You Can't Change India

In July, I moved to India. For the last few months, I've been adjusting in a million different ways.

How I Got Here

Earlier this year, my partner got a great job offer and accepted it. It took close to six years to seal the deal, which is to say that our move abroad was no big surprise. We had long hoped for it and dreamed about it.

The deal with the job is that we will live in a new country every two to three years, but we don't have a whole lot of say over which country.

And that's how we ended up in India.

A Little About India

We're in Chennai, which is not nearly as bustling as Mumbai or filled with glamorous palaces, the way New Delhi is. Plenty of non-Indian people have never heard of Chennai. It was formerly called Madras, if that helps.

Chennai sits on the south east coast of the country, and by population, it is the fourth largest city in India. Despite its size, tourists don't flock to Chennai. There isn't much here in the way of sightseeing.

Elliot's Beach, Chennai, India

Westerners and far east Asian people stand out here. I stand out. Sometimes people ask to take photos with me, usually teenagers, but sometimes families. Maybe it's the result of having lived in big cities before, but I don't feel uncomfortable with any of it. Stares of curiosity don't bother me. People are either extremely friendly, or they mind their own business. Either way, I feel very safe on the street. Of course, I do exercise basic common sense and caution. I don't walk alone in unfamiliar areas, and I keep aware of my surroundings.

Adjusting to India

The people of Chennai couldn't be more generous or hardworking, but life here is tough.

A fisherman's village and market, Chennai, India

Like in any developing country, running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity aren't a given for many people. There isn't any mass transit other than buses that don't necessarily come to a full stop when people want to get on or off. (A subway system is in the works, but it's years from completion.) Air pollution is visibly bad. Rubble and trash lines most streets. During monsoon season this year, which has another three or four weeks left, flooding brought water waist high into many people's homes. 

The hardest adjustment for me isn't the lack of infrastructure because we live in a very nice apartment with most of the comforts of the American life and then some. We have ample resources, such as a backup generator for when the power goes out, a distiller that makes drinkable water all day long, air filters in every room, and more air conditioning units than seems necessary. We have a service team that comes to our home and fixes anything that breaks. The cost of living is so low, we can afford to hire a part-time housekeeper. Our building is built a few feet above street level, so even when the monsoon rains pummel the area with water, it never comes close to breaching the front door.

Nominal flooding in a well-to-do neighborhood in Chennai, India

The real adjustment has nothing to do with living comfortably. It has everything to do with privilege.

The Guilt of Privilege

I've felt the guilt of privilege before, but never to this extreme. In Chennai, I see people everyday who have so much less than I do. Every day. I see them washing their clothes under a hand-pump water well. I see them carrying bowls of dirt on their heads at a construction site. I see them pushing their five-year-olds down the sidewalk to try and sell me cheap coloring books, knowing that their little faces have an inherent advantage at pressuring me into buy something.

Kids playing soccer in what's left of a flooded field in Chennai, India

I see all these people, and I know that there's nothing I can do to change their situation or the happenstance that left them born into their life and me born into mine. There's nothing I can do to make the world more fair or equitable, much less a country of 1.25 billion people where I am an outsider.

When we arrived, we heard a lot of advice from other Americans. I took to heart the words of one woman who said, "The best way to experience India is to dive right in. You're going to feel uncomfortable. Some days, you're going to want a shower after it. But you have to let go and jump in."

From my own experience and research, I decided that the best attitude would be to not try too hard to make sense of anything. India is what it is, I told myself. There are going to be a ton of things I don't understand, and if I try too hard to find explanations or reasoning, I'm going to drive myself crazy. I went to an Indian wedding recently and asked a bunch of questions of Indian people about the ceremony and customs. One of the guests said, "Oh, I don't understand what's happening at all." We got to talking, and it seems that a lot of the confusion and inability to make sense of how things work in India is just as perplexing to Indians as it is to foreigners.

In any event, I decided that in general, it's better to observe and accept what's around me rather than struggle to find an answer.

But the most memorable piece of advice, the one that has stuck, is this: "You can't change India."