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Cultural Sojourn in India


Sky view of Indian rooftops
Experiencing Incredible Hospitality

During Fall semester I traveled to Ahmedabad, India (and also Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Cape Town, South Africa) as part of SIT's "Cities in the 21st Century" International Honors Program.

Firstly, I'll define what Diwali is for those who don't know: it's a massive holiday celebrating the new year and is also known as the Festival of Lights. There are a ton of traditions associated with this, and for the school children in India, it means 15 days off from school!

A picture of my host mother
My host family mother preparing for the Festival of Lights

I should also talk a bit about my host family before I explain what we did for the holiday: I live with 2 other guys from my program in a house where there were already 10 people. Our hosts are the Bankers, a couple in their mid-40s with their 13-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter; on the second floor of the house is our host dad's brother and his family and our host grandparents. Our host family is dalit, meaning they are of an ex-untouchable caste - but thanks to affirmative action policies our host grandfather was able to become a high-ranking officer in the State Bank of India, so my family is also probably considered upper-middle class.

The whole family gathered on the front porch Wednesday night to celebrate the coming of the new year with fireworks. For hours we set off firecracker after firecracker - a ton of fun! The unfortunate part of this was that every other family in the city was doing the same thing. By around 11:30 p.m., you could barely see across the street from all of the smoke, and when we finally got to sleep the constant noise of explosions made it really hard to get any sleep.

The next day, Thursday, we awoke to find the house decorated with intricate sand designs. Then the visiting started. I would describe this day as a sort of like trick-or-treating meets Thanksgiving - each family has visiting hours of sorts where people from the neighborhood and family stop by to enjoy some sweets, tea, and conversation. We went with our host family to at least 7 or 8 houses on our street, respectfully eating a little something at each place and drinking tea.

A colorful rangoli made out of brightly colored sands celebrates Diwali

It was good that we were so caffeinated by the end of the day because at night we went to visit family in a different neighborhood. Our host family, as I said, is of a low caste - and as the rare exception of people who have moved up in social class, many of their family and friends lived in very different conditions in a neighborhood called Asarwa Chawl. (A chawl is a type of settlement that the government calls a slum, but isn't exactly informal: the houses have brick walls and have been there for decades, but the streets are more like a small network of random alleyways. The massive density means services like sewage or fire protection are incredibly difficult to provide.)

In the chawl, I think I had some of the most incredible hospitality I ever received. 

With our host parents, one of my roommates and I visited about a dozen different extended relatives, with our host father as a translator. While we got the tea and treats like we had received earlier that day, we also got a somewhat unexpected gift: money. The first time it happened, we were with a very elderly couple who lived in a two-room, somewhat open-air home (common in this neighborhood). Although it was only 10 rupees, I felt really bad taking money from these people, since I was this American who had flown all over the world and these people didn’t even have drinkable tap water; something about them offering me money just felt wrong.

A selfie with a cow in Old City

After being told it would be disrespectful to refuse, I took the money and repeated this uncomfortable process a few more times in other houses. Later on, in talking to my program’s country coordinator, I found out that it’s a tradition to hand money down by generation on Diwali as a form of gift giving. This explains all the money I saw being exchanged during the celebrations—our host mom would pay a younger adult some money when we entered their house, and then someone older than us would hand us money as a gift, and then if children were with us they got the money instead of us.

We also saw plenty of other traditional aspects of culture that we probably wouldn’t have seen anywhere else during our time in India. For example, we saw how our host mother and other married women would cover their heads and hide their faces from the elder man of the household, even if they were having a conversation with one another. 

Overall, the night was overwhelming. It was a lot to take in: thousands of years of cultural tradition manifesting itself; the inequality between these people, my host family, and myself; the massive amount of hospitality and joy shared with us by strangers we had never met and would likely never meet again; and the constant self-reflection on all of that the whole time. Needless to say, I was exhausted by the time we got back home. 

It’s experiences like I had on Diwali that remind me why I chose to study abroad—and not take a “party your way through Europe” route. In just a few hours I was able to learn so much more about a country’s culture, urban planning challenges, and hope for the future than I think I could get in a semester in the classroom. 

Going Abroad
India
Architecture, Art & Planning
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