Reverse Culture Shock

Many of my friends warned me that reverse culture shock (confusion resulting from going back to your own culture) would be worse than culture shock itself. One friend said “when you go to a new culture, you have an open mind, ready to take in the new culture. You don’t expect it to make sense to you.” However, when you go home, you expect to feel a certain way, to fit in. You expect it to make sense. So, if home culture doesn’t make sense, either due to a change in one’s self or one’s perceptions, that can be disconcerting. At least, that was my theory.


I’m still processing my departure from India and my re-introduction to the western world. Three months is not that long to be away, but its by far the longest i’ve ever spent away from the culture I have grown up with. From reading other fellows blogs, I had some things I was expecting- to be confused by the supermarkets, the spacious and uncrowded streets, the level of comfort. And while I did spend a bit of time marveling at the emptiness of London streets and my first real hot shower in three months was one of the most beautiful experiences in the world, I would say I transitioned back to the western conceptions of space and comfort quickly and with ease. I concluded that my reverse culture shock was minimal, and I almost felt disappointed in myself at how easy it was to readjust. Had I learned nothing from India? Did I really let it in the way I thought I did? Am I completely unchanged?

A circus tent come to life

I woke up my fourth day post-India feeling strange and sad. I began to feel grumpy and lonely, even though I was with my best friend in my favorite city. I felt far away from what I was doing, unable to access the emotions that were natural to me a week ago. I blamed it on jet lag initially, then on my cell phone next (I always blame the technology. But I think now its a different sort of culture shock than I was expecting, one that is harder to spot because it masquerades as the usual feelings of being down and tired. I’ve spent some time trying to pinpoint exactly what about coming home has made me feel farther away from my own emotions. I think the biggest thing is a sort of existential loneliness. In india it felt like people were always talking to each other and me. Even when neither of us spoke a lick of the others language, people would come up and communicate with their hands or through touch. People were comfortable and interested in my life, and each others. While I know that this experience is influenced by my identity as a white foreigner, I did see many examples of people communicating with each other- asking for help or fighting or just saying hi. In London, the only times I would talk to strangers was during a capitalistic exchange of money for goods. People don’t even really speak to each other when one person is in the way, a sort of politeness. I felt strange and sad that now that I was surrounded with people who could speak my language, people were no longer interested in talking.


The effects of this are more drastic than many westerners believe, is my guess. Theres a feeling of togetherness that either arises from or allows the amount of conversation that occurs between strangers in India that does not involve money. You feel a part of something larger, a mass of humans on the bus is a collective energy instead of a collection of individual energies, if that makes any sense. The focus is less on the individual and more on the group- it seems easier to get lost in the crowd. In London, on the tube, it felt like each person was in their own world, minding their own business. I didn’t feel a part of something bigger, I didn’t feel connected with these people who were sharing the same space as I, who were breathing my air. That’s something I didn’t expect to hurt, but it did. I felt (and still feel) a sort of loneliness that has nothing to do with how many friends I’m with. Public space is just something I move through, rather than a group of people that I can fold myself into (to some degree). Its a loneliness that arises from our individualistic society, I think, from conceiving of ourselves as our own selves first and foremost, then part of groups or family units second. At its worst, its an overindulgence in ego that cuts us off from everyone, even the people we love.

I found some french

I woke up another morning, now in my new house in Ann Arbor, and the first words in my head were ” I feel empty like a snail shell.” Heavy handed and odd metaphor aside, this was a feeling I was dreading to a certain extent, though I have friends who have had similar experiences. I felt like there was nothing here for me in America, that my real life was back in India and that this world of cell phones and avocado toast is the dream. I catch myself making plans as I fall asleep, what state i’m going to visit next, who I’m going to meet up with. Its a scary feeling, that the life i’m returning to, the one I’ve committed myself to for at least the next 9 months, doesn’t feel real. That feeling faded as the day went on, but I still wonder whether it is lying under all the day to day problems I have to face, like moving and writing this blog and buying school books. I worry that if I sit down and give myself the time, I’ll find that feeling undercutting everything i’m experiencing right now.

