There’s a saying that “If you want to be transformed, go to India.” With its rich history, spiritual practices, colourful festivals, stunning architecture and landscapes, India is truly an incredible country you have to see at least once in your lifetime. However, feeling culture shock in India is known to be very common for Westerners, especially those visiting for the first time. Before I went on my trip, I definitely heard enough stories that made me a bit apprehensive. But I was not going to let fear prevent me from experiencing this destination that has been on my bucket list for so long. And I am so glad I went! Sure, there were things in Indian culture that surprised me, but I really appreciated those occurrences for opening my eyes to a way of life that is different than mine.
If you are feeling a bit nervous about visiting India for the first time, this post will help you get an idea of the common culture shock challenges faced by travellers and provide tips on how to adjust to them. Keep in mind that India is a big country with variation in culture depending on the region. Also, what happens to another person may not happen to you. Read these bits of advice sure, but no matter what, I encourage you to go see India for yourself.
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In India, the rules on the streets are: There are no rules. Traffic lights are only suggestions and practically no one follows them. For many western foreigners, this is the first major culture shock coming out of the airport. Seeing all sorts of vehicles dashing in every direction can be dizzying. I remember the nervous wreck I was crossing the street in New Delhi for the first time. I held on to the backpack of my local guide like a little duckling and did not dare letting go. We would take a couple steps on to the road, pass a motorbike, stop for a rickshaw, take a couple more steps, pass a couple of cars, stop, and repeat this process until we finally made it across. Although it was scary at first, by the end of my time in India, I was able to walk on the street confidently on my own. Find a local to initiate you if you can. The rest is all practice kids! 😛
I swear honking is a sport in India. People love to honk. Unlike back home where beeping your car horn at someone is considered rude and reserved for the most necessary circumstances, honking in India is a regular part of daily living. When you are in cities like Delhi or Mumbai, the constant honking noises are unavoidable. Mix that together with the sounds of humans and animals, it can get to be quite a lot. Invest in a pair of good earplugs if you are a light sleeper because there is no guarantee that it gets quieter at night.
Cows, goats, pigs, dogs, camels…You will quickly get used to seeing all sorts of animals roaming on the roads, going about their day nonchalantly. These are normal sights in India. I stopped pointing and gasping “holy cows!” after the first day because they are literally everywhere. Do not mess with the animals, especially not the monkeys. Macques-Man conflicts are becoming a real big problem in cities like Delhi. The government has actually hired employees to swat monkeys away. Imagine the title “Ape Repeller” on your resume. These little rascals would snatch things like food and cell phones from victims who are not paying attention. So stay alert while you are around monkeys, do not make eye contacts, and for the love of God, do not feed them.
Heat and Humidity
If you are not from a country with tropical climate, chances are the heat and humidity in India will feel intense. When we arrived in Mumbai in March (not even summer yet), it was 32 degrees celsius. Every time we exited an air-conditioned building, it was like walking into a wall of heat and an instant sweat fest would begin. Having said that, India is a big country with different climates in different regions. Northern India is a lot cooler and dryer than Southern India. The mountains like the Himalayas can be actually freezing cold. So make sure to research where you are going and pack accordingly. Read this article for detailed information on India seasons and climates.
Lots of People
India is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, so be ready to see people everywhere. If crowds give you anxiety, perhaps you’ll find it hard to adjust in the big cities. Do not worry though. Indian people are very friendly and hospitable. They love to talk and interact with visitors, over a cup of Masala Chai tea or not. As English is spoken in India, it is easy to communicate and make Indian friends. One of my favourite memories in India was celebrating the Holi festival with locals in Udaipur. It was incredible how many strangers would wave their hands to invite us to dance together. Although we did not know each other’s names, the amount of joy and laughs we shared while jamming out to music is something I will always remember.
Lack of personal space and privacy
If you are travelling in India as a visibly foreign person, meaning it’s clear that you are not brown, people will stare at you. They may even point at you and say something to their group. I walked on to the subway in Delhi alone on my first day in India and felt like everyone in the train cart had their eyes on my back. It can be a bit intimidating and uncomfortable. However, know that the staring stems from a place of curiosity, not hostility. It is also very common for Indians to ask for photos with foreigners. I found it quite amusing that while we were touring the Taj Mahal, so many Indian families came up to me and wanted selfies. Why little ol’ me? I’m the tourist, not the attraction here? While it’s fun to play celebrity, it does get tiring after awhile. If you are not in the mood for photos, simply decline politely and walk away.
