When we first moved to India, I read a book that said something to this effect: Anything you say about India that is true, the opposite can also be true.* I can neither confirm nor deny this assertion, but it certainly bears weight in this incredible country filled with contradictions and complexities. Certainly, when you unite a billion-odd people from different tribes, tongues and cultures under the banner and flag of a single country, there will be more exceptions to the rule. Regardless, it makes me wary of making sweeping cultural statements about this lovely place and people, gracious enough to host bumbling me. So I will tread gently and probably imperfectly as I reflect on a place that has been home to us for the past six-plus years.
First, a confession: I have not always loved living here. In fact, upon arrival, I proceeded to experience a culture shock so violent I thought surely we had made a grave mistake in moving here. I cried every day for a month. For the remaining 11 months of that year, I only cried on alternate days. Kidding. But not really. It did not help that I was newly pregnant and hormonal, I had two small children and it was Christmas. Everything felt foreign. I could not see beauty. I could not hear music. I could not find light.
In retrospect, violent culture shock was an incredible gift to me. I come from a country and culture whose primary idol is individualism. Upon moving here, one of the first cultural realities to slap me across the face was India’s real understanding of community. This was something I did not love upon my first (or second, or third or…) encounter. Some people might call it nosiness, but the truth is, it's love. And my little portion of India does community like nobody’s business.
In a way, I have discovered the true meaning of community by contrasting the way India does community with the way my country of origin does it. Community is a concept that is rather en vogue and somewhat contrived in the United States right now. Community in America is twinkle lights, backyard barbecues and kids that go to the same homeschool co-op. Community is doing half marathons together and celebrating each other’s natural home births. Community is often finding like-minded or like-lifestyle people and doing some choice (usually fun) parts of life together. These pleasantries, while lovely and fun and downright pleasant, are not the essence of community. And while community is not less than these, it is so much more.
Robert Putnam expounds on America’s declining social capital and the collapse of American community in his 1995 essay (which later became a book, in 2000) called “Bowling Alone.” He notes that while the number of people who bowl has increased over the past 50 years, the number of people who bowl in leagues has significantly declined. In other words, we are becoming more individualistic, more suburban, more fence-building (wall-building), but less porch-sitting.
While I am unfamiliar with the statistics on Indian bowling leagues, I can tell you this: Community is in your face like nothing I have experienced before. Community is the people at large, interfering on the individual level for a perceived greater good. People feel great freedom to comment on the way I parent, the number of children I have, the choices I make for schooling, clothing, hat-wearing, time of day we venture out of the house, what I feed our family and more. Aunties rebuke me for forgetting the baby’s socks (in 28 degree weather), or for buying the kids popsicles before the month of March or for feeding them “cold foods” during the monsoon. (If, perchance, someone could please help me to understand this concept of cold food vs. hot food, I would be forever indebted to you.) Aiyo!
True community insists on feeding you when you step foot in a home. True community gives unasked-for advice. True community infringes on your time. True community is wounded if you refuse to spend time together and rush out of their home without at least a cup of tea. True community values time, presence, intimacy, patience and interest in the small, but significant details of another person’s life. As an American, I was not prepared for this. All my values (my privacy, my time, my choices, my individualistic priorities) had to be re-evaluated and forsaken for the cause of community survival here.
Again, for me, this was a significant adjustment. It was not easy. With each of the three babies I have given birth to here in India, I have seen changes in myself. When I was several hours postpartum with the first baby and near strangers wanted to visit me in the hospital, I said, “No.” The second time I said, “Come visit us tomorrow.” And with the third baby, the room was full of visitors. I have come to understand more about the essence and sacrifice and return and fulfilment of what true biblical community looks like by living here.
While this cultural difference has been difficult for me, it reminds me of truths and realities that are so much bigger than I am. It has stretched and grown the ways I know God and the way I see myself. And most importantly, in showing me the dark depths of my selfishness, pride and weakness, it has pointed me to grace, and to the one who delights in my weakness because it creates a showcase for His power. I could not be more thankful for this opportunity to call India home for as long as we might be allowed to stay. Thank you, precious India, for the warmth of your welcome, the strength of your embrace and the wild ride you provide, nearly every day. You are a gift.
*Culture Shock: India by Gitanjali Kolanad
Photo Credit: Unsplash