Ganapathiagraharam temple outside Kumbokonam

This is a pretty depressing blog, and I don’t want to suggest that everything is all bad. I’ve reconnected with some amazing people, i’m excited to be a student again, and I love my new bed. I know from my travelling that I am strong enough to manage and move through these emotions in productive and interesting ways. I worry that I need a fair amount of time  and physical and mental space to process this reverse culture shock, but I have committed to putting my mental health first. These feelings are a gift in some way, allowing me to explore the culture I have always taken for granted and struggled to see because I grew up within its confines, both an interesting intellectual exercise and an opportunity to explore what I want out of culture. What I accept and what I do not accept as truths. India was an incredible journey, and I can’t wait to incorporate the joy and confidence I found there into my “regular” life.



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Goodbyes, living for the future, and Photo-taking

As I prepare to leave this country that has been my home for the past three months, I feel my memories have a stronger holder on me than they usually do. All through my travels in India, I’ve been haunted by the question: Do we live for the moment or live for the future? Does our sense of self reside in the unpinnable moment, or in our act of remembering times past? There are some things that are amazing to feel or see in the moment, but fail to inspire once the moment has passed, while there are some experiences that can be returned to and considered many times after the moment has passed. Which of those two experiences is more worth having? Which allow me to develop and grow my sense of self? Is an experience more worthwhile as it is being lived or as it is being remembered?

View from a trek in Manali, Himachal Pradesh

I’ve always been proud of my ability to appreciate and be moved by beauty in the multitude of forms it can take. I like that I can experience deep connection to nature and its ability to inspire wonder within me. But in India I encountered beauty that surpassed the boundaries I had set up within myself, exceeding my standards of what natural beauty can look like. I found myself feeling lost instead of joy, because I had nowhere to place this sight in my understanding of beauty. Usually I can place a view in my continuum of beautiful things- more beautiful than the sunset I saw in Martha’s Vineyard, less beautiful than the field of dandelions outside my house. But in the valleys of the foothills of the Himalayas, and some of the temples in Tamil Nadu, were more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, more beautiful than I thought a place could be. My reaction to that newness, to that lack of connection, was a scrambling to remember the sight for later. I took hundreds of pictures, as if to capture the moment so I could process it later, like I didn’t have enough brain space to fully feel the moment while it was happening, like I was living for my future self. I also knew that my future self would be nostalgic for the moment that my current self was living, and I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge besides attempt to capture that moment as best as I could, through drawing and journaling partially, but mostly through photo-taking.

The shore temple at sunrise, Mahaballipuram

I have been wondering what the act of taking a photo, the knowledge that one has successfully “captured” a moment, does to our ability to remember a moment, to capture it internally with all its complexities. Because while a photo can “accurately” capture the external moment, only our brains can capture both the internal and external experience. And does taking a photo decrease our ability to connect with a certain moment? I suspect it does. So I was stuck in these beautiful places, worried that it was too beautiful/ magical/ intense to be felt in the moment, that it needed to be saved for later processing, but my attempts of saving that moment were decreasing my ability to feel and connect in the first place. Not to mention the stress of knowing that my future self will be jealous of my current self. It was a vicious cycle of increased lack of connection and increased attempts to document.

A literal screensaver from a trek in Dharamsala

Now that I am moving into the “future self” that I was so concerned about in those places, I am much calmer. I recognize that I will never be able to fall back through time and watch the sunset in Kheerganga again, or travelling through fields of rice paddies in the bus, or watching the clouds move behind the temple in Thanjavur. But I know that I lived in those moments, that they gave me joy, and that a moment is never going to be perfect, we are never going to be able to feel it as fully as we want to, never going to be able to capture it in our memory to our satisfaction, but we can put down our phones, and open our eyes and hearts to the sight and the feelings and the people we are with. And while I spent more time worrying than I should have, I know that I did let India in, let its beauty and its people and its confusingness inside me, to some degree. That I leave more kind, more assured, and more open than I arrived. The world has grown so much larger in my mind, and I know I will miss this place, that my future self will be jealous of my almost past self, but I am proud of her for doing her best, for doing her best to live for herself and for the Addi that is to come.

