Fifteen years after her first visit to the south of India, Alexandra Bret, came back as an exchange student, learning Hindi, at the age of 45. She decided to spend a little more time in India, after finishing her Bachelor’s degree in Delhi, to better understand how the country and the Indian society works. She teaches French and also works as a consultant for a cultural project based in Paris.
What were your first impressions of the country, 15 years ago and last year, when you arrived for the second time?
The first time I was here was 15 years ago, there were very few expectations. This time, however, the first thoughts I had was this is a very noisy country with a lot of mess, and people everywhere, all the time, but it is also a country filled with colour! There are lots of curious people, and usually, this curiosity is quite benevolent.
India is a country that can make you experience extreme emotions. There are days when you will love India, and days when you will completely hate it.
Would you say that it’s changed over the course of living here?
Of course! It has changed— what I said previously pretty much remains the same. But yes it has changed because now I have the experience of living here for almost a year. So, I got used to a few things. Now, I would say that I don’t even hear the noise anymore, except when they keep horning when they drive, and this is something I am not sure I can get used to.
Culture shock is a struggle every expat goes through, what was your biggest one?
Maybe to live, as a woman, in Delhi was my biggest cultural shock. Sometimes when I go out and when it’s time to go to the metro station, out of habit, I would light a cigarette. I did that here once, and immediately knew that it wasn’t a very good idea. I could see how people were looking at me, especially men, because I think they thought that I was disrespectful towards them.
For me, the biggest shock sometimes, even in big cities like Delhi, is how women act. The place of a woman is different here, in comparison to Europe, and it’s quite difficult for people like me when you come from a country where girls have the freedom to go out alone and dance, etc., and feel safe. And that was the most difficult thing to adapt to. When I go out in Delhi in order to meet some friends and have dinner in a restaurant at 11 o’clock in the night, I call an Uber, but won’t wait for the Uber outside as first it’s not safe, and secondly, people would think that it’s normal to accompany me as I am a woman and I need to be protected. Therefore, the most important cultural shock is the relation between men and women, how women should act, and how their behaviour should be. For me, this is the biggest difference I had experienced here.
How did you get over it?
You don’t get over it, but you get used to it. I could not imagine acting like a Parisian as I do in Paris now that I live in India. So, I try to act as Indians do, because I think it’s a question of respect to adapt to the culture. However, it doesn’t mean I accept those things that happen to women in India, just as you don’t have to accept the wrong things happening in the world.
What is the best and worst thing about living in India?
Actually, I think the best and the worst thing are two faces of the same coin, and this is their conception of time. Yesterday, an Indian was explaining to me that if we have an appointment, coming 10 minutes late for it is not considered a big deal. The people here will take their time to do things and of course when you’re not used to it; it is a cultural shock. You might think that if they are late, they’re just being rude but if you get used to it, it could also work as a margin time for you. People just take it easy here, and I think if I do the same, maybe my day will be less stressful.
If I say I’m going to do finish this, at this particular moment, it will be finished at that moment. It was very difficult for me at the beginning, in India, because people said yes, yes it will be done, but when? You have to get used to this kind of flexibility. Moreover, this flexibility can also be a benefit for you, this doesn’t mean that you can’t be firm. In some situations, if you really need something, you have to ask firmly, and if you don’t, you can get exhausted by waiting for things you want.
Do you ever get homesick?
Of course, I get homesick, and especially for food. I love Indian food, but I miss French food. I crave cheese and real chocolate which obviously you can find in the market but which is very expensive as it is imported. There is some good Indian chocolate as well, but they are as expensive as imported chocolate. I miss my friends as I am not able to converse in my language. Now, of course, you have WhatsApp, but sometimes I feel like sharing things with the people I am close to face to face.
I would say I also miss the silence.
Do you have any advice for newbies?
I would advise not to struggle with the conception of time, rather, try to accept whatever comes your way. Sometimes things won’t go as fast as we want or at the required pace, we are used to. Also, yes, we can be homesick, but I manage because I try to think though I don’t have what I want, there are other things to enjoy. And last but not least, take the time to maintain good health. There are many good doctors in Delhi who are as competent and good as there are in Europe. Even if you have a little problem and you don’t recover, don’t hesitate to go and see a doctor because they know what happens here. Take time to rest to get used to the weather, to the noise because Delhi can be easily an exhaustive city, but if you take time and protect yourself, you can really enjoy it.