I was really looking forward to India. I couldn't wait. I expected it to be overwhelming, chaotic, batshit crazy. I was confident that I'd be able to hit the ground running and be out and about -- dashing between work, home, and touring, with the added concession of some Purell and prophylactic Pepto Bismol tablets.
Friends who have been to India have told me that it can be very psychologically difficult to see the poverty and the class divides. I absolutely understood that, although having just been to Central America this summer, I didn't expect to be surprised.
Turns out I was totally blown out of the water.
My first impression when I arrived at the Hyderabad airport at 12:30 am on Christmas Day was, honestly, the smell. It wasn't necessarily bad, just distinct. I was at the back of the plane (fracking best-price corporate policy, bah) so was at the end of the line to get through immigration. Finally I got through and picked up my bag. And then I had to leave the relative familiarity of border control and step into the huge crowd waiting to meet relatives and loved ones on the other side. I walked through looking for my driver, praying that he'd still be waiting and hadn't left. Brilliantly I had neglected to write down the address of the corporate housing where I had recently gotten moved -- although I wasn't too worried since I could still request to be taken to the posh hotel I was originally planning to stay at.
But the driver was there with a Goog-branded sign that had my name on it. Relief.
The past few days I've mostly stayed close to work and the corporate apartment. I don't like the corporate housing. It has staff -- the home has 4 bedrooms, and there must be 8 staffpeople. It makes me rather uncomfortable. I get juice and panckakes for breakfast: I appreciate the concession to my presumed tastes, but I don't like those things and I don't eat them at home -- too sugary. I tried requesting the traditional Indian breakfast of rice and dal, but I guess that didn't go through. I feel exceedingly uncomfortable telling the staff what to make for me; quite honestly I'd rather do my own cooking. I also have no idea how the food's being prepared. When I was in Zurich last year and stayed in corporate housing I liked it a lot because it was like being at home -- I had some privacy, I could do my own cooking, it was great. This is sort of a weird hybrid where people notice my comings and goings, I have to tell them whether I'll be home for dinner or not, and notify the driver when I'm planning on leaving for work and returning home.
I've also barely talked to anyone the past few days. Most people in the office have been on holiday, although yesterday a coworker apparently took pity on me eating lunch by myself and said hello. We grabbed dinner last night at a sort of waterfront food court. Intestinal integrity still intact.
India is an astonishing place. It strikes me as having a very strong sense of itself: a very definitive culture that is trying to be itself but better, rather than just being the U.S. or Western Europe. (I mean, given India's colonial history, I'd dare to say that it probably had enough of being like Western Europe.) I've never closely thought about the politics and psychology of colonialism and postcolonialism, but I feel very, very strange here. Very self-conscious. Very out of place. It's humbling.
I'm extremely independent, I have a wide social network, and on the scale of global wealth I've got nothing to worry about. It's a rare situation that gets me feeling lost and intimidated. I'm sure it's good for me to share in the human experience of being out of my element, not in control. Even most of my normal "control" over my environment is tenuous at best, a modest illusion that rests on an immensely complex culture and infrastructure. Isn't this the shock of globalization? Isn't it why the US government is so perplexingly incalcitrant about protecting the American dream against the tides of global warming, the geopolitical and economic changes posed by China, India, and the Middle East?