One of the many ruins in Hampi, Karnataka

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Loving the Questions for What They Are

As I near the end of my time here in India, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to translate this experience into a narrative that I can share with people from home, including advice for people thinking about doing something similar in the future. Of all the lessons I think I’ve learned here, I think the one that is the most interesting and helpful is the management of confusion, something I touched on a bit in my first blog.

Confused by how beautiful this country is

I am in a state of constant and multi-levelled confusion in India. I mean multi-levelled in the sense that almost every level of cognitive activity there is a seen of confusion. I’m confused about the usual, everyday things that many people talk about, things like physical health, Am I sick or am I hungry or is it my anti-malarial drugs?, for example, and how much I should pay for things. I’m confused every time I try and take a bus/train/ rickshaw anywhere, confused by different hand gestures and head wobbles and whether someone is being polite or rude to me. Often when I travel, I don’t even know where I will sleep that night, a form of confusion I think. All those little confusions used to make me anxious, little uncertainties that build up and have the ability to overwhelm. But I became accustomed to them, recognizing the transient nature of many of these everyday confusions- I will find somewhere to stay, I will realize that a head shake is more of a yes than a no, I will learn to say Hello and I will find the bus I need. I trust myself and the world to resolve the confusion with time, so the anxiety lessons- the uncertainty, while constant in some ways, is ever-changing- cyclical in the emergence of new anxieties and the dissipation of old ones. So the first big lesson I would share is that to manage the every-day anxiety of moving through India, you must realize and internalize their transient nature, and work towards trusting that they will be resolved.


But some uncertainties aren’t of the “surface level” sort. They don’t arise when you are trying to catch the bus, but right after, when someone is asking you for money through the. I was, and still am, confused ethically, confused at what the right thing to do is, how I can help people while I’m here. I’m confused by the legacy of colonialism here, by the treatment of women, by my place here as a western woman. Do I give money or do I not give money? Who is to blame for the poverty in front of me? Am I supposed to feel guilty? Who is being taken advantage of here? These uncertainties don’t make it much harder for me to physically move through India, but they are just as constant. I don’t know what to expect in terms of treatment, I don’t know how to treat people with the respect I believe they deserve. I don’t know what the morally responsible thing to do is often. I’m confused by how to feel- how to reconcile the joy I feel in connecting with the people and the places here with the apparent suffering that surrounds me? And does poverty necessarily lead to suffering? What is the place of pity here? This confusion of morals and emotions is deeply penetrating and disturbing. To feel like you don’t know how to be a good person, that you don’t know how to organize your understanding of the world, can lead to a host of strange behavior in the foreigners who visit. I have had level-headed foreigners yell at people asking for selfies, complain about paying a whole 20 cents more for a rickshaw because they feel like they are getting ripped off, refuse giving food to children but hand money over to alcoholics. We build our moral structures in the world and sometimes they begin to crumble in a world that is different I think. We feel more sensitive than ever before, more unstable, and so an unknown gesture or a request can send us hiding in our anger and indignation.


Information helps, talking to foreigners and Indians alike, reading articles and novels, but I found that no matter how much I learn, the base level uncertainty is still there, because it is of a type that a few facts could not resolve. It’s the type to linger even after you leave the place, I think, that continues to educate even after the travelling is over. This is in many ways opposite the confusion I was talking about before. It is not transient, it may even be permanent for some people in some forms. It is strong, and it has shaken me certainly. So, in my experience, to manage this uncertainty requires an opposite reaction as well. Recognizing that it will maybe never be resolved, that the questions I am asking myself may never get answers, that there might not be a right answer in these situation, has freed me from my frantic searching. I’m still trying to educate myself, to move towards a more ethical version of existence, but with a recognition that I may not ever feel like I’ve done the “right thing.” It’s an acceptance that  feeling like a good person isn’t so easy after all- there are no official rules, you have to decide for yourself. That’s a big job, but it’s a wonderful one too, and all of this is because I am in a place that confuses me. I still don’t have any answers, but I’m more comfortable letting the questions fully inhabit me, letting them teach me what they can. I guess that’s my other lesson: Love the questions for what they are, questions.


