are reacting like this is quite revealing. The thanksgivings were based on simple observations. If you find observations insulting, you are laying your own conclusions on top of them to create subjectivity. There is not a note of complaint in the article, just of perspective. There is no tone of cultural exclusivity. In fact, I think it sets these people apart as pretty open minded to even seek to live abroad. Stop trying to see the worst in what others say. Appreciate this person's cultural tastes as they are seeking to appreciate yours instead of demanding a specific opinion. THAT is demanding exclusivity and the opposite of Indian secularism.
Azura Bellaire June 28, 2012 at 07:00 AM
There is a difference between showing your 'perspective' and just complaining. Showing perspective is saying that despite all the cultural shock I have been through, brushing my teeth with bottled water should be the last of my problems. I should to not only be thankful for having being blessed with so much, but I should also try an understand why the world is not as blessed as I am and how I can help change that. But instead of doing that, this writer decided to sit and list out all the things that went 'wrong' for her. It's easy for any of us to complain when we're put to test outside our comfort zones but the real test is in having been to a new place and appreciating their culture instead of comparing it to your own. Ofcourse India will be a complete alternate universe to that of the USA. The USA is a developed nation which uses the resources of Developing nations like India which is probably the reason why they are still in the condition that they are. If she was really looking for an 'experience' and she was really 'cultured', should not have had time to complain but instead used it to soak up the cultural diversity and appreciate the kaliedoscopic experience.
Azura Bellaire June 28, 2012 at 07:00 AM
And lastly, categorizing a prayer call to noise pollution? A little tip for the writer, if you're going to make such bold statements without thinking twice, you're going to get yourself killed someday and it won't be a hero's death. If you have no regards toward life and religion, keep it to yourself but do not go around complaining about things of which you do not have a clue. Oh, and HSeldon, clearly we weren't the only ones seeing the 'worst' in a situation. After all, you should ask the writer of this article. She is clearly experienced in that field.

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