Story and photos by Jamie Berger, an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill from Cary, NC.
Cary, NC – Approximately one-third the size of the United States, but home to about 17% of the world’s population, India is best described as a country of extremes. Characterized by infinite diversity and cultural abundance, India is a place of both extravagant wealth and unimaginable poverty. Its vast history has been shaped by the cruelest tyranny and the very essence of peace, and today it stands at the fascinating confluence of countless ancient traditions and the West’s globalizing modernity.
Not in Cary Anymore
In almost all respects, Cary, North Carolina—my hometown—is perhaps more unlike India than any other place.
Before I went to India I saw Cary as nothing more than a sterile, culturally-devoid, homogenous cluster of cookie-cutter homes and parking lots—the epitome of the American suburb.
Like many naïve Westerners who travel to Asia, I was drawn to India by its exoticness—and, perhaps, by my desire to make my dream of eating Indian food daily a reality. Aside from previous travels to Western Europe and Australia, I had never before challenged myself to become immersed in cultures so different from my own.
Rickshaws and Chana Masala
On a little more than a whim, therefore, and with thoughts of rickshaws, squat toilets, and chana masala, I applied to study abroad.
I chose UNC’s Summer in India Program, a six-week excursion to the northern Indian cities of New Delhi, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Aligarh, Agra, and Jaipur. The faculty-led program involved two courses: Introduction to Hindi and Indian Literature and Culture.
A generous Phillips Ambassadors scholarship award solidified my decision to go.
When I first arrived in New Delhi I was struck by the thick, acrid air pollution, an oppressive veil of particulate-laden haze that blurred the sun and greyed the whole city.
I was further driven into sensory overload during one of my first outings to a market; I followed my group like a dazed small child, unable to process the immense amount of activity occurring around me. The narrow streets swarmed with people, animals (goats, dogs, buffalo), cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, carts, and bikes.
While my senses eventually equilibrated around a new norm of heightened sounds and sights, I remained vigilant. Along with my gender, my light skin and tall stature provoked stares and, sometimes, more unwelcome attention.
Making Sense of It All
But the physical challenges I encountered—including the infamous so-called “Delhi Belly”—were far less overwhelming than the emotional and intellectual ones I experienced.
I learned that caste goes far deeper than a last name, and gender roles go far beyond the physical attributes that confine us to our sex. I witnessed the heartbreaking symptoms of a country still reeling from the impacts of colonialism and, now, neo-colonialism in the form of globalization.
In my homestay, I savored the very best chana masala and confronted the reality that is life for most of the world’s citizens.
There’s No Place Like Home
I also came to appreciate my own home more than ever. Cary’s benign quietness would have been the perfect antidote to India’s endless chaos. I found myself craving my hometown’s rolling, manicured lawns, the pristine air, and the expansive room to breathe it.
It wasn’t homesickness per say, but a new understanding of why the American Dream—and Cary, its near-perfect embodiment—appeals to almost everyone in the world.