Poverty and Wealth Contrast
Witnessing the contrast between the rich and the poor in India is shocking to many Westerners. We did a tour in Mumbai where we were taken to see the home of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. This 27 floors ultra luxurious home called Antilia is worth $1-2 billion and is in fact, the most expensive private property in the world. Right after hearing all the outrageously extravagant amenities of this house (like a snow room that spits out artificial snow to help the family cool down?), we went to walk through the Dharavi slum where people live in shanty dwellings, just a couple minutes drive away. The reality is quite in your face. The good news is that with the positive economic developments, India’s middle class is growing and the standard of living is improving. Hopefully, we will see better living conditions for everyone in the future.
Trash and Pollution
There is no sugar coating that India has a waste problem. You will often see trash piled up on the side of roads. Burning of garbage is contributing to smog in the city. Let’s face it though, pollution is a global issue we are all dealing with. So many big cities around the world are suffering from being dirty and having poor air quality. The best thing we can do as travellers and humans is to not add further to the problem. Create as less waste as possible, dispose of our trash properly, and be more environmentally conscious in general. I now bring my Lifestraw filter bottle wherever I go, so I no longer need to buy plastic water bottles. Little things like this make a difference if we all commit.
Hygiene practices in India are likely different from what you are used to at home. Don’t freak out but…public urination and defecation is a thing. Traditionally, having a latrine at home is seen as dirty and unholy, whereas going outside to take care of your business is natural and convenient. Prior to when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, just under 40 percent of the population in India had toilets at home. However, since 2014, there has been a campaign to build household toilets across India. By now in 2019, 90% of homes in India has toilets. This revolution has been so big that a Bollywood film was born from it. It is literally called “Toilet” and the film smashed the box office grossing at $19.8 million. You can watch the trailer video above.
Personally, I never really had any problems with the toilets in India and never saw any human feces on city roads. While traveling with G Adventures on the Rajasthan Tour, we always had access to clean western style toilets in our hotel rooms and the restaurants we visited. The only time we had to use squatty toilets were on the trains, but they weren’t so bad at all (Maybe we had good luck with the cleaning staff). India toilets all have a bidet sprayer, AKA a “bum gun” so you can wash your behinds, which I actually quite liked. Make sure to always bring your own tissue though, and hand sanitizer.
In India, you may witness some spiritual and religious practices for the first time ever. Every year, millions of people travel to Varanasi to see India’s holiest river: the Ganges. This river holds a significant place in the Hindu religion. People cremate their loved ones who had passed away in this river so their souls can go to heaven. These ceremonies are very raw and can be a culture shock for foreign travellers. Now, going to see these funerals has become a part of India’s tourism, and it is causing many issues. I have heard several stories about tourists behaving poorly, such as getting too close to the burning pyres, or taking photos of grieving family members. It is one problem to be close-minded, but another problem to be way too comfortable. Please, if you are at a religious ceremony in India, remain respectful.
Finding the way in India
It can be overwhelming trying to navigate around India. There are so many people and cars on the road all the time. Taxis and tuk tuk drivers may try to scam you by telling you where you are going no longer exist and instead drive you to a place where they get a commission for bringing guests. So frustrating! Luckily, the metro in big cities like Delhi is very convenient. There is also Uber or Ola so you know what you will pay before you get into a car. For long distance travel, I recommend the Make My Trip app for finding cheap flights in India. For the majority of my journey, I travelled by rail with G Adventures and I was so glad I did. The train was a lot more comfortable than I expected. And being on an organized tour meant that I did not have to deal with the hassle of booking train tickets myself. If you are travelling independently, consult this article on how to make Indian railway reservations.
Touts and Beggars
“Taxi ma’am?” “Saree ma’am?” “Kama sutra book ma’am?” I can’t even remember all the random things people tried to sell me on the streets. You will have to deal with touts coming up to you on the streets in India. While I have heard the advice to say “nai” which means no in Hindi, I think the touts often take your “no”s as a sign that you are engaging since you responded and they will keep following you. I have found the most effective way is to simply not react and walk away. Sometimes, the hustlers are sneaky and will start with a seemingly friendly conversation. They will tell you some interesting or helpful information. And once you give a positive reaction, they will ask for a tip. Don’t fall for that.