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What Do We Want from the Dalai Lama?

Though Mcleod-ganj is officially the home of the Dalai Lama, he does not spend much time in the town to which many foreigners flock because of it’s relationship to him, as he spends most of his time travelling around the world, delivering talks and engaging in conversation about Buddhism, Joy, and Tibet’s situation. That is why I feel particularly lucky to have been able to attend two of his teachings- a one-day initiation into compassion and a three-day introduction to Buddhism that I believe he does every year for Tibetan youth.


The first time I saw the Dalai Lama was my first full day in Mcleod-ganj, almost two months ago. It was also the first time I saw the temple in which the Dalai Lama gives his teachings and the monks do their daily practice of meditation, mantras and dialectics. I would come to love the large but relatively unassuming building, one of the first places of worship I had ever been that always felt thrumming with life, but that first day it was a confusing and overwhelming place, seeming at times set up to make it harder for me to access the elusive teachings of one of the most recognizable religious figures in the world. I was separated from my host mother, as there was a different entrance for foreigners, and left to my own devices to find space large enough for my body and my bag. As I was standing and looking, I realized that everyone around me was bowing and holding their hands out. I turn and suddenly, 10 feet away from me, is the shuffling and yellow-robed form of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, surrounded by people but powerfully present nonetheless. He was shorter than I had imagined, and smiling. Soon he had disappeared from my view, entering into the small central chamber that serves as the beating heart of the body of the temple. It was only a moment, but I must admit I found myself to be a little breathless as he walked away and I was left to find my seat.

In most videos I have seen of the Dalai Lama speaking, in conversation with John Oliver and other curious westerners, he is speaking in a slow and cheerful English. I knew better than to expect him to be speaking in anything other than his native language when speaking to his people in the capital of Tibet in Exile, but I was still surprised to hear him speak quickly and confidently in a language that I never really heard until that point. I scrambled to find another westerner with a radio that I could share in order to listen to the English translation. It was difficult, both to find the right radio station on the cheap FM radio, and to hear to the halting English translation over the speakers blaring the Dalai Lama’s teaching in his cheerful Tibetan. I would watch him make jokes, laugh heartily along with every other Tibetan speaker, and then wait eagerly for our English translation to translate the joke for us, only to be disappointed by a complete lack of anything that seems like a joke as I understood them. It was also physically exhausting, sitting on the floor on a small, thin pad, balancing my cup of traditional butter tea (which tastes like melted salted butter) on my knee and hunching over to fit the earbud of my neighbor into my ear.

The teaching lasted four hours, and I left feeling overwhelmed and mystified, a sort spiritual and emotional hypothermia, like I had just been to the top of a mountain and seen all the little people and now walked among them once again. I found my foreigner friends at a local café, and found out that not one of the 6 people had stayed the whole time, like I had. The Buddhism was too complex, the floor too hard, the English translation too difficult to listen to for an extended period. “It clearly wasn’t meant for us” they said. A month later, the Dalai Lama returned to his yellow throne to deliver his three day introduction to Buddhism for the Tibetan high school and college students. My foreign friends’ reasons for leaving early were much the same- it wasn’t an introduction to Buddhism that they could follow, they weren’t getting much from it, it was too hot.

What do we want from the Dalai Lama? For many of peers, it seemed, they wanted his presence near them so they could say they had seen the second most famous religious figure in the world, the first being the pope. For others, they wanted him to move them, to take them places and deliver wisdom to them wrapped in a bow. They wanted a step by step guide to spirituality. They wanted to listen to someone make arguments and deliver teachings in the way we are all used to. The Dalai Lama instead presented arguments in almost a circular way, slowly orbiting his point, falling closer and closer with every rotation, until all of a sudden, we are delivered a truth that can sit in our palm like a small but living seed. Many people, I think, find it hard to follow, to let it just wash over them when they don’t know where the Dalai Lama is going. But his teachings were a lesson in how to absorb information presented to us in ways we are unused to.

They wanted to feel included in the teaching, they wanted his words to make sense in our western context, they wanted the teaching to be “for them.” After all, the clips many people see of the Dalai Lama are like that- simple and in English, clearly crafted with westerners in mind. But we were in his home now, amongst his people. How could we expect to be the target audience? How could we expect the old Tibetans spinning their personal mani wheels and fingering their prayer beads to sit through the Dalai Lama walking us uneducated westerners through the life of the Buddha and the four noble truths? I suspect many of us are unused to not being the ones a teacher is catering to. This isn’t our religion, our history, or our story. So we struggle to know what to do, we feel that if something isn’t for us, we should not be present. But what a gift it is to be present for something that is not intended for us. To know that there is a world of understanding we had not, until coming to Mcleod-ganj knew about. That there are ways of thinking, speaking and being that push the boundaries of what we thought humans do and don’t do.

It’s understandable that us westerners (including myself) were confused by and struggled to understand the teachings given by the Tibet’s “living god.” Metaphors were more confusing than the topic they were supposed to illuminate, jokes didn’t translate, the ground on which the Dalai Lama’s words walked was just sky in our heads. So you try to learn to fly, I guess. Or you just let his words fall through you until something lands. Or you give up, you recognize you are not yet ready for the teachings. But the most worrying thing isn’t what we want, it’s how we want. How in our minds he is the one with power, the power to release us from our pain, to make us feel smarter, to educate us. We want his help. So how are we going to react when the seemingly transcendent man asks us for help? Because in the current global climate, we have more power than the homeless king of 150,000 refugees. We are citizens of the global superpowers, we are safe, we know who we are. When we write the story of the world, we cannot put the Dalai Lama and his subjects into a position of givers, because then we fail them, and in doing so, we fail ourselves.

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Embodying Buddhist Principles

In the weeks before my departure for India, I read Rebecca Solnit’s book “A field guide to getting lost” partly in preparation for the exercise in losing and being lost that would come to be my trip to and through India. In one of the chapters, a Buddhist monk in San Francisco talks about a blind man who, when faced with a street corner, yells help until someone comes to his aid and helps him cross the street. The monk used this man as an example of the ways in which we could and should place our trust in the world. To relinquish ego seems to be the ultimate goal in Buddhism, and it seems part of that process is placing trust in the world again, as many of us did when we were children.

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The Foothills of the Himalayas at their best

In the United States, I was always taught to be self sufficient, to find things on my own and to not rely on anyone else. I had a smart phone to get me where I needed to go, to google the things I didn’t understand and to communicate with people when I needed to. I had no desire to ask for help from strangers, in fact I feared the idea of turning to someone on the street and to ask for directions. I became anxious when I did not have my phone, that magical device that allowed me to maintain the facade of self sufficiency. To ask for help was to appear weak, and to appear weak was to embarrass oneself. Here, in the almost service-less mountains of the Himalayas, my phone is of no use to me. So, on my first day in Macleod-ganj, when my new friend invited me to dinner at the “Japanese place,” I was forced to step outside of my zone of self-sufficiency and ask for directions, multiple times in fact. I will always remember how lost I felt without my maps function, scanning building names and searching for a face that looked friendly enough to approach.