Also, do not entertain the beggars. Once you give money to one, you may find yourself bombarded. The hardest ones to ignore are the kids since their little faces really tug on your heartstrings. However, our guide had told us that kids in India do receive subsidies by the government for education and clothes. So many of these kids on the street are actually made to beg for money by their parents. Tourists are sadly seen as easy targets.
Having said all this though, there are genuine people who try to interact with tourists without expecting anything. Once, I asked a tuk-tuk driver for direction and he told me honestly that the place I was looking for was walkable. He ended up offering me a free ride since it was only 2 minutes away. And because of his honesty, in the end, I gave him a tip anyway.
Knowing where and what to eat
Mention “Delhi belly” to any traveller in India and you will scare the crap out of them (maybe literally 😛 ). It is common for foreigners to get stomach problems in India. Figuring out where and what is safe to eat can be an intimidating task. I am going to humblebrag here that I ate Indian food every day in India and never got sick. Oh ya, stomach of steel *flex But really, I am super grateful to have a great local guide who supervised my food journey. Travelling on a group tour with G Adventures meant that we always ate in trustworthy and delicious restaurants.
Another experience I recommend is visiting a home chef. Authenticook is a platform that lets travellers cook and dine with a local family, right in their home. I did this in Delhi on my first day in India and loved it. I got to get over my fear of eating Indian food in a safe setting, and met my “Indian mama” who is an amazing chef.
Fun fact: Did you know that some Indian dishes you eat in your home country are not really from India? The popular Lamb Madras is actually a dish invented in Britain.
Prices in India
If you are purchase something in India, the chances are you are being charged a “foreigners price”. For example, the price to enter the Taj Mahal for a domestic tourist is 50 rupees but 1100 rupees for a foreign tourist. When you come from a country that emphasizes equality, this discriminatory price may feel very unfair to you. You can shake your fist indignantly, but that’s how things work here. With things like entrance tickets to monuments, it cannot be helped. But when it comes to physical things like clothes and trinkets, you can haggle! Never accept the first price that the seller demands. My rule of thumb is to offer 60% of the initial asking price, and I’ll usually end up with a good bargain. Really uncomfortable with haggling? Get a local friend or guide to haggle on your behalf. They will always get better results than us anyways.
Dress in India
No matter how hot it is in India, you will notice that girls tend to be covered up (the beach-y regions like Goa are more relaxed with this). Don’t be that tourist who wears short shorts and tube top, and stick out like a sore thumb. Modesty doesn’t have to equal boring, however. Take some notes from the Indian ladies. They are very well dressed. Indian is the first country I’ve been to where traditional clothing is worn for regular daily living. I absolutely loved seeing all the women on the streets in their colourful sarees. So fabulous!
Safety in India
Lastly, I cannot write a post about what to expect in India without addressing the question “Is India safe?” More specifically, “Is India safe for women?” Many female travellers are scared to go to India because we are told that it is a dangerous country. I myself was really nervous prior to departure. After travelling through India, I can honestly say that I did not feel any more unsafe than other destinations I’ve been to. When you take proper precautions, you can prevent the chances that any bad things will happen. Some of my biggest advice for staying safe in India are:
Protect your belongings. Get an anti-theft bag and never leave your valuables unwatched.
Do not go out alone at night. And don’t walk down dark alleyways. Duh.
Cover up. We tourists get enough stares as it is. You don’t want to draw any more attention to yourself.
Ally yourself with local friends/guides. I had an amazing experience travelling with G Adventures in India. The amount of knowledge our guide JD shared was amazing. I highly recommend this tour if you are looking for an adventure with a cool squad.
Get insurance. At the end of the day, you never know what may happen. I strongly recommend purchasing insurance so you can travel with peace of mind. My company of choice is World Nomad, which has a very user-friendly system and great customer service.
Related Read: World Nomad Travel Insurance Review
Culture Shock in India: Summary
Well that was a long list of possible culture shocks in India. Please know that this list is not meant to put you off from visiting India, but instead to arm you with information so that you can be well prepared mentally and physically for your adventure. While India has its quirks, it has so much charm and beauty waiting to be explored. So go hop on that plane and get ready for the a transformative journey!
If you have different views about India, please feel free to drop a comment below.
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- Read up on the best advice: Lonely Planet: India Travel Guide
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