I had always thought of public spaces as mostly things to move through, the arrow that I had to follow from one private place to another. Here, in india, public space is now something I must interact with. Its a place I must, to some degree, trust. Whether I am getting honked at for walking in the road, being offered cotton candy for a couple rupees, or asking strangers the many questions I need to ask in order to get around this country, I am unable to just move silently and quickly through the streets here. I am forced to participate, to engage, even when I don’t want to. Because my phone can no longer shield me from what I do not want to see or do. I have to trust that people are going to be kind enough to help me across the street when I yell for help. That is a buddhist principle, as I have come to understand in the home of his holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Trusting the world is recognizing your part in the world, is letting go of the anxiety that manifests when we cherish ourselves too much, when we forget that we too are part of the mass that congregates in the main square of Mcleod-ganj. So as I learn about buddhist principles in the teachings by the Dalai Lama, and through my daily conversations with monks in english, I am also learning them as I learn to move through a world that does not part so easily to let me through.






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Living the “dream”

So, I am about two weeks away from my travel date, which is the perfect time to reflect/ get excited/ freak out about my next three months. I remember last year, around this time, when my friend Sam Mcmullen was rushing to get all his affairs in order before getting on a plane to travel halfway across the world as a SISA fellow. I remember not being able to imagine being in his place and yet, one year later and I’m rushing around just the same. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who plays it safe, who reads about other people’s experiences on blogs and in books. So, to be frank, my process of applying to this fellowship was like applying to a dream that I didn’t and couldn’t imagine coming true, because it doesn’t fit with who I thought I was. But I applied anyway, hoping that through the process I would magically turn into the adventurer I imagined would travel to india to work for a non-profit all on their own. You can imagine my surprise when I was emailed an acceptance into the program. I was sitting in my boyfriends room in South Quad Dormitories, and I danced around the room to the music of my own joy for about five minutes before sitting down and going through, in mild despair, all the things I had to do before I could go to India, because I couldn’t trust myself to get everything done that needed to get done. Because I didn’t, and still don’t, believe that I was the type of person who could just travel to a new country all by themselves, without any “adult supervision.” Maybe there isn’t anyone who is like that, at least no one starts off like that. There are just people who make a jump, and trust the world enough to catch them and themselves enough to know how to be caught. So here I am, preparing to jump.



A little about the work that I am doing- for two months, I will be living and working for Lha Charitable Trust, the largest NGO serving the Tibetan refugee community in Mcleod-Ganj/ Dharamshala. Tibetan refugees have been living in the area since the 1960s, when the current Dalai Lama was exiled from Chinese- controlled Tibet. Many Tibetans followed him due to a commitment to their culture and religion, or a fear of persecution by the Chinese government. Currently, my list of jobs is long and winding, I will probably narrow down what I’m doing when I arrive and learn the day-to-day processes of the organization. Currently, my biggest job will be designing and teaching english classes every day. I will also tutor people one on one and possibly write articles for the journal Lha Charitable trust compiles for the community. What first attracted me to this organization was the community they served. I was raised by a former buddhist nun who instilled in me a respect and admiration for buddhism as a religion and as a culture. The opportunity to learn from and serve a buddhist community felt like something I needed to do and experience- a completion of a cycle that was started when I was young. I have also, throughout college, been interested in cultural resistance and in lives “unimaginable” to the mainstream culture of the United States. Tibetan refugees, living exiled from their home country, not fully belonging to their host country, in my mind, lead lives that are in some ways “unimaginable” to me at this present moment. I want to make the unimaginable imaginable by learning and living with the community. That is, in part, why my research project is focused on how cultural perceptions and group homelessness (refugees are not citizens of Tibet or citizens of India) affect the individuals of the community and their relationship to each other and their religion.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, scared even. But when I think of the work I will be able to do, the access to communities and spaces and beauty to which I have never had access before, I am able to remember why I applied to this fellowship in the first place- to learn what cannot be learned in Michigan, to become a better ally and advocate for those I believe do not have enough advocates. So, in these next couple weeks I am going to read as much as I can, I am going to build up emotional strength, I am going to connect with my family and friends and remember where my love lies, all in the service of being the best ally and student I can be in the next few months.

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